Friday, November 11, 2011

The Avatar Repertory Theater Presents “Through the Looking Glass” in Second Life

The cast and crew of Through the Looking Glass 

It had been a quiet evening and while I prudently pruned away at a bloated inventory a little blue box in the upper left corner blinked on and told me that an inventory offer had arrived. Momentarily distracted at its arrival and gratefully that it had, as inventory clean-up is one of my least favorite activities, I clicked on it to accept. I waited while it loaded in the open window and noted the sender’s name, AvaJean Westland. When it finally did load the first sentence caught my attention;
“Curiouser and curiouser, through the looking-glass, where things look the same, only the things go the other way. . . .”
The Avatar Repertory Theater (ART) presents “Through the Looking Glass” and it opens on Saturday, November 12th at 3 pm. The notecard went on to explain that, “Alice finds herself moving through a large chessboard, where the Red Queen gives her lessons in royalty, Tweedledum and Tweedledee battle and rattle, Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall, and the Red and White Knight try to fight for her.” I like to think that a fair number of us who’ve experienced life in a virtual world, I can empathize with Alice after she had crawled through the looking glass and explored the virtual reality created by the author, Lewis Carroll. AvaJean and I chatted that evening and I expressed an interest in meeting the cast and crew. She graciously agreed to make the necessary arrangements and we set a time and date.
I’d met several members of the Avatar Repertory Theater on a previous assignment where I’d interviewed Ada Radius, the founder of New Media Arts, Inc. prior to their performance of Howard Barker’s “13 Objects”. The article had appeared in Avenue Magazine. ART is a non-profit group and a project of New Media Arts Inc. Since its inception in 2008, the group has thrilled Second Life audiences with productions like; Alice in WonderSLand, The Real Christmas Story and recently the Greek Classic, Oedipus Rex. Their stated mission is “to develop graph­ical, theat­rical, lit­erary, library, and other fine and prac­tical arts in online and virtual real­ity plat­forms”. Their web site contains a wealth of information on the group, the cast, crew, past productions and links to videos of several of them. As they are a non-profit, there is also a mechanism for those so inclined to make a donation.
I arrived at the set of the looking glass after accepting a teleport request from the plays director, MadameThespian Underhill. While I waited for the sight to come into view, I engaged in conversation via chat with the several members present. After I connected my headset and turned voice on, our chat turned into live talk.  I did note that the text chat seemed to continue nearly unabated the whole time I was there. Some of it was in character, other times not and it was all good natured. It was obvious they knew one another well and were comfortable in their working together. I asked if all were ready and told them I would be recording the conversation.
“If you each would take the opportunity to introduce yourselves one at a time, tell me a little bit about yourselves and your Second Life. Let’s begin with MadamThespian.” I suggested.
“Hi, I'm MadameThespian Underhill. I was an original beta tester with Second Life, I started in 2002. Previous to that I was a beta tester for other 3-D worlds, so coming into Second Life was a natural step for me. I was mainly a builder when I first came here because building had been a thing that had always attracted me to virtual worlds. But I am an actor and director in real life. I did act professionally years ago and was a union actor in Chicago. I thought when I was getting involved in virtual worlds like this that theater wasn't possible. We didn't have voice at the beginning and for those of us who were kind of interested in theater we were miffed trying to figure out how we could do it with without voice. And then all of a sudden voice came in and we can now do theater … so it had sparked my interest after that and building went to the wayside after I joined the Avatar Repertory Theater … but it's been fun.” She said.
“Ada, would you like to go next?” I asked, swinging the camera view to my left.

“I'm Ada Radius and I've been in Second Life since 2006. I originally trained as an opera singer and sang in a professional chorus for about 15 years and I then lost my voice for medical reasons and eventually found my way into Second Life. Not that the two were related. I'd also been doing work in real life as an artist and when I discovered Photoshop, texturing and building in here that’d been wonderful.  A year or so later voice came around and I found I could get back into theater and do it for my home. We started the theater troupe in 2008, Sodovan Torok and I, because after doing theater production in other groups we came to the conclusion that a successful metaverse theater company needed to be highly technical. We realized that we must have people with big-time tech skills. You just can't do it … you also need  wonderful actors of course, but in order for the actors to have a place … you need audio support,  wonderful costumes and sets along with using SIM resources effectively ... Without it’s not going to happen. This is the most technical of the productions we've done so far … the sets the animations, the props everything you see has been designed by somebody in the company with very few exceptions.” She said in her introduction.
“I recall the conversation we had prior to the production of Barkers ‘13 Objects’. It’s good to see you again Ada.” I commented and then asked Kayden to go next.
“Kayden Oconnell here, I've been involved with theater in Minnesota for number of years ... directing and producing. I was attracted to these crazy people with the idea of just doing theater here. This is much like doing real-life theater … we still have to hit marks and move around. It's an amazing experience … people doing a production from all over the world. I've only been in Second Life since 2007 so I'm kind of a newcomer. I'm an assistant producer helping MadameThespian and I'm also playing the part of Tweedle dee.” He said.
Before I could ask the gentleman to the left of Kayden to begin, the resonant voice of Thundergas came through my speakers.
“Thundergas Menges here, I have a background in video and audio and a strong technology background.  I came in Second Life looking to do machinima but it seems I first got roped into DJ'ing. It was easy to do and then somehow I met up with his gang of folks and started putting on these live productions which is not quite what I was thinking when I got into Second Life for … but it's been very enjoyable. Part of the thing is that I'm teaching everybody about sound because I think it's one of the most important components … but it has been some of the worst aspects to the live theater I've seen Second Life. The sound is just usually been miserable.  So my mission is to make it vibrant and happy. I've been teaching Ada how to do audio editing.” He said and I then suggested Rowan should go next.
“I'm Rowan Shamroy and I live in Australia as you can probably tell by my voice. I've been in second life since the end of 2006 and am one of the early members of the group. My background is that I make costumes and props for theater and so it was a natural transition for me in doing it here ... So I do props, costumes and animations. I've been in Second Life for a while now and this group … it has given me a real sense of community … and also the regular patrons who come to our performances. There is really a great sense of community.” She said.
“Judging from your costume, can I assume you are you the red Queen?” I asked.
"She has a voice for the queen that's why I cast her as the Queen for both productions." MadameThespian interjected.
"I think they've type cast you." I commented which drew a round of laughter from the cast. After it died down I added, “Alice, would you introduce yourself?”
“Hello, Pipsqueak Albatros and I'm from the UK. I have been Second Life since 2008. I joined  the theater after doing an audition for Through the Looking Glass … this is my first performance with the troupe, although I've been with them … in the audience week after week … I've been enthralled with what they can do … that they can make animations and sounds is just amazing. They started me in a small role as you can see … Alice has been an incredible learning experience for me. Before I joined them I’d done two seasons with the SL Globe Theater … ‘Twelfth Night’ and with the Rochester University Theater. Every minute I've been with these guys has been a learning experience for me and it’s been great. You must tell people to come and see … the show is incredible.” She said.
“I will do that and am looking forward to seeing it myself.” I replied.
“Would you like to see some of the sets Nazz? If you just stay seated we can cycle through them for you.” Ms Underhill asked.
"The audience will stay in their seats the whole time … it's automatic that people will go into their camera view." Kaydan said, by way of clarification.
“The first set is the parlor in the real world. It begins here and you can see that the fireplace has its back to us. You'll be able to see Alice climb right through the mirror there. Alice can you get up there and show him? We have a green room up above where the actors stage from, they'll port down to the set at various times.” She explained to me as the set rezzed into place. After Alice had gotten herself into position on the set, MadameThespian continued her commentary; “Now Alice gets up from a chair here and then she decides she's going to crawl through the looking glass. By the way that animation was created by Rowan.”
As the automatic camera control wasn’t functioning at this time for this particular set, I zoomed in with my camera and watched as the diminutive figure of Alice climbed through the looking glass. The movements in the animation were highly articulated and shortly, Alice was through and on the other side. With the animation complete, MadameThespian mentioned there would be several small chess pieces moving across the bottom of this set during this scene.
“Ada worked on teeny tiny little avatar chess pieces that run around and around.” She further explained.  
“They are absolutely incredible ...they are fantastic I love them!  I want to take them all and keep them in a little cage on my desk.” Rowan interjected.
“We'll go to the railroad car ... Don't stand up but you'll want to go into mouse view probably and then turn your head around. There's a whole scene in the car here and then we go to the tweedle's. A sign appears at one point in the scene and that's when we see Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And then a toy store scene comes into view. Oh, there’s also a garden after the parlor … there's a beautiful garden scene. And then there is a scene in the toy shop … Evie Fairchild created this one by the way. Then all of a sudden in this toyshop a boat appears and they go off for a ride … Alice with the white queen who was turned into a sheep … and then the boat starts rowing and then goes away. After that we have all of a sudden an egg appear on the desk and then trees come into view ... and so the egg transforms into the egg man and humpty dumpty appears.” MadameThespian explained as the several scenes appeared and then disappeared in a smooth succession.

“Are you using a HUD control for running the sets?” I asked impressed at the smoothness of the transitions.

“Actually we’re using this simple rezzer system ... This is one that can switch out a whole room ... It's a simple rezzer program and you can nest objects within each other. But someone has to keep track of what's what and where it's at ... The controls are in those chess pieces you see off to the side.” Ada replied.

“The ability to change scenes appears to be dynamic. It makes the special effects easier to do.” I commented.

“The special effects here they're still tricky to do but they can be done faster and cheaper than in real life. Obviously the flying for example … having someone hovering off the ground in a real life production of Peter Pan or Spiderman would be … instead of installing an incredibly expensive pulley system in the theater.” MadameThespian said.

“But here it’s still a headache … you have to do a lot of work in Photoshop and 3-D programs and animation software … all of the graphical assets have to be built to put this together.” Ada interjected.

“I read in the press release that the scenes and the characters were based on the drawings of Sir John Tenniel. How did the drawings influence the design?” I asked.

“What we wanted to do was have Tenniel influence the design. It wasn't so much that we're trying to get in exactly a photocopy of Tenniel drawings but the Tenniel influence and the costumes. Ada, show him some of your costumes.” MadameThespian said.

As the cast begin to shift into their character costumes, the good-natured back-and-forth between them continued and it was obvious that they comfortable and worked well together. Somewhere in the middle of the change and I didn’t catch who said it or a view of the character. One of the two gentlemen present said in a very deep voice. "I am not a Petunia I am a daisy". This brought a round of near hysterical laughter from all of us present and lasted for quite some time.

“The tweedle's costumes are a combination of the collaboration between Ada and Rowan. They've been working together for 3-4 years now.” MadameThespian commented as the laughter trailed off.

”It's hard to tell where ones work starts and the other ones stops. But for a lot of them we're literally handing Photoshop files off between each other via e-mails or building together.” Ada said and then added. "Oh the Knights were so much fun and a collaboration between several of us … it's such a team effort it’s hard to separate where one begins and another one starts. We know what each other is good at. We've had several brilliant people working with us over the years and for some of them it was a difficult concept ... to wrap their heads around ... that someone might change your work."

“With all the sets and the changes of costumes, has lag been an issue in the past and do you expect it to be so for this production?” I asked.

“It's always been an issue. SIM resource management is most important and because of the rezzers we can limit the number of primitives that are out at any one time and I keep a close eye and that. And the texture sizes … pretty much before every show I will have gone through each of the textures and counted all of the pixels making sure that were using as few as possible. We have some gadgets that shove textures onto the viewer side that helps things load a little bit faster. By the time we get 40 audience members each of whom is wearing elaborate costumes … we know how everyone loves to dress up for the theater … we will have problems we can count on it.” Ada replied.

“And don't forget about griefers or forget that we have crash backups if someone is having problems with lag or crashes … someone is right there to step in to take over.” Kayden interjected.

“How do you deal with griefers?” I asked and was greeted with a chorus of ‘Eject … Eject … Eject.’

“We have a house manager for the show and she's very good at it. One person who is not in the show they’re out herding avatars. They simply sit in the audience watch the audience, help people with problems, get their sound adjusted or if they've a new kind of trouble with the interface. They also keep their eye for griefers or for people who accidentally leave their microphones on … which is very disruptive. She's very effective at doing so, she politely IMs and then ejects someone who will not comply at being an appropriate audience member.” Ada replied.

“When did the production of ‘Through the Looking Glass’ begin?” I asked.

“A year ago, our first production meeting was last May, although Ada had done the adaptation way before that in December and I started costumes last December.” MadameThespian replied.

“So is been in the making for nearly a year now?” I asked

“It took us two months to get Alice figured out because we didn't want to do Disney and we didn't want to do what we had done before. It was a wonderful idea but we didn’t want it for this show, we were working off detailed drawings and then I came across an edition of Alice in Wonderland. An edition that was in color from about 1875 and that's where we found out that the original concept was that Alice was red haired and wore a yellow dress. That's what drove the set of decisions. One day we spent three hours just working on the shape of the face. It's hard to do children. It is very difficult to do children with the character rigging Linden labs uses for avatars at this point. Eventually we'll have mesh rigging and be able to do it but were not quite there yet.” Ada said in reply

“Are you using any mesh for any the sets or the costumes?” I asked.

“No, we were afraid that not everyone would be able to see it.” Ada said and then added. “So much has to be taken into consideration when you're building new sets … all the different viewers out there and what people can see. We always have to take the lowest common denominator in building and texturing making sure that we’re thrifty with our texturing … using the smallest texture that we can get away with that looks good on the object. Lots of thought has to go into it.”

“Over the years I've been to a fair number of productions … plays, musical performances, fashion shows and dance. It seems that larger venues have at minimum two SIMs, one for the audience and one for the stage. I noticed that there is only one here, how come?” I asked.

“It's better for voice to do it one SIM. Once you start splitting it up it gets kind of funny.” Thundergas replied.

“Every single member of the troupe who is in the show is going to be expected sing a little.” Ada said which drew chuckles from several of the members. She then added, “It's not a musical, don't get us wrong its transition music and in some cases setting the environment for some of the scenes. There is a dance that the Tweedle's do … they do a version of Here We Go Around the Mulberry Bush.”

“You do your own animations for the shows right?” I asked

“Rowan is responsible for all of the animations.” MadameThespian replied.

“There are a few walks and stands that I didn't do and I think I counted it … we’re up to about 60 animations.” Rowan said.

“If you look up and over and back using your camera move around the green room. There's a costume board there with all the boxes for the avatars, so the people in the company can go into their costumes. There's about 50 or 60 boxes and each of them is filled either costume elements or prop elements for character. Most of us are playing more than one part in the show.” Ada said.

“The technique of acting in Second Life is very unique. It's a combination of voice acting and being able to manipulate your avatar, which is a puppet. You have to be a really good puppeteer and do voice acting at the same time and this is something that is not easy to do. There is also the other thing we have to factor in, because of the voice lag as you are probably aware that when I'm speaking you're not really hearing it until about a couple of seconds later. In theater when an actor is speaking, another actor has to come in right on top of them or even cut them off. You have to jump in ahead further in time then in real life. It's very counterintuitive for an actor to do this … it’s a very difficult skill that a lot of us have taken a number of years to learn. When you're speaking your lines you actually have to come in and say it on the last two or three words of the previous line of the character who is talking so it sounds right when the audience hears it. If you do actually come immediately afterwards you get … line … pause … line … pause … line … pause.” MadameThespian said.

“As MT said, you're also moving your avatar … you're hitting your marks and animations and triggering things that keeps you busy. In particular when I'm running sound, I have four windows open and I have two monitors on my primary system … I have my media player, my sound effects into a playlist and Win Amp. I have my script and a sheet with sound cues so that I can follow along with what's going on in for the sound effects as they are needed. I have a physical mixer where I can run all the sounds and I do stuff like this …”  Thundergas said and then demonstrated via a drumroll.

“Second Life acting in real-time is very hard to do and look good. Machinima is a little different because they can plug-in the edits later … sound and all that but this is all happening at the same time real life and you just got to go with it.” Ada added.

“All that sounds incredibly complicated and this is a general question for each of you. At the end of the performance are you tired?” I asked, of which generated a good deal of laughter and then phrases like … I'm hungry and I'm thirsty and I'm tired popped up from the cast.

“All of this is experimental and no one else is doing it the way we are.” Ada commented

“I like to consider myself a well-traveled man in the metaverse and I don't think I’ve seen anything like this before … other than perhaps Virtual Shakespeare. I can't think of anything comparable.” I commented.

“Thank you Nazz. This has been a really hard-working amazing group of people and it's been a great experience. On the whole this is such a nice and diverse group of people and some of us have been together for three years now and it's been a great experience for me.” MadameThespian said.

“Has there been any thought to take this into any of the other virtual worlds that are popping up?” I asked, which elicited a chorus of yeses.

“I think our eventual goal is to be able to take all of the sets and pack them into something like a second inventory and then take the show on the road as it were. I think that's our eventual goal.” Kayden replied.

“It was something that this set was built for in mind of the permission system here, it is so difficult but a lot of it I'll be able save to XML files the prim structures … certainly not the scripts … won’t be able to take them to the other places.” Ada commented and then added, “I don’t know about the animations, we may have to upload them … and we have all the textures on somebody's hard drive. One of my jobs next week will be to save XML files. Of the worlds that we've explored each one of them has a deal breaker … like they're not doing voice or they don't allow XML imports which would mean having to rebuild from scratch which were not committed to do. So eventually there will be a way of doing it so that we can store something on our hard drives bring it up and within a couple of hours have something going in another virtual world in but it's not there yet … but were building everything with that in mind at this point.”

“What's next after student looking glass?” I asked.

“A break!” They all replied in near harmony and then after the laughter trailed off, Ada said. “We’ll continue doing our Friday shows … it’s kind of experimental … we do everything from old radio shows to Shakespeare. We’ve talked about next year but have not nailed anything down … possibly more Shakespeare … everyone loves to do Shakespeare and we’ll probably do Antigone because we already have the sets and costumes from Oedipus. A couple of other book adaptations that we've talked about and everyone wants to do original stuff which is very hard to develop or get original material we can use and most of us want to do a little bit more machinima … mostly because it's so much work to do a live production and will probably shift our focus especially now that we have Evie Fairchild who is primarily a machinima producer.”

“Can I get you all to circle around the table and get a picture of the entire cast for the article?” I asked after I’d noted we’d been together for slightly over an hour by this point in time.

They each begin to move their avatars away from the audience seating area to find a spot at the table. Then MadameThespian suggested that they get into their costumes which took a little time. As they did the teasing and good-natured ribbing continued and I was impressed at how well they really knew each other … this diverse group of avatars from the US, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. When I finally got them settled into their seats, I zoomed in with my camera controls to snap a picture. Then someone suddenly yelled “food fight” and before I knew it there were prims being tossed about along with peals of laughter. I had to assert an almost parental like control by admonishing them with … BEHAVE … before I joined in with the laughter.


Mab MacMoragh said...

The hardworking Avatar Repertory Theater has impressed me greatly, always with a spirit of fun and underlying seriousness. I have enjoyed the too-limited time I have been able to spend watching and listening to them. It's difficult to do what they do with all the technical complications, variables and inconstancies of the virtual platform yet somehow they persevere. Thanks for this interesting post!

Unknown said...

You're quite right with your characterization of the troupe Mab and you're welcome. I enjoyed my time with them and am happy that I had a chance to share it.