The Simulated Environment for Theatre (SET) was originally conceived as a visualisation tool for theatrical texts; that is, it was conceived as a tool that would access, rearrange, and reveal digital theatrical texts in new and productive ways. A central element of the system’s earliest design, called Watching the Script, was an area of the interface in which speeches were associated with coloured dots representing characters. Users could separate dots and speeches from the vertical arrangement characteristic of print in order to move them vertically, horizontally, and diagonally on a two-dimensional plane analogous to a stage seen from above (Roberts-Smith et al., 2013). Although this gesture went some distance towards acknowledging the unique characteristics of theatrical texts, we reached a significant turning point in SET’s development when we explicitly articulated the difference between theatrical texts and other kinds of literary texts in terms of their inherent functions as tools, or, as William Worthen has recently argued, as technologies that can be co-opted and repurposed to do unexpected things (Worthen 2010, 21). Furthermore, since there is no essential ontological priority of text over any other element of a theatrical work, theatrical texts are dependent for their efficacy upon their interactions with other theatrical technologies such as performance spaces, actors’ bodies and voices, and design elements. This shift in our thinking about the nature of theatrical text led to a new approach to SET’s design: we stopped trying to build a text visualisation tool and began instead to design a system that could visualise and analyse interactions between theatrical texts and other performance technologies (Roberts-Smith et al., 2013). Our new system is, crucially, not intended as an environment for simulating live performance, but rather as an environment for creating and synthesising records of performance, and for analysing and visualising the information they contain about past or potential performances. Its virtual platform both simulates three-dimensional space and linear time and permits users to disrupt them, offering affordances for communicating arguments about performance that are available neither in the traditional platform of prose argument nor in live performance itself.
The new SET system, built with the Unity 3D game engine, attempts to reflect the processes of theatre creation and analysis by offering three "Views," or areas of the interface, linked by means of a central "Line of Action," analogous to a timeline. The Reading View contains text and annotations in parallel, two-dimensional panels. The Character View contains a list of characters and indicates which are on stage, speaking or silent, at any given point in a text or performance. Finally, the Stage View contains a scaled, three-dimensional model of a performance environment, populated by abstract avatars that can be moved around in the space, and optionally annotated with text or images (Figure 1). Changes to any of the Views are automatically reflected in the others, and once a sequence of avatar actions has been defined, the system’s playback function allows users to watch avatars moving through time and space as the text scrolls simultaneously.
Additionally, the new SET system permits users to navigate through the three-dimensional space of the Stage View and also to adopt the perspective of any character avatar or audience member at any point in space, as a visualisation of the various perspectives experienced by performers and audiences during live theatrical events (Figures 2, 3, and 4).
Nearly all of SET’s functions are user-controlled: users can input and edit texts, create and upload three-dimensional models of performance environments, move character avatars around in the models, annotate all elements of the environment, link text and annotations to stage action, and control the pace and perspective of performance in playback. This last element of the system’s design means that SET offers two principal interpretive modes – data creation and data playback – both of which are interactive. A publication mode is also supported, since data can be exported as read-only files or as playback movies. Our new system, we hope, will potentially be useful to two broad categories of user: theatre practitioners, as a sketching tool to plan live performances; and theatre scholars and students, as a research tool for analysing and interpreting records of past performances.
Although SET’s creative affordances are of continuing interest to the design team, our most recent focus has been on the ways the system might enable forms of theatre-historical research that have not yet been realised in other environments, be they print, live, or digital. To test SET as a medium for visualising theatre historiography, we used the system to facilitate a comparative production history of the opening sequence from Judith Thompson’s White Biting Dog, as it was performed in its original 1984 production at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, and again in a 2011 revival at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. This example allowed us to articulate SET’s affordances as a tool for theatre-historical research and pedagogy and also to identify the design challenges we would need to address in order to improve SET’s theatre-historiographical functionality.
A central challenge facing theatre historians is that, since all records of past performance are necessarily incomplete, scholars must treat whatever evidence survives as technological, in Worthen’s sense of the term. That is, theatre scholars must use performance records, whether they be eyewitness accounts, photographs, design sketches, reviews, video, or whatever else survives, in the ways that theatre creators use texts, as a basis for hypothetically recreating the realised performances to which they refer. Although scholars range in their judgments as to the degree to which historians should hypothesise performance from the extremely reluctant (see Dessen 2010) to the cautiously optimistic (see McConachie 2010) to the wholeheartedly enthusiastic (see Sarlós 1979), the reconstruction of historical performance is a longstanding methodology with precedents in academic prose and in live performance (for helpful surveys of theatre-historical performance reconstructions of Elizabethan theatre, for example, see Hildy 1990, 2004, and 2008, and White, N.d.b.)
Each of these is an imperfect medium for this purpose. Prose often contains a selective discussion of only the evidence deemed by the researcher to be most relevant, so that some elements of a performance are treated in isolation from others. This artificially limits the range of means whereby a past performance can be understood to have generated meaning; it creates a fiction of a partial performance, which can never have occurred. As David Z. Saltz has observed, "lacuna and even contradictions in the historical analysis are easy to overlook" (2004a). Furthermore, the formal register of academic argumentation can obscure a scholar’s creative contribution to the performance reconstruction under discussion. Conversely, reconstructions articulated as live performances, although they do encourage an inclusive consideration of all elements of performance, do not offer the evidentiary transparency or documentation that scholarship requires, so that the boundaries between evidence and argument or hypothesis are often obscured (there are examples of selective analyses in performed reconstructions; see, for example, White, N.d.a.) The experience of live performance can exacerbate this problem, since its affective impact tends to outweigh its ability to communicate or encourage analysis (Lopez 2008, 315). Additionally, since performed reconstructions are as ephemeral as the historical events they aim to represent, and are often prohibitively expensive (depending on the degree of accuracy with which they attempt to recreate original performance conditions), they can be impractical in the first place (Saltz 2004a). One final complication is faced by historians studying works created by living artists: since those artists are available to explain and interpret their creations, scholars working in any medium negotiate at one extreme the "intentional fallacy" of assuming works mean what their creators say they mean, and at the other extreme, the appropriation and alteration of creators’ voices.
Existing virtual simulations of historical performances or performance conditions engage the challenges associated with performance reconstruction to varying degrees. Beginning with Michael Best, Stuart Arneil, and Michael Holmes’ Scenario in 2001, one strand of such systems has created environments intended primarily for pedagogical use, in which students can move character avatars around on historical stages. Scenario permits users to create tableaux of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays on a two-dimensional perspective drawing of a theatre similar to the Elizabethan Globe Theatre. More recently, King’s Visualization Lab (KVL)’s Theatron3 project (2002-9) extended Scenario’s principles by importing its predecessor Theatron’s substantial collection of scaled reconstructions of historical European theatres into Second Life, where they could be reserved by visiting groups for exploration or performances using Second Life avatars (KVL 2002; see Figure 5; this account of Second Life is based on our exploration of the environment between 26 January and 12 February 2012; the Theatron3 simulations have since been removed). Theatron3 was a resource to help students imagine the impact of historical performance spaces; but only space, and no other performance technology, was systematically historicised there. Although it was hypothetically possible for visiting students and teachers to stage their own virtual reconstructions of historical performances, and to adopt the perspectives of their own avatars while watching or enacting such performances, the Theatron3 research team noted that the degree of expertise required to manipulate avatars and the difficulty of accomplishing "nuanced movements, individualisation of movement and simple operations such as placing a cup, or exchanging swords" in Second Life"made its functionality as a performance medium limited" (KVL 2009a, 23). On the other hand, the team found it an effective medium for communicating research results, particularly since Second Life permits embedded explanations, including "posters, animation videos and other media," within its virtual spaces (KVL 2009a, 18). Such documentation, however, was included in the publicly available Theatron3 environment in only a very limited way. With the exception of a few helpful videos that could be viewed in the Second Life media player, the explanatory information provided in the interface was accessed via links to external URLs. The extensive research and technical work undertaken in the creation of the Theatron3 models is documented in traditional scholarly publications that were not referenced in its Second Life environment or linked support pages (KVL 2009b; KVL N.d.; see Figures 5, 6, and 7; for a list of publications associated with Theatron and other projects of the King’s Visualization Lab, see KVL 2008).
By excluding that documentation, the design of Theatron3’s Second Life environment implicitly treated its models as fixed and stable entities, rather than as hypothesised constructs based on incomplete or contradictory historical evidence. In partial response to this design challenge, Joanne Tompkins’ Ortelia project has developed a versioned model of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, so that users can compare four different architectural hypotheses proposed by theatre historians (see Figure 8).
Ortelia also offers a motion-capture animation of an actor performing a soliloquy to help users imagine the impact(s) of the Rose space(s) in performance. Nonetheless, Ortelia, like Theatron3, remains primarily concerned with historical performance spaces rather than performance events, and it documents its research processes outside of the interface navigated by users (Tompkins and Delbridge 2009).
Another strand of theatre-historical simulations disseminates reconstructions not just of environments, but of whole performances. The most detailed and transparently documented of these, David Z. Saltz’s Virtual Vaudeville, shows a reconstruction of a late-nineteenth-century comedy sketch in which a modern actor has been converted to an avatar of the historical performer using motion-capture technology. The avatar’s movements are staged in a three-dimensional scale reconstruction of the now-lost Union Square Theatre, New York, and are observed by an audience of additional avatars in period dress. Virtual Vaudeville provides a considerable amount of scholarly transparency by placing explanatory annotations in the visual frame surrounding the "show "in its interface, and by providing hyperlinked appendices, which document the historical and technical work undertaken by the research team (see Figure 9).
Among the projected goals of Virtual Vaudeville is an interactive element of its "Live Performance Simulation System" (LPSS) that would permit users to "fly through the theatre space to observe the performance, the theatre architecture and any of the spectators from any vantage point," as well as "take control over a specific spectator to respond to the performance and to interact with surrounding spectators" (Saltz 2004a). This functionality would constitute a unique acknowledgement within a virtual performance environment of the role of the audience in generating the meaning of any performance (see Elam 1980, for example). It would also distinguish Virtual Vaudeville as the only system that permits users to manipulate the historical materials provided in the reconstruction, although their interactions would be limited to a set of options "entirely definable by the developer" and would only affect audience avatars and not performer avatars or architecture (Gandy et al. 2005, 3.2). It does not, however, explicitly acknowledge the user’s role as interpreter of historical records when he or she engages in avatar manipulation. As Thomas Postlewait points out in his seminal 1991 essay on the principles of theatre historiography, "the reading formations assumptions, values, and expectations of each person who, as audience for the historical report, attempts to understand what is written about the event" (177-8), are a key element of the event’s perceived identity. Two additional challenges identified by the Virtual Vaudeville research team are the "wide variety of specialized theatrical and CG [Computer Graphics] skills" required to create performance reconstructions and the need for substantial funds to support their rendering (Saltz 2004b). Ironically, the project’s original intention to compensate for the financial barriers to live performance reconstruction has not yet been realised due to a lack of funds to finance the additional simulations and interactive functions originally planned (Saltz 2004a).
Like Theatron3 and Ortelia, even the planned interactive version of Virtual Vaudeville would function primarily in publication mode, as a means of disseminating historical research, rather than enabling it. Users of all three systems are positioned primarily as consumers, whether as visiting students, audience members, or readers, and not given the opportunity to become producers of theatre-historical research. Although each of these systems is a rich and valuable resource for students of theatre history, none attempts to fully represent, document, or enable its methodologies. Since their focus is on communicating rather than generating findings, these resources are theatre-historical rather than historiographical. Lastly, the performance reconstructions housed in each system were enormously costly and complex to create. SET’s approach to visualisation, which emphasises the act of reconstruction rather than any particular reconstructed performance, may be a useful alternative despite some necessary compromises. While it does not offer the degree of realistic detail provided in the models and motion-capture avatars of other systems, it does offer opportunities to synthesise source materials, provide transparent documentation, and manage the affectivity of performance in a fully interactive and relatively low-cost and usable interface.
In examining the affordances of SET’s approach to visualisation, we chose to focus on two productions of Judith Thompson’s White Biting Dog in part because of the range of archival materials relating to both productions that were available in a variety of media, including house programs, reviews, photographs, archival videotape, physical design sketches, digital technical drawings, promotional interviews, the live 2011 performance, and of course the living artists involved in both productions (with the exception of the director of the original production, Bill Glassco, who died in 2004). However, the Soulpepper revival also suggested an intriguing research question, since it was surprising to see White Biting Dog programmed at Soulpepper at all. The company describes itself as a "classical repertory theatre company," with a mandate to "tell the world’s greatest stories in vital Canadian interpretations" (Soulpepper 2011), so they have not historically produced much Canadian-authored work. When they have done so, the work has tended to be mainstream, affirming, canonical, realistic, and low in commercial risk: since 2001, for example, the company has produced David French’s Saltwater Moon and Of the Fields, Lately, John Murrell’s Waiting for the Parade, John Gray and Eric Peterson’s Billy Bishop Goes to War, and a bi-annual revival of Michael Shamata’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Although their 2011 production of Guillermo Verdecchia’s one-man Fronteras Americanas was a departure from mid-twentieth-century Caucasian themes, it too is an affirming piece that promises good box-office return on low investment. Affirmation, in keeping with Thompson's body of work as a whole, is arguably entirely absent from the affect of White Biting Dog. In its opening sequence, a man named "Cape" is prevented from throwing himself off the Bloor Street Bridge by the disembodied voice of a dead white dog. The subsequent action includes the appearance of a girl, "Pony," who may or may not be a reincarnation of the dog; Cape’s father’s obsession with garden moss, which he smears all over his body; Cape’s mother’s explicit sexual relationship with a man younger than her son; and Pony’s extended description of how she has eaten Cape’s deceased pets, which have been stored in the freezer awaiting burial, and then vomited them up. The considerable departure the play makes from the kind of content usually addressed in Soulpepper's Canadian programming begged the question of why Soulpepper had programmed White Biting Dog at all.
The one clue provided in Soulpepper’s publicity for the production is an interview with director Nancy Palk, which historicises the 2011 production in relation to the original 1984 production and its influence on the working relationships of the creative team. Palk says,
I was at the opening night of White Biting Dog in 1984 at Tarragon, and it was one of those wonderful fantastic opening nights... I’ve always been just crazy about it. ... Not only does it make a lot of sense for Soulpepper to be doing it because of Judith’s stature in Canadian theatre but also because Judith, Joe [Ziegler, who played Cape’s father] and I all went to theatre school together. As did Louise Guinand, the lighting designer and Christina Poddubiuk, the costume and set designer. It really makes sense from the company’s historical point of view. (Soulpepper 2011a)
Consequently, when Palk is asked by the Soulpepper interviewer how "you begin in getting your head around" a play "where the synopsis is ‘a distraught lawyer steps to the edge of Toronto’s Bloor Street Bridge but is stopped by the words of a small white dog,’" it seems natural for Palk to quote her collaborator Poddubiuk’s commentary on Thompson’s aesthetics. Poddubiuk "describes Judith’s writing as a Bosch painting, where you take the top of the head off, and all the dreams and desires of the subconscious come out," a comparison that gives Palk confidence in her own view that "you don’t have to get confused thinking about its realism, because it’s not realism" (Soulpepper 2011b). In this brief exchange, the aesthetics of the opening sequence of White Biting Dog, and their historical and continuing influence on the 2011 creative team, seem crucial to the gesture of canonisation that Soulpepper made in programming it alongside "the world’s greatest stories" (Soulpepper 2011b). For Palk (cued by the Soulpepper interviewer’s question, which no doubt complies with instructions from company’s marketing and publicity department as to the "message" being disseminated about this production), the theatre-historical significance of White Biting Dog is a consequence of its aesthetic originality in breaking with the dominant realism of Canadian theatre, a gesture that is vividly made by the improbable events of its opening scene. We set out in our sample study to explore Soulpepper’s self-consciously historicised enactment of the development of Canadian theatrical aesthetics by means of a comparison between the opening sequences of the influential 1984 production of White Biting Dog and its 2011 descendant.
In the course of our research, we used SET for five principal purposes:
First, we created on the basis of our historical research scale models of the sets, stages, and venues used in the 1984 Tarragon production (Figure 10) and the 2011 Soulpepper production (Figure 11). These models were created in Vectorworks from hand-drafted and CAD drawings. They were then exported as 3D Max files for import to Maya, which is supported by Unity 3D, the game engine we used to build the SET environment.
Although our digital models do not, as designer Sue LePage puts it, represent "the artistic quality of the original" sets or entirely convey the "sense of space" they created, and are unable to represent some key production elements (including, for example, scrim walls in LePage's set and the lighting cues we discuss below in Poddubiuk's), they do help illustrate the comparative semiotics of space in these two productions (email message to the author, June 26, 2013). When we populated our models with audience avatars and moved them around the performance spaces, we were particularly impressed by the impact of the ramp or walkway from the 1984 set (Figure 10). It extends from the stage, which represents Cape’s house and the sidewalk immediately outside it, right through the audience and out into the Tarragon Theatre lobby. Robert Nunn has described the ramp, which was used for actors’ entrances and exits, as "a metonymy of the external forces that penetrate and destroy" (2005, 27) the world of the play. Since "the sidewalk is located in the midst of the audience and literally connects the fictional world of the play with the real world outside the auditorium" (2005, 28), the real-world audience seems implicated in the psychological destruction suffered by the play’s characters. This seems to us to be an overtly political gesture, consistent with gestures Thompson makes in other plays - The Crackwalker at the beginning of her career in 1980, for example, or The Palace at the End in 2010 - and it is a gesture that the 2011 Soulpepper production clearly does not make. Christina Poddubiuk’s set (Figure 11) routes actors along the side of the Michael Young Theatre and makes no visible connection to the lobby of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
Whereas Poddubiuk does not engage what was for Nunn a political element of LePage's design, she does adopt and adapt LePage’s treatment of the image of the Bloor Street Bridge, which is invoked in both designs by criss-cross patterning on structures that recall the real bridge’s girders (Figure 12).
LePage’s design imitates the curved girders more literally than Poddubiuk’s does, and places them on the ceiling of the theatre as though Cape’s house exists somehow under the bridge. As a symbol of Cape’s attempted suicide, the girders hang over the subsequent action of the play, but remain separate from it. Poddubiuk extends the principles introduced in LePage’s design by applying the criss-cross girder pattern to posts. During the opening sequence these posts literally represent bridge girders; later they become the corners where the walls of Cape’s home meet (see Figures 13 and 14).
Poddubiuk makes the metaphorical expression of Cape’s desire to die into the principal structural element of the set, so that the moment of his attempted suicide—demonstrated by the problematic non-realistic opening sequence in which interior and exterior realities converge in Cape’s conversation with an invisible white dog—is present on stage throughout the performance, defining the spatial and psychological worlds of the play. The image emphasises perspective: viewed one way it is a bridge; viewed a second way it is a corner; viewed a third way it is a death-wish; viewed a fourth way, it is a vision of the human condition.
The ability to explore and compare performance spaces in SET was fruitful, but perhaps no more so than in other simulations. Like the Theatron3 project, we found that "the ability to place oneself within [virtual theatrical spaces] provides insights into the lived experience of them" and that "presenting these spaces as populated enables the nature of the spaces to be conveyed more fully" (KVL 2009a, 2). However, SET facilitated a uniquely vivid impression of the impact of design in an entirely imaginary set we constructed, which incorporated key elements of the 1984 design (the girders and the ramp) into the 2011 model (see Figure 15).
Although this is an imaginary space, it juxtaposes and thereby visualises what we have identified as key differences between the 1984 and 2011 models explicitly by combining them. Users have the opportunity to ask, for example, what would the 2011 production have been like if it had created a more political space, like the 1984 production? How would a less fully integrated image of Cape’s suicide have changed our experience of the world of the play?
Our imaginary model also drew our attention to the fact that it would not be possible to build a ramp from the stage through the entire audience in the Michael Young theatre to the Young Centre’s lobby, so that we began for the first time to understand the architecture of the two venues as politically meaningful, or at least as bearing political consequences; an attempt to make the same political gesture in both spaces would require different design strategies. Our hybrid model also, in a sense, visualises production history, placing elements of the 1984 production in the same visual space as their 2011 descendants as a basis for arguing their influential relationship or lack thereof. Our ability to alter and experiment with attested historical performance environments led us to view them in new ways. SET allows us to ask, in a relatively quick and inexpensive way, "what if?" At this stage in SET’s development, models are created outside the system and imported, but it would be possible in a future iteration to enable users to build their own models inside the system, a function that would facilitate this kind of thought experiment.
Another function that is conspicuously lacking from the current SET system is the ability to render stage lighting, which was a key element in creating the image of the bridge in the opening sequence of White Biting Dog in 2011. We are neither able to render the cyclorama that represented the sky behind the bridge, for example, nor to delineate the outline of Cape’s apartment using lighting effects (see Figures 13 and 14). SET’s models also incorporate less detail in texture and colour than do other systems. These limitations in SET’s current functionality amount to a restriction on the range of performance technologies that can be understood to have generated meaning in performance, making SET susceptible to the same criticisms that have been levied against reconstructions communicated in prose. Since our programming environment (Unity 3D) is capable of supporting both lighting effects and more realistic models, both functions could be available to SET users in the future. It is worth considering, however, that the simplicity of the current models makes them comparatively quick and inexpensive to construct, an advantage we would hope to preserve.
Once our model of the 2011 set for White Biting Dog was built, three members of our team collaborated to compare and record our memories of the opening sequence in the Soulpepper production. We used three avatars in our performance reconstruction, one to represent Mike Ross, the actor playing Cape, and two to represent Shawn DeSouza-Coelho and Alexandra Kovacs, researchers sitting in different places in the auditorium. In addition to providing a record of performance, our reconstruction augments the live theatre experience by allowing users to adopt both audience members’ perspectives and the perspective of the actor. This was particularly useful in our exploration of a turning point in the opening sequence when, after exchanging words with the invisible dog about his suicide attempt, Cape turns to the audience for the first time and says, "the dog spoke!" Up to this moment, our team members recalled perceiving the performance as an illusory world in which a man talks to an invisible dog; however, when Cape speaks directly to the audience, we became part of that world, recognising that we had also heard the voice of an invisible dog just as Cape had. Our relationship to Cape shifted in that moment; we became participants in the perspective that defined the world of the play, part of the physical world that was a manifestation of Cape’s psychic reality. We understood this as the inverse of Nunn’s understanding of the 1984 gesture of allowing reality to violate the play-world by means of the ramp through the auditorium. In 2011, the play-world instead took over reality. Evidently all members of the audience would not necessarily have experienced this moment of contact equally. Mike Ross, playing Cape, would have made eye contact with some audience members and not others, and each audience member would have interpreted that contact in an individual way; hence, the production also curated a multiplicity of perspectives on the stage action. Since SET users can play action back and adopt different avatars’ perspectives, the system provides an analogue for this aspect of the production at least from the perspective of the semiotics of space in the performance environment. In figures 16, 17, and 18, we show the same performed moment from the perspectives of the seats occupied by DeSouza-Coelho and Kovacs, and from the perspective of actor Mike Ross.
Because SET’s avatars are so highly abstract, however, our reconstruction of this moment is emphatically non-realistic and ambiguous, showing only the direction in which the actor and audience members were facing and not the movement or focus of their eyes at a moment in the live performance when eye contact was the crucial theatrical technology generating meaning. One of the reasons we have maintained this level of abstraction in our avatars is that there is some evidence that abstraction encourages analysis and creativity since it "releases the visualizer from the demands of representing the finished final solution, and so allows the underlying structural forces of the compositional questions to surface" (Dondis 1973, 82). Our avatars’ limited anthropomorphic characteristics (which evolved over several iterations earlier in the development of SET) also severely restrict their potential to generate affective responses, which may mitigate the danger some scholars perceive in the affectivity of live performance reconstructions. Although this was not our primary motivation, our abstracted avatars also mitigate the obstacles encountered by the Theatron3 and Virtual Vaudeville research teams of creating, manipulating, and financing their highly realistic avatars (Saltz 2004a; KVL 2009a, 3). Nonetheless, the almost total negation of the actor’s body as a meaningful performance technology in SET seems at this point too radical. We originally thought of performing bodies as constituting a material element of production that might distinguish one production or even performance of a particular work of theatre from others, but which does not influence the independent integrity of a work itself. More recently, we are questioning whether the performing body ought more accurately to be considered an element of the "performance text" (Knowles 1994, 19), essential to the meaning of the work, which only exists in each individual performed manifestation. While this is more consistent with the theoretical framework of our project as a whole, its logical outcome would be the kind of motion-capture simulation used in Virtual Vaudeville and Ortelia, which is neither practical nor, in the case of syntheses of records of past performance, possible; motion capture is itself a record of a performed reconstruction. One design question facing us now is whether some elements of the performing body might be considered consistently meaningful at the level of a production or a work of art, whereas others might be meaningful only at the level of an individual performance. Furthermore, can that distinction be made only on a case-by-case basis, or can the design of an avatar that makes non-unique bodily characteristics available for user manipulation be made general enough (for a fuller discussion of the evolution of our approach to avatar design, see Ruecker et al. forthcoming in 2013)?
In our study of White Biting Dog, we experimented with supplementing the actor avatar at this key moment of direct address with a photographic image taken at another moment during a performance (Figure 19).
Although the photograph does not explicitly communicate the experience of making eye contact with Cape, it may facilitate a user’s imaginary reconstruction of that event. The photograph also creates a design complication, since it attracts visual emphasis in the interface, perhaps because it is so much more realistic than other elements and perhaps also because of the affective power of the human face. Consequently, while this approach to representing an actor’s body has not resolved our questions about the best approach to designing SET avatars, it has made us aware of a design opportunity that we may be able to exploit in future iterations. The ability to control degrees of realism in different elements of the Stage View might permit users to emphasise certain parts of a reconstruction over others, as a means of distinguishing between evidence-based and entirely hypothetical elements, for example.
Since no member of our research team had seen the original 1984 production of White Biting Dog, we relied on three archival sources to create our performance reconstruction, two of which we have been able to visualise in the SET interface. Digital photographs of relevant sections of Sue LePage’s design sketches appear in the Stage View as annotations to the set elements they describe, and the text of stage manager Raymond Marshall’s 1984 prompt script (the copy of the play used to record blocking and technical cues) has been transcribed in the speech pane of the Text View (see Figure 20). We have also provided a photograph of the Bloor Street Bridge as it appeared in 1984 as an explanatory annotation that helps clarify the significance of LePage’s bridge girders. A bibliographical citation for each of these documents is provided in the annotations pane of the Text View.
A significant advantage of providing access to research sources, where possible, is that users have the opportunity to assess the relevance and limitations of the evidence synthesised in a reconstruction, as well as the research team’s interpretations of it. A rich set of annotations can thus considerably enhance a reconstructive performance. At this stage in SET's development, we are not able to create annotations in video, audio, or other digital or hypermedia formats, so we were unable to provide direct access to the Tarragon Theatre's archival video of the 1984 production, which we also consulted. Unity 3D could support these media in future iterations, however. We envision also being able to include in our reconstruction of White Biting Dog such resources as renderings of Soulpepper’s Associate Technical Director, Kelly Read’s technical drawings for the 2011 production, hyperlinked the original Autocad files. Although annotations do interfere with the visibility of a performance reconstruction in playback, users have the option of collapsing them to avoid this problem. The relationship between evidence and hypothesis in SET is hence more transparent than is possible in live performance, and potentially less disruptive and inefficient than it can be in academic prose. Furthermore, SET’s ability to provide reproductions of original sources also makes it possible to represent the voices of living authors of performance records without interference, alongside scholars’ interpretations of them. These combined factors make SET more fully capable of visualising theatre-historical research methodologies than other media. It extends Virtual Vaudeville’s approach to documentation in a way that perhaps comes closer to achieving that project’s goal of modelling "a new kind of ‘critical edition’" (Saltz 2004a). Unlike Virtual Vaudeville and other innovative performance editions, however, SET does not support extended commentary on its reconstructions in an easily readable form. Queen's Men Editions, for example, provides a range of performance records and extended commentary in the form of an appendix hyperlinked at multiple points to the text of a play (see Griffin and Cockett 2011). Annotations can provide commentary and explanation, but SET’s interface on the whole treats reconstructions as arguments in themselves. Consequently, the system may at this point be more useful for communicating historiographical processes than it is for publishing the findings of theatre-historical research. However, we also see this radical redefinition of the traditional mode of communicating theatre-historical research results as a fruitful area for further theoretical and technical experimentation: what kinds of new arguments can we make in SET’s visual environment, and how might we describe their rhetorical strategies?
In addition to allowing us to include documentation of our research sources, our visualisation of the 1984 production allowed us to see more clearly the relationship between the real, lived environment of Toronto and its fictional representation on stage. The Bloor Street Bridge is an important landmark in the city, and has remained a relatively consistent visual marker as the landscape around it has changed, preserving, as we have noted above, the crisscross patterning in its girders (see Figures 12  and 21 ).
This difference may have been especially salient for members of the 2011 audience who, like director Nancy Palk and her team, remembered (accurately or not) the 1984 production; the effect, perhaps, was to create the retrospective impression that the event of Cape’s suicide attempt had escaped from the play into the world, prompting measures to prevent similar attempts in future. But the reality of the suicide barrier also created an inverse effect of historicising the events of the play, which were no longer possible in the real Toronto of 2011. Robert Cushman of the National Post, for example, began his review of the Soulpepper production by explaining, "the play dates from 1984, when this [Cape’s suicide attempt] was a more practicable endeavor than it is now" (Cushman 2011). By allowing us to incorporate images of the bridge at various stages in its architectural history, SET may go some distance towards visualising the differing lived experiences of some audience members, and a useful next step might be to include audience recollections of the bridge for comparison. Since annotations can be individually collapsed and expanded in the interface, users may employ them to represent or contrast their own visual memories (Figures 24 and 25).
This approach to visualisation could of course also be used by audiences of the 2011 production to visualise their memories of the 1984 production; it occurred to us that we had already perhaps partly made that gesture in our imaginary hybrid model of the 1984 and 2011 sets (see Figure 10). If we add to that hybrid model our two images of the pre- and post-barrier bridge, we can begin to visualise a broader network of theatrical and para-theatrical associations that may have been at work in some audience members’ perceptions of the 2011 performance (Figure 26).
While this was the most speculative part of our research on White Biting Dog, hypothesising as it did the experiences of audience members other than the three SET researchers who saw the 2011 production, it did allow us to explore some intangible elements of both the 1984 and the 2011 productions: audience members’ access to the geographical intertext of the play, on the one hand, and the further possibility of exploring their memories of the play’s production history on the other. By juxtaposing representations of intangible production elements against the material elements they affected, we were able to visualise a performance technology that cannot be as vividly articulated in prose or live performance.
Despite our emphasis on SET’s handling of non-textual performance technologies, probably the most vivid contrast between SET and other simulation systems is the presence of theatrical text as a constant feature of the interface. Of the systems we surveyed, only Virtual Vaudeville provides a text, and it permits its reconstructed performance to be viewed separately from its performance simulation (Saltz 2004b). This design element was central in our research, since it helped clarify for us a shift in the relative importance for Canadian theatre history of the textual transmission versus the performance history of White Biting Dog. Although the transmission and reception of White Biting Dog as a significant work of Canadian theatre have been accomplished mainly by the 1985 published text of the play (not least because the play won a Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama), neither the 1984 nor the 2011 production performed the text as printed. The early textual development of White Biting Dog is complex and well-documented in Thompson’s manuscript drafts, which are available for inspection in the University of Guelph’s L. W. Connolly Archives. These resources demonstrate that the 1984 prompt script made cuts to an earlier draft, and that the 1985 publication applied substantial cuts to the 1984 text. Nancy Palk examined the archives as part of her preparation for directing the Soulpepper production, so it is uncertain whether she used the published 1985 text or another draft of the play as her copy-text when she was preparing the 2011 acting text. Regardless of its provenance, however, the 2011 performance made further, extensive cuts and alterations to the 1985 text (Thompson 1985, 3; Marshall 1984; Palk 2011).
Most significantly for our investigation, in 1984 Cape reported his suicide attempt directly to the audience; the dog was never represented on stage. In 2011, by contrast, the exchange between Cape and the dog was enacted: Cape spoke directly with the dog, the voice of which appeared to issue from offstage left. Cape did not acknowledge the audience until the moment of direct address discussed above: "the dog spoke!" Since the speaking dog was off stage, heard by the audience and by the character Cape, but seen only by Cape, audience members were required to take Cape’s word that the voice they were hearing was issuing from a dog. Without Cape’s internal dialogue ("Who’s that? A cop? There’s nobody! Just ahhhhh! A white dog! Beside me!" [Palk 2011]), we could not have known from whom or what the voice was issuing. Hence this reorganisation of space and redistribution of text created a difference in the 2011 production between our perception and Cape’s. At first, the dog was more real for Cape than it was for us; we were witnesses to, but not participants in, Cape’s reality. Since the perceptual difference between audience and character had been established as the status quo at the opening of the production, the moment of direct address at which this difference broke down was especially salient. "The dog spoke!" operated as the inciting incident for the action that followed, signaling this production’s exploration, evidenced in Poddubiuk’s design, of the influence of perception upon the experience of what had appeared at first to be external "reality."
SET was useful in visualising this inciting incident because it represented the moment’s impact in performance in a way that a revised edition or even a prompt script could not. On a page, if a dog speaks, one speech heading says "Dog" and another says "Cape," and since both are recorded in the same typographical terms, the dog’s ontology is equivalent to the protagonist’s. Each is as real as the other until and unless a reader distinguishes them, which is unlikely in the absence of an explanatory stage direction. In SET, however, space can be reorganised and text redistributed to show the difference between Cape’s and the Dog’s ontologies, as defined by the spatial organisation of the 2011 production (Figure 27).
Perhaps more significantly, however, SET can also visualise the impact of this moment in performance history upon the play’s textual history by using the speech and annotation panes of the Reading View to show changes made by the 2011 production to the published text of the play (see Figure 27). While the text remains visible as an important record of performance and an instrument of the historical transmission of the work of art to which it refers, it is also clearly positioned as a processual technology, susceptible, like other performance technologies, to change over time.
A limitation of this visualisation, however, is that it favours the evidence the research team has examined over the argument we might wish to make about our findings, notwithstanding the design philosophy of letting the interface bear the burden of the argument. In response to our initial research question about Soulpepper’s self-consciously historicised enactment of the development of Canadian theatrical aesthetics, our investigation employing SET led us to the conclusion that the 2011 production of White Biting Dog extended and complicated the performance aesthetics of Judith Thompson’s play as a means of articulating its influence on Canadian theatre practice. While Thompson’s manipulation of reality was innovative when the play was first produced in 1984 (and this has since been recognised as a signature of Thompson’s work; see, for example, Adam 2005 and Maufort 1997 or, for a counter-argument, Levin 2005), White Biting Dog’s aesthetics had been fossilised in the 1985 edition in a way that obscured the play’s influence on later generations of artists. Palk and Poddubiuk’s work in the 2011 Soulpepper production, in the context of Soulpepper’s publicity and the reception of the production, repositioned the play as a significant factor in the development of a Canadian performance tradition alongside or perhaps in opposition to a more familiar textual tradition insofar as the production served as the occasion for renewed consideration of the merit of the text itself and the place it had gained in the Canadian theatre canon. In comparing the productions, our attention was drawn to the relations between text, performance elements (e.g., set design and lighting), performance space, and the larger socio-historical context within which the play was performed, as well as to the way in which performance elements were appropriated and reinterpreted in the revival – at times inspired by changes in the local context and inviting audience speculation on the same. Meaning was thereby created at the intersection of past and present, stage and street, text and performance. Ultimately, the Soulpepper company and its creative team were revealed as the agents of Canadian theatre history, creating it by enacting it in performance and publicity.
We believe SET enabled us to document and make visible many of the connections we describe above in a way that other theatre-historical approaches could not. As a three-dimensional visualisation application, it encouraged investigation, literally and figuratively, in multiple dimensions – all provoked by and invariably connected to the line of action. In order to further clarify this argument in our SET visualisation, we would need a better means of indicating the nature of the relationships between text and performances. At this stage in development, SET does not provide any obvious method of visualising such an argument, and this realisation in itself represents an important advance in our understanding of SET’s potential as a tool for theatre historiography.
Our application of SET in this comparative production history of Judith Thompson’s White Biting Dog at the Tarragon Theatre in 1984 and Soulpepper Theatre in 2011 leads us to the tentative conclusion that SET already provides some valuable functionality for theatre-historical research and that some refinements to the SET system might make it even more useful. The advantages of the current system include the presence of both textual and non-textual visualisations in the interface; the simplicity and abstraction of its stage and avatar models; the ability to annotate all areas of the interface with files in a variety of media; the ability to alter and rearrange almost all of the assets displayed in the interface; and the ability to explore visualisations either as non-temporal artefacts or in real-time playback from a variety of spatial perspectives. In combination, these features allow users to create efficient and economical performance reconstructions, including hypotheses of meaningful but intangible elements such as their own memories of performance; to visualise the research processes undertaken in creating those reconstructions, including documenting and providing access to research sources; and to create fictional reconstructions that may illuminate historical performances or facilitate comparisons among them. Since users control many aspects of the interface, they are positioned as potential creators, rather than primarily as consumers of theatre-historical research, which makes SET an effective environment for visualising and analysing theatre historiography and for training students in theatre-historical research methodologies.
Some technical enhancements to the current system would make SET immediately more useful. These include the ability to create and edit models inside the interface, to represent lighting and sound effects, and to create annotations in a broader range of media. It is also worth noting that the Character View of the SET interface was not relevant to this study, although it might be relevant to other theatre-historical investigations. Other, more significant design questions will require further theoretical and usability research. These include the optimal degree of abstraction in the representation of character avatars, the potential benefits of and strategies for placing varying degrees of visual emphasis on different areas of the interface, and the potential benefits of and strategies for clarifying the visual arguments made by the theatre-historical environments created by users.
In terms of the research carried out here as a measure of SET’s potential usefulness in theatre-historical work, we believe SET’s key affordance is its ability to make visible connections between the multiple dimensions under consideration: text, textual traditions (e.g., a text’s place in the theatre canon), performance elements in the context of individual productions, performance spaces, the socio-historical context informing both text and related performance(s), as well as reception – which in turn may have a bearing on textual tradition, and so on. The complexity and reciprocity of such myriad relations, we believe, is well served by a research method that aims to visualise diverse elements and networks of influence.
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