Interview: “VR is the driving force for us!” digital.DTHG in conversation with theater junge generation Dresden

The digital.DTHG team visits the theater junge generation Dresden, one of the first cooperation partners in the research project “Im/material Theatre Spaces”. Project manager Franziska Ritter and VR coach Vincent Kaufmann ask about experiences and insights and show how the Dresden colleagues have made it from their first virtual attempts to established digital workflows in their daily work.Insights are provided by Lutz Hofmann (Technical Director), Robert Rott (Construction / Operational Safety Staff) and Grit Dora von Zeschau (Head Stage and Costume Designer).

Franziska: We met at the Stage Set Scenery fair in 2019 in the Immersive Showroom, where we showed the first AR and VR prototypes from a two-week workshop. What made you curious?

Lutz: We were totally fascinated by the approaches and ideas that the workshop participants had created in a very short time. Rough diamonds that were waiting for their polishing… You showed with the prototypes: that’s where you could go, that’s the way! And the first ideas sparked off immediately.

Vincent: What were your questions when you started the cooperation with the digital.DTHG team? Where was a need for action?

Robert: We had many questions and challenges on our wish list, but then we took a current production as an opportunity to generate insights that were as practical as possible. It was about Kästner’s “Das doppelte Lottchen,” which we wanted to stage for our summer theater at the Dresden Zoo. An unusual and challenging outdoor venue in terms of the production process. The rehearsal situation during winter time takes place under difficult conditions and it is hard to imagine how the stage situation would be in summer with full tree cover and with spectators. So it made sense to use this example for our experiments in the direction of the “digital construction rehearsal”.

Franziska: What about the time factor – one of the most important resources in the production process – were you able to save time? Were you more effective and what exactly was your requirement for a digital construction rehearsal?

Lutz: In the beginning, we didn’t save any time, but actually needed more time, even until today, because these are additional work steps. However, we are not dependent on the varying availabilities of all parties, and we can do a lot of coordination in the virtual set – that’s a great advantage in ongoing theater operations!

Robert: We have now started to provide the set designers with our new 360-degree photos and precise 3D models at the start of the project. This definitely ensures an easier spatial, but also technical understanding. From my experience so far, this reduces the risk of misunderstandings, so it definitely “saves” time, especially in communication.

Vincent: Maybe it is also about a different way of working?

Grit Dora: Perhaps the stage design for the production  “Tiere essen” serves as a good example: Above the almost empty stage hovers a large transparent sphere, a kind of oversized soap bubble, with a workstation for an actress who places there papercuts of various constellations that are projected onto the cyclorama with a live camera.

Virtual construction rehearsal and stage situation for the “floating soap bubble” in the production “Tiere essen”

Robert: The challenge was to design an airframe that came as close as possible to the image of a feather-light soap bubble – with a limited budget and other requirements. The task here was to capture the implementation ideas from the various departments, sort them out and lead them to a decision-making process – without bursting the bubble, in the truest sense of the word. And I can say quite clearly that VR is the driving force for us!

Franziska: What does that mean exactly? When and how does virtual reality come into play here?

Robert: For us, virtual reality doesn’t necessarily mean that you always have to put on VR glasses (which is what many people think), that’s more the icing on the cake. We have modeled the different design variants and put them up for discussion, because that is actually the most important thing: to simplify the communication process. So right now we’re trying to stop sending screenshots, and instead send active links with moving 3D models on our Sketchfab channel, which is permanently available as an online library for everyone to use. Or a link to our Mozilla Hubs 3D online platform when it comes to space. The more time I invest in this kind of pre-work, the more time I save after the construction rehearsal.

3D view of the bubble model on the online platform Sketchfab

Franziska: The “Tiere essen” project was also a model project on the issue of sustainability. To what extent did the digital workflows play a role in this and how were they evaluated?

Lutz: In a real-life laboratory situation, we worked with Sukuma Arts e.V.  to investigate how much sustainability is possible in a staging process. This raises the question of how effective such a model review is from a sustainability perspective. What happens there? A team of two or three people travels for a two-hour meeting to review a model, then everyone gets back in their car, on a plane or on a train. You have very high time pressure to get all the issues sorted out. And then the same thing happens again at the build rehearsal. With digital ways of working, communication is much more sustainable. Collaborative ways of working, such as those possible on the Miro online whiteboard, have been incorporated into our learning process. This requires a high level of self-interest and a great willingness to learn on the part of all participants.

The Christmas play “Auguste” was prepared in a workshop with the digital.DTHG based on the already existing construction data for the technical setup on stage.

Vincent: Can you briefly describe which programs you work with? What exactly does your workflow look like?

Robert: The first sketches of the set designers and scenographers are usually still analog, and that’s a good thing. Ideally, both spaces – the theater space and the stage design – are well prepared with 3D data in parallel. We create the data in CAD (currently with the software Autocad and Inventor), export VR data from CAD, work on these (e.g. in Blender) for “display” or for a digital construction rehearsal, continue working in CAD until the workshop drawing and export this final version again in VR for the “digital workshop delivery” – and all this usually in addition to the analog drawings.

Vincent: What is important to you about this workflow, where are the pitfalls?

Robert: For me, it’s important that I can continue to use the data throughout the entire production process, because the main question is really: does it do anything for the workshops? Can the components be lasered from the 3D data right there? I have to be able to generate workshop data from the CAD data, and I can’t do that with Blender at the moment. The biggest problem for me are the APIs. Which software brings me what? Often it is much too complicated.

Vincent: Was it also important here that you initially offered the digital construction rehearsal as a supplementary work step, as an “add-on”?

Robert: Yes, that’s how I do it. Particularly after the analog construction rehearsal, in order to then be able to quickly check the changes in the VR goggles. And a digital pre-construction rehearsal would of course be the optimum before going into the analog construction rehearsal. I can minimize the effort extremely if I clarify a lot in advance. This requires a great deal of understanding on the part of the other partners for this additional effort, and there must be an awareness that you then have to deliver digitally well-prepared material before a construction rehearsal – in other words, in the balancing act between the model delivery date and the construction rehearsal date. Unfortunately, this is often not yet the case.

Vincent: What kind of rethinking is needed in the teams to establish such new processes permanently? For example, an additional, earlier deadline for the digital 3D model in preparation for a digital construction rehearsal?

Lutz: Yes, it should. But that presupposes that the management of a house or an institution recognizes this as a great advantage and takes a leap of faith to create this freedom. On the pure project level, we often succeed, because it depends on the person and the individual. Sometimes circumstances also help, such as in the case of international teams, where it is simply enormously practical to open up a shared collaborative space very early on without having to travel a lot – so that our project meetings take place right away in Mozilla Hubs.

Vincent: What kind of feedback did you receive? How did the colleagues react, was there any resistance? How much convincing did you have to do?

Robert: The pandemic situation certainly had an accelerating effect here and caused understanding – because we were virtually forced to deal with it. The reactions were very mixed in the various departments, ranging from great enthusiasm to resistance. I took various colleagues by the hand one by one (laughs) and led them into a safe space – with caution and without pressure, because the first steps in VR are always a bit shaky. I told them: “See if it’s any good for you”. That required a lot of patience and individual moderation.

Lutz: When you work at the theater, you learn pretty quickly how much “social work” is done here. In principle, we have to do the necessary persuasion work here if we want to use these tools in the long term. Acceptance is much higher when you realize that it is beneficial to you.

For the production of “Das Doppelte Lottchen,” it was checked in Mozilla Hubs whether the stage design could be adapted to other venues, because the premiere at the zoo could not take place in 2021.

Franziska: Will there still be an analog model for future productions?

Grit Dora: Preliminarily, yes. For the next production, I’m trying to design in analog and VR in parallel. I want to provide my colleagues in the workshops with the familiar format and at the same time give them an insight into VR. One important point is haptics: how do I explain the surface in the painting workshop when I really don’t have anything in my hand?

Lutz: Maybe I don’t necessarily need the model myself, but some stage designers may need it in the process, in order to become clear about what works and what doesn’t. And if you can’t find a solution in analog, the digital space won’t help either.

Franziska: When asked about stage design and scenography, Grit Dora: You are in a luxurious situation here at this theatre – digital, curious, open to experimentation. Other theaters probably (still) live in a different reality. How are you developing your digital way of working? How are you adapting it?

Grit Dora: Yes, the conditions at the theaters are extremely different. My own way of working is not yet as digitally established as I would like, for reasons of time and resources. We’re in a good situation here at the theatre, because we’re a group that’s interested in it and is working hard on it. But there is not yet a really established way of working for me as a scenographer: I’m still searching for the ideal workflow.

I also had the fantasy “Ok – from now on virtual!” We will learn it and then there will be day X, and from then on we will only work with it. But that won’t happen, except perhaps for the few VR experts in the theater sector. My way now is a “unclean” way of working – half analog and half virtual. At least that is how we established it with our VR graphic designer in the current production “Der Mond schien blau – eine Wunscherfüllungssuche zwischen virtuellem und analogem Raum”: We often change live and together on the 3D model. But sometimes it’s just the printed screenshot that I hand-draw my changes into and email to the VR artist (laughs). It feels strange, but it’s totally productive.

Parallel worlds with costume designs developed simultaneously in analog and digital space: the work processes are supported by Christoph Magnus, a student of the stage design class at the HfBK Dresden, as a VR artist.

Franziska: It’s interesting that you call that “unclean”. This is an extremely flexible, hybrid way of working – the rapid change between analog and digital, depending on the situation…

Grit Dora: Yes, for me the insight was that it can be more productive if you first say goodbye to a certain perfectionism when it comes to VR and allow yourself more “work in progress”. My colleagues from the “Bund der Szenografen”, where I am active in the “Digital Space” working group, are also still trying things out. There are some people who have been working with it for many years and there are quite a few colleagues who have joined relatively recently and first want to know the basics quickly and in a comprehensive way: what is VR and how can we get started? More training and workshops are urgently needed in the future, such as those already offered by the DTHG. There are also efforts to set up digital labs where digital help is offered already in the first design phase. It’s very difficult for the independent scene to act on its own here and it needs the interplay of theater institutions and associations to build this up together.

Vincent: Where does this knowledge, where do these experts come from? Is there a need for new professions? Does the know-how have to be located in the core team at the theater itself, or is it more appropriate to work with external service providers on a project basis?

Robert: The ideal form for us here at the theatre would be a hybrid form. Because the digital expert always works at the interface, both with a technical focus, but also with an artistic focus and a staging competence, including public relations and communication. There are so many disciplines mixed together, they are specialists, and yes, it would actually be a full-time job.

Lutz: Of course, it would be more sustainable to implement such topics in apprenticeship training – on both sides: on the art side and for the technical side. Both require more comprehensive continuing education and training offerings, because ideally, one makes one’s own staff fit to handle basic digital technologies. For certain productions, a VR graphic artist is needed – we book him externally if necessary. But if the financial belt has to be tightened or there is a lack of understanding for this enormous amount of work, the first thing we have to do is cut back on external services.

Franziska: Experience from other industries shows that digital transformation can only succeed “in-house” in the long term. How do you ensure that knowledge remains in-house?

Lutz: That is an important point. Where is the knowledge stored, how is the knowledge passed on? Our worst-case scenario: If Robert leaves, we start from scratch and the technology gathers dust in the corner.

Grit Dora: That’s why, in the current play development “Der Mond schien blau”, we started to spread the knowledge widely and strengthen the core team as much as possible.

Actors flit, climb and jump skillfully across the stage with VR glasses during rehearsals for “Der Mond schien blau”. They move as naturally in these hybrid worlds as if it were all part of everyday life.

Robert: In the medium and long term, it is important to repeatedly confront people with VR technology in various project constellations. In this current production, we are dealing with it in a very playful way for the first time – four puppeteers with four Oculus Quest glasses are acting in parallel in Mozilla Hubs and on the analog stage. In this way, an understanding, a know-how and an acceptance is created almost incidentally, because the technology is brought into the house in a different way.

Vincent: Have you developed tools and methods in-house to store this knowledge? And what will be needed in the future?

Robert: We are currently working with the whiteboard tool Miro, where we track errors on a daily basis and document possible solutions. This is being developed in parallel as a communication platform that will ultimately lead to a type of documentation in order to store the know-how for future projects and employees.

Lutz: And here, again, we would need a clear statement from the management level and an anchoring that we make this our standard work process. However, self-interest is one of the most important prerequisites here. Our puppet maker, for example, has observed the work of the VR graphic designer from afar and is now approaching us: I want to work like that too! And is now taking a further software training course for the Blender program at the university. That is time well spent. In the ups and downs of everyday theater life, we have to defend these learning spaces, even when the next productions are already lined up.

Franziska: What is your vision of the digital theater of the future, what do you wish for?

Robert: There is a need for better trained young artists and professionals. At the same time, it is our task as a theater to declare the demand. What we also need, and not only in stressful situations when the Mozilla Hubs server doesn’t work, is a stable and supportive digital theater network. I need people who know their stuff, who work in a similar way, who I can reach quickly.

Lutz: What I would like to see is easier technology access for everyone. For example, we are currently working on a “communication set”: a suitcase with VR glasses and a laptop with software set up, which is given to the artistic teams at the beginning of a project and used there until the premiere. Like a kind of digital “care package.” That will make collaboration extremely easy.

Grit Dora: Good networking and a successful transfer of knowledge between theaters, universities, and professional associations is essential. And time to experiment – even in everyday theater life! Time for small test projects that can pop up at short notice for our audience.

Vincent Kaufmann, Lutz Hofmann and Robert Rott in the auditorium of the tjg. Dresden

photo credits: Lutz Hofmann, Robert Rott, Grit Dora von Zeschau, screenshots from various projects, Franziska Ritter