Essay: Technology in theatre

When you think of technology in theatre you would normally think about how the lighting and sound has played a good service to the show and in most cases, you would only really focus on how well the actors on stage performed, as well as the narrative. Without us realising technology has always played an important part of a show even if it is just playing as a service from all the way back to when the Ancient Greeks used cranes through to the 19th century where more complex machinery was introduced. I want to find out if technology really has in fact stolen the show and is it now actually an important part in the way theatre is made. My interest lies with computer generated technology so this essay will discuss into topics such as projections, motion capture video, telepresence and projection mapping. I will be looking into early works that use technology which will help me understand how technology has developed throughout the years. Theatre productions I will be looking into include Simon Stephens The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest which are two performances that create both a physical and virtual space on stage. This essay will also be looking into Paul Sermon’s ‘Telematic Dreaming’ which is a performance that takes place in two different locations by only using cameras and TV monitors. I have also read Steve Dixon’s A Digital Performance: A history of new media in theatre, dance, performance art and installation. Dixon finds influences of today’s digital performances from past works of theatre technology and researches into new media that create theatrical spectacles which is where telematic performances and virtual reality come into. (Dixon, 2007). Contemporary art I believe relies massively on computer generated technology for it to be relevant to today’s society as technology plays a huge part of our everyday lives. People disagree and think that we as audience members shouldn’t rely on technology for a visually impressing performance and that it just makes the performance so much more confusing for an audience member to follow a narrative.

Literature Review

Literature involving technology within performances can cover a variety of different practices and techniques. Steve Dixon’s Digital Performance: A history of new media in theatre, dance, performance art and installation covers discussions of virtual bodies, avatars and digital doubles. Dixon looks at the progression of digital practises within live performances by looking into practitioners and performances whilst analysing key contexts this form of new media art. This book has given me areas that I wasn’t aware about before in theatre such as the use of telepresence and has given me an insight and how digital theatre started, by using this book I hope to discover new ways of using technology as an art form and what other practitioners have created whilst using these digital practices. Susan Kozels Closer: Performance, Technology, Phenomenology focuses on live performance in practice and digital technologies. She talks about these topics with focus on how the human body is explored throughout these, ‘Performance Kozel argues, can act as a catalyst for understanding wider social and cultural uses of digital technology.’ (Closer, 2007). She talks about her previous experiences with performing in Paul Sermons Telematic Dreaming and how she experimented with the technology in place. By reading this I hope to learn from an actor point of view what it was like to perform in Telematic Dreaming. This book has taught me a lot about this method of technology and that it isn’t just used for a visual effect but the techniques creates a deeper meaning. Reading these books have led me to further my research and look into productions that I have previously seen and finding reviews from critics who talk about the technology used. Reviews used have been from The Gaurdian and London Theatre Reviews, reviews from these sources are mostly positive so I have found these to be very helpful when finding out if these reviews have the similar opinions to myself. I am hoping to learn about other people’s experiences with these particular shows.

Methodology

I have been using a various number of books that look into different forms and practices of technology in theatre which include past and present techniques and discussing topics such as projections, telematic performances and 3D mapping. These books have allowed me to find certain performances that have used these techniques and how they have developed in practice. I have looked at reviews from critics who have watched these performances and have spoken about their opinion on the technology used, I have taken these views and discussed my own opinions on what they have said. I have used some performances that I have previously watched so I have some knowledge behind what is used and shown so I can give my personal opinion on whether I thought the technology worked. For performances that I haven’t experienced in person I have looked into videos online so to gain my knowledge as my research involves my own opinions on if something worked or not.

Digital Technology

Dixon has said that the history of performance has touched upon three periods throughout the history of multimedia performance; these periods being: futurism during the 1910s, mixed-media performance in 1960s and experiments that link performance and the computer during the 1990s. (Dixon, 2007) Digital art has been developing since the 1960s, this is a term called the ‘digital revolution’ which involves the introduction of hardware and software that is easily accessible and affordable. During the 1970s all the way through to the end of the twentieth century there was a large increase with the use of projections which use both screening and video monitors during theatre and performance art. (Dixon, 2007). Video art has inspired arts to explore and experiment with new possibilities to greaten their work when using visual media throughout their live work. ‘The use of media technology [film, media and sophisticated sound equipment] has become a hallmark of experimental theatre’ (Dixon, 2007). The performances that were well known in this period included film and video in their works, some creators include Robert Wilson, Peter Brook and Station House Opera. This proves in its self that the use of techniques like video when used well can leave a huge impact on the viewers and it can turn new works into something even more incredible and exciting. When experimenting any kind of new technology used in its early stages it would only be seen and used as a technique. The process will start with creator thinking and discussing ideas on how these new and exciting gadgets can be used with the artists who will work them to collaborate them in their old or new pieces of work. When techniques are built on and used more frequently the artists can get familiar and then we see a relationship develop between the technology and art form. Audiences could leave the theatre feeling surprised as the technology has allowed them view theatre in a new and interesting way. It can open up new opportunities for audience development, this can mean not just bringing an audience in a theatre with the use of technology but we can bring theatre to people from across distances. The internet and extended communications widen the space beyond architectural boundaries of the place of performance, performers and participants so they don’t have to share the same space at the same time. This comes with the use of projection, whether real-time or not it shows us the presentation of spaces and people not actually present on stage. There are so many different possibilities when it comes to creating ambitious work with multi-media uses and there are many opportunities to create live/digital events. (Gardner, 2010)

Telematic Performances

‘Telepresence allows the viewer parallel experiences in three spaces at once 1. In the real space in which the viewers body is physically located; 2. Per tele-perception in the virtual, simulated visual space reproducing a fictional or real, remote visual sphere; and 3. Per tele-action at the physical location of the data work or even of a robot controllable over one’s movements or equipped with a sensory apparatus over with one can find one’s bearings’ (Dixon, 2007). In an art context themes of videoconferencing, audio and visual connections between sites are themes we can relate with the term telepresence. ‘Telematics however explores further areas as it experiments play across both absence and presence as well as different kinds of impulses that are both human and non-human.’ (Dixon, 2007) During the late 1990s telematic performances were known to be very popular within stage production throughout 1999 and 2000, what made it so popular was because it was accessible which meant you didn’t need to have an outstanding knowledge with computer skills or computer science and it was limited with financial resources. The appeal for telematic artwork is the connection the bodies share together even when they are such distance apart it creates an almost poetic environment as the bodies never touch but they base the piece entirely on movement.

Telecommunication technology is applied to performances for it to be a telematic performance and there are two versions in today’s works, high tech and low tech. High tech uses high resolution teleconferencing which connects full-body performers in two or three dimensions. It is only shown in one set location as it is too complex to move around to different locations. Low tech uses a type of technology much like skype and because it’s so simple can be used and moved anywhere. Criticism has always been given to high tech telematic performance as it is seen as being focused more on developing the technical and ignoring the visual by simply displaying the telematic connection in a theatrical way. Paul Sermons telecommunication project Telematic Dreaming (1992) is located in two different rooms which ar

e in two different locations with this project it was a couple of houses away from each other but technically the locations could have been quite a distance away from each and it still would have worked. One of the rooms is blacked out whilst the other is a blue screen room, a double bed is placed in each room with a person lying on them. Paul Sermon was located physically in the room with video cameras and a two-way interactive video so when an audience member entered the room Sermon could see it. When a person has entered a room, they will see a projection of Sermon on the double bed and the closer they got the better the view of the image. Paul can make contact by offering a hand to make the person walk closer to the bed, the loudspeakers that are used under the pillows make the person aware that it isn’t a pre-recorded tape. (Please see Figure 1 below). To describe the experience, you could say you are taking part in a virtual reality experience as the projections get more and more surreal as the computer graphics get mixed with what Paul is doing so the performance intensifies. The work overall looks at presence, absence and the psychology of human interaction with the use of technology to help communicate. (Leonardo.info, n.d.)

(Figure 1. Paul Sermon: Telematic Dreaming, 2018)

Susan Kozel was a performer in Telematic Dreaming and has said ‘In Telematic Dreaming human interaction was reduced to its simplest states: touch, trust, vulnerability. Movement usually began in a in a hesitant way with hand contact taking on excessive importance. The impact of slow and small movement became enormous’ (Kozel, 2008) A lot of practice and concentration was needed to make these web patterns between the two actors and to allow body parts to touch from two different locations. When the movement is done right it can leave the viewers shocked and disturbed by what they are seeing. (Kozel, 2008) (Please see figure 2 below).

(Figure 2. Susan Kozel: Telematic Dreaming, 2018)

Station House Opera have created a fair amount of work that involve many experiments with technology. The company are well known for creating stunning site-specific work and most recently live work between two countries just by using internet streaming. Station House Opera is well-known for its unique sense of visual style; this company has created work that brings together theatre and visual art in one unified manner. (Stationhouseopera.com, 2018)

In 2014 Station House Opera created telematic performance workshops for their work ‘Dissolved’ (2014). The company have used long-distance computerized technology to create a performance between London and Germany. The work can only be viewed online as one live video-stream from England merges with another in Germany. Using a video stream with this piece is far advanced than your typically Skype and Facetime video stream. ‘Dissolved is the first of a series of works researching spaces in which performers and audiences in different parts of the world are drawn to an awareness of the other as being present in their absence.’ (Stationhouseopera.com, 2018) (Please see figures 3 and 4 below).

(Figure 3. Station House Opera: Dissolved, 2018)

(Figure 4. Station House Opera: Mare’s Nest, 2018)

Station House Opera’s ‘Mare’s Nest’ (2001) is a Telematic performance that uses video a half-physical and half-virtual space. This performance involved four people and their life size doubles in a real and imaginary environment which would often be inhabiting both at once. Mare’s nest was a performance about double, triple and quadruple lives interacting in the complex augmented space where architecture and video meet. (Stationhouseopera.com, n.d) ‘A bewitching piece of theatre about the rational, box-like restrictions of modern life and the irrepressible fantasies we conceal within them, but as always with Station House Opera, you need to be alert to the undercurrents. Director Julian Maynard Smith constantly plays with your sensory perceptions, consistently spruces up your mind the more you look, the more your eyes deceive you. At the end of 90 minutes only one thing is certain: you’ve spent an evening in the presence of a rich and distinctive talent.’ (Time out (theatre)).

The space is set with two back to back stages, with a video screen on each side and an interconnecting door. The four actors move between the two stages and the spaces in front of them; the audience can also move from one side of the structure to the other, watching on stage then the next in an attempt to piece together some kind of narrative. ‘It is very neatly done, with spilt-second timing from the live actors, a clever use of sound and plenty of novelty value. Those new to Station House Opera will be intrigued; old hands may find it a little tame’ (Gardner, 2018)

Stephen Simon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

As a modern audience, you would think that we wouldn’t be able to get as surprised when we see something technical on stage be so amazing, because we have seen so much development in technology with gaming, mobile phones and the internet. However, this isn’t necessarily the case when we think of theatre productions as when designing and creating technical idea we are stunned with what people are capable of to create a spectacle. With upcoming companies using video design and projection as it is now so accessible it is now considered to be one the most important part when creating theatre. The difference between traditional theatre and theatre now is the backdrops as they would normally be made of fabric draped from the ceiling on the back wall whereas now that can be created with projections that can be used across all areas of the stage including the floor. Possibilities are endless with just a simple projection and ideas are always flowing from creating a digital setting through to creating a narrative just by using a screen, when a projector is placed behind an actor ideas are endless.

The ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-time’ is a great example of a modern classic that uses technology to help create a spectacle on stage. This is a production that is massively reliable on projection mapping technology, and because of this has been known as one of the most incredible works to ever come across Broadway. The play originated from the book ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ by Mark Haddon. The story follows a story a boy Christopher who struggles with autism. Paule Constable the lighting designer of the play used the projections to show Christopher’s unique view of the world and his sensory experiences and turns into something that the audience can experience with him. The production takes all areas of theatre and seamlessly connects them together to create a magical experience. The set is created as a giant open cube, with all walls and the floor covering in lines like a grid, it almost looks like the setting of a video game. (Please see Figure 5 below) What makes this set so incredible is that is comes to life, it has hidden doors, props, stairs and the walls project words and images all these that appear magically throughout scene changes. (Please see Figure 6 and 7 below)

(Figure 5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Set, 2018)

(Figure 6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-time, Projection, 2018)

(Figure 7. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Stairs, 2018)

Bunny Christie who is the set and costume director said ‘We didn’t want it to feel like a regular set in a way, it needed to feel like a fun environment more like a computer gaming room or a nightclub, something that kind of had an energy to it.’ (Broadwaycom, 201

5). The play is quite playful and comical so the set had to represent a playful environment and it does that very well in the sense that something is happening at all times and with the constant change of setting.

The set would always be moving and changing in the same Christopher’s brain would be and it would react and adapt to the way the actors are moving on stage, almost like it is its own character. The set has so much energy so everything from the lights, costume, props and actors had to have the same energy ‘It should be space where Christopher would feel at home, so that it would have lots of technology and we would be able to celebrate that and have lots of straight lines and nice clean space and at times it would be somewhere where it would be fizzing with energy in the same way his brain is fizzing with energy and that would be a fun place for him to be.’ (Broadwaycom, 2015) The technology is cleverly used in the sense that is copies Christopher’s emotions and his thoughts as an example one minute we would be in Christopher’s classroom and the next we would suddenly be in outer space because he has changed thought. (Please see Figure 8 below) This couldn’t have happened so quickly and smoothly with using traditional theatre scene changes which has back stage crew come stage and physically switch around the setting. ‘When his anxiety tips out of control space can tip out of control as well so that the neurons of his brains are going crazy and fizzing and this recognisable in the set as well.’ (Broadwaycom, 2015) When Christopher goes to London Euston train station everything becomes stressful for him so everything like directions, numbers and people appear from out of nowhere so the audience feel unfocused and as stressed as Christopher would feel in that same situation. (Please see Figure 9 and 10 below)

(Figure 8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Space, 2018)

(Figure 9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. London Euston, 2018)

(Figure 10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, London Euston, 2018)

Dom O’Hanlon says ‘Marianne Elliot’s production is outstanding in its efforts at combining all of the technical departments of design, lighting, sound and projection to create a hugely imaginative yet seemingly realistic world that blossoms with surprises at every turn’ (London Theatre Guide, 2018) The overall design used allowed the audience experience life from Christopher’s perspective and it allowed his world come to life. The combination of lighting design and video design allowed the production to be one of the most impressive and inventive set designs in London. The technical aspects are fully supported through a strong narrative that involves heightened emotions from the family on stage. The incredible movement from Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham also came and hand in hand with the projections which left the audience amazed by the visuals. This production proves that we can appreciate the technical creativity used throughout (London Theatre Guide, 2016).

Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest

The Tempest is a traditional Shakespeare play that takes place on an island, the location isn’t specified so it has many opportunities for artists to have their own interpretation of what happens on this island, it also allows theatre companies to stage the piece in whatever way they want. (Britton and profile, n.d.) The Royal Shakespeare Company’s magical take on Shakespeare’s classic play ‘The Tempest’. The piece includes digital technology which is combined with physical set and the actors in hope to greater the audience’s experience. Stephen Brimson Lewis talks about how you need to be able to take risks when adapting a piece like this, it’s one of the challenges that you will face when working with materials that you’ve never worked with before and finding out how they work together in a shared spaced. (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2017)

The set itself has been built to look like a ship wreck which has taken inspiration from the Mary Rose as it is virtually from the same era to which the play was written. ‘The ship wreck starts to relate to the royal Shakespeare theatre, you get the stalls level, the lower gallery and the upper gallery level, which lead to a structure that will fit in this theatre’ (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2017). We can already see the set is already quite complicated with the ship having doors and exits and entrances across the ship, this was affective as it gave us different focus points across the stage. (Please see Figure 11 below).

(Figure 11. RSC, The Tempest, Shipwreck, 2018)

However, this production of ‘The Tempest’ uses projections to create an immersive experience for the viewers and because the audience were placed on all three sides it allowed the production to be shown from many different angles so flat screen projections for this performance wouldn’t be as effective. There were two main physical structures, the Vortex was placed in centre stage and would show projections of storm clouds and The Tempest’s famous island setting, the material was created out of a black mosquito net which would be lowered down from the roof. The spirit Ariel was digitally projected onto a similar netting which is the Cloud that flies above the theatre space. (RSC.org.uk, 2018) (Please see Figure 12 below).

(Figure 12. RSC, The Tempest, The Vortex, 2018)

Brimson Lewis says ‘Previously, holograms have been dependant on a single viewing angle, using something called Pepper’s Ghost. This has been used in pop concerts, for example to bring Michael Jackson or Tupac back to life, and the audience have to all sit at one angle. We’ve done it so you can see projections 360 degrees around the set- to make the experience much more immersive.’ (Dawood, 2016). Seating all the audience all the around the set was very interesting and it made sense as to why they did it like that but from a personal experience it all depended on where you were sitting as too whether you got the full experience or not.

The productions didn’t dismiss the use of actors but the use of avatars was also key part during the performance, the actor playing Ariel wore a motion capture suit and there would always be a conversation that would switch between both the actor and avatar and other characters on stage would interact with both the actor and avatar Ariel. I was quite impressed with how effective this was and I really got a sense of the whimsical type character Ariel is. (Please see Figures 8 and 9 below)

(Figure 13. RSC, The Tempest, Ariel, 2018)

(Figure 14. RSC, The Tempest, Ariel, 2018)

A review by the Barbican has said that technology over powered everything especially in the opening scene ‘Darren Raymond and Caleb Frederick, playing mariners, have line to deliver but against giant-wave effects and the supersonic demolition of a ship, they might as well stay mute. Not one bellowed word comes through’ (Woodall, 2017). Woodall says that the performance was very impressive on visuals but it seemed to lose a lot of the narrative because everything like sound and projections over powers the actors speaking on stage. So, the projections were in way pointless as you couldn’t follow the story very clearly.

Brimson Lewis says that it doesn’t take anything away from the narrative as he keeps the script the same and he follows all the stage directions Shakespeare originally asked for he just uses the technology to help enhance it. An example is in a scene where Shakespeare has asked for the food on a table to disappear, he achieves this by using three-dimensional image mapping on the banquet table with the food on, an

d the projections used allow the food to disappear. Brimson Lewis also didn’t want to completely dismiss old uses of technology that are seen in Georgian theatre, he still used techniques such as transformation gauzes and trap doors. ‘We wanted to find way to use technology to enhance the story-not devise a piece that was entirely about technology’ (Dawood, 2016).

The reason behind why the Royal Shakespeare Company uses so much visual aesthetics is because they are hoping to take fear out of using tech in set design and that they want to appeal to a modern audience as the tools used in today’s performance were just a modern-day version of what would have been attempted originally. ‘They used candles to focus and reflect light, use live animals and their own forms of automation. We’re not grafting this stuff onto the play- it was asking us to find new and exciting ways to present it. If there’s any legacy from this production, I hope it’ll take some fear out of using technology in a live theatre event.’ (Dawood, 2016). While the aim for this production was certainly met, I can agree that the technology got a little overwhelming at times, however was very effective when Ariel was on stage. Shakespeare is written and spoken very well but it was so easily lost in this production.

Conclusion

I can clearly say that when technology and creative minds connect they can create something magical. It doesn’t necessarily matter how much money has been invested in these techniques as proven in Telematic Dreaming, where the simplest of techniques are used and it has still managed to impress the audience. Technology isn’t just a service to the show; it is the show as it can create a narrative as well as a spectacle. The productions I have spoken about above show how technology is still able to amaze an audience but however we must be careful we don’t over power the performance with lights and video unless absolutely necessary as it might leave the audience confused but if we keep praising the performances that work well who knows what it will bring next, the world of theatre is awaiting an exciting future and only the limitation of imagination stops what is possible.