UbVR-Marionette Theatre

Macbeth UbVR-Marionette: Revisiting Craig’s Future Theatre in Hyper-reality


Edward Gordon Craig’s (1872-1966) futuristic vision for a designed theatre of impossibly scaled sets and super-puppets performing with uncanny liveness required technological and artistic advancements not possible in his lifetime (Innes 1998, Esposti 2015). His Shakespeare set designs were considered too vast to be practical and his controversial Uber-Marionette concept has since faded to merely a metaphor for the perfect stage actor (Le Boeouf 2010). But Craig’s vision of the Theatre of the Future is not only possible today with emerging technologies like virtual reality and game engine AI, but it also foreshadowed how theatre as an art form could enhance the design of performative experiences in spatial computing hyper-realities like the Metaverse. The UbVR-Marionette Theatre project applies Craig’s puppet and masked theatre design concepts to world-building and intelligent character interaction in location-based VR. We are using Craig’s Shakespeare drawings and scenic descriptions (Craig 1913) to design and light a 360 VR stage set for Macbeth in Unreal 3D game engine. Avatar interactions with life-sized Metahuman non-player characters are treated as masked theatre and puppet performances modeled on pre-recorded actor references using photogrammetry and motion capture data. The player is spatially directed through the scene by NPC gesture, lighting, sound cues and visual effects. Embodied interaction of the player through head and hand gestures are interpreted in real-time by the game engine to trigger how and when Macbeth delivers lines and actions from a database of mocap improvisations for the scene, fulfilling Craig’s Uber-Marionette criteria of an intelligent super-puppet performed live from an actor’s refined movement (Craig 1908, Eynat-Confino 1987).

The goal of the UbVR-Marionette Theatre project is to explore the aesthetics of avatars and NPCs as dynamic performing objects in virtual space, and to cast VR players as performers in a dramatic simulation to create the illusion of presence and liveness with those objects. In addition to Craig’s designs, we apply principles from Augusto Boal’s participatory theatre role-play games to frame the player as a “spect-actor” performing with NPCs in “joker” roles that direct the scene, as previously proposed for VR storytelling (Boal 1992, Maraffi 2022). For player character manipulation we draw from Bunraku puppetry techniques that influenced Craig’s Uber-Marionette (Yamaguchi 2013) and from stage magic principles that create an aesthetics of the impossible which has been shown to increase player immersion in VR (Maraffi 2021). In our VR adaption of Macbeth Act 2 scene 1, we use narrative framing to cast the player in a chorus of masked witch’s moving in the style of Craig’s muse Isadorra Duncan, who manipulate Macbeth to follow a floating dagger. When the bell tolls and Macbeth exits, a Metahuman Craig steps out from behind a column to give notes to the player and present himself as an Uber-Marionette and ghost-joker figure that provides context to the scene. This project demonstrates that interdisciplinary research for extended reality storytelling can benefit from applying critical theatre arts methodologies, and that Craig’s vision of the Theatre of the Future was a century ahead of its time.

  • Boal, Augusto. (1992) Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Translated by Adrian Jackson. Taylor and Francis, Routledge, London and New York.
  • Craig, Edward Gordon (1908) The Actor and The Über-Marionette. The Mask Periodical, Vol 1 No 2, Florence: Self-published.
  • Craig, Edward Gordon (1913) Towards a New Theatre: Forty Designs for Stage Scenes with Critical Notes. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Limited.
  • Craig, Edward Gordon (1919). The Theatre Advancing. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.
  • Eynat-Confino, Irene (1987) Beyond the Mask: Gordon Craig, Movement, and the
    Actor. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Innes, C. (1998) Edward Gordon Craig: A Vision of the Theatre. London: Routledge.
  • Le Boeouf, Patrick (2010) On the Nature of Edward Gordon Craig’s Über-Marionette. New Theatre Quarterly 26(2): 102-114.
  • Maraffi, Christopher. (2021) Stage Magic as a Performative Design Principle for VR Storytelling. Cinergie – Il Cinema E Le Altre Arti, 10(19), 93–104.
  • Maraffi, Christopher. (2022) VR Storytelling for Social Justice and the Ethics of Playing Black Bodies. Chapter 2 in The Changing Face of VR: Pushing the boundaries of experience across multiple industries, edited by Jordan Frith and Michael Saker. Wilmington: Vernon Press.
  • Yamaguchi, Yoko. (2013) Edward Gordon Craig and the International Reception of Bunraku. Transmission of the Puppet Images in Gakuya zue shuˉi, and the Networks of Modernism between Japan, Europe, and the United States. Forum Modernes Theater, Dec, Issue 2, pp 176-192.

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I am an Assistant Professor of Realtime VFX and Virtual Production at NCSU, where I teach game design, 3D animation, and extended reality courses in the Art + Design Dept.