Revealing the magic – a pioneering research project begins at Bristol Old Vic in a first of its kind project

What is it about the magic of theatre that makes our hearts race? When are we so immersed in the show that we lose track of time? Do we all shed a tear at the same moment, and do we collectively hold our breath? Bristol Old Vic and a team of researchers in neuropsychology from across Bristol and Bath want to find out.

Becoming totally immersed in a show and moved by a performance is something many people have experienced in the theatre, but little is known about why it happens and in particular, why when we’re watching with others, we start to behave in similar ways – right down to the synchronizing of our heartbeats.

To discover more about this phenomenon, Bristol Old Vic announced a major £150,000 research project bringing together the worlds of science and art. Funded by MyWorld and working with MyWorld partners University of BristolBath Spa UniversityUniversity of Bath and University of West of England, this investigation will centre around award-winning international touring company Complicité’s highly-anticipated new production Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

This is the biggest research project of its kind so far, with the aim of capturing the hidden audience experience. It has not been done at this scale in a theatre setting before.

Up to 140 audience members over 10 performances will be invited to participate in the study. By wearing a simple wristband packed with state-of-the-art sensors, heart rates and other physiological responses will be recorded as they watch the production – to see if they all have similar responses at the same moment during the play.

The research will reveal in real time the hidden responses our bodies give when we’re immersed together in a live theatre experience, helping Bristol Old Vic further develop its on screen experiences to deliver that same sense of connectedness and magic to audiences at home.

Iain Gilchrist, Professor of Neuropsychology at University of Bristol, is leading on the project. He has spent the last five years looking at what happens to people when they are immersed in a creative experience.

Iain portrait
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.
Iain Gilchrist, Professor of Neuropsychology

There is a strictly limited run of preview live broadcasts of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead from Bristol Old Vic on 7, 9 and 11 February. These broadcasts will form part of the second stage of the research project, monitoring a sample of on-screen viewers per night in a similar way. The intention is that by being able to compare the responses from both groups, Bristol Old Vic can use the research findings to enhance the work it produces for the screen, creating experiences for viewers that get closer to the magic people feel in the theatre. A Watershed Fellow in Residence, Ben Samuels, funded by MyWorld, will also be embedded at Bristol Old Vic to support the development of its on-screen experiences.

Tickets for the preview broadcasts are limited to 100 per performance and available to viewers across the world. Tickets are expected to be in high demand. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was conceived and directed by Complicité’s Artistic Director and Co-Founder Simon McBurney. The piece, based on Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk’s genre-defying novel of the same name, will run at Bristol Old Vic from 19 January – 11 February.

Presenting theatre shows on screen is still a relatively new and very exciting medium. We have spent the last few years learning how to translate our stage work to screen in order to engage audiences in a different way. It involved a lot of experimentation to get to where we are today – generating industry-leading, high-quality filmed theatre, distributed across the world.

Being part of one of the MyWorld research projects enables us to continue innovating. That we’re able to do this with Complicité – one of the world’s leading theatre companies, known for their immersive storytelling and experimental theatre-making – is hugely exciting for us.
Charlotte Geeves Bristol Old Vic's Executive Director