Ian Pugh, 25 January 2015

Session called by Ian Bradford Ngongotaha Pugh

Session Collaborators:

Dean Rodgers Angelika Georgokosta Laura Atherton Charlie Kenber
Mary Halton Catherine Love Annegret Märten Rosie Spiegelhalter Pat Ashe
Billy Barrett
Nazha Harb
Kate McStraw
David Cottis
Phelim McDermmot Robert Wells

Session Results:

The initial discussion centered on whether a simulated performance in a virtual world could be classed as theatre. Some of the criticisms of such performances were that the results were similar to watching television, or that the experience was more akin to a video game. We talked about various instances of the use of virtual performances both online and using social media such as twitter or blogs – specifically we talked about Forced Entertainment’s Quizula and Twitch Plays Pokeman.

Dean suggested what turns out to be what the group decided was the definitive answer to the question – If you want to call it theatre then it is theatre.

In discussing what constitutes livens it was pointed out that liveness has a temporal orderliness to it, in a way that film and television do not, usually. All things follow in sequence in a live performance as presented by the present performers (virtual or otherwise). This was a definition that seemed to satisfy everyone. The group overwhelmingly saw virtual performances – presented by actual performers as a potential live theatre experience.

The discussion then turned to examples of various types of digital performances people had seen or heard of.

• RSC A Midsummers Night’s Dream in real time. Performance done over three days, with tweets, camera phone calls, blogs, and even a live performance you could attend of the weddings.
The Entertainment – Lem Doolittle (real name!) – where you play an actor on the stage in a nonspeaking part – a drunk at the bar using VR headset.

Friends TV episode enacted in Quake (multiplayer video game) on a live server

where players were killing the performers (who would then respawn and try to carry on) all the while having typical gamer trash talk being spewed at them.
• World of Warcraft Funeral – an online funeral held by a real-life dead clan member’s team. Besides the funeral party, a group of other players showed up and slaughtered the funeral attendees.

At this point I brought up my intention to try to create an original piece of virtual/online performance. I explained my previous work on a project in Second Life (“Masque of the Red Death” done in conjunction with a course at The Ohio State University). I also talked about how I was doing this project as part of my coursework for my postdoctoral studies at Medici University (http://mediciuniversity.co.uk/) – an online, in world (Second Life) virtual university that offers non accredited, nontraditional education programs. I asked for input and suggestions and volunteers for creating a small performance.

Several virtual environments were suggested – Minecraft, Quake, and Half-Life were games that were recommended because they have large modding communities supporting them. The problem with these game engines was their difficulty in bringing in original content, particularly character animation.

The discussion turned to other ways that one could tell a story and create virtual theatre that was less dependent on animating avatars to simulate real world counterparts. An excellent suggestion was floated about instead of using a graphical based system – Like Second Life – why not use a text based solution – such as twitter. A good example of interactive twitter was the twitter account that let users play the old text adventure game Zork – tweeting their moves and getting a tweet in response sending the new player data. We talked about how we could adapt this to

live tweets from performers instead of a computer server.

But we also started to discuss the use of bots to play roles in the performance. The example of @Horse_ebooks was given. A twitter account that was run by a clumsy bot that was intended to help sell books on horses, but that became a viral sensation because of the unintentional humor created by the bots non sequiturs. Also mentioned were image posting bots Pixel Sorter and Bad PNG.

We also talked briefly about the distinction between games and theatre – and we talked about the show dean had done called Heist that was a show where the audience had objective based work to accomplish, and it was felt that virtual performance would lend itself well to including the audience as a performer in a similar fashion.

To go along with the linear temporal order definition of liveness and theatre we talked about earlier. The idea of “Same place. Same time.” was also added to our definition. Audience and performers exist in the same time and place – and this place can be a virtual place as easily as a meat space..

Phelim joined the group and talked about the UCL - Immersive Virtual Environment Laboratory and their work with various theatres and performers - including approaching Improbable and the English National Opera to consider collaboration. Phelim talked about some of the problems that the virtual reality lab ran into with the uncanny valley problem, specifically with eye blinks (apparently very subtle differences between how fast upper and lower eyelids work in conjunction with each other stand out to human observers). Phelim also talked about how in simulating realities that what is missing is the ability to create a dream space, which can create a thin, uncanny,

space. We all talked about how you can do this in a world in which you cannot edit the audience’s experience. No real solution arrived to us, but general consensus was that such obstacles seemed inevitable to be overcome. This brought on a rather depressing discussion about how virtual performers might replace live performers. When a viewer cannot tell the difference between a live space/performer and a simulated one what will happen to the industry.

We talked about the BBC’s use of a virtual rehearsal space to help facilitate teaching the actor’s their blocking, and how it was resisted by the actors initially, but how they eventually found ti to be a viable tool.

We started to talk about the importance the internet and connectedness - it was said that the Internet might be the cure for modernity.

Phelim thought that for a virtual reality to really take off as a performance space/soulful space that subversion would likely be a key factor in its success. We talked about how that subversion can have both positive and negative sides.

We ended the session talking about some of the unethical experiments that have been perpetrated by corporations like Facebook, manipulating user information and data to see the effects on the user base. Okay Cupid conducted one such unethical experiment where they matched people outside of their matching criteria to see if they could manipulate individuals to do things they would not normally do. It seems important to not forget that these virtual representations are still real people and should be afforded respect and treated ethically.

I plan to push forward with creating the virtual performance as a project for my Medici

University studies. I will be emailing the session collaborators for their help and suggestions as the project progresses.



VR, simulated, virtual reality, Internet, twitter, internet, online, Twitter