Second Life and the Remediation of Theatre

First hearing about the growth of theatre in Second Life, I was admittedly sceptical. However, further research into the topic proved it to be less fanciful than I would have originally thought. Before beginning, its important to define a few of the terms being used to make the approach to this topic a bit clearer.

The most important term to start with is Remediation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines remediate as to mediate again’ (1), and mediate can be defined as to act as an intermediary or link’(2). Therefore, it could be said that the remediation of theatre involves some process, or medium, which acts as a link between theatrical performance and the new forms that it finds itself manifested in, such as TV, Radio and, in this case, Second Life. The original mediation would be from play script to performance.

Second Life is an online virtual world developed by Linden Lab, a company founded in 1999 by Phillip Rosedale with the aim of developing computer hardware to allow people to immerse in a virtual world. It was launched on the 23rd of June, 2003 and reports to have over 20 million registered users as of 2011. Users, called Residents, can explore the world, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, create content and even make money by trading virtual property and services with each other. Each resident has their own fully customisable avatar that they use to navigate the virtual environment, with the possibility of creating their own content such as buildings, objects and clothing. Second Life is also used as a vehicle for long distance education and, of course, as an artistic medium. (3)

Finally, what is theatre? Theatre has been around since about the fifth century B.C. when the Greeks and the Romans used theatre as a mode of political discussion and debate. Wilson and Goldfarb point out that Wherever complex social organisations and population centres develop, theatre is likely to emerge.’ (4) But what constitutes theatre? This is a question so complex that John Russell Brown wrote a book 246 pages long entitled What is Theatre? attempting to tackle this question. He dedicates a section of this book to what theatre does, listing the following: theatre creates a social occasion, holds a mirror up to nature, provides a progressive experience, theatre can make use of words and theatre is fantastic. (5) This, however, is a completely subjective view of theatre that would sit in opposition to the like of Bertolt Brechts Epic Theatre and Antonin Artauds Theatre of the Absurd.

For a simple, more accessible definition of theatre, it helps to look at the etymology of the word theatre. Theatre draws its meaning from the Ancient Greek word théatron, literally meaning a place of viewing’(6) and also from the Ancient Greek word theáomai, meaning to see, to watch or to observe’(7). Therefore, theatre is a place to view and observe a performance can be taken as a simplistic definition of what theatre is.

It would be unfair to say that Second Life is the first example of new media being used in theatre. David Z. Saltz charts the introduction of new media technologies into theatre in his Performance Arts essay in the Companion to Digital Humanities (8). Saltz makes note of the benefits to sound and lighting design technology, the benefits of data basing for theatre historians and the 3D modelling of historical theatrical venues. Most importantly in this context, he also makes note of the possibility of multi-site theatre, such as the Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatres production of The Making of Americans, where performers in remote locations worked together in real time to create a live performance in both locations simultaneously.

This idea of multi-site theatre was realised by the Goodbye Dollar Live Machinima Event that took place on the 30th of August, 2008. Machinima is the use of real-time three-dimensional graphics engines to generate computer animations (9) - the graphics engine in this case being Second Life. Performances that took place throughout the Second Life world were attended by in-game residents while also being broadcast live at a venue in Amsterdam (10).

One of the artists that took part in this event were a group called Arthole, now disbanded, who were a US/Brit art collective that used Second Life as their man medium. For the event, they created a performance piece called Orientation, which involved audience members wearing customised Bunnyken costumes (11), exhibiting the possibilities of interactive theatre in-game.

Another example of a group using Second Life as their main medium is the Metaverse Shakespeare Company. Formally known as the SL Shakespeare Company, they first performed Act 1, Scene 1 of Hamlet in February 2008. The company consists of amateur and professional talents, with actors controlling specially designed avatars using a combination of real-time live input and some pre-recorded movements. In order to get a more realistic experience for the audience, the company creates new animation movements and also uses post-production lip-syncing. They have yet to produce a full-length performance due to production costs, which in 2009 amounted to about 3,850 (12).

The MSC perform all of their shows at the specially designed SL Globe Theatre. This particular model is the most historically accurate 3D rendition of the theatre on the internet and is life-sized in scale with a Second Life avatar. The idea behind the theatre was to create a performance space which would replicate the performance conditions of a Shakespearean play in Shakespeares time. During a performance, the audience have the choice of sitting in the gallery, or standing in the pit, on the floor below the stage, while being able to control their view through various camera angles (13). As was the case in Shakespeares time, audience members are able to converse with each other through audio chat or instant messaging, thus creating a sort of open-forum to allow comments on the performance, something which doesnt exist in the silent ethos of contemporary theatre.

Clearly Second Life has become an alternative channel for artistic exploration for many practitioners. However, what impact does this have in the context of the remediation of theatre? This process has its benefits as well as a number of challenges.

The most obvious benefit here is the customisability of content, meaning the design elements, such as costumes and set, are now limited only by the imaginations and coding abilities of the users involved, eliminating the financial restrictions of the real world parallel and consequently reducing the need for a suspension of disbelief. The accuracy and detail that can be achieved allows for a much richer world to be created on stage for a lot cheaper. As Ze Moo points out virtual theatre is more immersive, like being part of a live interactive movie.’ (14)

As an internationally used service, Second Life also gives practitioners a much wider audience base. For example, a company performing in Cork City would have a maximum audience base of about 120,000, where as the audience base for the Metaverse Shakespeare Company, for example, could feasibly be a few million. It must be taken in to account that not all of the 20 million registered users of Second Life are feasibly active, however even if 5% of these users were in-game at the time of a performance, this gives a potential audience base of 1 million. The use of subtitles also allows for a much wider audience base, opening performances to a world-wide audience, without the logistical problem of transporting audiences across continents.

Lauren Weyland, a performer in the Goodbye Dollar Live Machinima Event, also draws attention to the diminished importance of appearance for a performer or actor in-game, as the avatars are fully customisable. This shifts the focus away from the physicality of the actor and places more emphasis on their vocal talents, or in the case of Weyland, their comedic abilities. Weyland uses this to his advantage and plays with the gender identity and stereotypes, his avatar portraying a strikingly beautiful female coupled with the deep, bass voice of a male (15).

Other benefits include the use of special effects, which can easily be created digitally without the hassle of health and safety regulations. A low cost of production also allows for a low-risk avenue for new scripts to be produced, where as in the real world the risk of producing a new script can ultimately bankrupt a theatre if it is unsuccessful. The audience members are also given the option to communicate with each other during performances, as is the case in the SL Globe Theatre, allowing for a style of Community Theatre, similar to the ethos of theatre that Augusto Boal pursued.

These benefits do not come without their problems though. A major issue to consider is the technical ability of the systems used. Although the recommended system requirements for running Second Life are relatively paltry (16), they do not take into consideration the necessary bandwidth required to allow for seamless movements and an absence of lag, which are essential in order to get the most out of a users Second Life experience, and would needless to say be vital for the full enjoyment of an in-game theatrical performance. The Linden Scripting Language also presents problems for new users who have to acquaint themselves with the new coding nuances.

Audiences can also be negatively affected by this remediation, as Sean McCarthy points out the difficulty in finding the in-game islands among the sprawl of user-created content, many of which can be empty and abandoned (17). Performers must also sacrifice the reaction of the audience, both physical and in some cases audible, as avatars would not show the same reactions as actual audiences in a real theatre, as Joyce Timmerman pointed out in relation to the stand-up comedian Lauren Weylands performance during the Live Machinima Theatre Event (18).

Another challenge encountered when remediating theatre through Second Life is the blurring of boundaries between film and theatre. Taking the fact that users viewing a performance in the SL Globe Theatre have the ability to change their camera angles during the performance is a break away from the fixed view of a real life audience and very much changes the approach that a director must take, calling for a consideration in all angles that an audience may view from, eliminating the stage craft of accounting for an audiences viewpoint. Ze Moo claims that virtual theatre is more immersive, like being part of a live, interactive movie (19), but is this a direction that theatre should want to take?

So what does the future hold for Second Life theatre? Although the Metaverse Shakespeare Company seems reasonably active, there seem to have been more companies coming and going than there are lasting. There does seem to be a growing scholarly interest in the use of Second Life for performance remediation, as exhibited by Sean McCarthys article (20). However, only time will tell whether Second Life is a feasible channel through which to remediate theatre and whether or not it is truly a beneficial avenue for theatre to invest in.


(1) - OED Online
(2) - OED Online
(4) Wilson, Edwin and Alvin Goldfarb. ‘Living Theatre’ Boston, Massachusetts: Mc-Graw-Hill, 2008.
(5) Russell Brown, John. ‘What is Theatre?’ United States of America: Focal Press, 1997.
(6) - Online Eytmology Dictionary
(7) - Wiktionary
(8) - A Companion to Digital Humanities
(9) - Wikipedia
(10) - London Theatre Blog
(11) - YouTube
(12) - Wikipedia
(13) - Wikipedia
(14) - London Theatre Blog
(15) - London Theatre Blog
(16) - Second Life Official Website
(17) - Project Muse
(18) - London Theatre Blog
(19) - London Theatre Blog
(20) - Project Muse