Avatar Repertory Theater – Past, Present, Future

by Ada Radius
April 1, 2016

With the words that Shakespeare gave Miranda: “O brave new world that has such people in it!”

When Iain McCracken (Sodovan Torok in Second Life) and I founded Avatar Repertory Theater in 2008, there were already several active live theater troupes in the grid.

Talk of live theater in Second Life had started much earlier, of course – Thinkerer Melville (Selby Evans) had been discussing it in forums as early as 2005, working with playwrights, waiting for the technology to catch up. Adele Ward (Jilly Kidd) had experimented with poetry readings – streaming sound via telephone hookups inworld – a 1-5 minute lag from speaker to hearer.

Then “Talk”, live voices, finally arrived to our virtual world in 2007, and we could get to work. Act Up Theatre, founded in 2007 by Upo Choche, also experimenting with various ways to get sound and sight to audiences, staged productions in late 2007, suffering through and dealing with many technical problems – avatar movement lag, software crashes, show cancellations because it was impossible to keep avatars, their voices, and a few dozen audience in the same virtual space. It was fun, and addictive.

Paggles Whitman and I kicked off 2008 in January with “Sex, Death and Religion”, a theatrical presentation of each other’s poetry to celebrate the building of a Greek Amphitheater on Cookie sim.

You can read about it here: in James Braman’s “Handbook of Research on Computational Arts and Creative Informatics”. Because we kept it simple, with a small cast and minimal sets and props, we managed a couple of shows with no crashes, no interruption to the sound.



That was followed swiftly by In the Pink, unstaged readings of original works, The Bacchae, produced and directed by Phorkyad Acropolis (Stephen Schrum), back at the Greek theater, and two more productions by Act Up Theatre Company – original plays of “Unexpected Detours”, and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. All were amazing, g
round-breaking and suffered much from technical disruptions.

It was during the Shakespeare that Iain, who just finished his scene as Wall, and I found ourselves, avatars that is, behind a bunch of huge sculpty trees, thinking. The Midsummer set was magnificent, the actors and directors full of talent and chops brought from the “real” world, and I was a forlorn and cranky Titania who could not get my avatar onstage. Stuck in the forest. Couldn’t run my camera around the trees without skipping out beyond the theater dome, couldn’t find my way through the tree trunks, lost.

Iain, a superb programmer and scripter, rigged a vehicle attached to a dragonfly avatar, flew me onstage, dropped me off at my mark, got me through the rehearsal.

And then it came to us. Virtual theater is about the tech. Unless enough people in the crew and cast have a solid technical understanding of simulator resource limitations, what a viewer’s video card can handle, how to handle voice and sound effects and avatar movement limitations, the artists and actors will not be seen nor nor heard very well.

We needed to start another virtual theater company, on an entirely different basis. So we did. Even in 2008, we thought it possible that virtual theater would move beyond Second Life, so we named it, after some brainstorming, Avatar Repertory Theater, aka A.R.T. We recruited a few people we knew who were talented actors and easy to get along with, and who brought other skills – sound engineering, set making, avatar design, animating, directing, dramaturgy, publicity, administration. Kayden Oconnell, Micki Nikolaidis, Rowan Shamroy, Dolgoruky Umarov, Em Jannings, Thundergas Menges joined us. Selby Evans donated space on Cookie sim in Second Life, JubJub Forder gave us props and set pieces. We had a company.

We were offered a set of short plays from a playwright group that Selby Evans had been running the previous year. We picked three and built and put on our first show: “Tales from the Metaverse”, performing at JubJub Forder’s shopping mall and at Cookie sim. Thundergas made a machinima of one of them – Masquerade, which you can see at our website, www.avatarrepertorytheater.org.

Then we immediately started working on Shakespeare. Our founding members recruited more actors, we grew. The Tempest for February 2009, with dragons in the cast and audience, a whole lot of virtual water and an enormous steampunk ship.

By March, 2009, Kayden Oconnell started a weekly show for us to experiment and improvise. “A.R.T. Plays Around” began and that’s where we worked out the technical and artistic abilities that are in our “knowledge trunk” now. How far the Talk channel travels in a sim. How much lag there is in live Talk and how to compensate for it. How to handle our equipment and settings so that we sound good, look good, and don’t crash. How to cover for each other so the show goes on even when we do crash, lose sound, or all our clothes disappear. How to adapt a play so that we can perform it in this new medium. How to design a set that rezzes fast and that the avatar actors can navigate without falling off or getting lost. And much more.

Yes, we move our own avatars while we’re talking. It’s all live.

By 2010, this and another project I started in 2006, Antique Pattern Library, were becoming so active, with revenue, expenses and potential tax problems, that I started New Media Arts Inc with core people from each project, and we got our 501(c)(3) tax exempt status so we could raise a little money and put a more secure footing under the projects. NMA has grown too, and taken on a life of its own. www.newmediaarts.org.

Over the next seven years of ART, troupe members joined us, troupe members left – some because of personality conflicts, more because this is a hugely time consuming activity.

By Plays Around’s last show in 2015, each show was no longer an experiment. It was generally a fully staged one hour show, with sets, costumes and animations. There’s a list of them here: A.R.T. show archive list

A little less than 300 shows in seven years. Most were small, some took our building and avatar designers a year to build. A total blast. But too much for unpaid volunteers, too much for anyone. Also, and this is important, by this time over half of our troupe was becoming so successful in real life live theater, television and video, that they no longer have time to do much virtual theater. That really is a good news/bad news situation! A success story for the actors, and that makes me happy.

We now have a core of about half a dozen actors who are fully trained in virtual world voice over, avatar movement and animations, costume and prop rezzing. Another half dozen or so, equally gifted, who perform with us when they have time, plus technical, publicity and other support.

We’re in the middle of major transitions. We’re travelling out to the hyper-grid – OpenSim grids where we can travel from one grid to another, each with a virtual “Suitcase” to carry sets, costumes, props and animations. Hamlet at AvatarFest, scenes from Midsummer Night’s Dream at the OSCC.
We’re producing videos – “Flying Saucers” is out and one of our teams just uploaded a set of tutorials for OpenSim newbies. We have a 16-sim OpenSim world, Cookie II, hosted at the Kitely grid, with space for all kinds of events and performances, along with privately accessed smaller worlds for producing videos. Projects in pretty much all the planning phases.
I’m excited.

Posted in Avatar Repertory Theater.