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Treading the (circuit) boards – How is digital technology changing theatre, on and off stage?

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Treading the circuit boards

The International Theatre Engineering & Architecture Conference (ITEAC) covers the full spectrum of theatre innovation. This year it is concentrating on the new ways in which performance spaces are developing. Increasingly, both on stage, behind the scenes and in the public realm, theatre teams are creatively blending technology and architecture to enable new types of performances and new forms of audience interaction with theatres. This heady mix is exactly where Calvium’s interests and experiences lie.

That’s why Calvium’s Jo Morrison will be speaking at the conference, exploring ‘Digital Interaction in Analogue Spaces’ alongside Agents of Change (AOC) director Geoff Shearcroft and Liam Evansford of Theatre Clwyd. The conference takes place at IET: Savoy Place, London on the 3-5 June. Inspired – and keen to prepare – we’ve looked into some key tech and theatre intersections.

Reinventing the stage

Catherine Love, writing for The Stage, explains how projection mapping in theatre is more than just a novelty; it’s another medium to tell a story.

For the uninitiated, projection mapping turns any object or shape on set into a display surface for video projection. Small companies and venues can access and afford virtual sets more complex than their limited physical environments allow. Projections can adapt to all sorts of settings and surfaces, making each performance in each venue unique.

Bristol-based Raucous Theatre’s last two productions, The Stick House & Ice Road, used projections (along with haptics and personal speakers) to add new layers of sensory depth to the audience experience.

Compass Presents combine movement and projection mapping to blend theatre and performance, creating expanded cinema shows. Their production ‘The Caligari Experience’ uses hand-drawn animations inspired by the aesthetic of silent movie classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. These are projected onto a set built around the cinema screen to make the world of the film spill out onto the stage, creating a cinematic world in which the performers interact.

In Golem, theatre company 1927 pushed the technology still further, using the entire set as a giant background for projection mapping. Real-life performers physically interacted with digitally created props – with characters drinking projection-mapped cans of fizzy pop, for example.


Extending the audience experience

Mobile phones may be a tad disruptive when a performance is in full swing, but that doesn’t mean they can’t enhance the relationship between the theatre and its audience. All seven theatre apps in the What’s On Stage showcase (including Calvium’s Hidden Stages for the National Theatre) are a case-in-point. They offer theatregoers a range of content including archive performances, festival programming, learn-as-you-go glossaries for Shakespeare’s plays and ways to create one’s own performance within theatrical architecture.

Some performances even use mobile technologies to extend the stage into the streets, using the city as a canvas.

Blast Theory works at the cutting edge of live performance. The nature of their work not only transforms the audience experience but also creates new ways of interacting in and with the built environment. The team’s 2003 location-based game Uncle Roy All Around You overlapped mobile tech, game design and theatrical performance, blending the movements of street players with the virtual activity of online players, mixing emergent live-action with pre-programmed gameplay.

Uncle Roy and its predecessor Can You See Me Now? were seminal works that mixed real and virtual performances and places. That’s the essence of Blast Theory’s ongoing work. Uncle Roy was only the beginning of a process that’s become more sophisticated with mobile projects like 2097: We Made Ourselves Over, released in 2017.

Our award-winning Lost Palace project for Historic Royal Palaces showcased the power of these urban experiences. Using a bespoke mobile device, visitors to London’s Whitehall were enabled to explore a now-lost royal palace via geolocational audio stories and haptic feedback – holding the beating heart of Charles I and hearing commentary by Shakespeare, Elizabeth II and others. Find out more about that project here.

Forward-thinking theatrical experiences have increasingly drawn on other rich mobile technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) to tell stories in extra-immersive ways.

The National Theatre pioneered this approach with their wonder.land studio back in 2016, which used virtual reality headsets to deliver experimental pieces to theatre professionals, encouraging them to consider how immersive technologies could change the nature of narrative within dramatic contexts.

In the same season, the RSC introduced motion capture technology to the stage for their rendition of The Tempest. Created in collaboration with Intel and Imaginarium Studios, the approach saw character Ariel’s human form replicated in a massive shifting digital projection – boosting the metaphorical power of the play to critical acclaim.

Evolving AI performers

Ruairi Glynn’s Performative Ecologies installation is a conversation between visitor and performance, person and machine.

Robotic sculptures dance for their audience, proposing and negotiating their performance, assessing attention levels, and sharing successes and failures to evolve and improve performances between visits. It’s a devised dance, choreographed by devices.

Glynn explains his work as a development of Gordon Pask’s ‘conversation theory’, which entered theatrical discourse in the 1960s. Pask saw ‘conversations’ between users and devices in terms of a simple model – the ‘master-slave’ relationship that gave us the word ‘robot’. According to Glynn, that’s rigid, restrictive and old-fashioned. The devices we have now are iterative, learning machines that can negotiate with us – and that’s why the sculptures in Performative Ecologies ‘talk back’ to their audience, asking and establishing what visitors want to see.

While not ‘strictly theatre’, but certainly entertaining and experimental, a second example of work that explores the relationships between people and evolving robots on stage is Fiddian Warman’s ‘Neurotic’, that premiered at the ICA in 2008. Neurotic highlights the neurology of pleasure, learning, taste and ageing, inviting consideration of how taste is embodied in human neurons or Artificial Neural Networks.

New school approaches

Writing for HowlRound, New York dramaturge Zachary Small claims ‘twenty-first century theatre should look more like the conditions it is made under: the warm glow of computer screens as comfort; the cyclical melodrama of the stock market as a Greek tragedy; the War on Terror as a war on metaphors; the globalisation of the world as the isolation of the human.’

The ‘living room play’ of the past thirty years, in Small’s world, is a bourgeois fantasy of control, an isolation chamber in which the world is simplified into a solvable puzzle which we call ‘realism’, and social problems metabolised into personal tropes.

Small cites Germinal as a critical example. In this play, the switchboards governing the lights are onstage, and the actors don’t speak until they find microphones and amps and set them up. It’s an example of ‘technologist theatre’ – an approach which doesn’t pretend that what’s happening on stage is real. Instead, technologist theatre highlights the workings of the theatrical experience, making them appear to an audience that’s trained not to notice those workings.

Old school techniques

Old school theatre techniques – i.e. not using digital technology – integrate beautifully with these digital techniques. These techniques are coming back because they’re authentic and physical. In a digital world, they have novelty; they can shake an audience out of complacency and provide a heritage draw to a performance or venue.

Think of Pepper’s ghost – a projection technique achieved with sheets of glass; the original “it’s all done with mirrors” effect that was popularised in the 1860s and which is still used today. As Yale photographer and projectionist Bek Anderson puts it, the optics of Pepper’s Ghost are the basis of any hologram. It’s only the projector itself that’s changed.


Bristol Old Vic actually has one of the last remaining ‘thunder runs’ – the wooden troughs above the stage along which weights are rolled to create the illusion of thunder right over the audience’s heads. Built in around 1766, the Old Vic’s thunder run is one of only three operating in the country: it fell out of fashion back in the 1940s, but the theatre’s 250th anniversary production of King Lear justified giving the old girl another spin.

The live experience is augmented by technology, not undermined by it – as long as the tech is integrated with the performances. The point of live theatre is that it’s primal, unique and exclusive. It can be subtle, mysterious, ambiguous and intimate, handling hot-button topics with control, thought and patience. Those qualities resonate through whatever tech happens to be in play at the time.

Above all, it’s innately shareable – people talk about theatre, talk back to theatre, and tell each other about theatre. Theatrical experiences are a classic Happening – an active engagement between art and audience – and such engagements are what our work strives to create.

The theatre is both a physical place and a performative space, and digital technology is no stranger to either. Tech is a channel: another way for thought and creativity to operate, for visitors and audiences to connect with creators and environments.

 

To see how we’ve helped bring people, experiences and places together, check out our case studies – and we’ll see you at ITEAC in June.