|FOCUS ON THE FACULTY
VAUDEVILLE COMING SOON TO A COMPUTER NEAR YOU
|By Ashley Cole
|Imagine watching a theatrical
performance two feet from your computer screen and feeling as if you
are really there. It really doesn't seem feasible.
Recently, a team of researchers from around the country has decided to
make this far-fetched fantasy come to life.
Susan Kattwinkel, an assistant professor of theater and literature at the College of Charleston, is one of the research partners involved with the project called Virtual Vaudeville. The project will simulate 19th century vaudeville productions through use of the World Wide Web. Kattwinkel, who teaches courses in theater, acting, dramaturgy, stage management, and feminist culture and has studied vaudeville stage performance, is tasked with ensuring that the dialogue, costumes, staging, audience members, and other elements are historically accurate for the vaudeville project.
Kattwinkel's involvement with the project began at a conference in Washington, D.C. in 2000. Here, humanity scholars and computer technicians met in hopes of finding a way to unite computer technology with humanities. The goal of the conference was not only to discuss ways in which the two could complement each other, but also design projects demonstrating how computer technology could aid in education and research purposes.
From the 1850s through the 1930s, vaudeville was, according to Kattwinkel, “the television of its day.” Vaudeville troupes were traveling variety shows featuring singers, dancers, magicians, comics, animal acts, strong men, and freak acts. She says the “Virtual Vaudeville” show will feature four acts, of eight to ten minutes each.
A native of Charlottesville, Va., Kattwinkel says as she began to study theatre history she became most interested in “theatre that the masses saw rather than theatre that only the elite saw. So I also study circuses, magicians...theatre that people see.”
Kattwinkel is excited about being involved in a project that uses 21st century technology to bring new understanding and appreciation to old-time entertainment.
“On the historical end, we hope it to be both a teaching and learning tool where people can pull it up and see what it would have been like to be at a vaudeville show,” she said. “But it’s also good from a research point of view because vaudeville scholars and researchers can go into the environment and argue about it, whether some element of the modeling is accurate or not. So it’s a physical way of studying the form and debating the form rather than just in words which is all we can do now. Plus, with the gaming technology and the interactive features, this vaudeville site will be fun and entertaining, as well as educational.”After receiving a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and supplemental funding from the University of Georgia Research Foundation, Virtual Vaudeville began construction. Since the project is modeled after late 1890s vaudeville productions, a set had to be reconstructed from drawings and descriptions of New York's Union Square Theater in 1895. Kattwinkel admits that this part of the project proved somewhat difficult because they "were working with something that was not a given." She also said that in order to replicate the Union Square Theater, research was done only from books, drawings, and descriptions from that era.
One of the most unique aspects of "Virtual Vaudeville" is the fact that audience members are not actually in the theater. In fact, there is no physical theater at all. Instead, those that choose to experience Virtual Vaudeville, will be doing so in front of their computer monitor. Another interesting part of the vaudeville project is the use of performance modeling. This type of simulation occurs using professional actors and sensors on the body. The "real" actors act out the old vaudeville scripts and then are later digitized to appear on the computer screen as animated characters.
Kattwinkel says that everyone involved in Virutal Vaudeville is extremely concerned with the audience, as well as the actors on stage. So concerned, in fact, that those watching the acts can do so from a variety of viewpoints. "This is important," Kattwinkel says, "because who you choose to be has a profound effect on how you view the show." For example, if you choose to be an African American during this time, you will probably be watching the show from the back of the room or balcony. Likewise, if you choose to be a successful, white businessman, you will probably be sitting relatively close to the stage. Being able to take on the identity of the various audience members will allow the viewer to not only watch the show from that viewpoint, but also be able to hear, see, and take part in any action going on in that general area.
Most importantly, Kattwinkel and her reseach team want Virtual Vaudeville to educate, and inform, as well as entertain. Kattwinkel feels that just doing the project has increased her knowledge in the historical aspects of theater during the 19th century. She says, "Anytime you try to do something, you learn more about it." Not only will Virtual Vaudeville serve as an educational tool for students and teachers, but it will also further promote research for historians on 19th century vaudeville theater.
After all, the show must go on!
For more information about Dr. Susan Kattwinkel, please go to: http://www.cofc.edu/~kattwins/SKhome.htm
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