Performing Historical Place: Leveraging Theatre Historiography to Generate Presence in Virtual Reality Design for Restorative Justice

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Jennifer Roberts-Smith

    University of Waterloo

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This long paper reports the development of 1) a new theoretical approach, with accompanying methodology, to the representation of place in historical digital humanities projects arising out of 2) a new digital resource that will be used in fall 2019 in secondary schools in Nova Scotia, Canada to teach restorative justice practices as a means of addressing the impacts of systemic historical racisms that are still active in participating school communities.

There is a robust tradition of virtual reconstructions of historical places in the digital humanities, with a strong thread of applications in theatre and performance history (Roberts-Smith 2017; a survey in chronological order might include Friedlander 1991; KVL 2002; Best 2002; Saltz 2004; Tompkins and Delbridge 2009; Roberts-Smith, DeSouza-Coelho and Stoesser 2016; Wall 2016; and note Franklin J. Hildy’s career-long leadership in the area of historical theatre architecture and the digital humanities). Digital theatre history projects, like cognate projects in other domains (such as architecture, archaeology, library science, even gaming), have tended to approach the virtual reconstruction of historical place as a process of synthesizing and visualizing surviving documentary and archaeological evidence of material places as accurately as possible. Normally, we have better evidence of the venue in which a past performance took place than we do of the performance that took place there, so DH researchers working in this area have consistently been careful to make explicit the relative stability of the architectural models their projects have produced, in comparison to their much more hypothetical virtual reconstructions of performance. While this is a rigorous and productive approach to historical performance research in the digital humanities, its emphasis on documentary and material evidence is limiting in at least two ways: first, it implicitly privileges place over event, which can result in an exaggerated emphasis on the semiotic impact of the venue for a past performance or of the location for a past historical event (a similar imbalance occurs in non-digital research including influential studies such as Fitzpatrick 2011); and second, it cannot accommodate some of the most important threads of longstanding theatre-historiographical theory, namely those arising out of emphases on discourse (Postlewait 1991), memory (Phelan 1993), and repertoire (Taylor 2003) as repositories of performance history (as well as of the histories of events and cultural practices).

These limitations have been especially problematic in the
Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation
project (DOHR), which is charged with the responsibility of creating a virtual reality experience, based on oral histories, to teach 17-year-old high school students about the harms suffered by former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children (NSHCC; see DOHR). The DOHR VR experience, titled
The Home
, is the centrepiece of a two-week curricular unit that fulfils the educational mandate of the Restorative Inquiry currently underway in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada (NSHCC Restorative Inquiry). The Inquiry, building on the work of the Victims of Institutional Childhood Exploitation Society (VOICES), an association of former residents of the NSHCC, has collected the oral histories of more than three hundred former residents, which bring to light harmful events and experiences that were systematically excluded from the public documentary record. As a result, although the oral histories that we are rendering in the VR environment of the
The Home
are set in the historical NSHCC building, it is essential that our virtual reconstruction of the fabric of the building
be represented as more stable than accounts of the events that took place there: after decades of protest against a false and harmful documentary record, the voices of the project’s first person storytellers must not be overshadowed by it.

In response to this challenge, the DOHR project’s virtual reality development team (made up of theatre and DH scholars, theatre artists, games studies scholars, and game industry professionals) has drawn on discourse-, memory-, and repertoire-based theatre-historiographical theory to attempt to render the historical NSHCC as a place that is performed by (brought into being, and hence ontologically subsequent and secondary to) the speech acts (Austin 1966; 1975) of oral historians, rather than occupied by them (pre-existing and hence ontologically prior to their voices). The concrete implications of this approach include some unusual engagements with the conventions of VR, especially with regard to character representation (we emphasize multi-modal
over analogues for embodiment); configuration of the VR participant’s role (resisting the conventions of
design practices in both VR and theatre); and affectivity (privileging affective dissonance [Zembylas 2016]) over the widely-celebrated VR simulation-induced
). In combination, these practices argue (we hope) a definition of
past place
that supersedes reconstruction and construes it instead as a complex form of
(Slater and Wilbur 1997; Sas and O’Hare 2003)- a sense of
being there
that in our VR experience is generated by a participant’s growing ability to reflect on their own perspective
in relation to
(i.e. importantly distinct from, although hopefully increasingly sympathetic to and willing to ally with) the perspectives of the storytellers whose histories they are witnessing. The goal of this sense of “relationality” (Llewellyn 2011) is to equip Nova Scotian young people with tools to help them identify - and begin to mobilize their communities to work together to address - the systemic causes of racism that are still actively causing harm in Nova Scotia and elsewhere in Canada.

The Home
will be tested systematically with youth during our in-school pilot study in fall 2019. Team-internal assessment has been an integral part of the iterative, participatory design process (Björgvinsson, Ehn, and Per-Anders Hillgren 2010) undertaken by our community-based research partnership, which includes former residents of the NSHCC, the NSHCC Restorative Inquiry, VOICES, Nova Scotian education administrators, teachers, and school resource workers, historians, and legal experts, as well as theatre artists and games studies scholars ( This paper will be illustrated by screen capture video of excerpts from the Beta build of
The Home
; the VR experience will also be available.


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