The play Frogman, part of this year's Melbourne Festival, is a crime story set in Queensland that uses virtual reality as part of the action. Photo: Creative Commonsâ no attribution required
Jack Lowe was underwater in Bali, doing dive training to distract himself from a holiday he wasn't enjoying much, when he had his first inkling of an idea for a show involving coral. "It wasn't actually when I went into a reef," he says. "It was during the swimming-pool training when you first go under. I was so close to being in another world, it reminded me straight away of those sci-fi tropes of people who can walk through walls, strange things, and I thought yes, this has got to be in a theatre."
Lowe is artistic director of the small but thrusting British theatre company, called curious directive , which has been using scientific research as a springboard for shows since its foundation 10 years ago.
Once he was allowed to venture into the ocean, Lowe was overwhelmed by the magnificence of the corals. Could an audience be similarly overwhelmed? "It is really hard to get audiences to a state of awe," says Lowe. "As an emotion I think that's a really fascinating thing if it's associated with nature and wildlife. Theatre-goers so often just sit in the dark. If you can get people to feel awe in a black box studio somewhere – or allow their brains to experience that – I think that's exciting."
He didn't have much of a story when he started, but he knew it would be something about underwater search and rescue. He wanted to set a story in a small town, revealing how that community responds to a crisis; there would be threads about family, memory and loss. He imagined the awe-inspiring underwater scenes could be shown on multiple video screens. "And then it just so happened that, not long after the diving course, I tried on a VR headset," he says. "I think the person who helped me put it on even referred to it as a mask, so that felt like enough to me." Using virtual reality technology, the audience would be able to plunge right into the watery action.
Audience members wearing VR headsets for playwright Jack Lowe's Frogman. Photo: Richard Lakos
With the help of enthusiastic designers, co-writer Russell Woodhead and an inventive group of child actors in Brisbane who improvised their roles, these ideas coalesced into Frogman.
Frogman is set in a fictitious small town on the coast of Queensland, where the bleaching crisis that has destroyed much of the Great Barrier Reef hovers over the story like a wraith. The Australian setting was another early element of the story. "When you think about a job involving corals and rural livelihoods, it's got to be Australia in the Western psyche," Lowe says. "It just kept coming up."
The narrative harks back to 1995, when a teenage girl mysteriously disappeared, presumed drowned. At the outset, the 50-odd audience members are told that we are part of a jury examining evidence in this long-shelved case; we have to be on our toes. Chief witness is Meera, a young biologist working with the beleaguered coral, played by English actor Georgina Strawson with an impeccable Queensland twang. She is interrogated in our physical space; the setting is a long strip of something resembling crunchy bits of dead coral, like a cricket pitch marked out on the sea floor.
When we put on the headsets, we enter a different world where an 11-year-old Meera – this time played by young Australian Ava Ryan – is hosting her first sleepover. Meera lost her mother in a car accident as a small girl and was brought up by her father, the local policeman. She is a serious child: focused, eccentric, probably indulged by dad. Her best friend is tough nut Ashleigh, two years older and from the wrong side of the tracks, yet surprisingly willing to be enlisted by Meera into her nerdy Coral Club. The VR environment allows us to wander Meera's bedroom at will, registering the louvre windows, the shag-pile carpet, the early-model Amstrad. Filmed with a dual-lens camera, these slightly blurred scenes feel less like a recounting of evidence than the resurgence of a dream.
It was Ashleigh who vanished, apparently after stealing a boat; Meera's father, a trained deep-sea diver, led the investigation. Now it transpires that there were lies told about what happened, about the evidence found, even about the friendship between Meera and Ashleigh. "I've always told stories across different timelines," says Lowe, "because it's great to see the origins of a story and then how long you can stretch that through time – in this case 23 years – and what that does to characters." What was Meera's late father trying to hide? And how much did she know about it?
Lowe originally intended to shoot the bedroom sequences in curious directive's home town of Norwich, using local children and an accent coach. Fortunately, the Brisbane Powerhouse came on board, which made it possible to recruit and cast Australian children. "I went through quite a weird journey, given the show was already quite ambitious, to realising that actually the only way of doing it would be to go to Brisbane and build that film set," he says. "Because as soon as I started working and put a VR headset on, I realised you just notice everything. It would be really hard to get it right."
Most VR experiments try to deliver a massive experience you might not want to have for real, from riding a roller coaster to flying in space. Lowe was after something that would be subtler. "So I did loads of research into wildlife photography, watching lots of discussions with Gordon Buchanan – he's like a BBC wildlife photographer – in which he talks about placing a camera and letting it happen," he says. "That sounds obvious, but to someone used to controlling the rhythm of a show it was really interesting. I knew that in that bedroom the camera just has to be there and record the wildlife."
In other respects, however, VR recordings resemble theatre. A scene in a normal film might last half a minute, even a few seconds; by contrast, VR uses continuous takes of six or seven minutes. "When I go and sit at talks with lots of people who are very famous film directors, what always comes up is that they have to remember when they trained as theatre directors without any money and try to use that craft," says Lowe.
What he doesn't like is the word "immersive", because it suggests blank submission to that extended viewing experience. He wants people to know they will be following a story. The idea that we become a jury is supposed to galvanise us to that end, even if there is no trial and we are never asked to judge anything. "I thought it would put audiences into a mindset that wasn't going to be just 'oh, I'll just take it in'."
Tricksy it may be, but Frogman is an intriguing crime story, a convincing picture of adolescence and, despite the clunky transitions that are inevitable when you're juggling a headset, the VR does draw us into the story's multiple times and places. Lowe admits to a boyish curiosity about how it worked, but he was conscious that he shouldn't use it just because it was there. "Definitely I felt a responsibility, in that I hadn't seen VR used in theatre before," he says. "Which sounds a bit grandiose. It's not meant to. It's just like 'oh right, how do I really not f--- this up?'"
Frogman xxx DATES HERE , Melbourne Festival. festival.melbourne.