By @SharronMSwain. Elizabeth Hunter and I met years ago in Birmingham, Alabama. At that time, she was directing an innovative program called MUSE OF FIRE: Shakespeare at Sloss. It was great to catch up with her, and learn more about how she’s now using augmented and mixed reality as new ways to bring audiences into stories. Find out more about her work here.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I just finished my PhD in the Interdisciplinary Theatre and Drama program at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Before I came to Northwestern, I was running an immersive Shakespeare project I launched at a restored blast furnace in Birmingham, Alabama—Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark.
I’ve also been a screenwriter, a film executive, a dramaturg, and even a teacher in a juvenile prison in the Bronx.
Does it seem like a logical background to what you do now?
It does. I’ve always loved canonical work, literary analysis, spectacle, audience participation, and directing the show. My current work brings these threads together.
What’s the elevator pitch for what you’re up to these days?
I recently graduated from Northwestern University, so I’m on the academic job market and continuing my research. I write critical theory on immersive, interactive spectatorship, and I use emerging technology to adapt canonical plays into interactive experiences.
How did you get involved with what you’re working on now?
When I was at Sloss, I became fascinated with the way immersive production choices invited audience members to feel like meaningful participants in a famous story—a Shakespearean play—in a way that didn’t involve changing the storyline. I came to Northwestern to explore this dynamic further, and it’s evolved from there.
Stephen French as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, Birmingham, Alabama.
Tell me about how your work has expanded to include augmented reality.
I became interested in augmented reality because of the possibilities it offers for a porous experience of a storyworld. This porousness was part of what I enjoyed about staging work at Sloss. Though audiences might have arrived with a range of familiarity with Shakespeare, most were experiencing the scenes with a certain transparency, because the striking visuals of Sloss showed through the story vignettes we placed around the space.
Sloss’ unusual architecture is a defining element of Birmingham’s skyline. Working with the grounds’ stunning visuals was of course a draw for me, but I also loved inviting people into a different engagement with a space they’d grown up seeing (even if it was just from the highway).
So unlike VR, which is fully visually enclosed, an AR experience necessarily uses the user’s surroundings as the backdrop. This integration of hologram and familiar physical space creates the story porousness that interests me. Because when an experience ends and you take the headset off, the memory of the hologram hovers in your space.
In the first AR app I tried, robot scorpions broke through the wall at The Garage at Northwestern, where I was in residence. Whenever I look at that wall, I remember those scorpions.
Looking to the future of this technology, I’m captivated by the idea that, forever in our own environments, we will see around us the remnants of Greek tragedy (that’s the app I created), of robot scorpions, of whatever source was visualized, THERE on our own tables, in our own spaces, and in which we participated.
Why do you think it is such a powerful idea?
There’s a lot of interest right now in live interactive storytelling, but these experiences are built on a dynamic that isn’t new to the digital age. As I talk about in my theoretical work, a key human desire is feeling like a meaningful participant in a live story or an artwork that we recognize as famous AND important. It’s a sensation that is satisfying, validating, and empowering.
Even just within the realm of Western theatre history, we can trace this dynamic back to contexts like early modern playgoing or the festivals of Dionysus.
What’s harder to see is that creating such experiences involves a lot of production choices designed to control both the audience’s behaviors and the trajectory of the story in question. My work illuminates those systems of control, so we can see the producers behind them and the agendas they’re advancing.
How can people find out more about you & your work?
How can people contact you & learn more about you?