Who is the audience?

Consider the difference between an establishing shot in film and an establishing shot in live theater. In the former, the camera might pan over a city or a village. Then we cut to street level, and the audience understands that they have just entered the human scale of our story.

In terms of literal point of view, the audience is the camera. They were hovering in the sky, high above our locale. And then they, the audience as camera, become repositioned at street level in the same village.

In the case of live theater, the tools and therefore the rhetoric are different. Perhaps the audience sees, on the stage, a miniature of a village. There might be a little puppet walking through this miniature.

Artifice is perfectly welcome in theater, so our audience might even see the puppeteers holding the strings of this little puppet, but knows to ignore those puppeteers. The fact that the presence of such figures is artfully revealed yet ignored is all part of the fun.

The next scene a full size actor walks on stage, and the audience understands that this is the same character, now seen in close-up. The effect is roughly the same as that cinematic sequence of shots, but not exactly the same, because the mental model is different.

When we watch successive shots of a movie, our point of view is literally altered. When we watch scene transitions in theater, we are rather presented with multiple representations of the same subject, which we continue to observe from a fixed point of view.

When presenting theater in shared virtual reality, using the brand new methods that our group showed this past week at SIGGRAPH 2018, it is not yet clear what mental model to use. In terms of technique, there are no limitations: We can choose to transport each audience member’s point of view, as in cinema, or choose instead to present variously transformed representations of that world to a fixed audience, as in theater.

I think the relevant questions to ask concern not technique, but rather the audience’s understanding of its relationship to a fictional world. Will each audience member be asked to project herself into an alternate world, or will she be asked to interpret stylized representations of that alternate world as seen from a fixed location? Or will there be a third way, something unattainable in either cinema or live theater?

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions. But over the course of the next year, my collaborators and I are going to do our best to explore the possibilities.

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