Digital 'Dickens Project" combines online actors, Victorian tale

Head online Sunday for live telling of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ featuring a computer-created world and actors

Staff writerNovember 29, 2013 

A screen grab of actor Judy Cullen’s avatar in her built world for The Dickens Project on Second Life, an online social world. This hall of posters of Charles Dickens’ works is one of many sets she created there. Cullen will act as online guide Sunday during a live reading of “A Christmas Carol.”

COURTESY OF JUDY CULLEN

In a small apartment room, Judy Cullen is building a world. Her face bathed in the glow from three screens, she whips a mouse around as she propels a slim, medieval-looking figure through cobblestoned streets and leaning buildings on the middle screen. On the right screen sits a Wikipedia entry for Charles Dickens, and on the left is a transcription of “A Christmas Carol.”

Cullen is preparing for a Tacoma show on Sunday that’s highly unusual: The digital “Dickens Project” combines online actors, a virtual screen world and Cullen reading live for a multimedia version of Scrooge’s tale.

“I’m still playing with the whole interactivity of this environment, so that people are not just sitting and listening, but walking into the graveyard with Scrooge,” says Cullen, of the virtual world she’s building. “I think it’s innovative. It’s right on the edge of where virtual worlds are right now.”

And a Tacoma audience will be on that edge Sunday afternoon. In the historic Knights of Pythias Hall on Broadway – which itself looks like a setting for a Dickens novel – Cullen will set up her laptop, projector and screen. As she reads “A Christmas Carol” aloud (a version edited down by Dickens) she’ll be joined online by fellow readers Kevin Lee in Minnesota and Shandon Loring in Nevada, their voices projected through speakers. While they read the tale of the miser Scrooge and how visits from four ghosts transform his soul, the screen will display a virtual Dickensian London built by Cullen in the web program Second Life. Her avatar (or online character) will be moved around that world by a colleague on the laptop, exploring the clickable objects and historic scenery Cullen spent months creating.

It’s not an interactive experience for the audience, but one that Cullen hopes will introduce people to the concept of Second Life storytelling, where they can log in on their own during a scheduled online reading.

“I wanted to go beyond the ‘look this up on pbs.org’ mentality, where you’d find out about the topic after the performance,” says Cullen of how she got the idea. “I wanted them to be able to explore it during the show.”

Cullen – who directed Tacoma Little Theater from 2001-06 and still designs sets for local companies – first came upon Second Life through a friend. While it uses video-game graphics, the website is less game and more social media, allowing users to build an environment for their avatar and interact with others in theirs. And while the program has gotten bad publicity because of its potential for pornography and gambling, it’s also been useful for education, health care, and expanding life for those who have limited mobility.

It’s also brilliant for set design, Cullen says. “The challenge in the real world is that you’re limited by the resources of the company, and your own strength,” she says. “Here I can do anything. I can pick up a 2-by-16 piece of wood and texture it in two minutes. I can build a set that in real life would cost thousands for around $100.”

The 360-degree view and camera zoom also allow her to scale her designs any way she likes, and to check sight lines from the audience.

“Here you have a place where a 3-D environment is the scenery,” she says.

In 2008, Cullen discovered an online storytelling site called the Seanchai Library, where actors read literary works in Second Life while listeners around the globe explore a virtual world built to recreate the historical or imaginative setting of the book. Cullen was hooked. She now helps run Seanchai, and has read more than 500 book-hours for the project – including “A Christmas Carol” every Christmas and, last December, a prototype of “The Dickens Project.” In a virtual London courtyard, Cullen and eight other members of Avatar Repertory Theater company read their way through Dickens’ works. The performance was so popular, the system crashed and some users couldn’t get in, Cullen says. That inspired her to create this year’s live show.

Over the past month, Cullen has spent hours redesigning the Dickens online world. It now features an expanded courtyard with 19th-century shops where the main reading takes place, plus an upstairs hall lined with posters of Dickens’ works – these function as links to educational sites on each topic. Avatars can “pick up” objects such as snacks, drinks and accessories; they can also wander into the upstairs galleries to hear readings from last year’s event.

If you’re a reader who likes imagining the visuals for yourself, however, you’re not alone. Penny Tennison, secretary of the Fireside Story League of Tacoma, can see the possibilities, but also the limitations, of this approach.

“I think it’s another variation on how storytelling can be done,” she says. “Having visuals along with the audio can help people for whom language might be a barrier ... (or) to bring people from distant parts to a common understanding, or as a great classroom experience. But traditionally, a listener is able to use their own experience to build their own sets in their imagination. With Second Life, that’s supplied for you. I wouldn’t want it to replace traditional storytelling.”

John Munn, director at Lakewood Playhouse, echoes this.

“It’s an incredible way to translate the theatrical stage to the Internet,” he says. “It’s amazing. The possibilities are endless.” Munn also points out that it encourages live theater, and allows that to be brought more cheaply to remote locations.

But in a truly interactive show, flipping through online links while live theater is happening could also be a distraction. “You’d get an educational experience, but not a visceral one,” he says.

At the moment, Cullen is offering her readings and virtual worlds for free. Eventually though, she can see possibilities for developing them into a marketable product that could fit educational or recreational purposes, particularly for seniors or those with limited mobility. And there’s also the possibility of holding performances where audience members can bring their own device and log in to Second Life themselves during the show.

“I want to show what is possible using the virtual world as a positive, creative, collaborative tool,” she says.

Ultimately, though, Cullen says it’s all about live theater and literature.

“I don’t envision this as something that replaces reading a book, going to the theater or watching a movie,” Cullen says. “It’s just another way of expressing the story. If someone goes back home as a result of this performance and picks up a copy of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and reads it, I will be happy. If they read it aloud to someone else, I’ll be ecstatic.”

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