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July 21, 2004

Avatar Theater and 'Time'

Plaintext Players, Desktop Theater, and Avatar Body Collision -- three theater groups working with avatars.

Plaintext Players performance of Roman ForumThe Plaintext Players, a group of artists, writers, playwrights and performers, began creating live online theater in the MOOs in ’94. Antoinette LeFarge, the founder and artistic director has written a fascinating analysis of performance there, A World Exhilerating and Wrong: Theatrical Improvisation on the Internet, which I would recommend to anyone interested in online theater, how it worked in the MOOs, and how it differs from regular theater.

In the past nine years the Plaintext Players have undertaken dozens of performances in the multi-user environments known as MOOs, and in online Chat sites at thePalace.com, where participants are represented by graphical avatars. In both environments the proscenium has been removed -- the boundary between performer and audience dissolved – and theater become a form of dramatic improvisation where there is no foretelling what may occur. Sometimes wonderful things do.

One of my favorites occurred when the Desktop Theater group, led by Adriene Jenik performed Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in thePalace.com. The text was Beckett’s , the characters the same as those in the Beckett play, but they were joined by anyone who happened to log-on to thePalace and find their way into the room where the play was being performed.Plaintext Players performance of Waiting for GodotA hunk named Muscleman was one of the “chatters” in the room and his improvisitory interruption – he changed his avatar’s name to Godot -- made this performance a first: one in which Godot finally showed.

Desktop Theater, which began its experiments in ’97, is based at UCSD and has been doing theatrical interventions primarily in thePalacecom. Since Godot, they’ve compressed several other written works and developed original material for their growing troupe of international actors including avatar-based improvisations. “Visual chatrooms, “ Jenik says, “ represent anticipatory spaces ripe for dramatic play…Those of us committed to breaking down the barrier between actor and spectator find immediate interest in the arrangement of participants,” (the chatters) “sharing the same arena, already masked and performing versions of themselves.” Desktop Theater appears to have concluded performing in 2001.

Avatar Body Collision's performance of swimAvatar Body Collision is currently the most active of the three troupes (as far as I can tell) and co-founder Karla Ptacek has written about it in an earlier blog. Engaged in what is described as “an ongoing exploration of the collision between theatre and the internet” this group uses chat programs - sometimes combined with live-stage performers – and has created its own open source performance-chat software. Recently they have also begun to use wireless technologies – about which I hope we'll hear more in upcoming comments.

In her post, Karla says, a lot of the problems that beset theater in these spaces revolve around time. Antoinette LaFarge talks about “lag” in her 1995 article. I remember “lag” well from the short time I spent in MOOs – newbies are always taking the blame for it – but as LaFarge points out, in a text world, where the improvisational dominates and performance generates its own script rather than visa versa , lag too can have interesting results.

Perhaps we could talk about online performance and "time" from the point of view of avatar and other forms of online theater...thoughts?

Posted by newradio at July 21, 2004 11:13 AM


hello, & great that you have initiated this discussion : ) i am one of the four colliders, as we of avatar body collision call ourselves. we met online during 2001 & in early 2002 we decided to work together as a globally dispersed cyberformance company in order to undertake practical research into the collision of theatre and the internet and to create live performances in cyberspace.

we do spend a lot of time on time - calculating time differences and negotiating times to meet and rehearse that enable us to have enough time for the other parts of our lives. avatar body collision has never been connected to an institution or funded other than performance fees, so we all have to have other jobs & also juggle families, study, travel, the usual life stuff. sometimes it seems almost impossible for the four of us to be online at the same time - there is always a 12 hour time difference as we are based in new zealand as well as london, finland, & various other places. for our last performance, vicki in nz had to get up at 5.30am and perform at 6am, for an 8pm show in belgrade.

and then there is lag - it's inevitable & unpredictable. you can try to blame it on the technology, but we have experienced it even on really excellent broadband connections. we try to incorporate it into our work, to regard it not so much as a problem but as a natural part of the cyberformance environment. it means that synchronised swimming and other routines are unpredictable - we still try to do them and the lag plays its own role in disrupting or embellishing the live performance.

um ... more later ...
h : )

Posted by: helen varley jamieson at July 22, 2004 10:22 AM

Hey everybody,

I think this place might need some more action...

Concerning "avatar theatre", there is an important group of performers missing, the so called Hamnet Players, who were acting until 1995. I think they were the first group ever doing theater in a chat room (the Plaintext Players were shortly after). It's interesting to see how they decided to organize online theatre and how later people did. And - besides - they were extremely funny, especially the Hamnet. So have a look, their archive is still online:


Concerning the lag: Talking about performances which are happening only online, I think the main problem is that you can never tell if a pause is a pause (with a meaning) or if it is just a lag. If somebody stops writing in a textbased surrounding, he stops existing, no matter if he just takes an dramatic pause, if he is laged or if his computer is crashed... In graphical systems, you might still be there (as a visible avatar), but you also might already be gone (if you are lagged or your computer has crashed).
So in the end, you're just alive while typing, and every new sentence is a rebirth.

So stay alive... ;-)

Posted by: Andreas Horbelt at July 26, 2004 12:04 PM

responding to andreas: "I think the main problem is that you can never tell if a pause is a pause (with a meaning) or if it is just a lag. "

why label this a problem? it's a feature of the environment. it's an unpredictable space that opens up at random in a performance. what can happen in that space? what thoughts go through the performer or audience member's brain during lag? how does lag undermine or support what's just gone before or comes after? at what point do you decide that this particular lag episode is long enough to make a cup of coffee, go for a pee or have a lag fag? how can we integrate lag into our performances?

h : )

Posted by: helen at July 29, 2004 08:20 AM

i wanna join avatar

Posted by: Addis on Zonicle at August 15, 2004 10:08 PM