Kent ensemble to create virtual play

Glennis Siegfried

Members of the Kent Second Life Ensemble practice a scene from the Wakefield Mystery Cycle. Later the group will act out the same scene in Second Life. Glennis Siegfried | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Members of the Kent Second Life Ensemble will put on the first virtual play to ever be performed this winter.

“There has been nothing of this magnitude,” said Mark Monday, assistant professor in the theater department and director of the production. “It’s a first in the real world and a first in the virtual world.”

Steve Zapytowski, professor of design and technology, Monday and 12 students are producing part of the Wakefield Mystery Cycle, and will be performing the finished plays within the virtual world of Second Life.

The ensemble is composed of both graduate and undergraduate students with majors in theater and computer science. The group meets on Mondays and Fridays as part of Zapytowski’s virtual live performance class. During class, students practice their lines and movements, then later program them into Second Life.

Final practices and performances are done in the Obrádlan Síorai, or Theatre Eternal, which Zapytowski built himself in Second Life. Usually users have to purchase “land” within Second Life to use, but the theater area was donated by Rab and Loretto Spitteler from Australia. The couple is respectfully known as the “rulers” of Eternia, the name of the land.

“We became interested in this from the standpoint of, ‘Can an actor make money in Second Life?'” Monday said.

While Zapytowski has been creating the ensemble for about a year now, the class itself is new. It was first offered for the Fall 2008 semester.

Chris Richards, senior musical theater major, or Mintesh Kippel as he is known in Second Life, first heard about the class while talking with Monday.

“In a sense, I enjoy a challenge,” he said of performing in Second Life.

One of the challenges the ensemble has run into is that their avatars, an online virtual representation of a person, don’t have the widest range of movement, Richards said.

The avatars in Second Life do not have any facial expressions either, Monday added.

Changes had to be made in the construction of the virtual theater as well. To accommodate the virtual actors, a light-colored stage floor was built. Most theaters have a dark-colored floor.

“Otherwise they (the avatars) blend into the background,” Zapytowski said.

Small details have even been added to the costumes each of the avatars wear during their performance to make them as lifelike as possible. Cloth texture and a dirtied fabric are some of the newest techniques their costume designer, Constance Matova, a member of Second Life, has tried.

Mike Myers, senior computer science major, works “behind the scenes” with programming. He was introduced to the class because they needed an animator.

“It’s for the experience mostly,” he said. “Nothing has even been done on this scale.”

The Wakefield Mystery Cycle is still in production, but the final performance dates have been set for Dec. 9, 10 and 11. At that time, the students will present the finished plays on Second Life for other viewers. It is part of their final exam.

“This is something different and something new,” Richards said of the overall experience. “I wonder if this could be the future of acting.”

Contact technology reporter Glennis Siegfried at [email protected].