Theatre in a heartbeat

Published: 15 January 2023
Reporter: Sandra Giorgetti

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead - Kathryn Hunter as Janina with Complicité ensemble Credit: Camilla Adams
Digital Theatre of the Future

Bristol Old Vic is joining with researchers from across the west of England in a trailblazing project to look at the magic of theatre.

It is already established that live audience members will begin behaving in similar ways such as having synchronized heartbeats but not much is know about the causes of these systematised responses.

Research from Bristol Old Vic with MyWorld partners University of Bristol, Bath Spa University, University of Bath and University of West of England sets out to find some answers by studying audiences of Complicité’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

The heart rates and other physiological responses of some 140 audience members will be collected through state-of-the-art wristbands at ten live performances of the award-winning touring company’s new production. Further research on audiences watching live broadcasts of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead will form part of a second phrase of research.

Looking at and comparing the real time responses of those experiencing live and on screen theatre will inform how Bristol Old Vic further develops work to re-create the same level of connectedness for in person audiences and viewers at home.

MyWorld, which is funding the project, is also supporting a Watershed Fellow in Residence, Ben Samuels, who be embedded at Bristol Old Vic to support the development of its on screen experiences.

Project leader Iain Gilchrist, Professor of Neuropsychology at University of Bristol, said, “there is something unique about all sitting together and sharing in a story—we don’t really know what that is—so we’re trying to unlock that collective experience when we forget about everything else that’s going on in our lives and we’re all in the moment together. Storytelling has been a part of human culture for as long as we know—something happens in the brain when we tell stories and it’s fascinating to begin to unlock why that has endured.”

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, conceived and directed by Simon McBurney based on Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk’s novel, will run at Bristol Old Vic from 19 January to 11 February (age suitability 12+). Live broadcasts will take place on 7, 9 and 11 February. Tickets for the broadcasts are limited to 100 per performance.

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