University partners with Safety Catch for innovative live virtual and digital theatre production on mental health

Categories: School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology

The University of Salford is supporting the development of a new live and digital theatre production that is using state-of-the-art technology and virtual production techniques to retell the extraordinary true story of a man’s experience in acute psychiatric wards over a decade.

The Ward Round is a creative technology collaboration between the University and Manchester-based theatre company Safety Catch, currently being developed at our MediaCity campus, that is targeting a theatrical touring show and immersive experience in 2025.

The show is a simultaneous live and digital theatre production that retells the lived experience of a man who was hospitalised four times in acute psychiatric wards over a decade following an initial LSD-induced psychosis at the age of 17. The man will be played by Garth Williams, actor, producer and creative lead at Safety Catch.

Set within digitally-connected real and virtual stages, the show uses live motion capture to animate virtual characters, created from real memories in projection-mapped virtual worlds. Garth will wear a motion capture suit to be virtually transformed in the show, enabling him to populate memories and hack back into long-lost recollections, dreams and delusions. As it is a live theatre production, the audience will be a live participant, playing the role of fellow patients, staff, friends, family, juries and witnesses.

The show is being developed in the University’s Development Lab by Safety Catch and the University’s creative technical services and academic teams from a variety of course programmes. The production explores step changes in the use of interactive media for indoor theatre as part of performance research practice and deploys the gaming engine Unreal and its built environments, live motion capture, LED volumes and virtual production elements to bring the show to life.

Garth Williams said: “The contribution from the creative, technical and academic community at the University of Salford has been immensely important in the development of the work. The facilities are amazing too. It has taken the production far beyond its starting point and into new, challenging and exciting places for live performance.

“The support from the Games and XR, Animation, Performance, Television and Radio and Film Production courses, in tandem with the invaluable creative and technical insights, time and support from the technical teams in the Development Lab and Digital Media Performance Lab has enabled us to get to a place we could not have imagined when we first approached the University.”

Kate Green, the Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester for Policing and Crime said: “This show gave me a fascinating insight into how it feels to experience serious mental illness, making innovative use of technology to give the audience a very direct sense of what it’s like to live through a mental health crisis and the care that’s received.

“I am excited to see how it will develop into a workshop format that can help put professionals into the shoes of those who experience mental illness and provide support and information for young people entering services as well as their family and friends.”

Roger McKinley, Creative Technology and Content Manager of Creative Technical Services at the University of Salford said: “We are delighted to be working with Garth on this exciting project that is pushing the boundaries and capabilities around virtual production beyond film and television into the live arts and gaming.

“His research is vital in expanding the thinking around new forms of immersive experience and exploring new areas for creative innovation.”

The Ward Round is designed to appeal to young adults through the medium of video game technology and pose challenging, tough questions about the way in which we view mental health services. In parallel with the project, Safety Catch are also developing a workshop model using VR to enhance Forum Theatre and engage participants to better understand how to navigate mental health services.

Garth Williams in front of a virtual production background at University of Salford

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