In 2018 the Victoria Theatre VR project was created. The University’s IT Services’ Innovation Team (ITSIT) was responsible for the technical side of the project, including creating the 3D model of the theatre, an animated performance on the stage, and custom virtual reality (VR) software for the project. Archival plans and other historic records provided important information for gauging scale and accuracy when creating the virtual theatre.
The Victoria Theatre 1891 3D reconstruction was a collaborative work , creating an animated performance on the stage, and custom virtual reality (VR) software for the project. The Victoria Theatre VR project was adopted to support the research of Dr Gillian Arrighi, Convenor, Creative and Performing Arts, in the University of Newcastle’s School of Creative Industries, who along with Stephanie Holm were funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC). (1) Digitisation of archival sources for this project was undertaken by the University of Newcastle’s Cultural Collections (UONCC) in the Auchmuty Library to support the work of Dr Gillian Arrighi.
The Victoria Theatre project relied on archival and historical aspects to interpret cultural sources for application to digital formats such as VR. Digital files can be interpreted in order to create the VR model or for files to be directly downloaded and viewed in VR. The following describes the processes and specific technical detail such as 3D modelling and texturing. The Victoria Theatre project has primary sources embedded in the visualisation, these digitised files of historic posters and photographs are viewed in the VR as the user moves around the virtual theatre.
The 1891 Victoria Theatre is in Perkins Street, Newcastle and is the oldest surviving heritage theatre in NSW. The theatre is on the NSW State Heritage Register and has heritage protection. Despite the theatre closing in 1966 and being derelict for more than a decade, the building is structurally in good condition and much of the fabric intact.
Gaute Rasmussen and Vendela Pento, Innovation Specialists at ITSIT conducted the work of creating the visualisation model. As already mentioned, this project was completed to support the work of Dr Gillian Arrighi in the 3D reconstruction of the Victoria Theatre. There was a call out to the community to attempt to track down as many original archival sources relating to the theatre as possible, such as plans, photographs, written information, posters, memorabilia and descriptions. Records specific to the 1890s period were crucial. The team were attempting a 3D reconstruction of the Victoria Theatre and requesting information from the public and researchers that may help in their work was an important part of the process. The ITSIT had access to floor plans of the building from 1921, which they were using as a base; however, earlier plans were greatly needed for historic accuracy when constructing the virtual model.
Two original plans for the Victoria Theatre by architect James Henderson and dating prior to 1888 were located in a chance find amongst the papers of the Colonial Secretary, at the State Records Authority NSW. Furthermore, Jane Ison, a historical researcher located the two original plans of the Victoria Theatre whilst conducting her own research combing the Colonial Secretary’s In Letters (CSIL) Index held by the Newcastle Family History Society. (2) Although these plans were of an earlier building on the same site they were still important because they tell an earlier story of theatres in colonial NSW.
The theatre building underwent quite a few changes between 1891 and 1921, so even the floor plans from 1921 could not be trusted all that much. The biggest change was the removal of the hotel. There used to be a hotel at the front of the building, from ground level to the top floor, which was removed after the theatre lost its liquor license. With the hotel gone, the main auditorium was extended all the way out to the front wall. Two entrances were also used, one on the south end and one at the north end of the building. These were replaced with a single entrance. In 1891 there used to be a dress circle and an upper circle, but when the dress circle was extended backwards (and upwards) there was no longer any room for the upper circle, so that was removed. There were once private boxes on each floor in 1891, however, these were also removed.
Due to the lack of plans the creators of the digital reconstruction needed to work backwards from the 1921 floor plans, and essentially unwind the 30 years of changes that were known, to get back to 1891. Several clues were gained from newspaper articles describing the theatre in the early days, as well as references from other buildings known to be constructed in a similar style. The main point of reference for the ITSIT was taken from Villa Alba historic house in Melbourne known for its outstanding late Victorian painted decoration throughout its interior. Other important information was found with the assistance of archives of the University’s Cultural Collections, New South Wales State Archives and Records Authority and Local Studies in the Newcastle Regional Public Library among others, and using detailed descriptions published in the newspaper reports of the time using a resource named Trove to search for relevant sources.(3)
The call out to the community resulted in archival records of the Victoria Theatre Company Limited being located. Gionni di Gravio (UON Archivist) noticed that an article on the Victoria Theatre by the late Dr Lionel Fredman published in 1988 was incomplete. (6) Following a reference in an academic paper written in 1988 by Fredman, naming Mr Bruce Brown as the custodian of the records. When the original document was reviewed and re-digitised, an interesting acknowledgement at the end of the article read:
“The Victoria Theatre Co. Papers (1886 – 1982) in eight bound volumes, in the hands of Mr. Bruce Brown, Accountant, of Newcastle, furnished information about the Company, leases and the building.”
Di Gravio recalls that the team wondered how they was going to track down someone from 30 years ago, it was going to be a challenge and so rang every “B. Brown” we could find in the white pages, then, at the end of our tether, rang a former UON contact, who furnished the name of an accountant friend, who had an interest in books, and who would perhaps know of another “bookish” accountant such as “Mr. Bruce Brown”. (5)
It was thanks to the Newcastle community network that tracked Brown down, during the hive of activity and excitement that was generated during the creation of the Victoria Theatre 3D Reconstruction Project. In no time at all Bruce Brown was located and contactable, advising that the records were in his garage; that the plans of the Victoria were contained within the records. Brown had acquired them in his professional practice, as he was responsible for liquidating the Victoria Theatre Company Ltd. Brown had been the accountant charged with winding up the operations of the Victoria Theatre. The records had been sitting in his residence for the past thirty years, and in his words, he could never be brought to have them destroyed. Even though he had permission to destroy the records, he said he could never bring himself to do so, and so here, they survive to this day. The early records of the Victoria Theatre Company Ltd had been sitting in a garage lost for the past 30 years. A selection of the more important records was digitised in the GLAMx Lab.
The records contain an unbroken run of minutes from the inception of the company as a syndicate and six plans relating to renovations proposed in 1921, which were of assistance to the ITSIT, as well as the key researchers on this project. These records helped shape the final 3D VR model.
With the completion of all the main areas of the theatre: exterior, vestibules, stair cases, stalls area, dress circle, upper circle, private boxes, orchestra pit, and stage area, the team worked through improving areas that they were not quite happy with to refine further. Gaute Rasmussen from the ITSIT recounts the following: –
“One of the most exciting bits of extra polish is that we’re trying to create a semblance of a performance on the stage. Our aim is to make it so that when people step into the VR representation of the theatre they will be able to see the curtains go up and see some actors moving around on stage. For that, we are using an old photograph of a performance, which we are then breaking down into separate pieces and separate layers so that we can represent it in three dimensions as characters and stage props in the VR experience. We still have a few weeks to go, and we are doing everything we can to make the experience as magical and truthful to the original as we can. We can’t wait to show this off and hopefully make it available to a wider audience.” (6)
This project relied heavily on historic research of academics, professionals and the wider community to locate, research and digitise sources for the ITSIT to use. There was a lot of piecing together of extant resources that were located in various institutions.
3D Modelling and Texturing
Great care was taken to ensure the final model was as realistic as possible to the original appearance of the theatre in 1891. The team collaborated with the current owners of the theatre to get access to the building and took laser scans of the current structure’s interior. (7)
However, the theatre has gone through many changes since opening night in 1891. The entrance and foyer area have been completely transformed with the level of the floor altered, and even the number of galleries has changed. In order to understand more about the original look of the theatre, the team worked with subject matter experts, and used a wide range of historical sources and documented accounts of eyewitness descriptions of the interior and trade catalogues from the time. As already mentioned an important reference was the Villa Alba in Melbourne, to virtually create the Victoria Theatre.
Once the team had a good understanding of the original layout, they set to work creating a realistic looking digital model. This work was done in a 3D graphics-modelling program called 3D Studio Max. Most of the architectural elements were created from scratch, though some elements, such as the internal pillars and staircases were purchased as digital models and then adapted to fit the theatre. Detailed textures were used to provide further character and realism to the theatre. The finished 3D model was transferred to a middleware package called Unity before finally being made available on HTC Vive VR headsets.
Navigating the Theatre in VR
After putting on the VR headset and entering the Victoria Theatre experience, the user starts on the street outside the theatre, looking towards the façade. From there they can walk in either of the two main entrances, explore the main auditorium, and walk up the stairs or teleport to the dress circle and upper circle.
There are several different ways to move around in VR. The simplest one is to walk around in the real world. The viewpoint in the virtual world will match the user’s movement in the real world, which makes navigating the virtual world intuitive and simple. However, eventually the user will run into walls or other obstacles in the real world that are not in the virtual one. When this happens, the virtual world shows a blue grid, called a “chaperone”, to prevent users from walking into obstacles.
To go further, the user can press a button on a hand controller. While holding down the button they can point a line from their hand to any area on the floor around them. Releasing the button instantly transports, or “teleports”, them to that location. Using this technique, they can move around the entire theatre without moving at all in the real world.
For ease of access, also a “shortcut” menu allows users to instantly teleport to a few key locations in the theatre. For example, they can go directly from the streetscrape outside to the upper circle without having to navigate two flights of stairs.
Adding Life to the Theatre
In addition to being able to move around and experience the space of the theatre, a few extra features were also included to give more life to the theatre.
The challenge was to recreate the theatre the way it looked in 1891, when it opened. The team created the outside of the building first and got that to a level they were satisfied with it, and during the last couple of months prior to completion did a lot of work on the inside of the building and adding some further ‘life’ to the theatre. This included digitised artefacts including posters and sound.
Each of the entrances to the virtual theatre have a collection of posters and images that light up when the user stands close to them. In the South (left) entrance, there are posters of various shows that were put on in the Victoria Theatre in its early years. These are accompanied with music from those performances. In the North (right) entrance, there are three photographs of the exterior of the theatre from different periods, spanning from its construction in 1891 to how it looked in 2018.
As the Victoria Theatre, 3D Reconstruction Project entered its final stages, the creators required musical snippets to provide the musical soul to their VR model. (8) During the final stages,Dr Gillian Arrighi and Dr Helen English worked on musical performances. They arranged a rehearsal, recording and preparation of snippets of concert music performed to accompany the virtual performance within the VR model. Dr English sourced the scores, and sourced the three singers, whilst Dr Arrighi engaged Andrew Hermon as musical director, who in consultation undertook production of the three tracks. The pieces of music include Evangeline’s Song and Dance, Country Girls, Three Little Maids (from the Mikado).
There is also a small performance that takes place on the theatre stage, which is triggered when the user enters the main auditorium. The lights will dim, and the user will hear the sounds of patrons milling about getting ready to watch the show. The curtain rises, and a few characters move around on stage while a song plays. The scene is taken from the Evangeline, which was the show performed at the theatre on opening night, September 12, 1891. The music plays a song from Evangeline and was re-recorded specifically for the VR experience by the University of Newcastle Orchestra. The visuals on stage were created from an old black-and-white photograph of Evangeline performed at Niblo’s Garden in New York City in 1874. The photograph was colourised and broken into component parts so that the background, stage props, and characters could move independently and appear to have more depth. Finally, the characters were hand-animated to move around on the stage in time with the music.
Gaute Rasmussen and Vendela Pento wove a magical spell to recreate the original theatre that is astonishing and impossible to describe without experiencing it within the headset and VR environment. The final 3D VR model was launched late 2018 at the former Victoria Theatre. (9)
When working on immersive projects that have cultural themes there is often an expectation of accuracy in terms of the virtual modelling, design and rendering. Historical research is very important in finding ‘evidence’ about a building or place, and where historical evidence cannot be located then research of similar sites is essential to provide as accurate as possible renditions. As discussed earlier this was the case when researching the interior of the Victoria Theatre whereby the team used knowledge of Villa Alba to attain a reconstruction of the theatre. Documentation of each part of the design process was essential to fully understood accuracy. The aim was to have the final visualisation as accurate as humanly possible based on the historic records available.
Collaborations and interactions between academics and experts from across disciplines and sectors was fundamental in each of the projects. These collaborations were not only across the university, but promoted university-community engagement, something the UONCC is accustomed to. (10) The visualisation project have provided opportunities for UON’s WIL students and volunteers at the GLAMx Lab and gain experience working with GLAM sector professions and innovation specialists. It also gave users the chance to develop GLAM sector skills and enhance their employability.
A distinctive aspect of this VR project was the association with heritage and history of Newcastle. This brought a unique opportunity for collaborators to interrogate crucial records and cultural knowledge associated with this exceptional heritage site. The sharing of cultural knowledge was an important factor in the success of this project and provided rare opportunities for engagement.
Many thanks to Mike Gallagher (Lost Newcastle Facebook) for sharing the cover image “Newcastle Operatic Society production of “A Country Girl” at the Victoria Theatre, Newcastle, NSW October 21st 1911.
1. Australian Research Council (ARC) through the LIEF scheme, under the aegis of the AusStage Phase 6 Visualising Venues in Australian Live Performance project, a national project involving 12 universities, administered by Finders University.
UON News. Virtual reality project brings the opulent Victoria Theatre back to life. October 22, 2018. Retrieved 13 November, 2019, from https://www.newcastle.edu.au/newsroom/faculty-of-education-and-arts/virtual-reality-project-brings-the-opulent-victoria-theatre-back-to-life
Arrighi, Gillian. 2 August 2018. The Theatre Times. From Child Stars to Lost Theatres: Capturing Australia’s Ephemeral History of Live Performance. Retrieved 25 November, 2019. https://thetheatretimes.com/from-child-stars-to-lost-theatres-capturing-australias-ephemeral-history-of-live-performance/
2. James Henderson Architect NRS905 [1_2717] 88_9883 (Courtesy of NSW State Archives and Records Authority) SRNSW (Colonial Secretary In Letters) 88/9883 [1/2717]. 1876-1993 Cork, K.J., Tod L.R. “Newcastle Victoria” from Front stalls or back? the history and heritage of Newcastle theatres. Seven Hills, N.S.W. : Australian Theatre Historical Society, 1993 pp.146-152.
3. Livinghistories@UON, University of Newcastle (Australia). (2018). The Digitised Victoria Theatre Archives 1886-1982. Retrieved November 26, 2019, from https://hunterlivinghistories.com/2018/12/14/victoria-theatre-archives/Office
4. Fredman, Lionel. “Down Memory Lane: The Victoria, Newcastle’s First Grand Theatre” by L.E. Fredman in Journal of Hunter Valley History Vol. 2 No. 2 (Newcastle: Hunter Valley Publications, 1988) pp. 38-49.
5. Livinghistories@UON, University of Newcastle (Australia). (2018). The Long Lost Victoria Theatre Company Ltd Archives. Retrieved November 26, 2019, from https://hunterlivinghistories.com/2018/07/20/victoria-theatre-archivesbb/
6. Livinghistories@UON, University of Newcastle (Australia). (2018). Victoria Theatre 3D Virtual Reality Reconstruction Nearing Completion. 13 September, 2018. Retrieved November, 26, 2019, from https://hunterlivinghistories.com/2018/09/13/victoria-theatre-3d-vr/
7. Livinghistories@UON, University of Newcastle (Australia). (2018). Victoria Theatre UON Site Visit 9 July 2018. Retrieved November 26, 2019, from, https://hunterlivinghistories.com/2018/07/10/victoria-sitevisit090718/
8. Livinghistories@UON, University of Newcastle (Australia). (2018). Victoria Theatre 3D Reconstruction – Now for the music! 24 October 2018. Retrieved November 26, 2019, from https://hunterlivinghistories.com/2018/10/24/victoria-theatre-music/
9. ‘Opening of the Victoria Theatre.’, Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954), 8 September, 1891, p. 8. Retrieved 18 July, 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article135843188)
10. Hardy, Ann., & Eklund., Erik. (2014). Multidisciplinary Approach to University–Community Engagement. The Australasian Journal of University–Community Engagement, vol. 9, pp. 77–99.