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GatherTown - Community Accessible Virtual Spaces

Updated: May 10, 2021

GatherTown is a proximity-based 2D video conferencing platform that The Digital Storytelling Team happened upon in mid-2020. Though it is primarily designed for hosting online conferences, we were struck by the ease of use, the ability for deep customization, and the potential use-cases for transmedia storytelling and audience engagement. Guests interact using proximity-based video chat via customizable avatars, and while they explore the virtual space, they can share in nuanced digital communication that more closely resembles face to face connection. In particular, we have extensively explored the use of the GatherTown platform to increase opportunities for both artist-to-audience engagement and audience-to-audience community building.

Importantly, GatherTown is browser-based, so no setup or accounts are required, and the interface is simple to use. This creates a markedly low barrier for entry for both audiences and creators.

The platform is also fantastic for aggregating other digital tools as interactable objects within the world, allowing for a cohesive multi-platform experience. The immediate aim is to provide a virtual space where multiple audiences can mingle and to have access to artistic content from across the country. We imagine this will foster more meaningful demographic expansion, artistic and aesthetic cross-pollination, and a shift in the perceived distance between artistic communities.

We are working to help promote the use of such technologies in the larger performing arts community, and have already been able to provide consultation and help host events for multiple organizations.

For our interprovincial adventures, we’ve asked for each of our participating venue partners to set up a point-person to work alongside us so that they retain all the gained knowledge and assets in-house. This is already the case with Prairie Theatre Exchange (Winnipeg) as they now have full autonomy over their virtual venue and we’re now playing a support role. We will soon have a team of arts workers from venues in four provinces who will be skilled, knowledgeable, and ready to continue innovating as a remote working team.

Process Design and Key Outcomes

We have developed three core methods of using Gather:

  1. Virtual recreation of a venue for events; this includes both pre/post show and independent gatherings;

  2. Collaborating with artists from Cultch presentations to create digital transmedia experiences that integrate the storyworld of the show into the virtual space; and

  3. Multi-venue connectivity and community building across distance and time zones

(1) Creation of virtual venue for pre and post show events

In October, we worked with Vancouver-based artist Patrick Blenkarn, to build a custom 2D pixel art version of The Cultch venue. Using that map with the GatherTown platform, we invited audience members to join us in our virtual theatre for pre and post show events for Cultch presentations.

In contrast to other platforms, such as Zoom, Gather allows audiences to easily and organically interact with each other in a manner more similar to real life interactions than is currently possible on most online platforms, filling the void of personal connection that is of crucial social benefit to the performing arts. We were pleased to see audience members intuitively move themselves around the space, encountering and exploring the uncanny yet novel world of the virtual Cultch, interacting with other audience members, theatre staff, and artists serendipitously. The interactable objects and the modifiable architecture allow us to create unique and dynamic spaces, attracting repeat visits and helping us create “place-ness” on digital platforms.

While we had noted initial worry from The Cultch staff about comprehension/navigability, our data strongly demonstrates participants’ enthusiasm for the improved audience experience, and overwhelmingly the response from the public has been one of delight and excitement.

For the Cultch’s presentation of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, we seized the opportunity to create and test a new approach in GatherTown that would prove invaluable to the vision of The Multivenue Hub. We created a new portal within The Cultch’s virtual space inside GatherTown that allowed for audiences to seamlessly navigate to the livestream and back to the virtual space post presentation without having to leave the platform. This development provided a natural extension to audiences’ ability to use their avatars to navigate and interact with the virtual space. It is also one of the key attractive features for presenters participating in The Multivenue Hub, as it provides each venue full control over crafting their audience’s experience from the moment they enter through their venue’s virtual doors to the moment they leave.

Vancouver company HipBang!, who we have supported on their project Home (see Home later in this report), were directly inspired by our work to create Gather virtual spaces for two smaller Vancouver venues, Little Mountain Gallery and China Cloud Studios.

(2) Collaborating with Artists from Cultch presentations to create digital Transmedia experiences

Gather’s map creation tools are both flexible and accessible, allowing artists to very quickly extend their creative skills from other disciplines into creating digital transmedia experiences within this virtual world. For The Cultch presentations of Do you want what I have got? and Mx we collaborated with Ami Gladstone (writer and director) and Ariel Slack (set designer) respectively, to populate our virtual Cultch theatre with interactable digital design elements that audiences encountered during post show gatherings. The storyworld of each production was brought into the virtual space inhabited by the audience, and they actively engaged with the art at their own pace, rather than as passive viewers. This was the first foray into creating digital worlds for both these artists.

(3) Multi-venue Hub - Connectivity and Community Building

The Multi-venue Hub initiative is currently in the pilot stage, aiming to bring together audiences and venues from across Canada in a shared digital hub that will serve as an easily accessible platform for hosting live streamed/digital performances. We are currently collaborating with team members at Vertigo Theatre in Calgary, Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg, and The Theatre Centre in Toronto to establish virtual versions of their buildings, and a virtual space “The Hub” as a connection between them. This is modelled off our growing knowledge and research into theme park design and performative spaces.

The aim is to create conditions for transmedia innovation and inter-regional sharing by leveraging the digital programming of venues across Canada. This is a deliberate attempt to address the ways in which social media systems inadvertently region-lock a significant amount of artistic material due to the algorithmic nature of how communities feed content back onto themselves online.

Fun fact: the ‘rooms’ one can build are of course not tethered to the physical limitations of each building, so one could have an underwater cave in the basement or a hidden room behind the box office

We have also used the first iteration of the virtual Cultch and The Hub to host events for both The Electric Company Theatre and the Women’s Caucus of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, helping them create deeper connections with these intersecting communities, and familiarizing them with both The Hub and the platform’s potential for expanded storytelling possibilities.

We feel we're only part way through, there's more to come!


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