Theatre In Second Life

This interview was originally published in the now defunct London Theatre Blog on February 17, 2009. An archive of London Theatre Blog is available here.

While theatre practice remains strongly rooted in the physical world, the emergence of the real-time has given rise to new exploratory practices. Performance in virtual environments goes back to the beginning of the Internet (and before), but only in the past few years with the transition to Web 2.0 has it become technically viable to produce live online performances for global audiences.

Curious to find out more about the possibilities of performance in this context, I spoke to two artists from the Netherlands about their work with theatre in Second Life (hereafter SL). SL is one of the web’s largest 3D virtual worlds, built to a large extent by its users who interact and socialize via personal avatars. Joyce Timmerman is a member of the Amsterdam based theatre company Slapelozen. She has a personal interest in SL and sometimes uses it in her creative work. Ze Moo is an “information-artist” and (live)media-expert/consultant based in The Netherlands and in Cyberspace.

Andrew Eglinton (AE): Thank you both for taking the time to participate in this online discussion. The aim is to try and paint a picture of what ‘theatre’ in a virtual online environment such as SL might consist of and to find out what some of the implications are for ‘real world’ theatre.

I understand that you’ve both been involved in a particular project that brought live performances in SL to an audience in a venue in Amsterdam. I’d like to start by asking you both to outline the event so that we have a common ground for this discussion.

Ze Moo: First of all, I should point out that Joyce and I met in SL. We share a mutual interest in the field of theatre, and I mean ‘theatre’ in the broadest possible sense of the term. I co-organized the ‘Live Machinima Theatre’ event on August 30th 2008 in Amsterdam in collaboration with the grassroots art & technology lab ‘Meta.Live.Nu‘. Joyce was an essential member of the production team. The show you’re referring to was called Goodbye Dollar. It took place in SL and it fused musical theatre, performance art, stand up comedy and experimental cinema.

30 August 2008: CLUB GOODBYE DOLLAR: Live Machinima Theatre & SLLAN-Party. Image by ZeMoo

Joyce: In Goodbye Dollar, the ‘real’ or physical audience watched the SL performances on a screen in an auditorium in Amsterdam – the venue was De Balie, it’s well known for housing experimental art work. There were numerous acts in Goodbye Dollar by artists from around the world and the SL medium provided the possibility for audiences to interact with the artists.

AE: Interact? In what sense?

Ze Moo: Some audience members had laptop computers and were connected to SL so they could use text or audio chat.

AE: So the audience was split between people in the physical space at De Balie and people logged into SL from around the world, what about the cast and crew?

Ze Moo: The night was divided into time slots and the artists were responsible for the content of each slot. All artists were operating from home, or in studios. In terms of the crew, there was a production team present at De Balie.

AE: What did the production team do?

Ze Moo: The production team (of which Joyce was a part) had to coordinate the programming and facilitate the various technologies used in the event. I directed the whole night at De Balie like a TV channel showing different ‘programmes’ in real time. But for those accessing the event remotely and not logged into SL there was also a live TV stream broadcast on the Web. So we had multiple streams of media running in parallel.

AE: Let’s move on and talk about the role of the artists. Could I ask both of you to choose one particular artist involved in Goodbye Dollar and describe a particular performance? Starting with Joyce?

Joyce: I’ll talk about the stand-up comedian Lauren Weyland and her show “LaurenLive: The Dollar Undone”. What you saw on a virtual stage in SL was the avatar of a pretty girl combined with Lauren’s deep masculine voice, cracking sexist jokes about men.

Lauren’s performances are all about playing with gender identity and stereotypes. You see the graphic image of a woman but hear the physical voice of a man so you’re always conscious about both levels: the physicality of the actor and the virtual avatar he uses.

The strange thing is of course that as a stand up comedian you are very aware of your audience’s reactions, their laughter, their silence etc., but in SL it’s different. People react and laugh, but you cannot see their faces, you can only hear those logged into SL who use audio headsets.

Ze Moo: Large parts of audiences at Lauren’s performances always use microphone headsets so it’s possible to hear real laughter and comments in real-time about Lauren’s material.

Joyce: This can create a strange effect at times and it’s one of the areas that needs working on if virtual theatre is going to improve in the future. I’d like to be able to see the facial expressions of both the actors and the audience.

AE: Would it be possible to see everyone involved in the performance simultaneously?

Ze Moo: Not at the moment in SL, but it will be possible in the future I am quite sure. People can already project their webcam faces onto their avatars. There have been numerous experiments with that, but technically speaking it’s still at an embryonic stage.

AE: Could you clarify what an avatar is in the context of SL?

Joyce: The avatar is the ‘doll’ you walk around with in SL, you create it yourself by selecting your own appearance, gender, skin colour, shape etc., and you can even become a beast if you want to. This opens up a new range of possibilities for transformation, both for the actors and the audience. In the theatre, you need to use your imagination when it comes to seeing actors perform complex roles. In SL that transformation is immediate and seamless.

AE: So the SL audience no longer needs to suspend its disbelief?

Ze Moo: Virtual theatre is more immersive, like being part of a live, interactive movie.

Joyce: Yes, it is like cinema. More is possible, so as an audience we might expect more; when I see a beast on stage I can accept that it’s an actor who delivers the roar…but in a movie I want to see the beast in all its three dimensional ferocity!

Ze Moo: But imagination definitely still plays a role and in my view the stimulation of the brain in SL with all kinds of visual illusions can be an even more intense experience.

Joyce: Imagination is an interesting aspect of SL right now; everything is possible, but we still tend towards reality. There are artists now who are changing that in SL they are exploring ways of stimulating their audiences’ imagination.

AE: Are the artists beginning to develop a ‘vocabulary’ of performance that is specific to the context of SL?

Joyce: Yes, I think so.

Ze Moo: The ‘Bunnyken’ were created specifically for performance in SL by Arthole in a piece called Orientation. Arthole is a US/Brit art collective who use SL as their main medium.

AE: Was this also part of Goodbye Dollar?

Ze Moo: Yes Arthole performed at the Goodbye Dollar event. They were one of the top art collectives in 2008 to use SL as a medium of expression.

AE: Could you describe their performance in more detail?

Ze Moo: It began in the SL reception area that Arthole had created. The audience was instructed to gather in this space before being told to swap their regular avatars for ‘Bunnyken’ creatures.

The Arthole members ushered the audience, now dressed in Bunnyken avatars, around the performance space. Don’t forget that this was being observed on the big white De Balie cinema screen in Amsterdam. And since some people in the auditorium had laptops, they were able to participate as Bunnyken.

AE: So an audience watching an audience?

Ze Moo: Yes. In the SL performance, the audience were made to sit in rows in an amphitheatre. They had to listen to strange alien-like speeches; the whole thing had an Orwellian feel to it. There was an atmosphere of intimidation, of control and the speeches were a form of ‘white noise’. Amazingly, most of the SL audience went along with this and did what they were told to do. In the end they arrived in a type of factory where they were made into a sort of pink mud food.

AE: Right…I see. What was the ultimate direction of the piece? Were Arthole working towards a particular outcome?

Ze Moo: A machinima was produced from it a week later (the event was projected on a live Web video stream as I mentioned earlier). Seeing it live on the large auditorium screen was far more impressive than the YouTube viewing experience.

AE: What makes you say that?

Ze Moo: It was the thrill of being there combined with having the option to interact in real time. My aim as director of the experimental ‘live-cross-reality‘ art section of Goodbye Dollar was to try and bridge theatre and film in a way that has not been done before, while at the same time exploring the boundaries of art, media and technology.

AE: Thank you for sharing your accounts of the two performances. Your last point Ze Moo, on bridging theatre and film segues nicely into the last two themes I want to pick up on: liveness and interaction. Starting with liveness I’d like to get a sense from both of you of what it was like to be a spectator at this event. Did you feel part of a community in the De Balie auditorium?

Joyce: For me, there was more a sense of community online than in the auditorium, simply because by nature of the virtual environment there was more potential to interact and participate as a virtual audience member then a physical one.

AE: Could you give some concrete examples of interaction?

Joyce: So in the comedy show I mentioned, Lauren Weyland could hear you laugh or speak if you were online. Also, every performance throughout the evening took place in a different SL location; so you had to ‘teleport’ yourself (avatar) to a destination. This act of teleportation engages the audience from the start. Then there was another performance in which the audience could help build a giant tower.

Ze Moo: Interaction options in SL consist of: text chat, voice chat, individualized avatar shape, looks (fashion) & animations (body language). And also: building (aka ‘rezzing’), moving, altering objects and backdrops and environmental sounds. This adds a whole new ‘live narrative’ (non-verbal) layer to communications, that thus far hasn’t been humanly possible.

AE: I’m curious about Joyce’s teleporting. What’s so special about it?

Joyce: Well usually you don’t teleport in such large numbers in SL. Walking in the SL environment is often a solitary thing. But as a group there’s a sense of community just by walking together. It’s very much the same phenomenon you experience in a real life installation or promenade performance.

AE: Thinking about the audience in the auditorium, to what extent would you have to be knowledgeable about SL to appreciate the whole event?

Ze Moo: Good question.

Joyce: SL users got more out of it I think. For audience members who weren’t familiar with SL there was a narrator in the auditorium who provided voice over commentary and explained what was going on. There were also volunteers present, explaining the event on a person-to-person basis.

AE: One final question. How important was it from the production side of the event to create a ‘streamlined’ show? Presumably there were many stops and starts for technical reasons?

Joyce: Actually, it was surprsingly smooth, but Moo was incredibly busy!

Ze Moo: We were all very busy. Getting everyone in the right place at the right time took a tremendous amount of effort. We prepared several months in advance for the event and worked to a tight schedule. In the end it all went much smoother than I had expected. The only serious technical failure was in the video documentation of the event. But I don’t believe it would be possible to completely document/archive such an extensive interactive live experience anyway. That is why we concentrated more on preparing the live event itself. We are doing the same for one of our largest upcoming events of the year: The ElectroSmog Festival in Autumn 2010.

AE: Thank you both very much indeed for your time this evening. It has been a fascinating discussion. I have many more questions to ask and I hope there will be another occasion to explore this further.

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