A report on Virtual Reality (VR) in theatre history research: Creating a spatial context for performance

Christie Carson
Department of Drama
Royal Holloway University of London

Carson, Christie. "A report on Virtual Reality (VR) in theatre history research: Creating a spatial context for performance." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 13 (April, 2004): 2.1-12 <URL:

  1. Theatre is most often thought of as a time-based event but it is also undoubtedly a spatially-based one. Theatre history research has increasingly been able to acknowledge the importance of space as a result, on the one hand, of physical experiments, like the replica Globe theatre now standing in South London, and, on the other, experiments using Virtual Reality (VR). VR is a powerful tool for exploring a range of issues that have previously been hard to tackle in theatre history. I will consider the ways that VR can help to explain the spatial relationships in different theatres, how it can illustrate creative practices and how it can be used to show changes made in theatre buildings, past and present. The examples come from my work as Principal Investigator of an Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) project called 'Designing Shakespeare: an audio visual archive, 1960-2000' [1]. VR can be used in exploratory approaches to theatrical production that complicate and enrich our understanding of theatre history. I will argue that, combined with current research practices and intellectual frameworks borrowed from architecture and archaeology, this technology can shape the future of the discipline of theatre history.

  2. VR technology offers the opportunity to recreate not only a theatrical space but also the scene changes, lighting states and the movements of seating or the stage that practitioners employ to vary the actor-audience relationship. It is common practice in theatre history to try to recover the ephemeral event of performance using such materials as printed playtexts, playbills, theatre programmes, interviews with participants, production photographs, preparatory illustrations, theatre reviews and eyewitness accounts of performance. These materials are usually drawn together with information about the social and creative practices of the period to bring a context to the information available for the specific performance event. My first digital project in this area was The Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM: Text and Performance History [2] that looked at the worldwide English-language performance history of one play over 400 years. The disk drew together textual-historical and performance-historical scholarship to build a picture of the performance life of the play, using different kinds of evidence and interdisciplinary scholarly practices. The materials included 10 published texts of the play and 500 images of the play in performance, combined with extensive annotation and reference material. This disk, then, represented a new way to present existing research materials and practices.

  3. 'Designing Shakespeare', however, has taken the different approach of using digital technology not only to improve access to existing material but also to develop new kinds of research resource. Rather than follow one play across its 400-year performance history, 'Designing Shakespeare' tracks all professional productions of all the plays in the Shakespeare canon over 40 years of performance in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. The archive comprises 4 databases that work in combination to provide multiple means to recreate the ephemeral temporal event of performance: i) a textual database of production details and review extracts, ii) an image database of over 3500 production photographs, iii) a collection of video interviews with theatre designers, and iv) a collection of VR models of the theatre spaces in which Shakespeare has been performed.

  4. Those who develop new ways of seeing old material must be aware of what is lost in the transference from one medium to another. Because of the fluid nature of the object of study in theatre history there are some who would argue strongly against fixing any part of that event in a way that might constrain future interpretation too narrowly. By its nature, simulation is a process of simplification and it is tempting to smooth out areas of scholarly contention. On the positive side, however, when used sensitively simulation has the capacity to problematize those aspects of our current thinking that we too easily forget to inspect. In theatre history we have to attend to multiple temporal domains at once. One is the duration of the play itself, from the 2 (or thereabouts) hours traffic from the beginning of Act 1 to the end of Act 5. Another temporal domain is the run of a single production, which might include transfers, tours or remounts. This second temporal domain encompasses all occurrences of a single creative interpretation of the play which may or may not include a number of different groups of participants. Yet another temporal domain is the over-arching history of interpretation of a play from the time it was written to the modern performance, encompassing substantial cultural and social differences that bear upon meaning. To trace a play through a number of different periods and places is one way in which cultural and social changes can be illustrated, and this is of considerable importance to historiography.

  5. For the 'Designing Shakespeare' project, the theatre designer Chris Dyer developed VR models of 9 theatres: in London, the Aldwych, the Barbican, the Cottesloe, Shakespeare's Globe, the Lyttleton, and the Olivier, and, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Swan and The Other Place pre-1990 and The Other Place post-1991. (Each underlined link in the previous sentence will take you to the VR model of each theatre.) Three-dimensional VR models differ from two-dimensional pictures in that the viewer may take up any viewpoint within the model and the computer will generate what one would see when standing (or, indeed, floating) at that point. Such models are an aid to visualizing the physical challenges that theatre designers are faced with, but in some respects the complete freedom to roam the performance space can inhibit an appreciation of how theatrical practitioners understand their working environment. For this reason it was decided to standardize two aspects within each of the models. Firstly, to give a sense of scale relative to the human body, three simulated actors form a triangle on the stage of the acting space; their size and relative positions are constant across the models. Secondly, each model is provided with a set of standard viewpoints within the auditorium that illustrate the range of perspectives, and the concomitant actor/audience distances, available from different positions within each theatre.

  6. The difference between sitting in an intimate theatre such as The Other Place in Stratford and the vast expanse of the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre is best illustrated through a combination of scale actor models on the stage and specific viewing points from the audience. For those who cannot explore the VRML models provided, figures 1 and 2 are screenshots of the viewpoint from analogous side-on positions in the auditorium.

    (Figure 1. Screenshot of Chris Dyer's VRML model of The Other Place, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, in its post-1991 configuration)

    (Figure 2. Screenshot of Chris Dyer's VRML model of the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, Southbank, London)

    As well as indicating the constraints within which a particular designer had to work on a particular production, this use of VR promotes a comparative approach to the study of staging. Within such an ambition, the temptation to make the actor models highly realistic--say to clothe them in Elizabethan dress--should, we decided, be resisted; the ones shown here are deliberately non-realistic so as not to impose a limitation on the kinds of performance that the user might imagine within the space. We wanted to create the sense of potential that a designer might experience coming into the space for the first time, and indeed the 'Designing Shakespeare' project in general aimed to add information through illustration and comparison in order to open up possibilities rather than offering conclusions.

  7. The VRML models for this project were generated from Dyer's much more complex theatre design software called Open Stages (based on OpenGL, not VRML) that not only allows movement with the theatre space but also enables the creation of sets and lighting states with their respective changes linked to temporal cues. Essentially, all the key practices of modern theatre production are simulated. For the student designer the ability to work in a range of theatres without restrictions of time or money is greatly liberating, and for institutions that use the software there is the advantage of providing experience of a wide range of theatre spaces without having to maintain them or to insure those working within them. The simulated experience of working in 9 large professional theatres has never before been available to the practitioner, tutor, or student.

  8. Open Stages has specific applications for the theatre historian and the theatre designer, and using it Dyer carried out an AHRB-funded research project entitled 'Three Lears' that simulated the designs for the play that he had created for 3 theatres between 1985 and 1988. These were at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, in 1985 (directed by John Hirsch, with Douglas Campbell as King Lear), at the Glasgow Theatre Royal, 1987 (directed by Don Taylor, with Anthony Quayle as King Lear), and at the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Other Place, 1988 (directed by Cicely Berry, with Richard Haddon Haines as King Lear). Incomplete as it currently is, the 'Three Lears' project indicates that VR offers an entirely new way of documenting the work of theatre artists. Simulation of this kind is a step towards the preservation of particular aspects of the concrete experience of stage design. VR creates, in essence, an enhanced version of the traditional 'model box'. Because it is not a recreation of the thing itself such technology seems to be accepted by most designers as a valid means of representing their work in another form. As in the 'Designing Shakespeare' project, these models should be seen not in isolation but as part of an additional layer of information that can be added to existing materials, such as production photographs, reviews and accounts of practitioners.

  9. Photographs will always be more useful than VR models in presenting close detail, but conversely models can incorporate knowledge about movement and light that a static image cannot hold. For example, as illustrated in figures 3 and 4, Dyer's production of King Lear at The Other Place featured a performance platform that cracked and split into three pieces, representing the dissolution of the kingdom.

    (Figure 3. King Lear at The Other Place, showing the performance platform with divisions beginning to appear. Photograph: Chris Dyer)

    (Figure 4. King Lear at The Other Place, showing the divided kingdoms. Photograph: Chris Dyer)

    As can be seen from figures 3 and 4, static photographs can give only an impression of what the staging effect looked like at any one time, and even film/video recording can capture the dynamic event from only one point-of-view. A simulated archive of such a stage action, on the other hand, preserves the coup de théâtre itself, and allows it to be repeatedly viewed from any point-of-view in the theatre.

  10. VR theatre models, then, can be used to contrast different performance spaces and to document particular productions. Moreover, they can act as archival tools that enable future generations to see the changes that have been made to particular theatres over time. Such changes often reflect changing audience preferences and changing commercial imperatives, and by combining the models with information about theatrical policy and audience responses we enhance the raw materials from which theatre history proceeds as an academic endeavour. Indeed, university departments of drama and theatre were not the first to discover the power and flexibility of VR modelling: architecture and archaeology have been using the technology for many years. In architecture, the concern has been to simulate before construction, in other words to enhance our power to envisage a structure that does not yet exist. As in theatre, VR technology allows the architect to test ideas that would be far too expensive to try in reality, and to this end the level of detail applied to a particular model is usually far greater than we find necessary for theatre-historical work.

  11. The methodological analogies between theatre-historical and archaeological uses of VR are also instructive. The duration of an excavation is comparable to the run of a production and in both there is a need to record the spatial components of what happened and to link those to contextual information about why it happened. In both disciplines, data are frequently incomplete and practitioners must record precisely where inference and speculation are filling the gaps. Of course, in such projects as the Shakespeare's Globe reconstruction archaeological and theatre-historical specialisms came together because the building foundations excavated in 1989-90 were those of a performance venue [3]. Opportunities for further interdisciplinary work between theatre historians and archaeologists are becoming apparent. For example, the physical tests that simulate the effects of wind passing through open-air buildings and of the weathering of construction materials might usefully be applied to models of no-longer existing theatres.

  12. New research methods and new ways of teaching are bound to emerge from the development of VR technology. The intellectual shift is likely to be significant, but theatre is itself inherently a multimedia experience and we may build on existing practices rather than starting out afresh. An approach to theatre history that enables a scholar to engage with archival materials that aim to recreate three-dimensional reality is necessarily different from one devised only for work with documentary and pictorial evidence. With the 'Designing Shakespeare' project I tried to combine existing research practices and materials with the new practices and materials using an event-based intellectual framework developed from the archaeological model. Whether this project will have the desired impact on research in this area is yet to be seen. If it succeeds in raising fundamental questions about the nature of the discipline then I will consider it a worthwhile experiment even if the methodologies I advocate are not those adopted by the profession.


    1 The theatre models of the 'Designing Shakespeare' project can be found on the 'Arts and Humanities Data Service--Performance Arts' (AHDS Performance Arts) website at http://www.pads.ahds.ac.uk) by clicking on 'Browse', 'Theatre Resources', 'Designing Shakespeare', 'Video, Audio and VRML Resources', and finally 'Theatre Virtual Reality Models'. The individual models can also be found from links embedded in paragraph 5 of this paper.

    2 Christie Carson and Jackie Bratton, The Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), ISBN 052163640X.

    3 Gabriel Egan's essay in this issue of EMLS is specially concerned with computer modelling of the archaeology of the Globe playhouse.

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at m.steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).