Belonging in Limbo

What does it mean to be from somewhere? When does a place become home? How does our emotional connection to a place change when we experience it only in our memories or our minds?

These are the questions that composer and performer Nubiya Brandon asks—and seeks to answer—in All Kinds of Limbo. This genre-defying immersive experience from the renowned National Theatre in London takes viewers on a musical journey inspired by the influence of Caribbean culture on the UK music scene. In it, Brandon sings about her own life in limbo as a Black British woman, moving through the genres of reggae, grime, classical, and calypso.

For Brandon, All Kinds of Limbo is very much about her struggle to belong. And her hope is that it can provide a feeling of comfort to audiences who might feel the same way in their own lives: “I wanted this to reach people who felt lost—who felt like they needed warmth and nourishing and felt as sensitive about themselves as I did.”

I spent a majority of my life trying to figure out what to be rooted to. It’s just all kinds of limbo.
Nubiya Brandon

Making all the world a virtual stage

Set to music from composer Raffy Bushman and the NuShape Orchestra, All Kinds of Limbo is brought to life on a dynamic virtual stage by director Toby Coffey. It blends theatrical performance with mixed reality, pushing the boundaries of what it means to “go to the theater” and raising provocative questions about the places we inhabit.

During its run at the National Theatre in 2019, All Kinds of Limbo invited 20 attendees at a time to put on VR headsets and immerse themselves in a virtual experience that felt so real and communal, people clapped at the end of each show. Next, the National Theatre partnered with Microsoft to help audiences from around the world take part in a communal performance, too—using a VR headset, a computer, or a mobile device to view it in AR. It’s a unique experience that doesn’t require viewers to leave their homes, yet isn’t simply viewable on-demand.

Breaking down boundaries and walls

Virtual reality isn’t the only way All Kinds of Limbo pushes audiences to rethink our sense of place. The show also draws inspiration from Small Island, a novel by Andrea Levy adapted into a play about the Caribbean diaspora who relocated to help rebuild England following World War II—but faced intense discrimination as they strived to integrate.

All Kinds of Limbo picks up where Small Island left off, exploring what it means to make a place home. It finds its voice in this in-betweenness of, in part because Nubiya Brandon herself identities as “a kaleidoscope.” Her roots are unknown, though she believes they’re Jamaican, Native American, and African American. She says trying to tell the story of where she comes from is “unjust and imprecise”—yet it’s something she’s often asked to do as a woman of color.

Still, her relationship to the musical genres in All Kinds of Limbo runs deep. Her first musical love as a child was reggae. She grew up hearing dub, reggae, and grime make their way into dancehalls—and into mainstream British culture. But as composer Raffy Bushman notes, “Only recently have these artists been recognized as pioneers. They had to build their own careers—build their own culture.”

All Kinds of Limbo performance with lights floating behind

Reimagining the future of theatre

In the same vein, All Kinds of Limbo seeks to challenge the idea of who “belongs” at the theater. Toby Coffey, Head of Digital Development for the National Theatre and director of All Kinds of Limbo, hopes to help more people see themselves in the work that they do.

“We see mixed reality as potentially being a gateway to theater for people who don’t classify themselves as theater-goers,” he says.

The National Theatre began working with VR in 2015, and established their Immersive Storytelling Studio in 2016. Then, during Covid lockdown, they received funding to help “democratize access to immersive work.” For Coffey, this wasn’t about completely rethinking what theater means, but rather pushing the boundaries of what a stage performance might look and feel like. After all, they are the National Theatre.

We are scratching the surface of new ways people can explore theater…by democratizing access to immersive work.
Toby Coffey
Head of Digital Development for the National Theatre and director of All Kinds of Limbo

Bringing All Kinds of Limbo to life

When it came time to actually film All Kinds of Limbo, the National Theatre partnered with Dimension Studios, who oversaw the volumetric capture with 106 cameras that would turn Nubiya Brandon’s performance into a mixed reality experience. But there were aspects of the shoot that were very much like traditional theater—there were choreographers, hair and make-up artists, stage markers, and even a live orchestra.

“As a musician, it’s important to me that people understand the value of live music,” says Bushman. “And this was a live piece of music—16 people all playing together in one room.”

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The team worked to capture that feeling of a live performance within the sound of the digital experiences. “We created something that has directional sound changes as you move around. It’s akin to walking around a concert hall,” says Coffey. “Audiences get the sense of being in a physical space because the sound reflects that.”

The hope is that with All Kinds of Limbo returning as a virtual experience viewable from anywhere in the world, on almost any device, audiences will walk away feeling like they were part of a vital live performance—and with a sense of belonging to a shared experience that reminds us just how connected we really are.