Virtual theater and spectator-performer relationship
A theater is a space specifically designed both for performance and appreciation. The relationship between these two acts is directly influenced by the theater space itself. The history of theater development, both in China and abroad, demonstrates that changes in the design of theater spaces can have a significant impact on the dynamics of watching and performing. For instance, in a proscenium arch theater, the stage and the house are separated by the proscenium arch, creating a binary division. Actors perform on the stage while the audience watches from the designated seating areas and offer live reactions such as applause, cheers, or even booing. In this case, an invisible wall, i.e. the “fourth wall” is created to separate the act of watching from the act of performing.
However, numerous experimental or thematic theaters have attempted to dismantle this “fourth wall” by altering the spatial arrangement between the stage and the house. The influence of theater space, especially in physical theaters, on the dynamics of watching and performing is direct and observable. Consequently, changes in the spectator-performer dynamics also influence the evolution of theater space. This is most apparent in the case of postmodernist theaters.
The relationship between theater space and the spectator-performer dynamics is bidirectional, where the understanding and theories regarding the dynamics influence the construction of theater space, which, in turn, influences the actual dynamics of watching and performing. It is worth noting that the reciprocal relationship between theater space and the spectator-performer dynamics is predicated on the physical existence of a theater space. In contemporary times, digital technology has given rise to virtual theater spaces. Can virtual theater spaces also change the bilateral dynamics? This is a question that theater practitioners need to address.
Smart theaters, cloud theaters
Over the course of history, theaters have evolved from outdoor settings to indoor spaces and, once again, towards more open configurations. These changes are reflected in shifts in the physical nature of theatrical venues. Since the 20th century, the extensive incorporation of visual and digital technologies in stage and theater productions has lifted the limitations that physical space traditionally imposed on physical theater spaces. Consequently, a novel form of theatrical space, entirely dependent on technology, is emerging- the virtual theater space.
The first virtual theatrical space is the “smart theater,” which is capable of expanding physical boundaries virtually. With the widespread adoptions of technologies such as 5G in mobile communications, a new type of theater has emerged in China, exemplified by the smart theater of the National Theater of China.
These innovative theaters focus on the digital enhancement of traditional theater settings and the integration of online streaming and live performances. In a smart theater, multiple VR spherical cameras are installed, each providing over 30 camera stands for multi-view filming with no blind spots. This allows for the reconstruction of a theatrical production in a captivating “parallel space” format, enabling synchronized streaming from various angles. Audience members can use head-mounted displays to fully immerse themselves in the production, thanks to technologies like 4K, 8K, VR, and AR. Online viewers with access to the low-latency 5G network can watch the performance simultaneously while being able to freely select their preferred viewing angles.
Smart theaters facilitate concurrent on-site performances and online broadcasting, hence are able to cater to both in-person attendees and virtual viewers. This can enable diverse viewing experiences, since it encompasses both the physical and the digital, both the tangible and the virtual, thereby merging traditional theater space with the realm of virtual theater space.
The second virtual theater space is known as the “cloud theater,” i.e. a simulated theater within virtual space. Facilitated by progress made in digital technology, China has recently witnessed the emergence of such theaters, which exist entirely in virtual space.
Cloud theaters have adopted various approaches to their development. Some have created their own mini-programs, such as Qilu Cloud Theater, Baminyun Cloud Theater, and China Performing Arts Cloud Theater. Some other cloud theaters have been established on collaborative platforms, such as the 5G smart theater built in partnership between Guangzhou Grand Theater and Huawei Hybrid Video, which is available on an APP called Huawei Video. The Peking Opera classic “In Extremely Good Fortune” is available on the Migu Video live streaming platform. Some other cloud theaters might opt for popular public online streaming platforms such as Douyin, Kuaishou, and WeChat’s “Channel” function. By way of online live broadcasts, these innovative platforms aim to make it easier for viewers to access various theatrical performances anytime and anywhere.
Cloud Theaters do not represent a complete departure from reality, however. While the theater space may be virtual, the spectator-performer relationship maintained through various interactive means in the virtual realm remains real. So too is the audience’s viewing experience and aesthetic appreciation. The cloud theater embodies a unique space that blends virtuality, simulation, and reality.
Virtual spectator-performer relation
Whether it is the smart theater or the cloud theater, virtual theaters constructed with the help of digital technology still rely on various forms of screens as mediums to connect with the audience. The performances are displayed on the screen while the audience watches from the outside, creating a distinct “fourth wall” in a different form. This setup introduces a binary separation between the act of watching and the act of performance, resembling the spectator-performer relationship in proscenium theaters.
However, unlike physical theaters, virtual theaters do not allow for simultaneous presence of the audience. This non-presence poses challenges for interactivity between spectators and performers. Therefore, the core issue in virtual theaters lies in finding ways to overcome the limitations of non-presence and facilitate spectator-performer engagement to the fullest extent possible.
Virtual theaters have undertaken various experiments using digital technology. One such endeavor is the introduction of new perspectives for audience engagement. For example, the 5G Smart Theater by the Guangzhou Opera House and Huawei Hybrid Video, employs techniques such as free-angle and multi-angle filming to overcome the limitations of traditional live stage performances. This allows viewers the freedom to choose their preferred viewing angles. In the case of the Guangzhou Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, the enhanced experience of free-angle filming enables audiences to select their desired perspectives. Similarly, in the theatrical play Move-to-Turn into Human Forms, viewers can switch between split-screen views of different scenes, thus enjoying a personalized and multi-dimensional viewing experience. Through the utilization of digital technology, virtual theaters continuously strive to create unique and immersive viewing experiences that were previously impossible in physical theater settings.
Another aspect involves the incorporation of various online interactive features in virtual theaters. For example, Peking Opera attempts to construct virtual audience experiences by introducing interactive functionalities such as cloud balcony seats, cloud applause, and cloud rewards. These features aim to create a sense of being present in a traditional theater and facilitate interactive engagement during online performances.
Thirdly, virtual theaters utilize virtual reality technology to create immersive environments, enhancing the sense of presence and immersion for the audience. The emergence and development of virtual theaters are closely intertwined with the profound utilization of virtual reality technology. For instance, VR technology can simulate and generate virtual theater spaces, while AR technology can enrich the virtual effects within the theater. Additionally, MR technology can seamlessly merge the virtual and physical elements, blurring the boundaries between them. By harnessing virtual reality technology and associated devices, virtual theaters not only allow audiences to recapture the lost sense of being physically present but also enable them to experience interactivity unprecedented in traditional physical theaters.
Currently, the flourishing cloud theaters in China mostly rely on 2D streaming media. Consequently, immersive experiences can’t be replicated in the digital theater using traditional devices like computers and smartphones. However, research and R&D are well underway for platforms that can support real-time interactive experiences. Examples from the gaming industry, new media art, and online live streaming that utilize virtual reality technology for scene creation and real-time interactions provide valuable insights for the future development of virtual theaters. Particularly, the rapid advancement of the metaverse, constructed with technologies such as sensing, edge computing, perceptual interaction, holographic imaging, simulation engines, and AI-generated content, is pushing humanity from an era of being solely online towards a reemergence of being physically present. It is anticipated that virtual theaters will evolve towards a new form that seamlessly integrates the virtual and the physical. In this future landscape, real-time interaction across different times and spaces will truly be realized, enabling virtual theaters to surpass physical theaters and establish new forms of audience engagement.
In virtual theaters, the bidirectional interaction between theatrical space and audience engagement continues to evolve. Although the current forms of virtual theater spaces are derived from simulating offline audience experiences, the integration of virtual and physical made possible by technological advancements will empower virtual theaters with powerful real-time interactive capabilities. These new forms of virtual theater spaces are bound to generate novel audience engagements. How will these new forms of audience engagement evolve? And how will they shape the future construction of virtual theater spaces? These are a series of intriguing questions that continue to inspire us to explore further.
Zhao Yanxi is from Shandong Academy of Arts.