Theatre + Mixed Reality: A Peek Backstage

E. B. Hunter
Apr 12, 2018 · 5 min read

This post explains why theatre artists and humanists are crucial to shaping the future of immersive technologies. It concludes with ways to join the conversation and a practical strategy for creating community across radically different groups.

What’s the future of live storytelling in 360°?

This question was at the heart of the Theatre + Mixed Reality Symposium I convened last week at Northwestern University, where I am about to finish my PhD in theatre. Our merry band of theatre artists, scholars, and tech folks spent the day in collaboration, thanks to Northwestern’s School of Communication, The Garage at Northwestern, The Goodman Theatre, and Microsoft HoloLens.

As a theatre artist and researcher, I am captivated by the way immersive headsets allow the audience/user to inhabit the space of a story.

Theatre + Mixed Reality Symposium workshop. Photo by Elysse Longiotti.

On definitions

Just briefly, I want to note that AR/VR/MR/XR terminology is still in flux. There’s a range of tools and toys behind these abbreviations, and each will offer different possibilities for spatial storytelling. This post happens to focus on the HoloLens because that’s what we used for the Symposium. So while some of the insights and inspirations from the day are HoloLens-specific, others apply across immersive tech.

In this post, I use MR (mixed reality) to describe headsets like the HoloLens. Unlike the visual immersion of VR, the HoloLens blends the user’s analog space with the digital world (demo video here).

Why theatre?

Theatre-makers have always told stories in 360° — we are inherently spatial, embodied, multi-sensory, live storytellers. On the theatre side, the Symposium’s hands-on workshop featured a scenic designer, lighting designer, and directors. I believe the folks developing MR (and whatever is next) can draw inspiration from the way theatre artists approach any new tool for live storytelling. Part of the inventiveness that characterizes theatre artists comes from a legacy of being scrappy.

Broadway’s nickname is the Fabulous Invalid because it has always needed propping up. Smaller theatres struggle even more. I believe MR may eventually be a way to relieve theatre’s familiar pain points of budget and scalability.

Theatre + Mixed Reality symposium workshop. Photo by Elysse Longiotti.

Why can’t theatre scale?

There are only so many seats for a live experience. And a good show’s magical energy of real-time, embodied co-presence is fleeting. It can’t be recorded or replicated. The energy of good theatre is even hard to describe accurately, though the anthropologist Victor Turner’s use of communitas gets close. Not surprisingly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow state” is linked to communitas. (Bonus insight: Csikszentmihalyi attended a seminar Turner gave in 1972— see p. 50).

I believe MR offers new possibilities in the realm of liveness and embodied presence that do scale.

Fellow humanities PhDs are invited to contact me offline to dive deep into questions of liveness, presence, praesence, bodies, and media intermultimodality, which I promise I did not just make up. BYO Auslander/ Machon/ Elleström cocktail.

What’s the benefit to MR?

Buy-in from theatre-makers — and museums, which I talk about elsewhere in the context of museum selfies — has always granted cultural gravitas to new tech. If theatre folk begin to use MR as a vital, unique storytelling medium, our perception of MR will evolve faster from “niche toy in a specialized location” to “the future of how humans encounter culture in every context.”

But most important is this: theatre-makers and humanist PhDs break Conway’s law. We offer valuable perspectives from outside the communication structures of traditional tech development. We have a deep understanding of humans and human interactivity that will outlast a particular technology.

Theatre + Mixed Reality symposium workshop breakout session. Photo by Elysse Longiotti.

To underscore this point, I’ll invoke two recent observations. The first is from my good friend and rising American Studies star Dr. Bethany Hughes, who came to the Symposium. As she pointed out, human brains are wired to interact with space and motion in a way that creates friction with immersive tech. We already know that when design ignores this friction, nausea crops up. Here’s the kicker from her take on the day:

Human emotion and knowledge are wired, culturally, in ways that might also create friction with immersive tech. Experts on human programming should be on design teams as this medium takes shape.

The second observation comes from my fellow Northwestern alumna (go ‘Cats) Aileen McGraw. Aileen got me involved with the recent SH//FT Spotlight: Microsoft on women in MR. In explaining why diverse representation matters, she often reminds folks that we only get one chance to define a medium — after that, we can only revise. We need diverse perspectives now, at the defining stage.

In closing: it’s new.

There’s such a hurricane of hype around new immersive technology that even the hype has an entourage. I get this. And I have a ready supply of humanist wet blankets to fling at uncritical passionate intensity. But, to put it simply, there is something new gathering its legs. It’s new.

And those of us whose expertise draws on centuries will be valuable collaborators in the next revelation.

Coda: where do we start?

Sites like No Proscenium and HASTAC can be a great place to connect across the humanities/arts/STEM divide.

But once you’ve gotten them in the same room, how do theatre artists, scholars, and tech folks begin to have a conversation?

On a practical level, a spectrum exercise is one way to bridge different perspectives. We kicked off the Theatre + Mixed Reality Symposium with a few, led by The Goodman’s Curriculum and Instruction Associate, Anna Gelman.

In this exercise, participants imagine a line on the floor, stretching from wall to wall. Opposite walls stand for opposite positions on a central question. Folks place themselves along the spectrum and then explain their choices. We used “I know a lot/little about theatre,” “I know a lot/little about MR,” and “I have a lot/few ideas about theatre and MR together.” Gelman’s opener, “I talk/listen a lot” is a great all-purpose spectrum to try in any group.

Spectrum exercises are a valuable, quick way to create community between different perspectives. Even if people stand at opposite ends, a spectrum reminds us we share the same space.

E. B. Hunter

Written by

ABD, Northwestern theatre + XR + immersive + interactive + Shakespeare + director + Classics + design + fancy butter - gluten.

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