The Virtual Reality Tour of Historic Theatres: An Internet resource for theatrehistory and architecture studies

By ThomasG. Hines
Whitman College
Washington, USA

The remains ofancient theatre performance spaces lie 'at the root of acted language,'as suggested in the monumental three-volume, Teatri Greci e Romani: alle origini del linguaggio rappresentato. These 'mutestones' speak of cultural performance preferences, adaptive renovationsby ever succeeding societies, and the impact of time and weather andwar. Two centuries of archeological excavations have identified manyof these theatre sites and subsequent research has painted an ever-changingpicture of the historic record that is locked in these tangible remainsof an otherwise ephemeral art.

These magnificentruins, some pristine, some crumbling, a few partially restored, manylittle more than a collection of weathered stones against a fan-shapedhill, are scattered about the ancient prefectures of Greece and Rome.The various stories each has to tell appear in selective compilationsof archeological research in numerous publications including The History of the Greek and Roman Theater, by Margarete Bieber, and theaforementioned Teatri Greci e Romani. Vitruvius' Ten BooksOn Architecture provide an ancient insight into the Roman as wellas Greek approach to theatre construction, and the detailed second-centurytravelogues of Pausanias provide selective, eyewitness snapshots ofGreek architecture during the Roman Empire.

The VirtualReality Theatre Tour project was conceived as an online introductorysurvey of many of these historic sites. The resulting website consistsof an archive of viewer-controlled digital panoramic images (360-degreephotographs) of numerous historic theatres linked to descriptive textas a resource for both students and teachers of theatre architecture.Theintent of the virtual tour is to augment traditional teaching methodsand provide a dynamic, visual tool for describing remote archeologicalsites to students.

It is presumptuousat best to suggest that the breadth of published research on ancienttheatres can be incorporated into a single website. I would characterizethe Theatre Tour project as an introductory companion to, anda synopsis of the volumes of scholarly publications addressing thesubject.

A visitor tothe website will find a map of Europe and the Near East.

This map displayslinks to numerous historic theatres and, when selected, each providesaccess to an illustrated historic commentary and data charts containingdates, dimensions, maps, drawings and timelines. The visitor is alsogiven the opportunity to take a virtual tour of the ruins. This virtualtour consists of a series of panoramic views of the theatre combinedwith a collection of annotated photographs illustrating, and hopefullyilluminating, significant objects and archeological details foundat the site.

Recent expeditionsby this writer to Turkey, Greece, and Italy have produced over 7,000high-resolution photographs of 39 historic theatres. These digitalimages were used to create 156 panoramic views describing the individualtheatres from various vantage points and select photographs illustratethe various historic commentaries. The online images represent onlya small sample of the total photographic archive and have reducedresolutions in order to accommodate the restrictions of Internet access.Until such time that demand overwhelms my college or my time, theonline resource is provided free of charge and requests for higher-resolutionimages for educational purposes will be considered. Generous contributionsfrom numerous colleagues have benefited this project, and I encourageand welcome future offers of scholarship. Those interested in submittingresearch or commentaries are encouraged to contact me at WhitmanCollege.

Currently onlineare the theatres of Turkey, the Great Theatre at Epidaurus, Greece,and the Roman Theatre at Ostia Antica, Italy. I am at present in theprocess of editing the images, soliciting commentaries, and buildingthe websites for the other theatres of Greece and Southern Italy.During the next year these, too, will be incorporated into site-specifictours and linked to the project map. Photographic expeditions toNorthern Italy, France and Spain are planned in the near future andalthough the initial phase of the project concentrates on ancienttheatres, I hope to include later constructions such as the 16th-centuryTeatro Olimpico in Italy and the 18th-century Drottningholmin Sweden.

The strengthof the Virtual Reality Theatre Tour lies in its specificity,organization, and accessibility. This is an online archive of historictheatres and great care has been taken to provide users with an intuitiveapproach for comparative explorations of the data. Other websitesof note such as The Perseus Digital Library, Didaskalia: AncientTheatre Today, and Skenotheke: Images of the Ancient Stage have a much broader base and, inthe case of Perseus, an amazing depth of information on a vast range of subjects. But,by limiting the Theatre Tour's subject matter to historic theatres,a greater depth of images and text can be provided.

I would be remiss,however, if I were to imply that reading books or viewing a collectionof panoramic images, annotated photographs, and commentaries is asubstitute for exploring these ancient remains in the settings wherethey were built. A virtual tour is not a substitute for travel; itis merely a convenience. Lacking is the heat of the Syracuse sunand the relentless wind of Mantinea; missing is the humbling experienceof viewing the plain of the river Kaikos far below the theatre orchestraat Pergamon. The viewer of a photograph cannot appreciate the longevityof a Roman drainage system until he has accidentally stepped intoa still functioning, vegetation-obscured, and water-filled orchestrachannel. A paragraph cannot fully describe the visceral experienceof seeing motorcycles assault the slopes of the Spartan theatronand compare this noise and carelessness with a less damaging modernuse of the orchestra as young boys play soccer in Gytheion a day later. No description or photo can fully capture the pastoral setting ofsheep grazing among the barely discernable remains of the theatreat Euromos, overgrown with ancient olive trees and delicate wild orchids. And finally, no review can possibly convey the majesty of a modernday performance at Epidaurus as an ancient theatre once again hostsperformers telling an epic story within the confines of an acoustically-perfectbowl of marble.

Rather than admittingto an inherent weakness unique to the Theatre Tour project,I am merely acknowledging the universal value of travel and firsthandexperiences. I also acknowledge the impracticality of travel as astandard pedagogical choice when introducing students to historictheatre architecture. The Virtual Reality Theatre Tour of HistoricTheatres is not so much a substitute for travel as it is a preparation.It is a viable resource for presenting ancient theatres to those interestedin the subject, and ideally, it will be an enticement for those soinclined to travel and explore.

Thomas G. Hines
Thomas Hines is Associate Professor of Theatre, Whitman College,Washington, USA


Bieber, MargareteThe History of the Greek and Roman Theater 2nd ed. (Princeton/ Oxford: 1961)

Ciancio Rossetto,Paola; Giuseppina Pisani Sartorio (eds); Jean Duvignaud (texts)Teatri Greci e Romani: alle origini del linguaggio rappresentato(SEAT, 1995)

Pausanias Descriptionof Greece Volumes I-V. Tran. and ed. by W.H.S. Jones, except VolII by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod, and Vol. V (Maps, Plans,Illustrations and General Index) by R.E. Wycherley (Harvard: LoebClassical Library, 1969).

Pausanias Guideto Greece: Central Greece Tran. Peter Levi, Illus. John Newberry,Jeffery Lacey (Penguin 1979)

Pausanias Guideto Greece: Southern Greece Tran. Peter Levi, Illus. John Newberry,Jeffery Lacey (Penguin 1984)

Perseus DigitalLibrary

Skenotheke:Images of the Ancient Stage

Vitruvius TenBooks on Architecture Ed. Ingrid D. Rowland, Thomas Noble Howe(Cambridge: CUP, 2001)