October 29, 2019
Shakespeare in the Holodeck: “Shakespeare-VR” Launches from Stephen Wittek, Assistant Professor of Literary & Cultural Studies
By Angela Januzzi
In October 2019 Stephen Wittek, CMU English assistant professor of Literary & Cultural Studies, officially launched "Shakespeare-VR.” A virtual reality project and educational tool, Shakespeare-VR allows students around the world to “step onstage” during performances at Blackfriars Playhouse, the indoor theater used by Shakespeare’s company. The project, which is now available online at shx-vr.com, entails streaming virtual reality media, a curriculum for classroom use, and a selection of readings on virtual reality and humanities education.
“In order to really get Shakespeare, students have to understand what his theaters looked and felt like,” Wittek said. “Shakespeare’s players performed in fully lit spaces, where spectators could look around at each other and experience the drama together. Virtual reality is the perfect medium for documenting this situation because it can put you right in the middle of the action, and because it provides an immersive 360-degree view of the entire space.”
The Shakespeare-VR project began as a collaboration between Wittek, Entertainment Technology Center and English Film and Visual media instructor Ralph Vituccio, and ETC graduate Jaehee Cho, now director of the Pittsburgh-based virtual reality start-up Stitchbridge Inc.
In November 2018, the three partners travelled to Staunton, Virginia with a virtual reality camera to document the Blackfriars Playhouse, a lavish reconstruction of the London theater. Working in conjunction with performers from the American Shakespeare Company (ASC), they shot four scenes from Hamlet, and also produced a virtual documentary that provides a brief introduction to playing spaces in Shakespeare’s London.
Wittek then previewed the Shakespeare-VR media for attendees at digital humanities conference at Oxford University in July and the Blackfriars conference in Staunton, VA, in October.
Ralph Alan Cohen, co-founding director of the ASC, said that it he was very moved to see the Blackfriars in VR. “I was totally fascinated to watch it because it was so dynamic, and I just thought it was great,” Cohen said. “It made me cry.”
Echoing Cohen’s sentiments, ASC director of education, Sarah Enloe, said that the experience of entering the Blackfriars in virtual reality made her feel as though she had been transported to a wholly new world. “I couldn’t believe what I could see to my left, to my right,” Enloe said. “As I looked around, I saw our theater and our audience embodied for anyone, anywhere. And the very idea that is magical. I think it’s important for students to understand the arrangement of the Blackfriars because when you see actors in this space, what you’re seeing is—we think—what Shakespeare was imagining as he wrote the plays.”
Wittek is looking forward to sharing the project with more Shakespeare enthusiasts around the world this fall. Future plans for the project involve more ambitious, interactive productions that will enable users to assume Shakespearean roles and interact with professional performers.
In the meantime, the project will be exhibited at the CMU Teaching & Learning Summit (Friday, November 1 from 4-5 pm, Peter, McKenna, Wright Room, Cohon University Center). In spring 2020 Wittek will co-convene a first-of-its-kind seminar on Shakespeare and virtual reality at the annual Shakespeare Association of America conference in Denver, Colorado.
With the launch of the website as a resource, anyone in the world with a virtual reality headset and access to the internet will be able to access the Shakespeare-VR media. Reception so far has been very positive. “Everything is absolutely free. We aren’t looking to make a profit,” Wittek said. “We just want people to experience it.”
The full website URL for Shakespeare-VR is: https://dh-web.hss.cmu.edu/shakespeare_vr/
Pictured above: One of the 360-degree virtual reality cameras used to film the Shakespeare-VR project.