Ever been engrossed in theatre at the West End? Well, Birmingham-based theatre company Round Midnight takes drama to the next level by using cutting-edge educational technology to create a fully immersive experience. 

The non-profit creative arts company work primarily with young vulnerable people on the edge of criminality. With their groundbreaking virtual reality films, the company encourages participants to look at the nature of risk-taking behavioural choices and discuss the consequences of such actions. Young people explore the themes of gang culture, criminal exploitation, peer pressure, knife crime and risk-taking & anti-social behaviour.

Akin to the interactive film on Netflix, ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’, each person is put into a VR headset where they participate in a real-world film making choices that have consequences on the resulting outcome of the story.

After the film, facilitators create a safe space in which young people feel comfortable to unpick these decisions as a team. Using an interactive medium like VR helps open up the dialogue for young people to talk about serious issues and scenarios in order to keep them safe and hopefully make their life choices more positive. 

Meet the theatre company using VR to support vulnerable communities
Year 9 Virtual Decisions: KNIVES workshop at Greenwood Academy. Photo: @goodomenimages

With a 100% engagement rate, there’s no doubt that Round Midnight is changing young people’s lives for the better.

Claire Downes, Director of Creative Arts at Round Midnight shares how VR eradicates barriers enabling young people to open up. 

“The sessions are aimed to be positive and to enable young people to turn their heads in a different way and look towards making positive life choices in whatever they’re doing. And not only positive life choices for themselves but for their friends and their peers as well. We understand that not every young person is going to be in these situations. But they may recognise the signs of somebody who is in that situation. It’s a piece for all young people, not just those that are already involved in this sort of behaviour. For them, it’s a chance to sometimes talk about their experiences. We’ve had quite a lot of disclosures made from young people within our sessions, which their teachers or their probation workers are not aware of. There’s something about VR that works and removes these barriers when you put a headset on. You’re immersed in that world. As soon as you put the headset on as soon as you start going through the experience, you’re active, you’re engaged and you’re connected.” 

For Round Midnight, using a mechanism that reaches young people who may not traditionally engage with education or have a mistrust of adults has been a game-changer in engaging vulnerable communities.

Since 1992 the company has worked with young people in the creative field primarily on issue-based work in theatre and education. Having already successfully gone down the usual route of performing on stage at schools, Claire shares how Round Midnight made the move into incorporating VR in their delivery.

“We were noticing that by the very nature of these performances, actors are a lot older than their audience. There was something about older people on stage pretending to be 12, 13 and 14 and presenting that to real teenagers in which there’s a real disconnect. It’s a really passive experience when you’re in a school hall watching a performance on stage with 300-350 people in the audience. In 2018 we were determined to find a way that was going to connect with young people. Something that they would understand more, and really resonate with them. And we hit on the idea of VR because it was still a relatively new exciting medium.”

Thanks to a grant from Innovate UK, a government organisation that funds innovation and technology, Round Midnight were able to produce a prototype for their first film ‘Virtual Decisions: GANGS,’ developed as a result of research from approximately 1500 young people concerning their thoughts on risk-taking behaviour and issues, barriers and trepidations they had as a community.

“They’re seeing young actors that are at their peers, their age. We’ve had 100% engagement with our films, because the young people, they’re interested, they like the technology, they understand it’s their world. It’s digital, it’s sort of their world. It’s definitely made a huge difference.”

As a result of the pilot of the first film, West Midlands Police funded Round Midnight to deliver these performances in hotspot areas. On top of that, in collaboration with Greater Manchester police, a 12-week violence reduction curriculum has been facilitated to go along with the first film. 

“Each lesson of the curriculum links to a character in the film. So when young people go through the lessons, they’re talking about characters that they’ve met in the VR experience. Lessons deals with the different strands of reducing violence including looking out for the signs of grooming, involvement in county lines, social media, and what it means to be a responsible digital citizen. This includes what is and what isn’t responsible to post on your social media feeds, getting them to think about the longevity of social media and what effects that can have on their adult life.”

Off the back of this success, the Home Office commissioned a second film detailing the issues of carrying a knife called ‘Virtual Decisions: KNIVES.” Both these films have been licensed by West Midlands Police and school link officers have been technologically trained by Round Midnight in order to bring the experience into more schools.

Hammersmith and Fulham Family Support are using these resources for one-to-ones with identified young vulnerable people as well as with their families. “Their parents and siblings are also going through the experience so they can understand what it’s like for their brother or sister or child. And that’s been incredible because that’s opened up a really honest dialogue between families and young people. They take away an awareness of what that potential lifestyle looks like, and how they can divert from it or divert somebody else from it.”

Meet the theatre company using VR to support vulnerable communities
The cast of Virtual Decisions: KNIVES. Photo: @goodomenimages

Claire is hopeful for a library of films underneath the banner of ‘Virtual Decisions’ including further films about exploitation, stop and search and looking at the relationship between police and young people. “The dream is to have something like the Marvel Universe or like the Harry Potter universe in which all the film characters are connected. In our first film, you’re introduced to gang members around the age of 14. In our second film, we see them as older gang members. They’re the same actors, but it’s around 18 months later. There’s a connection between these films as every character has a backstory or origin story. And this is something young people are familiar with and can relate to.”

Sustainability is a key in Round Midnight’s success as schools are left with additional material they can continue to work on. Training teachers and school liaison officer enables longevity and sustained effects of change. “They can revisit the films and the characters. For instance, we’ve got aftermath films from the victim of an attack that we see in the first film ‘Virtual Decisions: GANGS’. We see the police officer that was first on the scene and the mother of the victim. So, it’s looking at empathy, looking at how those events have a ripple effect, affecting the wider community and the other people that are involved, not just the gangs, and the victim itself, but their families, the emergency services that are dealing with it, and the wider community as a whole.”

“We feel very strongly about young people get quite demonised I think by society, generally, but also in the media. It’s always a story about the bad things that young people are doing. Young people taking part in this and actively deciding not to pick up that knife, not to go to that place, not to engage with those people to choose better decisions to choose decisions that are going to enhance their life chances. It’s about really celebrating the positive things that young people are doing.”

Accessibility is also a huge factor in Round Midnight’s championship of young people. The majority of actors in these films are from a youth theatre Round Midnight have run since 1995. “The theatre is non-judgmental, and it’s completely open access. There’s no audition process, if you want to come, you can come, no matter who you are, what you are, whether you’ve never been on stage before, whether you’ve never done anything creative, you’re able to have a go.  It’s a really inclusive, warm, welcoming place where young people can come and just have a laugh, and have fun.” Celebrating everybody and making sure actors feel valued fights the usual stigma of only showcasing the strongest performers on stage.

To find out more about Round Midnight, click here.

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Uzma Gulbahar holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University College of London. She is particularly interested in exploring untold stories surrounding marginalised groups, identity and culture.

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