The Virtual Reality Tour of Historic Theatres: An Internet resource for theatre history and architecture studies


By Thomas G. Hines
Whitman College
Washington, USA

The remains of ancient theatre performance spaces lie "at the root of acted language," as suggested in the monumental three volume, Teatri Greci e Romani: alle origini del linguaggio rappresentato. These "mute stones" speak of cultural performance preferences, adaptive renovations by ever succeeding societies, and the impact of time and weather and war. Two centuries of archeological excavations have identified many of these theatre sites and subsequent research has painted an ever-changing picture of the historic record that is locked in these tangible remains of an otherwise ephemeral art.

These magnificent ruins, some pristine, some crumbling, a few partially restored, many little more than a collection of weathered stones against a fan-shaped hill, are scattered about the ancient prefectures of Greece and Rome. The various stories each has to tell appear in selective compilations of archeological research in numerous publications including The History of the Greek and Roman Theater, by Margarete Bieber, and the aforementioned Teatri Greci e Romani. Vitruvius' Ten Books On Architecture provide an ancient insight into the Roman as well as Greek approach to theatre construction, and the detailed second century travelogues of Pausanias provide selective, eyewitness snapshots of Greek architecture during the Roman Empire.

The "Virtual Reality Theatre Tour" project was conceived as an online introductory survey of many of these historic sites. The resulting website consists of an archive of viewer-controlled digital panoramic images (360-degree photographs) of numerous historic theatres as well as a system for linking these images together with descriptive text as a resource for both students and teachers of theatre architecture. Although this is not a substitute for an on-site visitation of an archeological site, the intent of the virtual tour is to augment traditional teaching methods and provide a dynamic, visual tool for describing remote archeological sites to students.

It is presumptuous at best to suggest that the breadth of published research on ancient theatres can be incorporated into a single website. I would characterize the Theatre Tour project as an introductory companion to, and a synopsis of the volumes of scholarly publications addressing the subject.

A visitor to the website will find a map of Europe and the Near East.

map of europe and near east

This map displays links to numerous historic theatres and when selected, each provides access to an illustrated historic commentary and data charts containing dates, dimensions, maps, drawings, timelines, etc. The visitor is also given the opportunity to take a virtual tour of the ruins. This virtual tour consists of a series of panoramic views of the theatre combined with a collection of annotated photographs illustrating, and hopefully illuminating, significant objects and archeological details found at the site.

Diagram of Hierapolis and ariel photos
panoramic view of Hierapolis
Greco-Roman Theatre at Aphrodisias, Turkey
Priene Cavea

Recent expeditions by this writer to Turkey, Greece, and Italy have produced over seven thousand high-resolution photographs of thirty-nine historic theatres. These digital images were used to create one hundred and fifty-six panoramic views describing the individual theatres from various vantage points and select photographs illustrate the various historic commentaries. The online images represent only a small sample of the total photographic archive and have reduced resolutions in order to accommodate the restrictions of Internet access. Until such time that demand overwhelms my college or my time, the online resource is provided free of charge and requests for higher resolution images for educational purposes will be considered. Generous contributions from numerous colleagues have benefited this project, and I encourage and welcome future offers of scholarship. Those interested in submitting research or commentaries are encouraged to contact me at Whitman College.

Although only the theatres of Turkey are currently online, I am in the process of editing the images, soliciting commentaries, and building the websites for the theatres of Greece and Southern Italy. During the next year these, too, will be incorporated into site-specific tours and linked to the project map. Photographic expeditions to Northern Italy, France and Spain are planned in the near future and although the initial phase of the project concentrates on ancient theatres, I hope to include later constructions such as the 16th Century Teatro Olimpico in Italy and the 18th-Century Drottningholm in Sweden.

The strength of the Virtual Reality Theatre Tour lies in its specificity, organization, and accessibility. This is an online archive of historic theatres and great care has been taken to provide users with an intuitive approach for comparative explorations of the data. Other websites of note such as The Perseus Digital Library, Didaskalia: Ancient Theatre Today, and Skenotheke: Images of the Ancient Stage, have a much broader base and, in the case of Perseus, an amazing depth of information on a vast range of subjects. But, by limiting the Theatre Tour's subject matter to historic theatres, a greater depth of images and text can be provided.

I would be remiss, however, if I were to imply that reading books or viewing a collection of panoramic images, annotated photographs, and commentaries is a substitute for exploring these ancient remains in the settings where they were built. A virtual tour is not a substitute for travel; it is merely a convenience. Lacking is the heat of the Syracuse sun and the relentless wind of Mantinea; missing is the humbling experience of viewing the plain of the river Kaikos far below the theatre orchestra at Pergamon. The viewer of a photograph cannot appreciate the longevity of a Roman drainage system until he has accidentally stepped into a still functioning, vegetation-obscured, and water-filled orchestra channel. A paragraph cannot fully describe the visceral experience of seeing motorcycles assault the slopes of the Sparta theatron and compare this noise and carelessness with a less damaging modern use of the orchestra as young boys play soccer in Gytheion a day later. No description or photo can fully capture the pastoral setting of sheep grazing among the barely discernable remains of the theatre at Euromos, overgrown with ancient olive trees and delicate wild orchids. And finally, no review can possibly convey the majesty of a modern day performance at Epidaurus as an ancient theatre once again hosts performers telling an epic story within the confines of an acoustically perfect bowl of marble.

Rather than admitting to an inherent weakness unique to the Theatre Tour project, I am merely acknowledging the universal value of travel and firsthand experiences. I also acknowledge the impracticality of travel as a standard pedagogical choice when introducing students to historic theatre architecture. The Virtual Reality Theatre Tour of Historic Theatres is not so much a substitute for travel as it is a preparation. It is a viable resource for presenting ancient theatres to those interested in the subject, and ideally, it will be an enticement for those so inclined to travel and explore.

Thomas G. Hines
Associate Professor of Theatre, Whitman College


Bieber, Margarete The History of the Greek and Roman Theater 2nd ed. (Princeton / Oxford: 1961)

Ciancio Rossetto, Paola; Giuseppina Pisani Sartorio (eds); Jean Duvignaud (texts) Teatri Greci e Romani: alle origini del linguaggio rappresentato (SEAT, 1995)

Pausanias Description of Greece Volumes I-V. Tran. and ed. by W.H.S. Jones, except Vol II by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod, and Vol. V (Maps, Plans, Illustrations and General Index) by R.E. Wycherley (Harvard: Loeb Classical Library, 1969).

Pausanias Guide to Greece: Central Greece Tran. Peter Levi, Illus. John Newberry, Jeffery Lacey (Penguin 1979)

Pausanias Guide to Greece: Southern Greece Tran. Peter Levi, Illus. John Newberry, Jeffery Lacey (Penguin 1984)

Perseus Digital Library

Skenotheke: Images of the Ancient Stage

Vitruvius Ten Books on Architecture Ed. Ingrid D. Rowland, Thomas Noble Howe (Cambridge: CUP, 2001)