Ever wanted to peer into the party-filled 1920s mansion of Jay Gatsby, or cruise down to Daisy Buchanan’s house in East Egg? Now you can, using a new pilot project by Tacoma Little Theatre. All you need is an Internet connection to step into author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” at least virtually, and learn more about the novel, the period, the author and Tacoma Little Theatre, which opens a theatrical version Friday night.
“As an educational tool, it’s brilliant,” says TLT director Chris Serface, who is using the custom-designed virtual world to reach out to local high schools in particular. “Students today are so much of the digital age. This is a great resource for them to learn.”
But it’s not just for students. Built by Tacoma set designer Judy Cullen in partnership with online community Seanchai Library (pronounced SHON-a-kee). The virtual world of EXPLORE Gatsby is easy to access and navigate. Using the Kitely simulation platform, creators like Cullen can build entire virtual worlds (like Gatsby’s village of West Egg on Long Island, complete with trees, houses and bay) in whatever style they like, hyperlinking various objects to other websites. Users — having downloaded a free viewing platform and set up a Kitely account — can then walk around the virtual world using an on-screen avatar, clicking on hyperlinks to get information, and taking in the environment. Those younger than 18 must have an adult set up the account.
Cullen has extensive knowledge of theater — she was TLT’s director for five years until 2006, and production manager before that. She has spent about 40 hours researching and 80-100 hours building a world that echoes Gatsby’s in great detail. Ominous with huge slag heaps and dead trees, the valley of ashes holds Wilson’s garage and the restaurant, where you can click on poster hyperlinks to learn more about the glittering Jazz Age. Out on the West Egg spit is Nick Carraway’s cottage (home to an information “museum” about Fitzgerald and his other writings) and the lighthouse; close by is Gatsby’s mansion.
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Cullen is still building the details, but when you enter through the ornate front doors, you realize that your avatar is standing in the foyer of Tacoma Little Theatre itself — a complete reproduction with entry into a red-and-gray theater framed by the gilt Art Deco proscenium that will be used in the actual TLT production of “Gatsby.”
“I’m all about it being not just about the story but about the organization itself,” Cullen says. “In the future, I’m seeing that people can explore TLT before they even come in the door, test out sightlines from the seats (they book).”
A big part of what Seanchai Library does with their online worlds is live literary readings — and that’s happening in EXPLORE Gatsby too. Beginning last week, members of the global Seanchai community (including Cullen herself, as her avatar Caledonia Skytower) are entering the world on a preset date and reading excerpts from the novel, covering it all within a month. These readings happen in a park on the West Egg peninsula that Cullen built for that purpose. The next one is at noon Saturday, and more are listed on the library’s blog.
So far, Serface is working with three local high schools that are studying the text, giving them original study guides written by Cullen and links to the EXPLORE Gatsby site, hosting online discussions, and finally bringing them to a stage performance.
“When we think about education for the performing arts, we think about schools, which is great,” Cullen says. “But audiences in their 30s, 50s and 70s are still interested in learning, yet it’s harder to get information to them. This is a bridge, turning the study guide into something people can walk into and explore.”
At the actual theater, audiences can get a taste of that in the lobby, where Serface will have a laptop and large screen set up for folks to move an avatar around the virtual Gatsby world during intermission and before the show.
Right now, EXPLORE Gatsby is still a pilot project, both for TLT and the Seanchai Library. Serface hopes it will eventually translate into a commodity that can bring the community theater some income by renting it to other theaters or educational institutions. He’ll bring it to the next meeting of the American Association of Community Theaters with that hope.
Cullen, meanwhile, hopes it will become one of many EXPLORE regions in the Seanchai Library, bringing recognition and income to a group that now operates on a volunteer basis.
“This is a fresh idea to see where it goes,” Serface says. “No other theater around here has done it.”