Who are Dream co-creators Marshmallow Laser Feast?

The pandemic-induced standstill of all live performance is rubbish for everyone (even while it is essential for our health), but if anyone was positioned to thrive in culture’s brave new, overwhelmingly digital, world it is Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF). The London-based experimental studio are experts in virtual, mixed and augmented reality and have created a long list of immersive shows that allow audiences to explore the fertile borderlands between science, art and technology.

MLF have created fantastical light displays for Miley Cyrus concerts and a U2 music video, staged a robotic laser show at The Lowry, built a 360º vision of a forest from the perspective of animals and insects, imagined the forces of a black hole for Nxt Museum in Amsterdam, and visualised the flow of oxygen through our bodies at York Art Gallery.

Now, MLF are collaborating with Manchester International Festival (MIF), the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and Philharmonia Orchestra on Dream, a pioneering new live online theatre show. Set in the midsummer forest of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the show brings together live actors in motion capture suits playing within the digitally created world of the forest, influenced by live audience interaction via gaming technology. Dream will be performed online, 12 — 20 March 2021.

A black and white headshot of Robin McNicholas

Following the announcement of Dream on Monday, MLF Co-founder and Creative Director Robin McNicholas will join us for MIF’s monthly Artist Drop-In session, on Thursday 11 February 2021. Ahead of this, we caught up with Robin to find out more about MLF and their work on Dream, plus his utopian fantasy for the future of experiential design.

Hi Robin! How would you describe Dream and the work MLF have created for it?
The show is a dreamlike journey into a forest at midsummer, inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a mixed reality live performance. A massive collaboration between people from different specialisms. We’ve created a story world and characters that the interactive audience engage with. It’s innovative and involves live motion capture. We’ve totally fallen in love with virtual productions and this is our largest project to date.

Do you think the technology used in Dream can help us get closer to the vision of Shakespeare’s imagination, or is it something completely new and different?
Dream is inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream but it’s not a performance of the play. It feels like some aspects of this production are nice representations of what could have been imagined by Shakespeare, but what the talented hive mind and collective imagination of this team have pulled together within that framework is totally unique.

Actor Jamie Morgan in Dream

What research did you do for Dream?
I worked closely with Pippa Hill, Head of Literary at the RSC, to work on the narrative and its themes, and paid particular focus on being true to the flora and fauna from the original play. There was also quite a lot of research in deciphering how to turn a limited ‘mocap volume’ [the physical space where the actor’s motion is captured] into a forest that Puck and our audience can journey through. It has also been about how we can best create tools for live performers to bring their character and emotion together so it shines through the barrier that technology often creates.

Why are you called ‘Marshmallow Laser Feast’?
It’s complicated.

Aside from creating cool experiences, what is the philosophy behind what MLF do?
We are constantly exploring the blurring of the line between the virtual and the real world, which this production is loaded with. So, exploring sensory perspectives and themes of reality. Also, importantly, we hold a central ethos at MLF to celebrate the wonders of the natural world. We try and constantly shift the focus of work we produce to issues relating to climate change and the Anthropocene.

Can virtual reality help us care more about the natural world?
Yes, to some degree, if created well and presented sensitively. We see cinema, film and other online interactive experiences playing a similarly powerful role.

Actor EM Williams in Dream

Can immersive technology truly allow us to feel together, when actually we are physically separated?
Not as much as the real deal. We’re not for a minute offering up any kind of alternative to attending cultural events IRL [in real life], but in the interim when we’re all locked down, we feel the tools are serving the digitally-connected world well. Also, we’re happy to say that most of the tech and learnings we’ve developed are transferable to live IRL events in the future.

Will mixed and augmented reality seep into our everyday lives? Has it already?
Yes, probably in ways we don’t necessarily even grasp yet; but our hope is that the arts will have a major responsibility in being present in future technological developments.

What is your most utopian dream for this technology?
There’s lots of nice thought experiments about the utopian outcomes. I personally like the idea of embodying other living animals — for instance, wouldn’t it be wonderful to explore whether dolphins dream in sonar… and to actually experience it?

MLF’s Robin McNicholas will take part in MIF’s Artist Drop-In on Thursday 11 February 2021.
Dream runs 12 — 20 March 2021, online. Tickets are available now via dream.online

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