by Selia Karsten


I'd like to invite you along on my exploration. To fully understand this adventure, you may wish to refer to the readings this story is based on.

Once upon a summer....

I set out to explore the world of computers and drama. I knew that production elements inhabit the digital realm of computers and multimedia curriculum, just as they do in film and television. Multimedia curriculum implies a collaborative art. People work together to plan, design and produce an environment that imitates life - a virtual reality. Unlike film and video, participants using computer-based materials are encouraged to take part, interactively. What if...I could find a way to use computers as a tool for creative drama?

What turned my world upside down - my cyclone - was the discovery of VR or Virtual Reality. On the bleeding edge of technology, Virtual Reality looms, ready for use in education. A review of the literature on this subject revealed educators yearning to establish virtual worlds in which students could develop new perspectives on learning. What is VR? It is an immersion into 3-D computer synthesized experience where one can interact with visual, auditory and tactile information.

VR was the hot topic at the Conference for Teaching and Learning  in April of 96. Many of the speakers addressed this VR concept, including the "father" of VR. In his keynote talk, Dr. Thomas A. Furness, III, told how he developed jet pilot simulation training and of his research facilities on VR at the University of Washington. An archeologist showed us what it is like to travel through the ruins of Pompeii in a virtual mode. My imagination started bubbling. Another educator talked about a virtual theatre where one could experience The Globe theatre for a production of Shakespeare - moving from the gallery to the stage at the click of a mouse. I began to speculate on what it would be like to experience improvisational drama in a virtual world. I fell under the spell of Virtual Reality!

While in Florida, I also visited Disney World's Epcot Center. At the Imagineering Studio, I begged for the opportunity to experience VR in person. (Usually the attendants chose kids, but I was determined) I donned the special head mounted display helmet with a small television screen inside so I could see where I was going. I sat astride a motorcycle-like seat and held onto a large flat felted rectangle which served as the controls for my flying carpet. Soon I was zooming through the city of Baghdad like Aladdin. My task was to fly through the marketplace without colliding with the townspeople. I was then to soar up to find the blue-domed tower. At the base of that tower, I would descend to find a thief hiding in a large jar. I completed the task successfully. What a thrilling ride!

I returned to Toronto, determined to learn more about Virtual Reality. I began with learning basic operations of a MOO (Multi-Users Object Oriented environment) where computer users connect to a virtual space to communicate in text. In the MOO one creates characters, rooms and other objects. Apparently, there is a thriving world of MOO.there I was fortunate to have a patient tutor in Jason Nolan, the developer of MOOKTI, a MOO which operated on a server located at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. I learned how to create a character, (here's a tutorial I developed - called @Describe) to build rooms and to navigate my way around this virtual realm. The next step , I thought, would be to have this happening with a graphical interface so I could see the rooms in the MOO as well as other players. Something along that line was already operational,The Palace, where visitors don graphical faces and text balloons fill with whatever messages the players are exchanging.

Eventually, I envisioned a way by which to conduct the improvisational work of Playback Theatre in a virtual space. This particular form of drama includes the use of storytellers from the audience who, with the help of a trained conductor, relate stories which are then performed by a small troupe of trained actors.

The enactments are done to the teller's specifications and are replayed when the teller wants to repair an original action or see the situation transformed by different choices and actions. This form of drama has been in operation in a few countries around the globe for over a decade. Having been active in the work, I wanted to find a way to get it to a much wider audience.

My favourite story as a child was The Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy, through my explorations I stumbled into an exotic land and the road, strangely enough, led me to OZ. My first guides might be compared to Dorothy's scarecrow companion on the yellow brick road. I found two scholars, Nicholas Negroponte and Derrick de Kerckhove trying to make sense of this digital age. These brainy men have become leaders in helping us understand the rapidly evolving electronic age.

Brenda Laurel became my Glenda the Good, and the "ruby slippers" she gave me were the ideas I found in her provocative writings, especially, Computers as Theatre. Munchkin-like, numerous educators raised their voices in journal articles, voicing their concerns regarding this VR-destined journey. I became aware of the dangers as well as the splendor of the Emerald City (Virtual Reality) and the glories it might hold.

I set out to inform myself generally as to the state of technology - ways in which it has been coming into our daily lives and ways in which futurists predict it will be made available. Both Negroponte and de Kerckhove developed these themes in detail, each one taking a very positive view on the possibilities for our digital world.

Along the way, I read about two drama practitioners in particular, remembering that I was exploring the world of computers in order to find a place for creative drama. Jonathan Fox , founder and director of Playback Theatre, now my Tinman, wrote that "contemporary culture discourages the experience of the unknown with which improvisation confronts us". (Fox 1994) He, however, considers the spontaneous drama achieved by the playback process as a true act of service. I have experienced the power of playback as a conductor, actor and teller.

Now, I had the idea that the players, coming together from various parts of the globe, could meet in a virtual space to reenact the users' stories - what could be more contemporary? It could be a way to encourage the practice of improvisation, and to honour stories for the teller's catharsis and empowerment. I met with Toronto Playback Director, Annie Stirling, who spent a day brainstorming with me around this idea. Her only concern with my idea was that tellers be screened carefully so that only those deemed psychologically fit become involved.

I also discovered the work of Augosto Boal , Brazilian director and founder of Theatre of the Oppressed. He became my Cowardly Lion. A roaring revolutionary, Boal believes, "No matter that the action is fictional; what matters is that it is action!" (Boal 1985) He goes beyond the storyteller and the audience participation process of Playback. His theatre groups transfer the means of producing theatre to the people for their empowerment. Here the actor is not a delegate - the liberated spectator becomes the actor, moving from mere catharsis to awakening and full action.

As I made my way through the shadowy thickets and soporific poppy fields, I would at times be lulled into the inviting promise of Virtual Reality ; "VR will not only affect computing itself, but an amazingly wide range of basic activities including: education, training, shopping, marketing, advertising, religion, design, war, communications, entertainment, psychology, philosophy, space research, industrial processes, employment and leisure. In short, it will have an impact on a considerable slice of our lives." (Herman and Judkins 1992) < P> Philosophers, programmers and educators are eager to share their thoughts on the subject of VR. On one hand were intriguing promises and on the other, portents of doom. "It's a phenomenon as perversely fascinating as it is pathetic; like extras hoping to catch a glimpse of our own faces in the crowd, we're so entranced with our participation that we hardly care what we're participating in." (Slouka 1995)

From fabulous to foreboding - from high tech nirvana to the infoholics' nightmare, an alienating cyberspace where the virtual supercedes the real connections in our communities. Not only were worlds being created, there was work being done to populate these worlds with synthetic actors. It seems, however, that it is a complex task. "It will take years before we are able to represent synthetic actors who look and behave realistically." Thalmann and Thalmann 1993) Such actors need to be capable of modeling common sense and psychologically accurate behaviour. It is one of many challenges for the coming century. And would such actors model the Luddites and the technophiles, the haves and the havenots, crying out in fear and/or righteousness?

In Dorothy's story, once inside the Emerald City, the great Oz is revealed as mere mortal. And it is at this point in my story, that I come to the conclusion that my Glenda the Good, is also the figure behind the illusions, Oz. Brenda Laurel, who was a major inspiration in my wanderings. Through her research and writings I found parallels between theatre and human-computer interface. In fact, she suggests a holistic approach to creating virtual worlds. She introduced me to The OZ ProjectAt Carnegie Mellon University, users become "interactors' playing out an interactive drama in a simulated world with animated creatures.

From her I also learned of the Virtual Theatre Project  Here the "interactor" has a choice of roles in a theatre setting, such as - producer, designer, actor and director. The roles not selected are played by automated actors. Both of these sites mentioned related projects involving artificial intelligence and Virtual Reality.

More importantly, Brenda Laurel gave me words of wisdom that reminded me of a spiritual approach that is meaningful beyond mere technology. She speaks to the idea of a post-virtual reality when the hype is over . She acknowledges the passionate response to this alluring world and feels it indicates the magnitude of transformation and evolution taking place in human culture. Laurel speaks of a technological framework within which we can explore and make ourselves whole. "The primary concern of VR is not constructing a better illusion of the world; it is learning to think better about the world and about ourselves." (Laurel 1993)

And in the final analysis, I begin to recognize that what is more important than possible drama in the virtual world is the coming to terms with the relentlessly evolving technology. Whatever the technological context, it is the content, the story itself. The ideas that inspire us and make us whole are those which help us to learn about ourselves. The medium a story appears in is less important than the impact of the story itself.

In telling this story of my adventure, preparing and presenting it, I have been learning about myself just as Dorothy did on her journey. "Stories help crystallize our views, our feelings and our priorities." (Cassaday 1994) I was learning that I needed to step back from the enticements of specific technological applications in order to study more carefully what is truly relevant to the art of storytelling and drama.

I have had a chance to look at both computers and drama from a different point of view. "When something is always viewed from the same spot, it turns into boring old stuff ultimately ignored by the senses and not felt at all. Zooming in and out means changing your viewpoint. From the tree you can go on to experience either the leaf or the forest. From any substance you can go either in the direction of its atom or in the direction of its world, both having their corresponding orbits and consciousness." (Booth, 1994)

I have discovered that beyond the alluring and seductive idea of Virtual Reality lies a greater challenge. As educators. we need to put the quality of content before the technology that houses it. Classic plays continue to inspire audiences because the dramas speak to us on a timeless and universal level. The stories that move and inspire us can be told again and again and each time we enact them, we find new truths and gain new insights into our choices. I am eager to continue my explorations, particularly those wondrous endeavors like the magic carpet at Epcot and projects that engage interactors in Virtual Theatre and in OZ.
September 12, 1996

Updated July 2018
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