Behind the Curtain of FFXIV’s Virtual Theatre Productions

FFXIV became a popular destination for theatre, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As you take a stroll through the Goblet wards on Final Fantasy XIV’s Diabolos server, you can find an amalgamation of different houses, all of which are emblazoned with their own wondrous decorations. Tucked between the rows of houses is an unassuming building that sometimes sees a vibrant crowd of well-dressed attendees outside. All of them are waiting to see the latest production from Stellazio Virtual Theatre.

Founded in 2016 by a player named Zaynava Stellazio, the troupe’s mission is to put on professional-quality plays and performances in FFXIV. It’s more complex than just FFXIV players wanting to make something special, however, as the MMO serves as a perfect medium to put on virtual performances.

“I’ve looked at other games, I’ve thought about moving us to different platforms,” says Stellazio. “In particular, VR really excites me, and I’m reasonably confident that someday we’ll move there. But right now, out of the MMOs I’ve looked at, FFXIV really has the most robust systems in place to enable us to do what we do.” Compared to other games, FFXIV boasts an incredibly useful macro system that allows users to set up lines ahead of time, use a wide range of expressive emotes, and a housing system that offers plenty of freedom.

Since the beginning, Stellazio Virtual Theatre has been made up of over 100 members — although not everyone participates in every performance. There’s a wide array of talented people that contribute to any single show, including stage managers, stage actors, voice actors, ushers, set designers, and more. For all intents and purposes, these are full productions.

The troupe’s last performance was The Phantom of the Opera, the longest and most intensive performance Stellazio has done yet. There’s an added wrinkle here, though, as putting on something like Phantom of the Opera requires you to get a license.

“When you go to apply for a license for something bigger, the first question they ask is, ‘what’s your zip code?’ Well, we don’t have one. We’re virtual,” says Stellazio. “That really limits the ability of other troupes to do things that will get them mainstream attention. Our big breakout success was The Phantom of the Opera, and the only reason we were able to do that is because we did not use any Andrew Lloyd Webber material because they won’t license virtually.”

Seeing an actual performance from the troupe is something to behold, with extravagant sets that its members change on the fly as the show goes on. During the many rehearsals leading up to a show, actors learn their positions based on colored jars that are placed on the ground — the digital equivalent of a spike (a marking generally made with tape). As people are seated for a performance, ushers will distribute the link to a Discord channel used to sync up voice acting with the text of the performance that displays on the chat window in-game.

The rehearsal I attended was for the troupe’s upcoming show, The Henderson Hall Horror By David Schmidt, courtesy of Off The Wall Plays. Here, I got a detailed look at how the troupe uses a variety of different features to make performances pop, including different emotes, class actions, items, spotlights, and more. The Henderson Hall Horror is a shorter show than something like The Phantom of the Opera, but the minutiae that the members of the Stellazio Virtual Theatre get into for every production is impressive. They’re eager to change the timing of actions down to the exact second that feels right to the audience.

“We initially start with the timing, just having the actors get their macros into the game with just placeholder timing,” explains Stellazio. “Then, we work with them without any blocking (the process of determining the exact positioning of actors on the stage) to figure out how the timing is going to line up.”

Once actors know the timing, they proceed to work on blocking and refining their emotes. After that, Stellazio says, “we start work with the voice actors separately, to get them to have an idea of what kind of emotion we’re looking for on the lines. And then, we combine them [both actors and voice actors] together, which is quite a time-consuming process to get them [the lines] to line up. So, it looks like subtitles basically, and then it’s just refinement.”

Gathering everything needed for a show can also be expensive — perhaps more than one would expect. Thankfully, the troupe manages to get many donations from its passionate community. For example, Stellazio states the troupe fundraised almost 100 million Gil (FFXIV’s primary in-game currency) for their production of The Phantom of the Opera. The ensemble contained six members, each of whom wore two different outfits that cost map materials. To outfit all of them required roughly five million Gil.

Of course, as you might expect, putting on any one of these shows is also a major time commitment that requires much flexibility on the staff’s part. Shift Solari, a performer part of the Stellazio Virtual Theatre, first started playing FFXIV after his friend from Final Fantasy XI picked up the game. As he, and others describe, it’s sometimes hard to juggle everything in the troupe with the responsibilities of daily life.

“I’ve gotten into some trouble in real life for all the time that we’ve had to put into this, to the point to where I kind of had to explain to my family exactly what it was that I was doing so that way they would be more understanding about it,” explains Solari.

Surprisingly, most of the members of the Stellazio Virtual Theatre have limited acting and production experience, but it’s something they’ve put more effort into learning over the years. Many of the group’s members migrated over from a previous troupe that Stellazio left to create the troupe. Many others, however, discovered Stellazio out of sheer curiosity.

“I actually joined shortly after watching them perform A Starlight Carol, which is just a Christmas Carol, but XIV-themed,” says Fahne Amariyo, a member of Stellazio’s Creative team. “And seeing that on the stage, it was the one show that I probably took my entire friend group to go see every day it was on. I grabbed four or five of my friends and was like, ‘You need to come to see this.’ And so, we all sat in line, waited, and saw Starlight Carol. When they put out a call for actors in the next play, which wound up being The Phantom of the Opera, I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of it.”

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The last year has seen explosive growth for Stellazio Virtual Theatre, in part due to people looking for virtual alternatives to live theatre during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Amariyo, the pandemic has seen more people with real-life theater experience show an interest in Stellazio, and putting on more shows has helped give everyone valuable experience.

“From an acting standpoint, I think it’s just always been amazing to see how everybody’s grown acting-wise,” says Emily “Emi” Koch, one of the performers and voice actors for Stellazio. “People who start out playing minor parts and shows just go on to refine their macro-making craft. It’s been really great to see how everybody’s acting styles have evolved over time.”

Stellazio Virtual Theatre has become something special for its creators and fans alike. It creates spaces where people come together over something they love, and share in a creative vision. There’s something much more brilliant than just that at play, however.

“It’s very important to me to make sure people know how this helps art be more accessible to a wider range of people,” says Stellazio. “I have autism spectrum disorder. I have anxiety and PTSD. Getting up on a real stage would be really, really difficult for me. And I know there’s a lot of people like me both in Stellazio, in our audience, and in other troops online.

I think it’s really beautiful that virtual theater gives people an opportunity — whether it’s that they’re neurodivergent, or they’re physically disabled, or they live in the middle of nowhere, or they don’t have the money, or their school art budget has been slashed, whatever situation it is that makes it so they can’t participate in a physical stage — a stopgap. An option to still be able to do this. And that’s become a lot more important to me.”