Pioneering MYWORLD Research Project to reveal the Digital Theatre of the Future

11 Jan 2023

A pioneering research project has begun at Bristol Old Vic in a first of its kind. 

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 today 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 Bristol, Bath Spa University, University 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 5 years looking at what happens to people when they are immersed in a creative experience. 

He explained: “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.”

A strictly limited run of preview Live Broadcasts of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead from Bristol Old Vic will also take place on 7, 9 and 11 Feb. 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.

Bristol Old Vic’s Executive Director, Charlotte Geeves said:  
“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.” 
*The project is part of the MyWorld Program which is funded by UKRIs Strength in Places Fund. It is a unique collaboration between industry and academia to transform the West of England’s creative cluster from one of the best in the UK to one of the best in the world. Over 5 years, partners from across Bristol and Bath will deliver pioneering research and development projects across the creative technologies sector. The programme will create new experiences across fiction, documentary, games and live performance, attract inward investment and deliver employment and training opportunities across the region. To find out more, visit 
Kate Pullinger, Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University and academic lead for this MyWorld experimental production said:
“Digital technologies have transformed many industries, including arts and culture sectors. Theatre has always used technology to create magic on stage, and this MyWorld investment will help us think about the ways audiences experience shows, both in the lovely theatre space of Bristol Old Vic, as well as at home, on screens.”

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of The Dead. Kathryn Hunter as Janina surrounded by the Complicité ensemble. Image by Camilla Adams


Since 2020, we’ve been sharing our shows with audiences in new ways. We’ve broadcast live from our Georgian auditorium around the world, and we’ve made available On Demand Bristol Old Vic hits like The Grinning Man and brought some of our biggest shows to TV.
Our digital theatre business Bristol Old Vic On Screen is building a global audience keen on watching cutting-edge theatre, live from the oldest working theatre in the English-speaking world. We’re working with partners including Sky Arts, BBC and YouTube, and have investment from MyWorld to explore where the technology may take us next.
This spring, look out for even more incredible experiences on screen, including Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights, which is now available on Sky Arts and with a NowTV Pass, along with Touching the Void, and Ross Willis’ Wonder Boy which is coming soon to Sky Arts.
Funded by the UKRI Strength in Places Fund, MyWorld is the flagship for the UK’s creative sector and is part of a UK-wide exploration into devolved research and development funding.  Led by the University of Bristol, the £30 million programme is made up of 13 partners from the West of England region’s creative technologies sector and world-leading academic institutions to create a unique cross-sector consortium.    
Launched in April 2021, MyWorld will run for 5 years and has a mission to catalyse the region’s creative economy, creating new jobs, driving inward investment and supporting sustainable and inclusive business growth. 
To achieve this, the programme will enable the research and development of new products, processes and services that advance regional capabilities in creative digital production, network distribution and audience evaluation research. With its unique set of creative partners and research collaborators, MyWorld will also deliver ground-breaking experimental productions, invest in innovative research and production facilities, create new skills programmes and develop the region’s creative business ecosystem. Visit for more information.

MyWorld Project Partners:

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For more information, contact Amanda Adams - Head of Communications, Bristol Old Vic

Bristol Old Vic is the longest continuously running theatre in the UK, and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2016. The historic playhouse aims to inspire audiences with its own original productions, both at home and on tour, whilst nurturing the next generation of artists, whether that be through their 350-strong Young Company, their many outreach and education projects or their trailblazing artist development programme, Bristol Ferment.

They use their funding to support experiment and innovation, to allow access to their programme for people who would not otherwise encounter it, or be able to afford it, and to keep their extraordinary heritage alive and animated.

On 24 Sep 2018, Bristol Old Vic completed its 2-year multi-million pound redevelopment project, which transformed its front of house space into a warm and welcoming public building for all of Bristol to enjoy, created a new studio theatre and opened up its unique theatrical heritage to the public for the first time.

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