Q&A with The Performance Corporation’s Jo Mangan

In advance of Emperor 101 at The Digital Hub (October 4th – 10th), Jo Mangan, Artistic Director/CEO of The Performance Corporation talks about digital arts.

Jo is Artistic Director/CEO of The Performance Corporation. Until recently she was also Director of Carlow Arts Festival where she focussed on programming digital arts and created a Virtual Festival Campus in Altspace.

Most recent directing work includes Out of the Ordinary, a Virtual Reality Community Opera for Irish National Opera (INO), five films for INO’s 20- Shots of Opera, 14 Voices from the Bloody Field for the Abbey, the film, 72 Hour Lost Weekend, and the live performance, Woman in the Machine, at the former Braun Factory, Carlow. For The Performance Corporation Jo’s work includes The Dead live at the Gaiety Theatre and screened at Kilkenny Arts Festival, The TableExpedition, and The Symposium at various locations in Canada, including the National Theatre Festival and Dublin Theatre Festival.

Jo was curator for the Prague Quadrennial Design Exhibition 2019 for Ireland which she created through Virtual Reality, she was Digital Consultant for the recent Arts Council programme Brightening Air, and international programmer for Limerick City of Culture.  Jo founded The SPACE Programme – Ireland’s longest running multi-disciplinary international artists residency with a current focus on Arts and Technology, as well as founding the BIG House Festival, she was Artistic Director of the Bram Stoker Festival and has served on many boards, including as Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts.

Awards include multiple Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, the UK based Clore Leadership Fellowship and most recently the prestigious Fedora Digital Prize for her Irish National Opera VR project Out of the Ordinary.

Emperor 101
Rehearsals taking place at The Digital Hub ahead of Emperor 101.

Tell us about Emperor 101?

Emperor 101 is our new show for Dublin Theatre Festival at The Digital Hub that mixes theatre performance with a live Virtual Reality experience. The play takes you ‘down the rabbithole’ to explore the inner life of a conspiracy theorist as she struggles with a personal tragedy that has turned her world upside down. We’re living through a time when some people seem to be in completely different realities, depending on their political views. We felt that immersing our audience in a VR space would reflect some of those multiple realities or ‘bubbles’ we live in.

Tell us about the tech and what’s it been like to work with?

This kind of work, mixing VR with live performance, is very much breaking new ground, so it’s been hugely exciting. It has been tried before a handful of times on platforms like Altspace, but what sets us apart is that we’ve worked with Visual Designer, Leon Butler, and VR company, Retinize, to build bespoke avatars and a specially created virtual platform in Unity. Our actors, Caitríona and Karl, have had to get used to working in Oculus Quest headsets and to a whole new way of acting. They’ve both described their approach to acting in VR as like puppeteering because they have to manipulate and move their avatars around the space, while interacting with the audience.

What’s the build up to the Dublin Theatre Festival been like?

It’s been incredibly busy, but hugely rewarding. As with any new platform, there are constant glitches and bugs that need to be ironed out, and the guys in Retinize have been incredibly responsive and helpful with that. But then you run into curveballs like Google launching a system update that creates havoc with the tech. Having got over that hurdle, we’re in a really good place and can’t wait to share Emperor 101 with real live audience members. We’re also thrilled to be partnering with The Digital Hub, the whole team have all been so incredibly helpful and supportive.

Tell us about Performance Corporations SPACE Programme?

SPACE is a residency that we’ve been running since 2007 that brings together a really diverse a group of artists and creatives, and gives them time and space to collaborate and explore their practice. Over the years it’s produced some incredibly interesting collaborations – architects working with dancers, comedians working and painters etc. People who’ve met on SPACE have gone on to produce new theatre shows, music events, and a whole range of interesting projects.

In recent times, SPACE has focussed on the arts/tech crossover. We’ve added technologists and programmers into the mix, and that has allowed our participants to really cross-pollinate ideas and approaches that cross between artistic practice and tech innovation. The initial seeds of Emperor 101 were planted in the first of these tech-focussed residencies. Leon Butler and Peter Power were participants on that SPACE Programme and its there that we began discussing the idea of a VR/theatre show.

Emperor 101 at The Digital Hub
Emperor 101 cast in rehearsals ahead of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Bonus quick fire round:

What’s the job of a creative cultural company?

When people think of theatre, they think of something worthy, formal or frankly boring. We want to change people’s minds about what theatre is. We see our role as creating extraordinary experiences that spark the imagination and make people think, but are also entertaining and exhilarating.

Describe the role of an Artistic Director?

I won’t bore with all the admin work and accounts that go into making art happen, even though that is a huge proportion of what I do! The part of the job I love is about pushing forward with the company’s artistic vision to create exciting work that expands boundaries. We can’t do that on our own, so another element of the job that I love is gathering the best creative team I can for each project. Without great collaborators, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

What’s Immersive Theatre?

I suppose you could say Immersive Theatre ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’. In conventional theatre you sit and watch actors on a stage. With immersive work the performance can take place literally anywhere. We once did a show in a rowing boat for three people at a time. So, with that kind of work you really are immersed in the play, which usually means the actors break the fourth wall, talk to you, and literally bring you on a journey.

Why should artists and technologists work together?

Because we have a lot in common. In both cases, we’re trying to push boundaries, looking for new ways to create and communicate. What I’ve found from Emperor 101 is that we have a lot to learn from each other. It’s a beneficial relationship. We challenge each other. Artists ask the impossible – technologists can make the impossible happen.

What’s the biggest challenge in artists and technologists working together?

I think understanding each other’s language and work process can be a challenge, in the initial phase of working together. In theatre, we are comfortable with constant trial and error, testing out new approaches in rehearsal minute by minute. It took a while to understand that you don’t have that flexibility when designing and building virtual worlds. The process is more structured and technical, and so even the smallest changes to a design can be extremely time consuming.

What excites you about tech?

With Virtual Reality in particular, it feels like we’re on the frontier of a whole new world of artistic possibilities.
We are looking at this as an exciting step in a new way of creating and touring immersive work internationally and from home simultaneously. In Emperor 101, you encounter two actors on the physical realm as well as in the virtual realm in a Quest headset which allows the user/audient to move through the virtual space and interact with the live performers and the world we have built. So it is a true hybrid of the live and virtual.

Emperor 101 information: dublintheatrefestival.ie/programme/event/emperor-101
More about Performance Corporation: www.theperformancecorporation.com/

Other News Articles