The Virtual Vaudeville simulation consists of (1) the theatre; (2) the performance and (3) spectators reacting to the performance.
B.F. Keith's 1,200-seat Union Square Theatre was one of the largest and most influential vaudeville venues in the country. Unfortunately, the theatre was demolished many years ago, and little documentation survives. The Virtual Vaudeville model of the theatre is based on floorplans, etchings and newspaper descriptions. The theatre's elaborate ornamentation was reconstructed from high-resolution photographs of recently restored theatre buildings from the period. Hypermedia notes provide both the archival and photographic sources used in the reconstruction. For example, the viewer can click on a door, a painting or a molding to discover that element's photographic source.
The challenge in creating 3D animations of the performance itself is two-fold. First, a likeness of the original performer must be created from a limited set of inadequately detailed black and white photographs. The greater challenge is to bring the vitality of a great stage performance into the virtual environment. To this end, we are using optical motion and facial capture technology to capture real-world performances by professional, highly skilled performers.
The Union Square Theatre, according to our estimates, would have held approximately 800 spectators during a typical afternoon performance. Our goal has been to reflect the demographics of the audience as precisely as possible, showing the distribution of gender, class and ethnicity in various parts of the theatre. Not only do we need to fill the seats with historically accurate and convincing faces and costumes, but we need to animate all the spectators so they respond to every moment of every act in a way consistent with their demographic profile. For example, when Frank Bush portrays his Irish character, the Irish spectators in the gallery - a notoriously boisterous group - should respond very differently from the WASP characters in the boxes. To create 800 distinct models, with 800 distinct animations, would not only be an awesomely onerous task, but would be impossible for the program to handle in real-time. Our solution has been to define 32 basic audience groups, for example, one group of upper class WASP men, and another of middle class African-American women, and we have scripted and animated responses for each of these groups. We then created from three to five physical variations for each group (i.e., three to five different faces and costumes), and produced even more variation by adding and subtracting hats and facial hair.
The ultimate goal is to deliver the 3D vaudeville simulation in a fully-immersive environment that allows the viewer to fly through the theatre and watch the performance from any vantage point, and to observe the reaction of any of the 800 spectators at any time. We have, in fact, produced a functional prototype of such an environment using a professional-grade game engine, Gamebyro, but this prototype does not run over the internet and requires a top-of-the-line PC running Windows.
To make the Virtual Vaudeville content immediately available to the widest possible audience, we have developed two applications in Shockwave that run over the internet on either Windows or Mac OS X. The first application is the Performance Viewer, which delivers streaming video of the simulated performance (at this point approximately 10 minutes long). The Performance Viewer allows the viewer to switch at any time between any of eight pre-rendered animations of the performance from different perspectives, for example a close-up of the performer's face, a view of the stage from the second balcony, or a pan of the spectators watching the performance in the gallery. The second application is the Theatre Fly Thru, which allows viewer to navigate freely through the empty Union Square Theatre to scrutinize any architectural detail. Both applications incorporate extensive hypermedia notes.
Pitfalls of Simulation
Computer simulations of performance spaces and performers are powerful research and teaching tools, but carry inherent dangers. Vividly simulated theatres and performances produce the sensation that the viewer has been transported back in time and is experiencing the performance event "as it really was." While compelling, this impression is seriously misleading. It conceals the hypothetical and provisional nature of historical interpretation and implicitly reinforces an outdated positivist view of history. Moreover, even if all of the physical details of the simulation were perfectly accurate (which is impossible), a present-day viewer's experience would nonetheless be radically different from that of the original audience because the cultural context of reception has changed radically.
Virtual Vaudeville makes a concerted effort to counteract these positivistic tendencies through a design that deliberately balances immersion with hypermediality. In both the Performance Viewer and the Theatre Fly-thru applications, the simulation is presented in a window alongside the interface elements and the hypermedia browser, with the hypermedia notes supplying contextual information and, most importantly, access to the historical evidence upon which the reconstructions are based. Viewers are put in a position to assess the countless historical interpretations and extrapolations we have made in creating the simulation, and to arrive at their own alternative interpretations of the evidence.
-- David Saltz
David Z. Saltz, Principal Investigator of the Virtual Vaudeville project, is Head of the Department of Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Georgia. As founding director of the Interactive Performance Lab, he has directed theatrical productions and created interactive installations incorporating interactive technologies such as motion capture and robotics. He has also published many essays about the theory of live performance and digital technology in journals and encyclopedias such as Theatre Research International, Performance Research, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance.