The degree to which the virtual or artistic environment faithfully reproduces reality determines the degree of suspension of disbelief. The greater the suspension of disbelief, the greater the feeling of presence achieved. But what if the “viewer” was more than that – indeed a “player” in the age-old sense of the word, where they could interact with actors on stage to become not only a participant in the production – but even take a leading role? Using this notion of combining VR’s and Theatre’s immersive ‘suspension of disbelief’, the Virtual Actor research project was born.
Issues surrounding live streaming capabilities, delay, switching from pre-recorded experiences to live experiences, and to what extent a live audience enhances the Virtual Actor’s experience are explored through practice-led research. As Caplan (2015, p.353) has noted, ‘digital theatrical environments aim to bring theatre to life in virtual space by artists embracing digital media to expand the spectator experience’. One way to test this is to engage in practice-led research, which is considered a ‘valid research methodology to address an issue that is of relevance to the artistic community for which the research is undertaken’ (Green 2007, p.10).
The Virtual Actor research project works with current School of Creative Industries students from the University of South Australia to experiment (in a rehearsal style method) with approaches to offering an audience member the experience of being an actor on stage. Using scene from The Wizard of OZ, the Virtual Actor takes on Dorothy’s lines and interacts with the actors who play the Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda, Tin Man, Scarecrow, Lion and Oz, all live on stage.
As the scenes were developed; we found ourselves learning the effective placement of actors in a 360 degree space. Because the Virtual Reality camera represents the protagonist, Dorothy’s, point-of-view on stage, the staging of the live action around Dorothy is critical to the experience of the Virtual Actor.
The Virtual Actor research project emerged through my research into the digital humanities, specifically looking at theatre performances where digital means were used to increase the spectator experience and connect them to the actors. Examples of work include Nerve Tank’s The Attendants (2011), where performers and audience members communicated via live Twitter feeds, and New Paradise Laboratories’ Fatebook (2009), and Extremely Public Displays of Privacy (2011), where actors used character created social-media profiles to interact with audience members prior to the performance (Caplan 2015).
The body of digital work produced in theatre studies to date, albeit few in comparison with similar fields, demonstrates the medium’s potential to bring performance studies to the 21st century. The Virtual Actor research project identifies a way to advance current tertiary theatre courses and influence the kinds of theatre being produced.
This paper will discuss the numerous technical and contextual challenges within the VR medium, and the future challenges, possibilities and directions for incorporating this type of research into tertiary coursework.