Book update

The book has undergone significant revisions due to various factors. Some are the same forces that have dogged the project from the start: unexpected topics arose, sometimes required me to invade other fields, others resulting in significant rethinking. But most significantly, an external reader (the infamous Reader 2) for my forthcoming article in the Journal of Dramatic Theatre and Criticism wanted me to discuss postdramatic theater. Doing so in the already tight space I was allowed for the article was out of the question, and I don’t have any personal interest in that genre, but Reader 2 had a point: postdramatic theater, at least in some of its versions, rejects fiction or seeks situations in which it’s unclear whether the activity on stage is fictional or real. Since my argument makes fiction a necessary part of theater, clearly I needed to contend with postdramatic theater’s project. Doing so required more space than I anticipated, ultimately turning into a full chapter plus part of another. With that much attention, postdramatic theater became more or less on a par with online role-playing. The book’s title needed to change in order to reflect the alteration. So the new working title is The Question of Theatre: Online Role-playing, Postdramatic Theater, and Social Ontology. The new title also has the benefit of emphasizing the scope of the project, as the previous one (Online Role-playing and the Question of Theater) risked making the topic seem narrow; the new title will, I hope, attract more readers. But — spoiler alert — they won’t be happy with some of the things I say (or more precisely, say about Lehmann’s theory), so I’ll attract a lot of pissed-off readers.

I write this post as COVID-19 is still in the early stages of ravaging New York City, where I live. It’s conceivable that I might not live to see this project come to fruition. Unfortunately it is nowhere near completion: a chapter, the introduction and the conclusion all have yet to be drafted, and the existing chapter drafts are all very rough: material will move, some topics are but waved at, I need to do a second round of research, various issues need more thorough analysis, the writing needs sharpening — the list goes on. It would be a pity, at least to me, for these years of research, analysis and writing to go to naught. So if I become seriously ill, I may set up a post to publish automatically after a certain time, and make what I’ve written publicly available, warts and all. Unfortunately it’ll only be up as long as the website is paid for, but one takes what one can get.

Revised book outline

I’ve revised the outline in some small but significant ways. In particular, the last few chapters now have better focus. The subsections aren’t entirely sorted out, but the overall structure now looks like this:

  1. Introduction: basic thesis, how the argument differs from previous discussions of online performance and online RP, how my approach to understanding theater differs from earlier ones, and the stakes for theater studies.
  2. Descriptive introduction to role-playing and virtual worlds: brief history of RP (tabletop, larp, shooter, VW), description of certain concrete aspects of online RP, overview of RP’s “best practices,” similarities and differences with theater as conventionally understood.
  3. Online role-playing and its two homologies with social ontology: social ontology, organizational ontology, theatrical homology.
  4. Embodied collective reflexivity: embodied collective reflexivity has a trichotomous nature.
  5. Reflexivity and theater: embodied collective reflexivity corresponds with theater’s social ontology, providing a definition of theater in socially functional terms.
  6. Breaking the rules: certain RP genres (e.g., erotic RP, Gor) break the usual rules of RP; this seems to challenge my definition of theater, but in fact underscored its connection to larger social structures.
  7. Online RP in sociohistorical context: sociological and socio-structural aspects (including the question of theater and social change), political-economic aspects, historical aspects (including RP’s relation to the communication practices).
  8. Conclusion

Draft outline for book about online RP as theater

Currently I see the following as the chapter structure for the book about online RP as theater:

  1. Introduction
  2. Descriptions of role-playing and virtual worlds
  3. Online role-playing and its homologies with social ontology
  4. Embodied collective reflexivity
  5. Reflexivity and theater
  6. Problems posed by RP genres that break the usual rules (e.g., erotic RP, Gor)
  7. Issues connected with the history of communication practices
  8. Conclusion

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 derive mainly from previously published material.

I am mulling over the problem of audience: to some extent I want the book to be accessible not only to other scholarly fields, like game studies, which should be fairly easy, but possibly also to the general public.

“Big History” published

I’d like to announce the publication of “Big History,” my contribution to Theatre, Performance and Change, ed. Stephani Etheridge Woodson and Tamara Underiner (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018): 261-69.  The essay critiques the postmodernist opposition to taking the long view of historical development as “grand narratives.” Instead, we need large understandings of history, not just in terms of length of time but also in terms of the depth and complexity of social structures.

“Online Role-playing Games and the Definition of Theatre” now published

“Online Role-playing Games and the Definition of Theatre” has been published by New Theatre Quarterly (Vol. 33, issue 4,  pp. 345-359). The abstract reads:

Online role-playing games are a form of entertainment in which players create characters and improvisationally perform scenes together within a digital virtual world. It has many theatre-like aspects, which raises the question of whether it is in fact a form of theatre. To answer that question, however, one must first have a definition of theatre – an issue with disciplinary consequences – and in this article Tobin Nellhaus develops a definition founded on social ontology, suggesting that theatrical performance, unlike other social practices, replicates society’s ontology. From that perspective, online role-playing meets the definition of theatre. But its digital environment raises another set of problems, since embodiment, space, and presence in online role-playing are necessarily unlike what we experience in traditional theatre. Here, Nellhaus brings these three aspects of performance together through the concept of embodied social presence, showing how they operate in both customary theatre and online role-playing.

If you have journal access, you can download the published version here: The article is currently available only in print; a PDF version will be released in a year.  In the meantime you can download the original manuscript from the Publications and Drafts page.  There are some small differences between the original manuscript and the published version.