When New York University halted in-person classes March 10 and required students to vacate campus due to concerns amidst the coronavirus pandemic, there was one class in Tisch School of the Arts’ Drama Department that felt completely prepared for remote learning: The Brendan Bradley Integrative Technology Lab. In fact, virtual classes provided the real-life scenario for their experimental work.
Six students from the Drama and Game Design departments were deep into a rotation with guest teacher Michelle Cortese, VR product designer for Facebook’s AR/VR Experiences team. Their goal: to explore the fusion of artistry and VR technology using Facebook’s Oculus Quest headsets. The prompt: “Write and build a performance to be executed in social VR to a tele-present audience.” Whether they chose to write a traditional scene to rehearse and perform in VRChat (a VR social app used for digital gathering) or stage an interpretive dance, the virtual world was their oyster.
Prior to quarantining and self-isolation, the students planned to test their VR experiences by simulating distance, reserving multiple rehearsal rooms and separating team members.
No need for that now.
Both Cortese and her students agree that not much has changed working outside the physical classroom.
“Everybody is in a completely embodied avatar,” says Cortese, meaning she and her students are able to move around and see each other’s movements while wearing Oculus Quests and immersed in the same VRChat space. “When you're tele-presently around people and you all have bodies and you can all move like people, it kind of just feels like everybody’s there.”
“For us to be able to still be in a quasi-physical space with each other and to be having class in VR and be able to collaborate is a big step up from a lot of the other opportunities right now in Tisch,” says Michael Morran, a third-year theatre and classics double-major at Tisch and the College of Arts and Sciences.
This semester’s curriculum also covers augmented reality and performance with Brooklyn-based visual artist Hanny Ahern, who works with digital art installations; and capture, archives, and distribution with BroadwayHD.
The organizers of the course, including namesake Brendan Bradley and Tisch Drama Chair Ruben Polendo, hadn’t anticipated anything on the scale of COVID-19 self-isolation, but the practicality of these Lab lessons reveal possibilities for educators and theatremakers navigating this new normal.
Socially-Distanced Rehearsal and Performance
As theatre companies release archived videos of past performances on their stages, host virtual readings and galas, and produce audio theatre, the question becomes: How do we create new, fully-staged productions in a time of social-distancing?
Cortese wants to scale accessibility to VR headsets to allow for such performances. “I just want there to be the opportunity for people to dial into these experiences in the same way that a bunch of us are watching concerts on Zoom right now,” she says. “Because there’s so much about theatre that is so physical, it’s not enough to just watch it on a screen. It doesn’t resonate the same way.”
The idea is not far-fetched. “I was involved with a very early workshop with a fringe theatre [where] we put an actor in one theatre and an actor in another theatre and they did a two-hander play from different locations [using VR],” says Bradley. Investing in these technologies can pay off for actors who live in different areas of the same city, or actors dispersed around the world; these actors would be able to gather in VR spaces to rehearse with a director and other creative team members.
Technology and Theatre Go Hand-in-Hand
Despite the potential for these technologies specifically in the time of COVID-19, creators (this writer included) are often suspect of the use of AR and VR in live performance. Doesn’t that take away the live-ness?
But as Bradley—and the students—assert, no one is trying to replace live theatre with VR theatre. VR theatre can exist parallel to otherwise conventional theatre. “I'm not very interested in trying to make [VR] like theatre,” says Morran, “but to really investigate how it’s different. In many ways, VR in a performance medium becomes like a costume or a piece of scenery, to enhance a performance,” says Bradley.
What excites artists like Bradley and Morran is the opportunity to collaborate with technologists and engineers to preserve the human quality; and for technologists like Cortese to use artists to make VR more real.
In many cases, the goal is to determine how to use VR to enhance live performance and how to use actors and theatremakers to build a more human world inside virtual space.
Cyrus Rosenberg, a game design student in the lab, describes exactly that experience as he worked with two drama students on their Facebook Oculus project: choreographing an interpretive dance in VRChat.
“They really know choreography and they really know where to place things and where to place your body,” says Rosenberg, “and when you're working on a game, it's mostly very exact math and it’s almost robotic. They bring a more human, real-body perspective to a performance—something I didn't know I needed to learn until this class.”
How VR Can Employ Actors
Because of the irreplaceability of the human essence, technologists require artists to continue work in this space.
For example, Bradley says, “When it comes to things like even CGI [in movies], you need the original asset of a human performing those words and performing those behaviors because human behavior can't totally be mimicked by digital elements.
“Whether it’s video games or motion capture narrative work, what becomes so precious to the technical end is that the data that they’re capturing when you’re wearing the dots or the suits. You need people who are reliable, who can take direction, who can memorize the lines, who can hit the marks, who can explore the journey technically and pull off the craft of the storytelling, who are bringing the authenticity of the performance,” he continues.
The Lab does its part to train artists to work in this way, and simultaneously equip technologists with the artistic vocabulary to collaborate with them. “There’s a lot of language that I didn't know about theatre that they just like have introduced to me,” says Rosenberg.
“A lot of actors and my friends would never be interested in doing such technical work, but I think this really is the way that the field is moving,” adds Morran, “and to be able to have these practical skills is such an asset.”
What’s more, Bradley believes that tech can help finance artistry. Theatremakers developing new work often lack the funds to put up a new production; technologists have money and need ways to experiment. Instead of experimenting in an empty warehouse, why not a blackbox? “Why aren't we just taking the storytelling, and the humanity, and the craft, and the performance, and the narrative from the performance side, and hosting it and sponsoring it in the technologist side?” asks Bradley.
Applying the Lesson
As collaborations between theatre and tech grow, these students have a leg up entering the professional sphere—where workers are trying to solve the problems they tackled in the classroom.
As a designer, Rosenberg discovered his interest in developing a way to incorporate weight into VR spaces and make it more amenable to authentic performance. “The idea of true touch, the idea of picking up a stick and that feels different than a bowling ball, I think will absolutely change and allow every single type of artist to embrace the media,” he says.
As a developer working on world-building through Facebook Horizon (now in beta), Cortese’s time at Tisch caused her to probe deeper into questions about VR gathering—questions theatre organizers have asked since ancient Greece. “How did the crowd feel? How much distance do you all between other people?” she wonders. “And there's another dimension about safety.”
For every discovery there is a new question. But one answer is clear: technology and theatre can help each other.
“I hope that I've demystified VR for them,” says Cortese. “I think a lot of folks and a lot of more traditional art practices can often feel like technology isn't for them, and I just hope that I've like humanized that for them and they feel like they can be creative in that space.”
In this time of social distance, that creativity is necessary. It’s time to take advantage.