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  • Writer's pictureHinton Magazine

Within Touching Distance: A New Immersive Play Exploring Touch

Mixing real life with virtual reality in a synchronised one-on-one experience with headset and performer, Within Touching Distance is a new immersive show exploring touch. We spoke to Persis Jadé Maravala, the Artistic Director of multi-award-winning interactive theatre and digital arts company ZU-UK about the show.


What inspired you to create Within Touching Distance, and how did your personal experiences shape its development?


Within Touching Distance is part of a big research project exploring the potential of using XR arts-led experiences to develop use of touch and emphasis on empathy in healthcare. We’re looking at using our work as training input for nurses and carers, co-designing binaural sound and 360º video with mental health patients, as well as exploring the work’s potential in therapy settings. I have had severe mental illness(es) since I was a child. And I make work by, with and for people like me - who don't get much of a say in articulating their mental health problems. As a patient now in recovery myself, touch helps with the lingering effects of depersonalisation and derealisation - a feeling of living outside of my body, like living behind glass, or under water, a feeling of not recognising your own hands. Part of the repair of this mind-body rupture was touch - this embodiment can be triggered by touch as it unlocks the automatic response system of the body to recognise safety. There is no care, there is no cure, without touch. Touch was a vital tool for me to investigate boundaries and intimacy and risk within performance and examine the potency of human touch in an increasingly disconnected world. Within Touching Distance is the culmination of all that work, combining touch with the synchronised use of VR in order to invite audiences to experience empathy through human contact.

ZU-UK is a disabled-led, global majority-led female-led award-winning theatre and digital arts company and in a world where contemporary loneliness is a new epidemic, we believe in the need for shared rituals, new narratives and experiences that empower those most vulnerable to experience culture and to make excellent art.


As a female, working-class, Arab-Indian-Iranian artist, struggling with complex PTSD and other illnesses, my identities and influences have fuelled my commitment, having been systematically excluded from so many of the environments and circles through which art is defined and disseminated, to creating work that is for people who do not feel art, theatre, technology are ‘for them’. The care, intricacy, and specificity of my work are essential to the creation of spaces and interactions that include, and that take into account the individuals participating.


How do you think Within Touching Distance can impact healthcare research and training strategies through art and participatory performance?


We hope to address the under-representation of mental-health patients’ experiences in the development of digital mental healthcare solutions. We are exploring the use of XR (Unreal Engine, Binaural Sound wireless broadcast) and bone-conducting headphones in conjunction with bespoke artistic storytelling content by mental health patients, to address gaps in what is currently offered in digital mental healthcare training towards empathy and use of affective touch.

The project is aimed at improving the current delivery of clinical skills education and training. Our current plans are, from the existing Within Touching Distance artwork, to produce a prototype VR/live-facilitated approach to training healthcare staff in the use of touch and empathy in their practice.


We also want to use the work on healthcare ‘training packages’ as a springboard for exploring arts-led methods of direct therapeutic intervention for mental health patients combining touch/remote touch, augmented audio and VR. We’re exploring the possibility of developing other sections of the artwork to directly help patients: focussing on combatting anxiety and using our work as a way of helping people experience feelings of security and compassion. We want to work towards creating safe therapy settings for re-visiting difficult situations, and in which people can develop self-worth and confidence. We are talking to researchers at UCL and City, University of London about a project using our VR and audio content and expertise towards developing artistic digital twinning experiences to improve the healthcare experience of young people with autism.



Collaboration seems crucial in this project. How have partnerships influenced the development of care strategies, and how are they being applied in therapy and healthcare training?


The close collaboration we’ve had with the Greenwich Learning And Simulation Centre at the University of Greenwich has meant that for the first time we have been able to create a piece as a direct response to the needs expressed to us by current experts, practitioners and policy-makers within the healthcare services. Rather than creating an artwork that we hope will be impact people’s wellbeing simply as an art experience, we have now also been able to begin developing interventions that can impact wellbeing as artistically-led healthcare within existing healthcare infrastructure, which is a huge difference, and doesn’t negate the artistic component of the interventions, either. We have been able to iteratively test our ideas and prototypes with healthcare professionals and students every step of the way, and thus have our process and design shaped by what they know to be useful to them.


Through working with the Liverpool Cares Family, we have also been able to test our work with an elderly community at particularly high risk of social isolation and loneliness, and volunteers who contribute to their care, and gain these vital perspectives on which elements of the work could positively impact their wellbeing as therapeutic interventions.


The choreography of touch is a significant aspect of the experience. How does it enhance the narrative and emotional impact of Within Touching Distance?


“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”― Margaret Atwood, Der blinde Mörder

In a touch-starved society, a phenomenon increased by the pandemic, the act of touching the participant activates their vagus nerve, which calms the nervous system, releasing oxytocin, and generating emotional connection and well-being, in ways we’re deprived of in a Western context. Carmen Spagnola talks about how we need certain cyclic patterns in order to deal with the grief and destabilization of living in a collapsing civilization. An individual needs to ‘yield’ to emotion, and to do so needs to feel ‘safe, seen, secure and soothed’. These are feelings we gain from physical contact with others. Touch in Within Touching Distance is a way of practising yielding and holding relationships, to create spaces in which participants feel held and soothed. The performers are trained to always touch people with both hands, so that on an instinctual level participants never have to worry about what the performer’s second hand is doing – closing the circuit, creating a touch-field that can contain a person. The performers are trained in how to gently take responsibility for the participant, so they are able to yield.


ZU-UK present artworks year-round and specialise in thought-provoking immersive experience. More information about their work can be found at

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