Theatricalizing the metaverse through VR

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Dear metaverse diary, as I sit down to pour out my thoughts and try to find the exact place within my intricate mind that stores all my experiences related to live acting in virtual reality (VR), and, more specifically, my combined role as a VR actor, stage director and scholar within the XR theatre collective La Cuarta Pared VR [The Fourth Wall VR], the usual feeling that I have nothing interesting to say pervades my spirit. And it is exactly within this attempt to situate myself that I find some insight into this new art form and practice.

Acting is very much about finding your centre and situating yourself within a given physical and symbolic dramaturgic context. As a classically trained actor, I was taught how to become aware of my body and mind within the moment, being in the ‘zone’, feet on the ground, fully present. An actor’s presence on stage is related to a kind of expanded awareness that allows us to be extra attentive to our surroundings. It is as if an invisible pair of chameleon eyes pop out in our heads, allowing us to get an extra, almost 360 degree perception of everything and everyone on stage. Being present on stage involves sustaining attention moment by moment on all that is happening at once in the broader environment.

Ultimately, stage presence seems to be connected to this visceral, sweaty, physical realm where actors dwell and is apparently only accessible through a direct, strong sensorial experience that materialises in one’s imagination, thus fully realising the ‘theatrical act’. In other words, the mental, symbolic, emotional, and aesthetic construct that was meticulously elaborated on the actor’s mind is released into the physical world, an almost ‘cause and effect’ phenomenon. Thus, imagination takes place on the stage, whereas in VR one might say that the stage is imagination itself, as within VR the creative and expressive scenographic possibilities are potentially unlimited. One can craft magic, bend the laws of physics, fly, or even become a giant.

(…) both on-stage and VR presence stems from a desire for immediacy – being in the here and now. Both also involve a suspension of disbelief – a wilful denial of the artificial conventions of a performance or VR creation – on the part of the spectator or user (Samur, 2016).

In this sense, what happens to presence when an actor puts on a VR headset and is transported to a virtual environment? What changes perceptually as one embodies an avatar and, like a puppet master, gives life, breath and meaning to this digital skin? As I entered the world of acting in the ‘metaverse’ – today’s most hyped term, but somehow lacking a true critical approach to it – my first challenge was to learn how to embody my digital skin, my avatar. As a well-behaved actor, I looked for a place in the VR social platform VRChat where I could be alone with myself in front of a mirror. I was looking for familiar places that could keep me connected to real-world substance and my previous, non-VR experience as a theatre actor. I later realised that I could rehearse anywhere in the metaverse. I could rehearse while being suspended from the floor or even upside down. Later, I realised that my avatar could be anything; a floating orb of light or a cube. But my first instinct was to create an avatar that would resemble my real physical features. Yet, it was but a shadow, an impression, like a painter’s brush stroke depicting a landscape. Nevertheless, I was humanoid, and that was enough for me at that moment. Becoming native to a new art form takes its time. I wasn’t in a rush.

Me, myself, and my avatar

Non-metaversical impressions of meArtworks by artists Ana Pinho (left and right) and O Mimi Cha (at the centre)

Once inside my avatar, I needed to see how my digital body was responding to my commands. What were my limitations? This was an actor’s exercise, not a new user on social VR trying to get the grips with a new headset and controllers. This was an actor deeply engaged in understanding his place in this alternate reality. I was immediately impressed by the real time response and how refined these technologies had become since I first experimented with them back in 2015 when I started doing my PhD in Immersive Media. Back then, because all artists are chronically unsatisfied, I started to see certain flaws. My legs were acting weird, my movements weren’t exactly as subtle as I wanted them to be. My mindset was still outside, rooted in my non-VR theatre experience. I was trying desperately to emulate and bring my know-how as a performer from the ‘real reality’ to VR.

Actor’s warm up on VRChat

As I moved on into the different worlds on VRChat and started to experience flying or jumping from one mountain to another, I realised that the medium had its own unique nuances and that the apparent limitations of my avatar puppeteering were only limited by my own squared vision. And just as Plato legendarily banished poets from the ‘ideal city’ or Aristotle banished performance from any serious consideration of tragedy, this actor of yours started to allow himself to establish a symbolic, aesthetic, and performative encounter with the metaverse, free from conventions, trying to unveil its potentialities.

Let’s go full on cliché and make an analogy with the quote ‘To be or not to be!’ With live acting in VR, we can now both be and not be. I mean, when we act in VR we are physical body and flesh, and simultaneously a virtual entity (avatar). This questions not only the dramaturgic idea of the classical Hamletian dualism but also the actor’s work in VR. In other words, as I continued to experiment with my digital body I slowly allowed myself to be drenched with Samur’s (2016) ‘suspension of disbelief’ and it felt more as a merging process between my avatar and my real self than a mere manipulation of the digital skin by the performer. In other words, what occurs as one spends enough time in the metaverse, is a sort of avatar anthropomorphic process enabled by the illusion of immersion, presence, and plausibility that culminates with the appropriation of a virtual body. Nothing in between, almost like demonic possession.

As I started to create live performances with my colleagues and fellow artists at La Cuarta Pared VR [The Fourth Wall VR], I realised that the process was distinct. We were immediately drawn to building worlds instead of thinking about building characters and, ultimately, created characters to inhabit those storyworlds. At first, we were trying to situate ourselves and our performances within a place, a corner, a location in these worlds, as if the rest of the world was out of reach to us. In the real world, we can make use of the stage, or, sometimes, even the theatre building as whole, or other places. There are boundaries that we usually establish as performers in the ‘real reality’. In VR, we can use the entire world as we have created it. It was at the intersection of creating and performing in VR that my eureka moment occurred. I realised it is not about doing theatre in VR, it is about theatricalising these VR worlds. We can have parallel narratives occurring simultaneously and the audience doesn’t have to be compiled on a block somewhere, like a roman legion formation waiting for action. They can walk around these theatrical worlds and choose what to experience and whom to talk with.

These are not random social interactions in VR; this is performance, this is immersive theatre going into new heights as the audience becomes a participant within the stories. It is as Peter Brook’s famous idea of the theatre that occupies an empty space – ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage’ (1969). As Brook says, ‘[a] man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’ (1968). Perhaps this now needs rephrasing to ‘I can take a virtual empty space and call it a bare stage’. An avatar walks across this empty space while someone or something else is watching him. Narrative, actors, audience as participants, lucid dream and theatre become one fully formed whimsical experience accessible by anyone, anywhere. In a world dealing with a pandemic, entering and experiencing these storyworlds seems quite exhilarating.

The Council of the Titans teaser, an interactive live performance in VR by La Cuarta Pared VR [The Fourth Wall VR]

By taking the idea of ‘it is not about doing theatre in VR’ one step further we see that it is about doing theatre in VR, but also about creating worlds that are a construct of distinct languages and disciplines. Theatre in VR is a multi expressive art form at the intersection of hard science and digital humanities, drawing from areas as varied as art, narrative, anthropology, psychology, human-computer interaction and gaming. We call it ‘theatre in VR’ because we lack a better word for it, but it will come. With live acting in VR and other related emergent phenomena, we are reaching a unique moment in theatre and performance history. In it, we move from and beyond the conventional paradigm – where performance was mediated by technology – towards a new, multi-layered practice where technology is not the medium ‘in between’ but a means of instantaneous transportation to alternate realities permeated by theatrical and performative significance. It is obviously a debatable idea, yet through a symbolic, philosophical approach, it is coherent in this actor’s mind. Hakyung Sim (2021) takes this idea further by arguing that today we are at threshold of a new era, where ‘age-old theatrical’ performers and spectators’ give place to ‘posthuman alternatives’ pervaded by emergent digital tools and worlds that promise to revolutionise theatre praxis and experience:

Today’s theatre no longer solely depends on the bodies of live performers, and it increasingly draws on technological devices and digitally mediated networks to hint at potential posthuman alternatives to our age-old theatrical institution of live performers and spectators. In VR theatre, the prospect of posthuman spectators looms as the human body is aided by goggles or head-mounted displays (HMD) that function as prosthetic eyes. Digitally mediated images in theatre were previously considered to act as a Derridean supplement to the weak presence or complete absence of human bodies on stage, thus highlighting the prerequisite essentiality of live bodies. However, new technologies and media introduced in theatre emphasise the perception and bodily senses of spectators and how they, and not necessarily the live actors on stage, constitute the essence of performance’ (Sim, 2021).

In conclusion, dear diary, theatre seems to always find its way through obscure times. The recent rise in live performances and theatrical VR acts marks the beginning of a period of innovation, where theatre, performance and technologies come together to provide an escape from our everyday problems, allowing our imaginations to fly, literally. These words are loose thoughts on my journey as a live performer in the metaverse and as an interdisciplinary scholar trying to unveil the conceptual entanglements of this emergent art form. It is clear that thinking and creating within immersion is key to developing a native creative mindset. The big money questions are: how will digital performance evolve and be shaped by XR technologies within the metaverse, or the still infant idea of the metaverse, and what kind of challenges will there be for the theatre industry in the midst of  web 3.0, the embodied internet, NFTs, blockchain and digital real-estate? Where does a human-driven theatrical, aesthetic and affective substance fit within this ecosystem? Either utopian or dystopian, the future of theatre and performance is hybrid, there is no doubt about that. My final question is how far down the rabbit hole are we willing to go?

References

Brook, P. (1968) The empty space. Touchstone.

Samur, S. X. (2016) ‘Comparing Stage Presence and Virtual Reality Presence’, Revista Brasileira de Estudos da Presença, 6(2), pp. 242–265.

Sim, H. (2021) ‘Seeing Alone Yet Together: Modern-day Tiresias in VR theatre’, Performance Research, 26(1–2), pp. 69–77.

António Baía Reis is a researcher, educator, and artist. His work combines areas such as media and communication, immersive and emergent media, performing arts, and social innovation. He has taught and developed scientific and creative activities in countries such as Spain, UK, Germany, Norway, Albania, China, and the USA. More information at www.antoniobaiareis.com

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