Cambridge Revisited?: Simulation, Methodology, and Phenomenology in the Study of Theatre History

Jennifer Roberts-Smith, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho, and Paul J. Stoesser

This essay proposes that in addition to the pursuit of affordances, the development of digital tools for early modern theatre historical research would benefit from an explicit taxonomy of limitations. The Simulated Environment for Theatre (SET) was originally designed to simulate the defining conditions of theatricality at a time when the research team understood theatricality to be methodological, something that is enacted or done. The conditions of methodological theatricality are that performance elements have unexpected functions, participants have individual agency, and performance takes place in specific social contexts. We simulated these conditions with limited success. In the process of reconstructing the temporary stage used at Queens’ College, Cambridge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we were necessarily more engaged in a phenomenological understanding of theatricality as something that is experienced. The conditions of phenomenological theatricality are arguably even more difficult to simulate, since they include the materiality of the people and things that make meaning in performance, the semiotics by which material elements are interpretable, and the reception of performance by individually situated human beings. Our conclusion is that it may not possible to simulate theatricality from either conceptual approach at all. Nonetheless, digital tools might instead offer affordances arising out of their limitations. The SET system, for example, has made our theatre historical research more efficient, transparent, and vividly illustrated; it has opened up theoretical discourses and design rhetorics for the creation and critique of other tools and methods; and the collaborative work it has necessitated has fostered a generative intellectual community. 

About the author(s)

Jennifer Roberts-Smith is an Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Waterloo. Her research and creative practice focus on Elizabethan performance techniques, inter-medial theatre research methods, and experience design in the digital humanities. She is Principal Investigator of two multi-institutional research projects, The Simulated Environment for Theatre (SET) and The Stratford Festival Online: Games and Virtual Learning Environments for Education and Audience Engagement. She also serves as co-leader of the Interface cluster in the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) research project (

Shawn DeSouza-Coelho recently completed his M.A. (English, Experimental Digital Media) at the University of Waterloo, exploring the intersections between narrative theory and the act of play in video games. He is a writer, theatre theorist/practitioner, and professional magician based in Toronto, Ontario. His book, Metamagic: An Introduction, released in 2013, explores the art of magic as a medium for discourse. Shawn is currently working on his next book: the authorized biography of retired stage manager Nora Polley.

Paul J. Stoesser teaches Canadian theatre history and praxis-based scenography and theatre production in the graduate program of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, where he is also Technical Director. His most recent collaboration with Roberts-Smith, DeSouza-Coelho et al. appears in Shakespeare International Yearbook 2014. Dr. Stoesser’s teaching and research examines opsis in conjunction with the history and development of theatre production technology, especially regarding modern applications of Renaissance production techniques.

Chapter number