Opening the virtual doors to The Great Gatsby

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer. ” (The Great Gatsby, Chapter 1) – Nick Caraway’s summer cottage, Explore the Great Gatsby

In December 2014, I wrote about a new venture in educational outreach and public engagement through the use of virtual worlds when I took an early peek at Seanchai Library’s upcoming Explore: The Great Gatsby, the first instalment in their new Explore the Stories Behind the Art series.

Coinciding with a production of Simon Levy’s stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which will be in performance from January 23rd through February 8th at the Tacoma Little Theatre (TLT), Tacoma Washington State, Explore the Great Gatsby is a collaborative project undertaken by TLT and Seanchai Library, and forms a part of the latter’s extensive facilities in the virtual world of Kitely.

Officially opened on Thursday, January 15th at 12:00 midday, Explore: The Great Gatsby allows visitors the opportunity to visit key locations from the novel and play, and by doing so learn more about the era in which the story is set, explore Fitzgerald’s life and writings, and discover more about the theatre in which the play is being performed. It is open to users of virtual worlds and, as a part of the collaborative nature of the project will be presented to audiences attending performances at TLT as a place they can visit.

"But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg" (The Great Gatsby, Chapter 2)- The "Valley of Ashes", an iconic part of the novel and home to the tragic Wilsons (that's their garage you can see being built in the background), forms one of Explore The Great Gatsby locations
“But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg” (The Great Gatsby, Chapter 2)- The “Valley of Ashes”, an iconic part of the novel and home to the tragic Wilsons, forms one of Explore: The Great Gatsby locations

“We have information available in our programme and via our website,” TLT’s Managing Artistic Director Chris Serface said in reply to my question about how audience will be made aware of the project. “I will also mention it in my curtain speeches that I give each night,  and in addition local media outlets have been alerted about the project and we will hopefully get some coverage in that respect.”

Chris and Explore: The Great Gatsby’s creative director and powerhouse behind the partnership, Caledonia Skytower, had kindly offered to allow me a preview tour of the in-world facilities ahead of the opening, and while construction was very much still under way. “We’re also producing a short video on Explore,” Cale added, “TLT will be able to show that looped on their lobby screen.”

To assist those unfamiliar with using virtual worlds, the TLT website links to a special Explore website created by Seanchai Library, which provides basic guidance to visitor on downloading and installing a viewer, and a guide to using an avatar.

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Seanchai Library’s Explore website is supported by the Explore: The Great Gatsby welcome centre,  where users new to virtual worlds can receive guidance on the basic mechanics of in-world activities: walking / navigation, interacting with objects, using media and voice, and so on. The Welcome Centre also acts as a social hub for the Explore experience

As well as providing the opportunity to explore the locations of the novel and learn more about Fitzgerald and his writings on their own, Explore:The Great Gatsby will feature a range of events both before and during the play’s run at Tacoma Little Theatre.

The first of these will launch on Friday, January 16th at 19:00 SLT / PST with the opening reading from the novel, which will take place in a small park specifically created for such readings. Part two will then follow at noon SLT / PST on Saturday January 17th, with the developing schedule of events available at the Explore website.

To encourage repeat visits to the installation, elements will be rolled-out over the course of the the next few weeks, such as the arrival of Jay Gatsby’s mansion. This is likely to initially appear in full party regalia representative of Nick Carraway’s first major encounter with Gatsby; later the mansion will be redressed, again to encourage further re-visits.

The Fitzgerald Gallery, located close to the facade of the Buchananan's mansion (and which houses a replica of the Tacoma Little Theatre), provides information to vistors on F Scott Fitzgerald's life and times and his writings
The Fitzgerald Gallery, located close to the façade of the Buchanan’s mansion (seen just on the left edge of this sketch. and which houses a replica of the Tacoma Little Theatre), provides information to visitors on F Scott Fitzgerald’s life and times and his writings

As a part of its service to the community in Tacoma, TLT present daytime performances of the plays they stage for local schools to attend. Thus, through the Explore: The Great Gatsby partnership with Seanchai Library TLT is presented with a dramatic – no pun intended – new way to engage with teachers, educators and school children in an immersive manner which links the performance of the play directly with classroom learning opportunities. In preparation for this, Chris Serface has been meeting with local teachers and explaining the environment to them – and has been getting very positive feedback.

Explore: The Great Gatsby is the ideal début for Seanchai Library’s Explore series, being something of a labour of love for Caledonia Skytower, who has been closely involved with the Tacoma Little Theatre both professionally and artistically for a number of years.

A look inside Explore the Great Gatsby's Welcome Centre
A look inside Explore the Great Gatsby’s Welcome Centre

Residents of virtual worlds can visit Explore: The Great Gatsby at any time simply by logging-in to the Seanchai Library homeworld on Kitely, or teleporting / hypergriding to it. Anyone with a love of The Great Gatsby and / or Fitzgerald’s work, or indeed, interested in learning about one of the oldest community theatres in the United States, and the oldest on the U.S. west coast, with a rich heritage going back to 1918, is warmly encouraged to pay Explore the Great Gatsby at least one visit.

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