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American Theatre - September 1999

On Virtual Theatre

Theatrics Out of Thin Air
For a new breed of theatrical visionaries, the future is now

by Jennifer Tanaka

It's a hot, muggy evening in New York City, precisely the kind of weather that puts you in the mood for a long, cool drink of futuristic theatre -- like Peculiar Works Project's Privileged & Confidential, billed as a "site-specific work in cyberspace." The venue is a wired loft in Manhattan's garment district, chilly with air-conditioning and bejeweled with glowing computer monitors, shiny metal fixtures and blinking LEDs. Ralph Lewis, the company's artistic director, addresses the audience of 50 or so New Yorkers. "This is really a big experiment for us," he says, his Southern-accented voice twangy and upbeat. "Stay in your seats no matter what happens." At that moment, a large projection screen, house left, blinks on with a rectangular video image of the audience shown at roughly life size, so that it seems like a mirror. Another screen, on the right, shows murky green-black figures that appear to be moving. That's Los Angeles, the other city participating in this "bi-coastal" event. The image snaps clear, as if someone suddenly opened the shade. "There they are!" Lewis says, waving at them but in no particular direction. "Hello New York!" comes the response from two people standing on what looks to be an auditorium stage.

Soon, we are watching a courtroom drama. Actor Bill Balzac, playing a defense attorney, slouches in his chair and taps a pencil nervously at a desk. He looks off to the side of the stage while delivering his lines and remains eerily still -- an affectation for the benefit of transmitting a clean video image to L.A. The West Coast actors, meantime, are pictured on the screen behind him: a blonde female attorney interrogates a man in a dark suit about documents, evidence and insurance payments. It's tough to make out exactly what they're saying. The quality of transmission isn't bad, but it's far from perfect, and the voice of our New York actor (who unfortunately happens to be shouting his lines at the pair in L.A.) is echoing audibly. The echo is an unintended consequence, we're told, of the time it takes for Balzac's video image to travel the 3,000 miles to Los Angeles through a special digital phone line, reassemble on the other side and wing it's way back to us. The play continues in this herky-jerky manner: actors strain to connect and often repeat lines to cue each other; the feed occasionally seizes up; the audience grows weary trying to figure it all out. One woman leans over and scribbles the words "captive audience" on my notepad.

Toward the end of the hour-long performance, the ordeal is neatly summed up in a line from the play: "The operation was a success but the patient is dead." It wasn't pretty. It didn't entertain. But it worked. As the audience ovation breaks up, director Fernando Maneca and the show's New York technicians emerge from the tiny control room. They smile and pump each other's hands in relief and congratulations, like stress-battered air-traffic controllers who have just landed a jumbo jet in a storm.

In theatre, as is true for the rest of society, technology is defining the next bold frontier. While machines of all kinds continue to obliterate old ways of doing things, theatre artists are -- some say belatedly -- harnessing technology for aesthetic and practical ends. From Las Vegas-floor-show-style automation-controllers that can run hundreds of light cues off the single push of a button, to home-built monitor banks á la the Wooster Group, to futuristic computer-generated set pieces that rival plywood and paint, technological innovation is bubbling up in pockets everywhere. The Internet and its kindred communications technologies are making possible remote live performance. Robotics and artificial intelligence lie farther out on the horizon. In the future, some muse, even audience participation could make a comeback -- which seems to prove the late-20th-century mantra that with technology, anything's possible.

Theatre has been a technological art form since the first Greek player hoisted a fellow actor over the stage using a primitive machina. Broadway today represents the best technology money can buy; commercial blockbusters typically cost $5 to $15 million to produce, with more than half going toward physical costs. "You can't find more technology than you can at a large-scale Broadway show," says Tom Bussey, the production supervisor for Disney's Beauty and the Beast, who notes that the technological advances have pushed toward special effects and automation. Beauty and the Beast, widely acknowledged as the most technologically advanced Broadway show when it opened in 1994, required 48 tractor trailers to transport the finished scenery and lights into Manhattan's Palace Theatre. It has pyrotechnics specially made by Disney's Imagineers, a "magic" sequence in which the Beast is transformed into the prince before the audience's eyes, and boast a staggering volume of rigging and stagecraft: There are a total of 1,358 lighting instruments used, with more than 400 cues and 59 vari-lights, each housing a Macintosh computer within. Every cast member uses a wireless microphone, each tuned to its own radio frequency. Twelve miles of automation cable and three miles of lighting cable snaked through the grid and the basement of the Palace Theatre before the show recently relocated to a smaller house.

But the truly mind-expanding applications of techno-art lurk elsewhere. Cheryl Faver and John Reaves at the Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre in Manhattan are using technology to come up with different ways of creating to come up with different approaches to creating character. They project a full-size image of a live actor on top of another actor who appears onstage. Faver and Reaves say that the resulting layered appearance is a perfect expression of the type of characters you often find in modernist texts. They are applying the technique to Gertrude Stein’s first novel, The Making of Americans, and to The Ubu Project, which Reaves adapted from the works of Alfred Jarry. The 1,200-page Stein text, says Faver, is “literally about making Americans” and contemplates at least three levels of personhood: the body of the person, his or her inherited elements, and influences of anyone the person may have met in his or her life. “The project lets us articulate those three different processes of being human within the framework of a single character,” says Faver, who is directing the piece. “There’s the Stanislavsky way of representing the inner life, but we’re experimenting with the external.”

A 1994 production of Master Builder, based on the Ibsen play, by the New York experimental group The Builders Association turned the stage into a responsive environment for the actors. Director Marianne Weems allowed the performers to directly trigger light cues, sound cues and video loops that were built into the set’s infrastructure. For example, in the scene where Solness argues with his wife, when the actor pounded the wall with his fist he set off a cataclysmic reaction—a clap of thunder, a shower of sparks and bursting bulbs—to convey his sense of fury. Programmer Ben Rubin, who designed the system that activated these triggers, says although the mechanisms were more or less invisible to the audience, he felt the technique resulted in a show that was atmospherically different from having the same effects run on sight cues by a stage manager. “The set became a vital force on stage,” says Rubin. “It was always a little different and it energized the performers in the space.”

Technology as a performance aid also made a high-impact appearance in House/Lights, the Wooster Group’s recent take on Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. Kate Valk was outfitted with a wireless earpiece through which she received her lines from a tape recording of someone else reading pre-excerpted sections from the Stein text. The company arrived at the unusual technique through trial and error, and Valk describes the experience as “channeling” Gertrude Stein. “When I heard the text, I spoke the text,” she says. “It was liberating.”

The production also included suggestive interplay between, as one member puts it, “live video interacting with pre-recorded video interacting with fake live video.” The Wooster Group’s long, successive love affairs with technology shows that interesting alchemies can happen when artists get their hands on the stuff and put it to work as an expressive tool. Valk thinks the secret is that Wooster members “have a good time” with their toys. “If I go see something and it seems like somebody just has to use TV or just has to use microphones, and they’re not having a good time with it and entertaining themselves or other people, then that’s not so interesting,” she says. In fact, she adds, “It’s usually bad.”

Unfortunately, artists are usually the last to have access to cutting edge technology—which may go a long way toward explaining why some of the most cranked-up experiments in combining live performance and technology come from places other than New York City. One notable recent trial came straight out of the computing revolution’s ground zero: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. In 1996, Tod Machover, a professor at MIT’s richly endowed Media Lab, unveiled his Brain Opera at Lincoln Center. Ambitious, sprawling and the result of three years of research and development, Machover’s piece was conceived to let average people, as opposed to professional musicians only, participate in the creation of the final performance. Using custom-built kiosks stationed in the lobby of the recital hall, the young and old alike constructed live musical artifacts by waving their arms in front of sensors; singing a single pitch into a microphone that transformed it into a more complex musical phrase; playing simple instruments that recorded inputs like banging on a drum skin or squeezing a moldable object. Machover, a Julliard-trained composer and cellist, combined it all before the live audiences in a free-form improvisation. The show cost $4.5 million to make.

In Silicon Alley, George Coates has tapped the wealth of corporations like Sun Microsystems, Apple, Motorola and IBM to fund his explorations in set design using high-powered computers. For the last two decades, he’s been experimenting with what he calls “soft sets,” or computer-generated sets, having created about 20 shows since the early ‘80s using some form of the technology. One kind of soft sets can be a projection of photo-realistic images onto a projection screen in a theatre space. In 1997 Coates staged 20/20 Blake in which he brought to life a William Blake painting, transforming it into an enormous computer-generated image that actors literally stepped out of. He used two $20,000 data projectors and cardboard 3-D glasses to enhance the illusion for the people in the audience. Another type of soft set can contain computer graphics that are controlled with a mouse like a puppet by its strings. For example, in a show depicting the “fever dreams” of 19th-century French poet Rimbaud, Coates designed a realistic protection of a three-dimensional eyeball that a computer operator in the booth could swivel and pitch so that it was always observing the action on stage. In yet another type of soft set, Coates says the programming is nimble enough to automatically make common-sense adjustments for action on stage. “If the actor opened an umbrella, my computer could be programmed to turn on the rain,” he says.

A seven-hour road trip to the south, in Santa Monica, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz run an interactive arts facility called the Electronic Café, where they present and develop all manner of technology-boosted art and performance. They are among the genre’s earliest pioneers. For the past quarter-century they have been conducting cyberarts experiments with the help of the government and corporations. In 1977, Galloway and Rabinowitz worked with NASA to create live performances via video-conference using government satellites in geo-synchronous orbit. Staging performances designed to test the limits of the technology, the pair invented some ingenious situations. One dance piece, for example, created a unified composite performance space on a large-screen using dancers in two separate locations. Using a live video feed, one set of dancers near the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., could see the second set, who were similarly outfitted at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The separated dancers would then pair up and attempt to move together. In another scene, two performers would superimpose their images on screen and try to keep their two bodies overlapped as one. Galloway calls these experiments “scored improvisations.” Galloway and Rabinowitz staged another innovative cyber-performance in 1995 that linked musicians in 10 cities through a series of dedicated high-speed links paid for by MCI to showcase its new networking products.

The money issue is, in the parlance of computer software engineers, “non-trivial.” Even an established artist like Laurie Anderson has had to look for funding in unusual places. For her new show Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, which had its world premiere in Philadelphia last June and opens the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October, Anderson asked capitalist Paul Allen for money. Allen, who founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, was a complete stranger to her at the time. In a letter, “I told him that I was looking for a Medici,” she recalls. He responded by setting her up in a loose partnership with his technology greenhouse, the Interval Research Corporation.

The good news is that funders are increasingly giving grants for development of digital art. The Kitchen, one of the pioneering presenters of multi-media works in New York, received $200,000 from the Ford Foundation in May to jump-start the flow of ideas on the uses of technology and theatre among local artists. But the dismal state of funding in general is why the advent of the Internet may prove a key development in the next wave of experimentation. The Internet—cheap, ubiquitous and increasingly stable—is providing artists on shoestring budgets a platform for conducting interactive projects. The Peculiar company’s one-hour show cost them $8,000 in equipment rental and long distance phone charges. While it would be a challenge to duplicate the feat over a public data network such as the Internet, smaller-scale trials are certainly possible. Rabinowitz of the Electronic Café says that the Internet may over time facilitate the creation of a new “hybrid” art form that integrates elements of live theatre performance with a powerful interactivity that’s now possible from any desktop computer.

Some hints of what that hybrid form may look like are coming from outside the theatre. Franklin Furnace Archive, formerly a New York performance space, went completely “virtual” in 1997 when it exchanged its loft for an address in cyberspace ( Martha Wilson, Franklin Furnace’s founding director, now funds and manages interactive cyber-shows that exist purely on computer servers and ephemerally in the phone lines that transport them. She says that some of the work that have passed through her organization provides compelling alternatives for makers of live performance. Choreographer Kathy Westwater, for instance, created a dance piece that was performed live via Webcast, videotaped, stored and then reassembled in random fashion by special computer program so that no two transmissions of the “final” work are ever exactly the same. “The Internet is its own art medium, and there is no word yet for works that move in real time and archival time,” Wilson says.

On a more whimsical note, Galloway and Rabinowitz, who say the feel like the “indigenous people of multimedia cyberspace,” in March staged a short play in virtual reality. Using a three-dimensional navigable environment on the Web called ActiveWorld, they used computer “avatars,” which are basically posable cartoon characters, to perform a three-character play called You Must Pay the Rent. In the show’s climax, Nell karate-kicks the rent-grubbing villain “into the next zip code,” as Galloway puts it. The audience of 30 or so other avatars, who represent real live human beings at the far ends of 30 phone connections, showed their appreciation for the brief entertainment by clapping and floating up in the air. Is this theatre?

The answer to that question, for now, is in the hands of people like Peculiar's Ralph Lewis, who despite his show's bumpy first ride is eager to try again. "The goal for this show was to see that it could work," Lewis drawled cheerfully as he passed out cups of champagne at the post-show reception. "I'm just happy we didn't have to stop it, have everyone go off the stage and start over." Hear that sound? It's the future knocking. AT

Jennifer Tanaka is a 1998-99 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support from a grant by the Jerome Foundation. She writes about the Internet for Newsweek magazine.