05 December 2009

Theater and Computers

Some time back I was doing some reading to catch up with the latest developments in theater tech and staging concepts. This included some experiments in the employment of computers in performance in ways that went beyond lighting control and scenery shifting. A long time ago I had read an article in Time that reported on a new computer program, developed at MIT, that let playwrights test scenes on screen without hiring actors and a stage. Actors, directors, and designers were aghast, as you might imagine, considering this now-primitive computer theater the nose of a very scary camel inside the tent. If playwrights learned they didn’t need actors, directors, and designers to see their work come alive, what might ensue? We could all be out of business permanently.

Well, that hasn’t come to pass yet, and it’s been over 20 years since that report appeared. Film has been invaded by computer technology, especially in the action-adventure genre, and computers have become standard equipment in theaters for scenic and lighting control (which might exercise IATSE), but the only area of performance in which computers have become an issue of contention is music--the substitution of computer-generated music for real instruments played by live musicians. (This is a real issue for AFM members and has been the focus of much action by that union.) But computer-generated acting does exist, still mostly at an experimental level, though it has been used on stage a little already. It’s coming, that’s for sure, unless some other, more applicable technology arrives first.

Now, I’ll confess that I like technology in theater. I don’t mean that I reject theater-unplugged, as it were; but I can be bowled over by the clever (and theatrical) use of tech in a performance when it enhances the live elements of theater. I was amused when Harry Guardino did scenes with a projected cartoon in Woman of the Year in 1981. When Emily Mann used closed-circuit TV on stage in her Broadway production of Execution of Justice in 1986, I thought it was neat. I was delighted with Penny Arcade’s use of live video in Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World (Invitation to the Beginning of the End of My Career) in 1990. I don’t reject theater tech out of hand, though there are many who disparage the use of anything beyond a Fresnel and a Leko on stage. What I don’t appreciate is using tech to emulate movies as if the goal of theater were to become a live-action video game.

While I was revising an old essay on documentary drama (another version of which appears on ROT as “Performing Fact: The Documentary Drama,” 9 October), I began to consider the use of computer-generated imagery on stage as a real, if somewhat gimmicky, application. Computer controls long ago changed the way lights, sound, and sets are designed and run in the theater. As of now, however, computer theater’s a speculation, but if we expand the idea into some of the emerging technology that is already in experimentation for live theater, we get intriguing potential developments: satellite broadcasting (that is, from remote locations), CGI and holography, virtual reality, computer sensors and motion capture, bluescreen technology, Internet productions (live performances transmitted via the Internet). There are certainly other computer applications that are not yet part of the public awareness, still in experimental stages in laboratories, which would expand this short list, but some of this computer technology is already in use in performance. Experimental theater artist George Coates has been using CGI and other computer (and proto-computer) techniques in his work for three decades and universities (where the technology exists for now) have been testing various applications of computers on stage beyond controlling the lights and the set changes.

The name for this hybrid theater hasn’t been settled on yet, either in the lit or in common parlance. “Virtual reality (or VR) theater,” “cyber theater,” and “computer theater” have their advocates, but all have other meanings that create ambiguities. Other terms exist, too, but most have broader or more limited applications than the computer-assisted theater to which I’m referring. The leading contender right now seems to be “digital theater”--the one I’m going with for now--though that, too, has alternative meanings referring to other applications. (Among these are the recently-launched program in London of broadcasting live theater performances to screens at remote theaters, including in North America and other continents; the Internet transmission of performances staged in a studio or another location and viewed on home computers; and a method, developed by the Digital Theater System, Inc., for recording surround sound for films and video.) The two most significant criteria for the kind of digital theater I mean is that it must focus on live actors in a performance space with living spectators present for the performance. (For the performance to be theater, as distinguished from, say, dance--which has already been experimenting with computer-assisted performances more than theater--a certain reliance on text or narrative must be evident. But my emphasis here is on the computer aspects of the performance, so a dance or performance art presentation would serve just as well for my purposes.) Whether the cyber element is a digitized actor or virtual scenery is irrelevant to my point--except that it would have to be substantial to make the production rise to the level of digital theater, something more than a computer-generated special effect. (Though a few years old already, the best article on this subject, with several examples of the kind of technology to which I’m referring, is “Live Media: Interactive Technology and Theatre,” Theatre Topics 11.2 [September 2001]: 107-30, by David Z. Saltz, who is director of the University of Georgia’s Interactive Performance Laboratory.)

There’s a history, short of course, for digital theater. The pre-history picks up with the George Coates Performance Works, founded in San Francisco in 1977. He started with electronic sound systems that manipulated music in live performances the way a recording studio does on tape; as electronic and digital technology advanced, so did his theatrical experimentation. (Going back further into pre-history, we encounter the works of other avant-gardists in the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s who used the technology of their eras in experimental ways--film, projections, amplification, and so on.) Moving into the 1980s, we begin to see the true early stages of digital theater as computers became small enough to bring into the theater and studio and powerful enough to do more and more complex tasks in creating works of art. Music and visual art were the first forms to capitalize on the new machines that were being invented for communications, recording, and writing or drafting. Artists merely turned the quotidian devices from office and school work to art. By the ‘90s, the Internet and other advancements in the cyber world had become part of everyday life and artists spread out into the potentialities the new tech offered. Film and eventually TV capitalized on the new possibilities almost immediately; it was a natural fit: electronic devices for the electronic media. Dance took advantage of the new tools next. As the technology became cheaper, simpler, and more powerful and flexible, artists found more and more ways to use it in their work, and digital theater was born. In 2002, for instance, Kabuki director Koji Orita used a computer-projected image animated in real time by an actor in an off-stage room to portray a mythical creature on stage opposite a live actor. Digital theater’s still in the early experimental stages now, but just as sure as the Lord made little green apples (as Harold Hill put it), it’ll be on our stages soon enough.

For good or bad, computers will become an element of the theater world. Along with the work of Roy Ascot, GCPW, and the Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre, some universities, especially MIT, the Interactive Performance Laboratory at the University of Georgia, and the Virtual Reality Theatre Lab (now the Institute for the Exploration in Virtual Realities) at the University of Kansas, have worked with computer-generated imagery in live performances. Computer sensors and motion captors allow actors to interact with sets, props, lights, sound, and CGI’s. The Internet and satellite transmission allow actors distant from one another--even as far away as different continents--to act together in the same play at the same time as live actors appear with projected images of a distant actor. Plays produced on the World Wide Web using webcams already represent a kind of guerrilla theater where actors perform in public spaces as spectators, warned to tune in to a certain website, watch on computer screens at remote locations. (While this may be a form of digital theater by a looser definition, the lack of a co-present audience at these productions puts them outside the type of theater I’m considering. The technology, however, can be adapted for use with live, co-present spectators.)

A few years ago, I was at the Shaw Festival in Ontario and one of the plays that season was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man. As I was watching the show, it occurred to me that this would have been a great play on which to experiment with computer-projected images. Since the title character was invisible for so much of the play, his stage "appearances" consisted mostly of standing off stage somewhere, delivering lines over a mic while the rest of the cast and the stage techies accomplished all the physical stuff. Like the mythological character in Koji Orita’s Kabuki production, a gauzy version of the character might appear in projection on the set as the actor “performs” off stage in real time.

Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice had live closed-circuit video on stage, but it was either prerecorded film--from The Life and Times of Harvey Milk or news coverage of the murders--or transmissions of images from the stage as if they were on-location TV broadcasts. But Mann did do some of this while characters were still coming on stage from the wings--as if the TV cameras were following newsmakers--and the audience saw the screen images before the live actors were visible. That's a rudimentary precursor of what I'm imagining. With the Internet and satellite transmission, the images can be created live from a continent away; and with holography, they can be projected not onto a screen, but onto the stage.

Just as film actors (and TV weathercasters) now perform before computer-generated bluescreen images that to the spectators look as real as if the performers were filmed on location, I can imagine actors in the theater working against projections or even holograms from a real location historically associated with the events of the play, what might be called virtual scenery. We may perhaps see King Lear ranting before the actual Stonehenge or Hamlet live on the ramparts of the real Elsinore castle in Denmark.

Singer Natalie Cole famously performed a 1991 duet with the video image of her dead father, Nat King Cole, but we might soon see live on-stage actors interacting with computer-generated images of long-dead historical figures--a kind of live-action Zelig.

In Woman of the Year, Harry Guardino acted with that animated drawing--but that was a fake, of course: the projection wasn't really reacting to Guardino. In a revival, however, the actor might actually interact with a projected cartoon animated in real time by an actor off stage.

In And Then They Came for Me (1996), audiences not only heard the recorded voices of survivors of the Anne Frank hideout, they saw these people on video tape projected onto the stage in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In the future, actors would be able to appear on stage with actual participants live from the site of the events depicted in the play. Think of a three-dimensional video conference (or a Star Trek holodeck). A live actor in the theater could act with another live actor miles away, but in real time.

A further step along this continuum might be to put a live actor on stage with real events that are happening at that moment somewhere else in the world. In my original documentary theater essay, I suggested that the epitome of the genre would be what I dubbed drame-vérité--from cinéma-vérité, filmed actualities--a form of reality on stage. I said it couldn't be accomplished--and given the technology of the early '80s, it couldn't. But the march of technology has made that possibility more likely and not unforeseeable at all. I'm not sure, but I think all the technology necessary is available, though it's very expensive, obviously, and not entirely reliable at this stage of development. But we know that that situation doesn't last very long.

Theater may or may not be deliberately emulating movies, but I project, based on these technological "advancements" that sooner or later, movies and plays will be one and the same thing: you'll go to a theater for a "live" event that's really holograms and computer-generated images, whether it's Hamlet and Horatio, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, or Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. It'll be a theatrical version of virtual reality. (Shortly after that, they'll hook you up to electrodes and project the performance right into your mind--a combination of play, movie, and dream.)

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