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Breaking the fifth wall
Creating theatre on a telepresence stage

In the light of lockdowns, the authors’ Telepresence Stage research project (2021–22) developed effective, affordable approaches to connect theatre and dance performers from their separate homes and place them together within virtual sets online. Combining videoconference and chromakey technologies with virtual scenography, the performers are freed from Zoom-style walled boxes and are able to physically interact, including (virtually) hugging, kissing or fighting one another. The theatrical tradition of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ to address the audience reaches another level, with the actors seemingly breaking a fifth wall, of space and time. Eight UK theatre and dance companies undertook residencies to develop new online performance works and to test and develop approaches using a range of software and hardware systems. The research findings are analysed from technological and artistic, as well as phenomenological perspectives, including considering issues of telepresence intimacy, empathy, proxemics, third-person perspectives, and the uncanny. Case studies draw on the verbatim reflections of participants, offering insights into the unique joys but equally the challenges of working on a telepresence stage. The chapter argues and demonstrates how the project not only had a profound effect on the resident companies, but is of lasting value and impact for the creative industries. The use of immersive virtual scenographies proved a significant spur to creativity, taking theatre troupes into whole new realms, and creating sequences and illusions that would be impossible in live theatre. The experiments herald new ways of working and performance delivery modalities that will long outlive the pandemic.

Introduction: Breaking out of the box(es)

Traumatic times have heralded new directions and forms of art, such as the development of the twentieth-century avant-garde movements of Constructivism, Bauhaus, Dada and Surrealism in the years immediately following World War I. Whether the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will bring about comparable artistic paradigm shifts remains to be seen. But at moments of historical crisis, artists look to transform the harsh realities of the day into representations of a quite different and more visionary future. As the pandemic of the early 2020s divided people physically, artists sought new ways to bring them back together, strengthen their bonds and establish new creative modalities for their interactions.

One such initiative was Collaborative Solutions for the Performing Arts: A Telepresence Stage, led by telematic artists and researchers Paul Sermon (Principal Investigator, University of Brighton, UK) and Steve Dixon (Co-Investigator, LASALLE College of the Arts, University of the Arts Singapore), together with research consultants Sita Popat Taylor, Satinder Gill and Randall Packer. It responded to the crisis in the live performing arts following the closure of theatres and the inability of performers to devise, create and rehearse together in person during lockdowns. The Telepresence Stage project countered both by providing a new and highly ‘theatrical’ stage platform for live performances online, and by designing visually immersive stage settings where remote individual performers could meet, rehearse and perform together in a digital ‘third space’ using videoconferencing tools.

Such systems were found by performers to be far more powerful than and preferable to the predominant platform used by groups to rehearse and perform during lockdowns: Zoom. The pandemic saw a plethora of Zoom performances online and the format was adopted for notable television productions such as the BBC’s Staged (2020) starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Its first series follows two (comically) temperamental actors who become increasingly frustrated and finally disinterested as they attempt to rehearse a theatre play via Zoom during lockdown. Videoconferencing platforms strategically adapted televisual aesthetics, and the lines between TV and computer screens were ever more blurred during the pandemic, as screens became ubiquitous and used indiscriminately for leisure, work and art.

But a significant drawback remains Zoom’s fixed visual format, with each participant appearing quite separately in their own window. Most users also position their computer cameras to frame themselves in head and shoulders close-ups, resulting in Zoom ‘theatre’ productions resembling television far more than live stage shows. This separation of the performers in rows of boxes remains a source of disappointment to stage actors, including those in Improbable, one of the research residency theatre companies, who had done previous shows via Zoom. They described working on the Telepresence Stage platform as a blessed relief, since the boxes were gone and the full bodies of their live performers could be composited simultaneously within a shared virtual stage space. They named their residency production Outside the Frame and literalised the metaphor of breaking out of Zoom boxes with an opening sequence where three characters in a simulated Zoom meeting (created using a visual overlay) discuss separation through the pandemic, but then discover they can actually reach into each other’s windows. They reach out to each other and then ‘break out of their boxes’ to climb into one another’s windows, appearing at different angles or upside down (Figure 3.1).

The research involved the participation of professional theatre and dance companies in ten separate projects experimenting with different technological systems and configurations, as well as diverse approaches to scenography and visual design. The core equipment was provided by the research team: cameras, monitors, green screen ‘walls’ and floors that could be set up in performers’ homes.1 Our team aimed to provide practitioners with a range of scalable solutions to bring remote performers and audiences together, from straightforward systems able to be utilised by student or amateur performance groups at little or no cost, to those suited to large professional troupes. Each company’s residency culminated in a live performance. The Telepresence Stage team then presented case studies sharing the research findings online, and provided ‘how to’ help guides, tutorial support and open-source resources for the performing arts sector, to encourage use of the available technologies and techniques.

The chapter draws on these case studies as well as interviews with the performers to analyse the projects, explore their highlights, differences and commonalities, and to present key research findings. These interconnect in interesting ways with Richard Misek’s discussion of video-streaming as a means of improving the accessibility of live performances and Dan Strutt’s on telematic performance, motion capture and virtual dance. Some of Strutt’s themes entwine and harmonise with ours, around presence, liveness and the uncanny power of virtual touch.2 In common with other chapters, too, our research emphasises the importance of exploring real-world solutions by working in partnership with professional companies who beta-test a range of technological systems, following which, findings are shared with the creative sector in ways that can be practically applied, including technical help guides.

Aims and objectives of resident companies

The theatre and dance companies involved in the Telepresence Stage project varied from the young, recently established and ‘tech-savvy’ to some of the longest established UK touring groups. These include Red Ladder, founded in 1968 and renowned for its distinctive approach to radical ‘agit prop’ theatre, and Phoenix Dance Theatre, founded in 1981 by three black British men, and the longest-standing UK-based professional contemporary dance company outside London.

Some came with prepared or pre-scripted ideas, others adapted or expanded previous stage productions, some worked purely through improvisation and others began with a blank sheet but built up their ideas progressively to develop well-crafted shows. Some companies adopted more traditional theatre and dance styles, others used comedy and cabaret formats, while still others focused on more abstract and experimental visual aesthetics.

Their aims and objectives in undertaking their research residencies also varied:

Telematic Quarantine was the first performance, an R&D pilot by the research team to test out some telematic systems, virtual scenographies and effects. For the livestreamed two-and-a-half-hour event, international participants were scheduled at different times to join Paul Sermon via Skype and were composited in painterly rendered 3D simulations of rooms in his actual house (Figure 3.2). Together, they played, improvised and shared their stories of self-isolation while exploring genres from kitchen sink drama to political satire, and from hospital drama to magic realism and the theatre of the absurd.

Improbable’s desire to break out of boxes aimed to create a more spacious open ‘stage’ to express what they described at the beginning of their residency as ‘the fun, the creativity, the outrageous, the intimate, the beautiful, the human, the theatrical, the unexpected and unlikely’. Outside the Frame combines live action, puppetry, animation and psychedelia in a vivid presentation of autobiographical stories by the ensemble of women and non-binary performers.

Creation Theatre used their residency to experiment with the paradoxes and potentials of how the physical can interact with the virtual in telematic theatre. The remote performers revel in the challenge of achieving the impossible by passing drinks and throwing balls to one another and stabbing a person’s hand as they bring to life the characters in Paul Cézanne’s 1895 painting The Card Players (Figure 3.3). They use a mix of ingenuity, sleight of hand and comic slapstick, but like absurd Samuel Beckett characters, they seem destined to try and fail, and try and fail again, but better.

DAP-Lab (Design and Performance Lab)’s intention was to create a telepresence performance based on environmental issues and the climate crisis through an exploration of hydrocommons, a shared ecological water and plant culture. In The River of No one, they were interested in seeing how they could incorporate scenes of devastation from recent flooding, scientific measuring data and underwater environments to create a compelling narrative about a botanist’s global journey.

Female collective Guttersnipe Theatre had received Arts Council funding to create a new show but their tour was cancelled due to coronavirus. They approached the research team to utilise the Telepresence Stage platform to transpose it into an online performance. SHUGA FIXX vs The Illuminati is a black comedy parodying X Factor-style talent shows, and satirising conspiracy theories and the media’s manipulation of young people.

Phoenix Dance Theatre wanted to investigate the choreographic possibilities of working with telepresence and virtual scenographies, and to conceive new types of creative space. Using unusual camera positions, they explored dramatic viewpoints and perspectives, including seemingly defying gravity and pulling one another out of holes in the ground and into the sky (Figure 3.4).

Pigeon Theatre’s central research concern focuses on the formal structures of space, environment and architecture, and the project gave the company an opportunity to extend their experiments using virtual scenography. Their performance follows two mother characters as they lose and find one another and traverse a dizzying array of ‘real’ and fantastical locations, grow from small to tall, tidy away toys, drink, dance and repeatedly wonder Where are the Children?

Red Ladder approached their residency with the aim of creating what they called ‘a world in which strange and surreal events could happen in a believable way around the physical actors, and to blend reality and fantasy to make the audience question their perceptions of reality’. In TAXI, a conversation between a male driver and his female passenger begins to unravel issues around mental health and the fragility of society.

Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s collaboration with The Third Space Network brought together a black tenor singer (Charles Lane) and a white choreographer/dancer (Daniel Charon) to create a response to racial polarisation in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the crisis of personal isolation following the coronavirus lockdown. Black|White explores notions of intimacy, conflict, harmony and humanity as the bodies of the two performers, who have never met in person, are doubled, silhouetted and composited amidst various video backgrounds.

Sharp Teeth Theatre wanted to build on their experience and success with acclaimed murder mystery audience participation shows they had previously presented both to physical audiences and via Zoom. Sherlock in Homes is set in a 1920s Antarctic expedition base camp following a blizzard and a murder, with audience members given clues through flashback sequences and guided to interrogate the eccentric character suspects to uncover ‘who done it’.

Technologies and techniques

Throughout all the residencies the central compositing was completed using various video production and VJing applications (which allow real-time manipulations of digital imagery, normally in synchronisation with music) to mix and switch the audio and video layers, together with live video calls from the remote actors. Whilst the initial pilot residency with Telematic Quarantine and the first sessions with Phoenix Dance Theatre used the VJing application ‘Resolume Avenue 6’ (first release 2017) in combination with ‘Skype’ (first release 2003) for the video communications, all subsequent residencies made full use of ‘WebRTC’ (Web Real-Time Communications, first release 2011) in order to visually overlay and composite together all the remote actors participating in the production. WebRTC is a free and open-source protocol allowing audio and video communication to work inside web pages, providing direct high-quality, low latency peer-to-peer audio and video communication, eliminating the need for native applications such as Skype.

For the residency with Guttersnipe Theatre, guest researcher Boyd Branch incorporated the WebRTC platform OBS-Ninja (first release 2020) with his self-built, open-source video production software ‘Virtual Director’, specifically designed for remote improvisatory theatre. It resulted in a performance with kaleidoscopic and kinetic set designs including a grandiose, multi-screen TV talent show (Figure 3.5), with shattering mirrors which announced the winners’ descent into a purgatory underworld lair. For the DAP-Lab residency, project partners the Third Space Network used LiveToAir (first released 2020) to manage the WebRTC video calls in combination with the ‘VDMX’ VJing/video processing application (first release 1998) for the compositing. In both these cases, and with the earlier solution using Resolume Avenue 6 and Skype, the remote audio and video communications were brought directly into the video production via the newly developed NDI (Network Device Interface) protocol for seamless sharing of audio and video between applications and local area networks.

The other residencies used ‘vMix’ (first release 2009), a complete video production platform, incorporating WebRTC communications with video mixing and chromakeying effects (where, as in film and TV production, software recognises the (non-green) figure of a person/people or object and separates them from the background), all in one application. Two key aspects – stability and functionality – made this the software platform of choice. Using a Google Chrome browser and the vMix Call website, the remote actors simply called into the Telepresence Stage vMix platform operated by a member of the research team, who could apply a full range of video switching functions and effects. The incoming video calls were chromakeyed and composited together within the virtual sets with the output relayed back to the actors and simultaneously streamed online for audiences on YouTube, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

During the latter stages of the project, Sharp Teeth Theatre explored ways to bring Zoom audience members directly into their production using ‘ZoomISO’ (first release 2021), which allows the video outputs of Zoom participants using virtual green screen backgrounds to be incorporated as live video assets in their production. Their live head and shoulder images appeared in a variety of positions within the stage sets in the Sharp Teeth production, including in mirrors and ship portholes, and framed upside down under tables. In addition, live chat from the audience’s Zoom meeting was placed within scenes as titles and text overlays using ‘vMix Social’, which also integrated Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, YouTube and IRC social media content directly into the live production.

A telepresence stage of possibilities

Sophisticated and accurately perspectival 3D digital scenographies were perhaps the most critical element in providing a sense of theatricality to the productions, and a vast array of designs and visual effects were created and explored. Two companies chose a single setting (Cézanne’s room with a card table for Creation Theatre; the interior of a taxi for Red Ladder) to stage their final performance, providing a highly concentrated focus and increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere (Figure 3.6). But while apparently simple scenographies, these had many separate digital layers to provide a sense of scale, depth and three-dimensional reality, with the former including walls, two chairs, a table, and a bottle of wine, as well as the two actors (Figure 3.3). Invisible cross-fades were applied in real time to place the different layers to the foreground or background. This allowed the remote actors to move and be positioned in different perspective configurations, such as in front of or behind one another, and to walk around the virtual table and in between the chairs convincingly. In preparation, the performers set up a table of the same dimensions and a chair (both covered with green cloth) in their homes and aligned them precisely with the positions of the virtual ones they could see on their screens. Their positions when sitting down, or when leaning on the table and placing real objects onto it (cards, drinks, etc.) matched the digital picture perfectly to create a believable three-dimensional mise-en-scène of one single space.

Designing and layering of foreground and background elements, objects and planes was key in developing virtual scenographies with sufficient visual depth and perspective to truly resemble a theatre stage set. In the research team’s introductory briefings to the companies, the concept was explained using the analogy of a ‘Victorian paper theatre’ – a traditional model theatre constructed from cardboard, complete with changeable backgrounds and wings. Different full and partial scene settings can be placed progressively at different points and planes (usually between three and five) on the stage from downstage to upstage, while cardboard miniature characters, inserted through the wings from stage left and right, can be introduced and moved about on sticks.

This layering of 2D paper scenography and actors to produce a 3D effect is an apt metaphor to explain how scenic and video layers were composited for the Telepresence Stage, with actors positioned in front of and behind elements of scenic locales such as pillars, and objects such as furniture. Just like the Victorian paper theatre, the central node operator has all the digital assets at their disposal to composite the scene. This includes the remote actors, who are live video assets calling in from their individual homes and who are cut out from their green screen backdrops using chromakey techniques. These live cut-out figures can be quickly and easily placed by the operator into any position within the scenography, scaled as tiny or huge in comparison to the set and other performers, rotated to be upside down, and so on.

The ease with which the system’s software can instantly render Gulliver’s Travels-style size transformations of characters was utilised by a number of groups, most strikingly with DAP-Lab’s image of a giant biologist with a VR helmet examining and touching the miniscule female figure of Ariel, who appears like a tiny bee on a petal of a huge flower (Figure 3.7). Other visual body effects that were applied at the touch of a button included inverting bodies to negative and rendering them as silhouettes. Turning the actors into silhouettes provides them with the opportunity to interact as a complete composition, without the concern of who is in front or behind the other, and worked particularly well in physically oriented scenes, such as fights. Its use included disguising the identity of the murderer in Sharp Teeth’s Sherlock in Homes (Figure 3.8). In a sequence in Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s Black|White, the silhouette of the black character was rendered white, and the white character’s silhouette rendered black. The performance thus celebrated the Black Lives Matter movement (Figure 3.9), while also pointing to the tensions leading to the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 and the activism it prompted across the Western world.

The visual styles and renderings of digitally created scenographies varied from gritty realism to graphic novel genres and from the painterly and impressionistic to sci-fi futuristic and fantastical. Deep spaces were explored, including Pigeon Theatre’s extended corridor with a long vanishing perspective that became filled with toys and children, and for the denouement entirely submerged in water (Figure 3.10). Many virtual settings and effects such as these, and others including vertiginous ones with characters placed in the sky or upside down, were created by the companies specifically because they would be impossible (or at least prohibitively expensive) for them to stage in a physical theatre. Such benefits are important when evaluating the broader significance of the project and its usefulness beyond the pandemic. This is theatre+: it is precisely not theatre but is enabling ways of being ‘theatrical’ within a digital medium combining both analogue and digital affordances in order to create something that is neither theatre nor television, but an exciting hybrid that has its own aesthetic and ontology.

Improbable’s team included an experienced video designer and animator, which enabled their scenographies to juxtapose digital settings with physical backgrounds. In addition, they framed full-body live action sequences with close-up shots of hands that crafted and manipulated the scenes in real time by moving physical objects and layers. The giant hands moved the performers inside books whose pages turned to reveal them within another picture setting, and within scenes that were hand-drawn and painted in real-time around them. Settings were assembled from paper cut-outs to fit with the performers’ dialogue. For example, as one performer read the words ‘scrub, scrub, scrub’ aloud from the book, the artist’s hands rubbed white chalk onto a (green screen) piece of paper, chromakeyed over another setting, thus changing the entire scene to the one described in the story (Figure 3.11). In a dark, child-like silhouette of a street filled with washing lines, one of the live actors appeared with flapping, animated black wings, and the manipulator’s giant hands suddenly obscured her face and head by placing a cut-out paper crow’s head on it.

Such experiments demonstrate the potential of the Telepresence Stage system to stir the imaginations of performance artists and to foster unexpected juxtapositions and haunting effects. The extensive palette of forms – from theatrical and televisual to craftwork and animations – and the ability to reveal, activate and combine them at the touch of a button catalysed the company’s creativity, their appetite to experiment and ambitions to create unique images and coup de théâtre moments. The performance ended with an equally arresting and unexpected sequence, where all the performers suddenly pulled back their green screen cloths to disrupt the spectacle and reveal the mundane domestic rooms that lay behind the virtual illusions.

Virtually touching: Phenomenological aspects of telepresence

Telepresence is akin to a lucid dream where distance is forgotten and a bridge is forged through time and space, making a collective dream of our existing together somewhere else, come true. Telepresence is arguably the most significant cultural development of our age. Whereas not long ago, videophones existed only in the realms of science-fiction fantasy, Star Trek-style telepresence, too, has now become a reality and, just as Walter Benjamin noted with the coming of photographic and reproductive media, it has entirely changed our ‘sense perception’ (Benjamin, 1999 [1936]: 211–245). Technological changes materially alter people and their psychologies, and telepresence systems – and specifically in our research, stages – are witness to profound moments, evidencing not only significant changes to human sense perception, but proprioception: our body’s self-perception and instincts in sensing our own and others’ movements and spatial positioning.

One of the first concerns, and delights, of almost every performer we worked with when they first encountered other bodies in the ‘third space’ of the Telepresence Stage, was to reach out and try to touch them (my location is the first space, yours is the second and the screen compositing us together is the third space). They virtually shook hands, high-fived, embraced, stroked one another’s hair, kissed, pushed, pulled, punched, kicked and fought with one another. Telematic touching was the recurring and defining feature of every single first practical session we had with the companies. Grasping only at the air, the participants nonetheless shared a palpable intimacy and extraordinary energy in their telematic touching. Their proprioception was not only highly attuned when working within the virtual sets, it was actually heightened by the need to adjust their positions and actions in relation to these new and unfamiliar parameters, in the same way that proprioception is intensified during moments of physical uncertainty or danger.

One performer described the effects of virtual hugging as giving ‘a level of solace and a sense of closeness I wasn’t expecting’ (Grace Church, Guttersnipe Theatre) and explained how she suddenly felt very alone on her green screen after shutting down her laptop at the end of a session. Virtual touching is sensorily highly affective even though it remains non-tactile, since the body can experience tactile feelings through visual stimuli, what Laura Marks calls ‘haptic visuality’ (2014: 269–274). As Hao (2022) notes:

Virtual touch can create a synaesthetic experience – a neurological condition that causes a blending of the senses … where the proprioception of the body is re-engineered through telematic technology … a heterotopic virtual interface to situate an uncanny fusion of real and fictional experience.

The Telepresence Stage experience is uncanny not only because it blends reality and fantasy, but also because it offers a new perspective that goes beyond a physical encounter, since each participant sees themselves as well as the others in the ‘third space’ of the screen. With the exception of looking in a mirror, we never observe ourselves interacting with others, but doing so on the Telepresence Stage reinforces our sense of self and responsibility for our actions. We directly witness ourselves interacting with others, making choices and acting upon them, while simultaneously seeing ourselves as others see us. Being doubled and witnessing ourselves outside ourselves provides both an uncanny and an existential experience.

For existentialist philosophers, the encounter with the Other is a revelatory one that is a key to understanding the essence of Dasein (Being): from Emmanuel Lévinas’ (1991 [1961]) philosophy of ethical responsibility for the Other without waiting for reciprocity, to Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of being-for-others (2003 [1943]) and Gabriel Marcel’s reflections on ‘separation with communion’ (1995: 39). Responsibility for others has also emerged as an important theme within performance theory, from Helena Grehan’s ideas on ethical spectatorship and responsible theatre (2009) to Hans-Thies Lehmann’s observations on responsibility/response-ability in performance (2006). Seeing ourselves in the third-person position while watching our own encounters with Others on the Telepresence Stage is a poignant and sometimes tragi-comic experience, since we recognise ourselves as our own puppet-masters.

The strong sense of intimacy and empathy possible through telematic encounters has been well documented and discussed over decades. In an article, telematic arts pioneer Roy Ascott answered his titular question ‘Is there Love in the Telematic Embrace?’ very affirmatively (Ascott, 1990); in 2002 Stephen Wilson called telepresence the ‘major goal of telecommunications in both research and art’ (Wilson, 2002: 526). Meanwhile, Oliver Grau concluded that in Paul Sermon’s Telematic Dreaming (1991) installation, where remote participants encounter one another via projections on beds in different spaces,

a feeling of astounding nearness arises … many visitors seize the opportunity for uninhibited mischief and make virtual seductive advances, indulge in intimacies or even come to blows … the restraints that reality imposes on us are lifted and the actual consequences of our actions removed. (Grau, 2003: 275)

The residency actors and dancers were initially surprised that working from separate spaces they could so quickly and easily relate to each other in human, physical and visceral ways. They reported their sensations of connection, intimacy and empathy as being highly pronounced. Even more surprising was that the more they interacted and performed together within the third space, the more they forgot – often entirely for long periods – that they were still in their own homes and felt physically transported into the virtual setting. A number of the residency companies were fascinated by the potential of how this sense of total transference, as well as the proprioceptive intensities of their performers’ telematic encounters, could embellish, amplify or complicate the audience’s perceptions of ‘liveness’ to enable their productions to still be located within a live theatre context rather than simply being perceived by audiences as streaming video.

Ontological issues: Can theatre ever truly exist on a screen?

For decades, artists and critics have argued that theatre remains impossible on a screen, since theatre and screen media are not only ontologically different, but incompatible enemies alien to one another (e.g. Grotowski, 1968; Phelan, 1993; Sontag, 1966; Pavis, 2003). During the pandemic, that argument was renewed and intensified as the screens presenting live online theatre became doubly shrouded by the chastening knowledge of what had positioned it there – the state of fear of contagion and death – together with the reminder of the internet’s central and sometimes insidious role in guiding our understandings and responses to the virus:

One of the reasons why theatre performances using Zoom and the like have failed … [is] that the digital pandemic theatres are not only mounted on the effects of biological fright, but also encircled by the ‘digital feelings’ of hypertrophied cosmic fear. … As of now, all the world’s a stage haunted by the effective virus and affective #virus. The virus is spatially within and among us. (Kyoko, 2020)

The research team acknowledge that live theatre presented on a screen will never replicate its physical experience, but we argue that what the residency companies created was not simply online media or live television, but another form of theatre. For decades, performance companies have been experimenting with and creating innovative new forms of theatre using digital technologies (see Dixon, 2007), and while the pandemic further accelerated those activities, it was not responsible for it. Thus, the sort of Angst that Kyoko stresses in the quotation above is not intrinsic to all digital experimentation, but rather layered onto those developments in the years immediately following 2020. It was a central concern of several residency troupes to try to transcend the televisual/filmic and two-dimensional aspects of online streaming video and ‘make it feel like theatre’ by highlighting aspects such as liveness, ephemerality and materiality: to retain the particular language and qualities of a theatrical experience. Whilst they fully engaged with the digital scenography and technical possibilities, they wanted to expand and celebrate the Telepresence Stage’s material aspects, physical capabilities and analogue aesthetics in order to render it a theatrical performance space ‘fit for purpose’:

I really wanted it to still feel like theatre, and to me it did! … This really opened up a world for us, that we could use different techniques that felt real … you could feel the set wobble, you know, that’s what I really liked about it. … It felt really right with the type of work that we were developing. (Angela Clerkin, Improbable)

Performers spoke of the nerves and adrenaline they experienced before their live performances, just as they would waiting in the wings prior to their physical stage entrances. Interestingly, they also reflected on the imperfections and mistakes during performances in a positive light, since these reaffirmed the unpredictability of live experiences they were aiming for: ‘it did feel like theatre when things went wrong’ (Cassie Hercules, Improbable). Some groups played with ideas of screens within screens, and in doing so highlighted the medium in a meta-theatrical way, emphasising its hybrid form combining live theatre with pre-recorded televisual aesthetics. Sharp Teeth’s ‘captain’ introduced the 1920s murder mystery characters while scratchy black-and-white film footage played on an old-fashioned screen in a ship’s cabin. Two characters in Telematic Quarantine mysteriously disappeared from a living room then reappeared on the TV set in the room, looking very confused, while miniature versions of Pigeon Theatre’s mother characters physically pulled one another into a vintage TV set (Figure 3.12).

Thinking beyond the pandemic

Although the research was initially concerned with enabling theatre productions to effectively migrate online to provide solutions to counter lockdowns, closed theatres and safe distancing protocols, its findings are of lasting value and impact for the creative industries. The project had a profound effect on the resident companies, with the use of immersive virtual scenographies proving a significant spur to creativity, taking troupes into whole new realms of imagination and ideas. Some spoke of it entirely changing their styles and taking them in much more experimental and ‘otherworldly’ directions.

In debrief sessions concluding the residencies, many reflected on the platform’s transformative potential, including creating sequences and illusions that would be impossible in live theatre, and of experiencing a particular sense of freedom or playfulness that provided impetus to change artistic directions. Creation Theatre’s Giles Stoakley spoke of ‘discovering an entirely new medium, and experimenting with it exuberantly to discover its magical possibilities in much the same way that Georges Méliès and the early cinema pioneers did over a century ago’.

The platform’s intuitive interface and user-friendliness (following the initial setting up process) was praised, with many noting both its simplicity – one company unused to employing technology reflected ‘if we can do it, anyone can’ (Gillian Knox, Pigeon Theatre) – and cost-effectiveness. Huge and spectacular virtual sets can be built quickly with opensource software at a fraction of the financial cost of building a physical set. Groups spoke about the future possibilities of the platform, from its ease and convenience for script read-throughs, casting, preparing sets and reducing production costs to its potential to inspire ambitious new hybrid theatre forms, slipping between stage and screen. Other companies speculated on the emergence of a future role, somewhere between a director, stage manager, controller and QLab operator, as increasingly essential to elevate and expand digital productions; and these possibilities may prompt the performing arts sector to consider upskilling initiatives to embrace and accelerate such developments.

Some participants enthused about the flexibility the system provides for people who have limitations on travel, such as those with mobility issues and caring responsibilities. Pigeon Theatre’s two performers are mothers with young children who discussed the tremendous benefits of devising and rehearsing from home with their children there with them (they also incorporated them as performers in the Where are the Children? production) without the need for childcare arrangements which rehearsals normally involve. They also reflected on the inherently playful and childlike qualities of the Telepresence Stage, which ‘created a world that you just did want to spend time with and mess around with … a space that’s naturally making you want to experiment, to be in and enjoy. The kind of theatricality that it’s able to create is incredibly exciting for us’ (Gillian Knox).

The pandemic has changed working patterns across all industry sectors and many of these will last, including more working from home, since the experience has shown the benefits – not only is it convenient for people and saves costs (from travel to office space), but it also works. The project’s experiments demonstrate the same for the theatre and dance industries – these platforms and techniques work and are highly effective, enabling intimate and immersive experiences across distances. Performers within the same city can devise, rehearse and perform together from their homes, but perhaps more significantly, the techniques enable ambitious cross-border collaborations.

Telematic Quarantine conjoined individuals and groups from the UK, Singapore, Australia and Brazil in a spontaneously improvised yet vividly memorable performance, with participants needing no more than a laptop, a Skype connection and a large green cloth. Phoenix Dance Theatre described the system’s ‘potential to reinvent collaborative workshopping’, while Improbable advocated scheduling regular open events using the Telepresence Stage, making it a space for global improvisations where artists from around the world meet frequently to collaborate, invent and perform together.

The project provides a scalable Telepresence Stage for global connectivity without the need to physically travel, and in the push for a green world, it can thus reduce carbon footprints. It catalyses originality and innovation and opens up bold new vistas and international collaborative opportunities for the performance industries.

Conclusion

In the light of lockdowns and social distancing, the Telepresence Stage project developed effective, affordable approaches to connect theatre and dance performers from their separate homes and place them together within virtual sets online. Freed from Zoom-style walled boxes and able to physically and verbally interact, the theatrical tradition of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ to address the audience reaches another level, with the actors seemingly breaking a fifth wall of space and time.

The ten residencies developed new online approaches and forms of performance, developed and tested a range of proprietary systems and bespoke online video encoder/decoder laboratory platforms, and undertook technical and creative experiments towards proof-of-concept testing and prototyping. Ambitious, visually immersive 3D scenography environments were designed to the companies’ requirements and employed in ten original productions performed live for online audiences.

The projects were highly diverse in their aims, styles and narratives, but had in common a trinity of key elements: dramaturgy, telematics and scenography. The platform’s use of multi-layered and multi-perspectival digital sets aimed to replicate conditions on a physical theatre stage and resulted in a strong sense of performance intimacy, empathy and telepresence between the performers. A range of arresting visual effects and illusions, many of which would be impossible to achieve without significant budgets in a theatre building, were achieved at minimal cost.

The experiments undertaken transpose theatre into another context while retaining the sense of communion and ‘liveness’ that lie at the heart of theatrical performance. They herald new creative modalities, ways of collaborating, staging and delivering performances that will long outlive the pandemic.

Notes

1 After gathering information on the participants’ own available computer resources, such as laptop or desktop computer and internet router and speed, as well as room dimensions and its distance to the router, the research team could supply the bespoke green screen resources required. The actors were each supplied with: one 3×5 metre green screen backdrop and stand, for the floor and wall (three metres being the maximum width of most domestic rooms); two LED video lights on stands, providing bright saturated lighting; one webcam and stand to position the camera at eye level; and various cables and adapters including HDMI cables, USB extension cables and most importantly an Ethernet cable to connect their computer to the router to maximise on available internet bandwidth. They were also supplied with one, and in some cases (preferably) two 24″ video monitors, positioned to one or both sides of the green screen, providing them with the ability to monitor the performance on both sides of the green screen, left and right, as well as straight ahead using their computer screen, giving them complete observation and control of their telepresence performance from all three available angles. The equipment was dispatched and set up in their homes according to the green screen studio instructions provided before each residency session, which they all perfected with increased speed over time.
2 For a discussion of digital access, telepresence and the future potential of live online performance between Misek, Strutt, Sermon and Aebischer, see Aebischer (2021).

References

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