New tech brings our ‘lost’ theatres back to life

Digital recreations are revealing fresh knowledge about five ‘lost’ theatres with the launch of a new book at the Queen’s Theatre in Playhouse Lane, Adelaide, which is the oldest surviving theatre building in mainland Australia.

The book – Visualising Lost Theatres (published by Cambridge University Press) – is based on Virtual Reality reconstructions of five significant ‘lost theatres’ from around the world, and will be launched by Flinders University’s incoming Professor of Drama Dr Chris Hay at 5.30pm on Wednesday 21 September.

The VR models provided the book’s authors with an innovative research tool to uncover the social and performance practice histories of these venues.

The book launch event – being presented by Flinders University’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and AusStage: The Australian Live Performance Database, and supported by Flinders University’s Assemblage Centre for Creative Arts – will feature the venue’s original appearance brought back to life in VR headsets and via images projected onto the walls of the surviving building. Please register for the event on Eventbrite.

In the lead-up to the event, the Queen’s Theatre manager GWB McFarlane Theatres is allowing a week of free access for researchers to use audio-visual firm Novatech’s projection technology to explore 3D projection mapping of the VR models onto the walls of the historic theatre.

The book authors are international theatre researchers Emeritus Professor Joanne Tompkins (University of Queensland), Emeritus Professor Julie Holledge (Flinders University, University of Oslo), Associate Professor Jonathan Bollen (UNSW) and Associate Professor Liyang Xia (University of Oslo), who have worked together on projects including the creation of IbsenStage and AusStage: The Australian Live Performance Database (an online database with information about live performances in Australia from 1789 to the present, awarded UNESCO Memory of the World Status in 2020).

Co-author Joanne Tompkins will speak at the launch event with Richard Solomon, a surviving relative of the Solomon brothers, ex-convicts who became entrepreneurs and built the Queen’s Theatre in 1841, only five years after the colony of South Australia was established.

The launch event will also hear from Guy Adams, a descendant of WH Formby, who bought the Queen’s Theatre and turned it into a horse bazaar in 1877 – when grooms walked horses around on stage while bidders viewed from the gallery! Guy and Liz Adams own Metala Winery at Langhorne Creek, purchased by Formby in 1882, and has the oldest family-owned Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world. Their wines will be served at the launch event.

The authors and their research teams have pioneered a new research technique for Visualising Lost Theatres, using archival and archaeological records to reconstruct lost theatres in accurate virtual reality.

These VR models provide the visual and immersive feel of a venue, as well as revealing performance logistics for actors and audience alike, enabling the researchers to explore both social histories and theatre practices in which the venues themselves were significant players.

In addition to the Queen’s Theatre, Visualising Lost Theatres also features visual recreations of Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre in 1590s London, birthplace of the drama of Marlowe and Shakespeare; the Komediehuset in Bergen, Norway, where Henrik Ibsen developed his ground-breaking dramaturgical style in the mid-19th century; a traditional yueju bamboo-framed big-top tent, with which Cantonese Opera troupes toured Victoria’s goldfields in the 1850s; and The Stardust Showroom in Las Vegas, which pioneered the 20th-century phenomenon of live-performance-venue as tourist-mecca until its demolition in 2006.

Professor Patrick Lonergan of NUI Galway says of the new book: “Its contribution to theatre studies is immense, not just expanding what we know but providing new tools and methods.”

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College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences