The Stage & The Simulacrum: UVA’s Department of Drama Experiments with Virtual Reality
In today’s world of content creation, the idea of keeping up with the times is much harder than it sounds. And that makes the work that students are doing in Department of Drama Professor Mona Kasra’s new courses important, as well as impressive. Starting last semester, Kasra decided to take her students to the cutting edge of a world evolving by the minute by making them pioneers in what is clearly a new frontier of virtual reality. “My work in research has a lot to do with the idea of technology and how media shifts the way we communicate,” Kasra said, “and the way we perceive and the way we interact with one another. So with VR and 360 technology, this conversation is quite timely because this is the next media when it comes to content creation. We are witnessing the birth of a new medium.” Kasra encouraged her students, who all had diverse interests and backgrounds, to utilize the new media to enhance their creative storytelling, particularly as that art shifts to meet new opportunities and avenues. The studio class was built around immersion, with students working individually and collectively to learn how to use the new technology and at the same time cast a critical eye on how it is being used by others in its relative infancy. The pioneering aspect of the class was particularly exciting, said Dallas Simms (College ‘17), one of Kasra’s students in the course’s maiden voyage. “She kind of prefaced it by saying that she had never done this before, we had never done this before, and really barely anyone had tried this before, so we were all in it together and if we fail, that is part of the process we needed to embrace.” Failure, Simms said, is a relative term when you take into account the newness of the medium.
“There are a lot of things that nobody has really figured out yet. Like when you are in a 360 environment, wearing the Google cardboard, and you are totally immersed in the whole thing, if you look straight you can see the tripod. There is no way to avoid that.” Despite the challenges, he said, class helped illustrate many of the reasons that the technology is being hailed as the future of filmmaking. “It feels like there is more room for empathetic storytelling, because you are really immersed in these worlds and you are able to feel a real connection to the places and to the material.” Another exciting aspect Kasra sees is the range of topics and settings she is already getting from her students. “Atthar Mirza (Architecture ‘17), one of our students from the Architecture School is working on a VR piece about Syrian refugees seeking to find their way to Europe. He is working with a variety of faculty members and is slated to give a TEDxUVA talk about the project in addition to submitting it to film festivals. This is really the medium of the future,” Kasra said, “and it is challenging artists like myself and my students in that it changes how we tell the story in a world where you are giving a lot of control to your viewers. It is a great chance for all of us to be at the forefront of content creation.”