The Problem: Representing and Archiving Live Performance

Manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, films, and recordings are artifacts that can be preserved and archived for subsequent generations to appreciate and analyze. Live theatre, however, is ephemeral. Is it possible to archive a live performance? One can use film or videotape to document a present day performance and, with some creative interpretation and speculation, recreate a performance from the past. But films and videotapes are incapable of conveying the experience of attending a live performance. A filmed performance offers only a single perspective on the action: the camera decides exactly where to look at each moment. Spectators at a live event, by contrast, act as their own camera operators, selecting their own point of focus - which may not even be on stage. Films omit a vital dimension of live performance: the viewer's immersion in the world of the theatre, and the crucial role that the community of spectators plays in constituting a performance event.

The underlying problem here extends beyond the theatrical performance. Precisely the same challenges arise with any kind of performative event, such as dance performances, rituals, political congresses, coronations, parades, festivals, battles, riots, etc.


One strategy to address this problem has been to build a physical reconstruction of an historic structure and to stage performances in it, as has been done, for example, with the Globe Theatre in London and with numerous structures in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. This solution requires an extraordinary, continuing investment of money and land, and so is feasible only in a very limited number of cases. Moreover, such physical reconstructions are available only to people at one geographic location and implement only one interpretation, and so cannot be used to evaluate conflicting scholarly interpretations of the historical evidence. Perhaps the deepest problem with such historical constructions is that, while painstaking efforts may be undertaken to achieve historical accuracy in the physical environment, performers and perhaps even the support personnel, the audience itself - and so, ultimately, the context of reception - remains resolutely contemporary.

 

Our Solution: The Live Performance Simulation System

In September 2000, at a workshop sponsored by NINCH (the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage), a group of performance historians devised a strategy to address this problem. The concept, which we called the “Live Performance Simulation System," is to recreate historical performances in a virtual reality environment. In effect, the plan is to produce a single-user 3D computer game that allows users to enter a virtual theatre to watch a simulated performance. The objective is to reproduce a feeling of "liveness" in this environment: the sensation of being surrounded by human activity onstage, in the audience and backstage, and the ability to choose where to look at any given time (onstage or off), and to move within the environment. A vital concern is to find a way to bring the nuances of great stage performances into this virtual environment. To this end, we decided to use optical motion and facial capture technology to capture real-world performances by professional, highly skilled actors, singers, dancers, acrobats and musicians.

 

Within months of the NINCH meeting, the original team of performance scholars, joined by a team of computer scientists, received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation with supplementary from the University of Georgia Research Foundation. David Z. Saltz, at the University of Georgia, is leading a team of researchers from seven universities, including University of Georgia, University of Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, that includes historians specializing in 19th century American theatre, music and culture, computer scientists specializing in high-performance 3D game design, and theatre practitioners.

Our long-term goal is to develop a flexible set of techniques and technologies that scholars and theatre practitioners can use to simulate a wide range of performance traditions, from classical Greece to Japanese Noh. Our short-term objective is to complete a fully-functional simulation of 19th century American vaudeville theatre, which we call “Virtual Vaudeville.”

Vaudeville

American vaudeville is an especially apt test case for Live Performance Simulation. Vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States from the 1880s through the 1920s, functioning in its day much as television does today. Many vaudeville acts both reflected and helped to constitute the enthusiasms and anxieties of their time, especially those concerning the integration of new immigrant groups into mainstream American culture. Consequently, a rich simulation of a vaudeville performance will be a useful resource, not just for those interested in theatre history, but for scholars and students of American history generally.

A vaudeville performance was divided into many short, self-contained segments. A typical vaudeville bill encompassed a wide variety of acts - contortionist performances, dance numbers, juggling acts, singing groups, comic monologues, blackface comedy, condensed versions of full-length plays - with particular acts in the lineup appealing differently to different groups in the audience. As a result, simulating different acts of a vaudeville show and exploring the likely responses of different groups of spectators opens up for historical investigation a wide range of ethnic, gender, class, and racialized interactions during America's industrial age.

Our simulated performance takes place in B. F. Keith’s Union Square Theatre, a typical Vaudeville house seating approximately 1200 spectators, in the year 1895, fifteen years after the first Vaudeville theatre opened in New York. We began by recreating one of the most popular and representative acts on the vaudeville circuit during that time: the ethnic comic, Frank Bush, most famous for his "Stage Jew" character, which sets the pattern for Jewish stereotypes in Vaudeville and popular entertainment well into the 20th century.

 


B.F. Keith

 

Significance

Virtual Vaudeville offers scholars in all disciplines of the humanities a model for a new kind of "critical edition." A conventional published monograph can pick and choose details to examine, and so lacuna and even contradictions in the historical analysis are easy to overlook. The imperative of precisely recreating both onstage and offstage events will demand an unprecedented degree of scholarly thoroughness and rigor.

Key to our project is the depth of the collaboration between technology, scholarship, pedagogy and art. This project is conceived to make a significant contribution to all four domains simultaneously, rather than merely using any one in the service of the others. The end result, we hope, will represent an important advance in the design and implementation of virtual environments, building on recent successes in creating photo-realistic simulations of real 3D environments by introducing a large quantity of complex human performance data. It will constitute an invaluable work of applied scholarship, an unprecedented resource for visualizing past performances and testing hypotheses about historical performance practices. It will provide an unprecedented resource for students to engage with historical performance traditions as performance (and not as literature or film). Finally, from an artistic perspective, the Virtual Vaudeville project will test the potential of virtual reality technology to provide truly nuanced and engaging theatre experiences.