Renee Aziz, Stella Chen, Raken Ann Estacio, Kyle Heller, Anthony Sky Ng-Thow-Hing, Jonathan Sneh, Shirley Wang, Patrick Zhu
AbstractCOVID-19 has challenged the current status quo of all aspects of society; theatre and theatrical performances have been swept up within the uncertainty and face multiple challenges to continue in their current form. As such, virtual adaptations have become a shaky new ground of experimentation as theatre companies — both ametuer and professional — struggle to maintain performances and ensure theatre’s future. Our work through Stanford’s STEM to SHTEM internship allowed us to experiment with various forms of virtual experiences in order to produce a performance that could accurately fulfill the requirements of theatre while confined to an entirely virtual space. The final production, entitled “YOU ARE HERE (AND HERE AND THERE) focused on themes of relativity, perspective, and morals, and built an entirely online performance consisting of multiple platforms and story “tracks” for different audience members to experience. In this paper, we will iterate through our writing process and the technology and platforms used to build the performance, discuss our experience as the creators and crew, examine audience feedback, and discuss the tentative future of this form of performance, as well as the prospects this opens up for theatre as a whole.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the world, tearing down corporations, disrupting education, and forever altering society as a whole. Theatre is no exception from the chaos as many state and county health orders barred the gatherings required to produce and perform theatrical works. Traditional methods of theatre have been crippled, unable to maintain normal operation. These unprecedented times have forced the theatre community to experiment with technological implementations for live performance and adjust the parameters of theatre, venturing into risky, unexplored realms.
As thespians started to explore the viable possibilities of digital platforms such as video conferencing software, the shortcomings of virtual theatre were swiftly revealed. Instead of being fully immersed in a play on a stage, the experience of audience members is confined by a single rectangular screen. The lively ambiance emitted by characters has dissipated; instead, they have become shallow and one-dimensional. Much of what has characterized Western theatrical performances over the past millennia is evaporating before our eyes.
All of this leads to a new, pertinent question: Can technology resolve the jeopardized state of theatre? If not used wisely, technology itself could easily complicate problems in the theatrical world. Some attempts to modernize traditional Broadway musicals through the production of films—such as the adaptation of Cats—drew widespread criticism, as the “life” of the performance was suppressed by a one-dimensional forced perspective. In an environment when digital plays seem to be the only way to keep the theatrical culture alive, theatre professionals are forced to reevaluate the core characteristics of theatre, and how technology can be used to enhance —rather than eliminate—those values. Clearly, there are differing definitions of these characteristics amongst the theatre community.
Through Stanford’s STEM TO SHTEM summer internship, we created a theatrical performance called “YOU ARE HERE (AND HERE AND THERE)” consisting of multiple platforms and three different paths for audience members to explore. In this paper, we will introduce the technical aspects of the performance we created, discuss our observations as creators as well as the audience’s perspective, and talk about the prospective future of theatre through the deeper implications of our performance.
We began our production by exploring the platform most popularly used for virtual performances – Zoom video conferencing. Turning our cameras on and off served as a virtual alternative to entering and leaving the stage. The virtual background feature was used in place of backdrops and sets, with experimentation in exploiting the spotty background-filtering software to create illusions of floating objects or portals. We used the video filter software Snap Camera to alter our faces and apply masks for characters, mimicking the costume set-ups for traditional theatre while also giving us access to effects not available in conventional theatre without costly prosthetics.
Even with the numerous features, Zoom was still a lackluster performance platform. Video latency was choppy. The audience was in control of their own settings and could accidently see our “backstage”. Instead of using technology to enhance our performance, it felt as if technology was merely a poor translator: Zoom forcefully adapted a physical performance into a digital one. To combat the one-dimensionality of Zoom, we decided to take a multi-platform approach instead. Hours of research went into deciding the optimal platforms to use. As a team, we emphasized the notion that the platforms chosen must bring an aspect into our digital performance not achievable through traditional means.
We started by drafting a story that could take advantage of the live interactive experience that characterizes theatre. The final draft of the script centered on themes of spacetime, celestial bodies, and perspective, using multiple different pathways to enable greater interactivity and cast-audience connection. The story sees the audience as a group of space explorers taking their final exam to receive a space exploration license. After a lecture about stars—led by an eccentric face-filtered alien professor—their exam is hacked by a mysterious “star merchant”, who leads the explorers to buy property on a star and transports them to one of three celestial objects: a black dwarf, neutron star, or black hole. We divided audience members into three separate “tracks”, one for each star type. To navigate the separate tracks, we developed our own dynamically loading website that progressed the audience members through a quiz, as well as serving as a controlling hub and gateway between acts of the performance. As the quiz concluded, audience members returned from their track with different overall experiences. Each track used different digital platforms in their performances.
On the “Black Dwarf” track, audience members received a transmission from a space-protection agent through the live streaming platform Twitch. We wanted to emulate the feeling of being in a spaceship and having the ship’s screens and controls hijacked. Twitch’s emphasis on the stream itself and limited interactivity best helped us achieve that effect. Initially, we used Zoom, but we noticed that it was hard to immerse and engage an audience through a monologue. Many people easily got “Zoom fatigued.” At the end of the Twitch stream, the audience was transported to a star, which turned into a Black Dwarf. The space-protection agent forced them to aid her in restoring the star, transporting them to a different planet to meet the locals and collect materials. This planet was entirely built out of a web of Google Docs, which acted as live chat-rooms with clickable links and images. Audience members were tasked with retrieving fuel, and saw characters interact through a text-format. At times, this experience almost ventured into the world of video games due to a high level of interactivity.
On the “Neutron Star” track, the scene started with an argument between a mother and her son. Audience members dialed in to a Zoom phone call to give the participants a sense that they were eavesdropping on the conversation, making the entire scene feel more intimate and connected. The track then progressed to a platform called High Fidelity, which emulated the surface of a neutron star. This platform allowed people to join two-dimensional rooms, where audience members traversed around the map and talked to each other through spacial audio. The two-dimensional properties of High Fidelity represented the powerful gravity of a neutron star that would instantly flatten anyone within the celestial body’s vicinity. Throughout the scene, our actors interacted with audience members by asking them for their opinions mid-argument, encouraging them to vocalize their own opinions about the practicality of living on a neutron star.
The “Black hole” track opened in a traditional Zoom room with virtual backgrounds configured to give the appearance of being on a spaceship. The scene centered around two ship captains bickering about their morals. One character had more capitalistic values and supported harvesting stars while the other was an environmentalist and believed in preserving space. The Zoom meeting was designed to be interactive by having audience members perform specific actions, such as using objects around them as props. This forced them to stay engaged with the scene and provided them with agency. Through Zoom’s screen share feature, we played a video to simulate traveling through outer space. We synthesized prerecorded effects and live performance by having actors react to the different events occurring in the video. Following the Zoom scene, the audience was taken to a YouTube livestream where they were led through a virtual tour of a star. Here, the audience was engaged by answering questions in the live chat and taking a poll, causing them to ponder their own ideas regarding the tradeoff between capitalism and environmentalism.
The closing scene aimed to connect the theme of perspective to contemporary moments while bringing audience members back into reality. Through Google Earth, we displayed the houses of each audience member, emphasizing connectivity despite being all around the world, and creating a sense of intimacy and interaction. It also served to cement our theme of perspective by showing that, while they had wildly different experiences in the show, they all lived in the same reality.
Throughout the performance, we additionally utilized OpenAI’s GPT-2 text generation model to generate certain character’s lines, as well as the poetry used in the closing Google Earth sequence. We mainly used it because of the experimental nature of the project, but to also add a new area of constraint in order to further induce creativity in writing with the AI-generated segments.
During performance runs, we also had a subset of the crew act as “tech support”, allowing audience members to refer to them whenever they got lost while switching between or within platforms. Our performance tech support crew had roles that could be seen as analogous to what a stage manager would do for a physical performance, giving cues and ensuring that things went smoothly.
The virtual space provided a unique safety net; messages could be sent to actors through Slack or Zoom chat to give cues or raise alerts, even while they performed. As the performances were taking place, we had various technical difficulties both from the audience and from the crew. For example, not every actor or member of our team was able to tell what was happening in other pathways. When we felt that audience members were not getting the experience we intended, we attempted to resolve the issue through Slack or private messaging in the Zoom chat. Throughout the performance, we communicated constantly and relied heavily on our improvisation skills, mitigating the impact of technical issues on the performance.
Sometimes audience members would take a path not assigned to them. Some users did not transition to the website or tried to join the wrong Zoom room, causing them to jump to a different track; this was likely indicative of an issue with this form of performance, a technological ineptitude or skill-based barrier to entry. One audience member returned to the performance to experience a different pathway but instead was placed on the same pathway three times. Internet connection was thankfully not a huge issue. Most performers did not experience their internet cutting out, but if it did, their roles were covered. Almost no audience members experienced connectivity issues, and for those who did, their internet problems were resolved quickly.
Even though our performances contained a few technical errors and bits of unplanned improvisation, we were delighted with our results. We surveyed audience members one week after our performances and many respondents expressed awe in the creativity allowed by the art form. The fact that, even a week removed from the performance, audience members felt a lasting sense of amazement demonstrates that a virtual space does not limit the emotional impact a performance can leave. Our belief that this form of performance is viable going forward was validated by our audience feedback.
Audience members had conflicting opinions pertaining to the connection they felt with other participants. Nearly three quarters of survey respondents felt a significant connection with others, especially when using Zoom—where everyone’s faces were visible—or in the Youtube livestream—where audience members could discuss their opinions in the comment section. On the other hand, there were times when the audience felt confused. For instance, some reported that the instructions were not clear in the beginning, while others felt overwhelmed due to quickly switching between platforms. All of these could make the performance hard to navigate.
Over three quarters of audience members polled considered this performance to be “theatre.” Some expressed that this was more engaging than traditional theatre at times. One anonymous audience member wrote:
“For me, theatre is about real-time interaction among the actors, between the actors and the audience, and sometimes among the audience members, in ways that are adaptive and may influence the experience. This performance had all of those elements, and to a stronger extent than in traditional theatre.”
However, some audience members disagreed with this sentiment. They believed that it was a “digital performance” or an “experiment” rather than theatre. Regardless, most of the audience reported a shift in their perception of what a virtual performance entails. One anonymous audience member described:
“It became clear that one can become extremely engaged and immersed, no less and even more than with traditional theatre, via virtual theatre when it’s done right, and that virtual theatre has a lot of potential to develop substantially given how effectively it was carried out in this performance using existing technology.”
Despite all the challenges that we faced during the performance, we were able to broaden the scope of theatre while exploring the immense possibilities that technology had to offer.
Our performance, through the abilities of our actors and unique platforms, created a compelling story—one that left viewers to contemplate the unstable relativity of time, the ethics between good and bad, and unity during isolation. Our team whittled down the crucial facets of theatre into a few components/principles: theatre must captivate the audience and leave them with a newfound perspective. It must usher them into contemplation about fundamental ideas within our world and how we function. It is not the setting that makes the actor; it is the actor that carves out the space. An excellent actor should be able to intrigue viewers from any environment, in-person or virtual. Audiences can still be moved to tears or into fits of laughter even in the comfort of their own homes. The pure, unbridled feeling of seeing actors perform and elegantly present a story should be the focus of theatre.
Although we did not have the physical space that theatre traditionally requires, we incorporated unconventional environments for performance such as Twitch and High Fidelity, ultimately altering our vision of theatre and what constitutes as a theatrical performance. The three paths provided each group of audience members a different perspective—creating room for discussion. The closing Google Earth scene gave the audience a feeling of uncertainty and disorientation, mirroring the same emotions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our show’s interactivity added to the engagement aspect of the performance: audience members were constantly on their toes, needing to move from platform to platform.
Modern society is becoming increasingly technological, and this move towards technology has only been further exacerbated by the presence of the pandemic. To adapt to this almost completely virtual way of life, we must be willing to broaden the scope of what we define as theatre, and discover new ways to interact with audiences. We have been forced to alter our perception by reconsidering some elements of theatre that we had originally thought of as crucial to the performance (i.e. a physical space). The changes that COVID-19 has brought upon the theatre industry should not be seen as disadvantages; instead, they should be viewed as opportunities of experimentation that could potentially transform the artform. Like Willem Defoe proclaimed, “With theatre, you have to be ready for anything.”
Our unprecedented performance has opened up an avenue of theatrical production that must be explored. As artists navigate this new environment, we must experiment with the range of resources available to revolutionize the vision of theatre in the 21st century. The possibilities of experimenting with virtual platforms and different technologies are endless; it is up to us to uncover what their roles in theatre are.
 Donaldson, Kayleigh. “Why The Cats Movie Is So Bad.” ScreenRant, 15 Jan. 2020, screenrant.com/cats-movie-bad-reasons-cgi-songs/.
 You Are Here (And Here And There). By Byte-Size, STEM-TO-SHTEM. 4-25 Jul. 2020, Online. Performance.