Theater adapts to new technology

Thirty minutes after Undergraduate Production’s “Sound/Projections Seminar” was scheduled to begin yesterday afternoon, its hosts were still waiting for a single student to show.

But UP Technical Director Tom Delgado DRA ’09 and Nathan Roberts DRA ’10, production coordinator for the Theater Studies Department, attributed the lack of attendance to Election Day hassle and preparation for this week’s Dramat mainstage “The Drowsy Chaperone,” rather than to an absence of student interest. The use of new media and projections technology on the stage is a growing trend in the theater industry that is sparking excitement among the upcoming generation of theater students, Delgado said.

Roberts and Delgado planned the production workshop to take place while the Whitney Humanities Center’s Whitney Theater is still equipped for the senior project “Richard 2012” to show students how the production is making use of live feed video and various media projections, and to introduce them to the the use of sound and projections programs Q-lab and Isadora.

“Richard” is not the first theater studies project to make use of such technology, Delgado said. Senior projects “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Hamlet” integrated projections into their shows last year, and Delgado said that he anticipates more senior projects, such as January’s “Breaking the Code,” will do the same next semester.

Both the Theater Studies Department and Undergraduate Production have begun new initiatives this year to respond to student interest. Theater Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Paige McGinley explained that her department is aware that using media projections is a growing trend in the field. For the first time this year, she has made it part of the curriculum both to keep up with developments in the field and to adequately prepare students entering the theater world after graduation.

“[New technology]’s constantly getting integrated into shows on Broadway,” Roberts said. “Students go to New York, and they come to us and ask, ‘How do we do that? How do we make that happen?’”

better provide training in these technologies, Delgado, UP Technical Director Justin Deland and Senior Technical Director Rorie Fitzsimmons are all taking a projections engineering class at the Yale School of Drama this semester. While the professional school offers classes in technical mastery, undergraduates interested in theater’s technical side have historically had few academic outlets for increasing their knowledge. The UP workshops have tried to fill in any gaps students may have, Delgado said, citing a series of lighting workshops he held last year that catered to a variety of student needs and skill sets.

This semester the Theater Studies Department is also hoping to broaden students’ understanding of new technologies by hiring Elise Morrison as an Interdisciplinary Performance Studies postdoctoral associate. Morrison, who received her Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies from Brown University in 2011, focuses her work around the use of video installations and surveillance technologies in theater. Next semester, Morrison will teach an undergraduate course on digital media in performance which will serve as a “laboratory” for students, exposing them both to the theoretical and technical side of the new techniques available to them, she said.

“I think that the value of this kind of exploration in the theater is that it allows people to come together and consider what this new media means for our lives,” Morrison explained.

Morrison emphasized that while the use of digital media specifically is new, its incorporation is part of a long history of theatrical productions experimenting with developing technologies. Past examples have included everything from the use of perspectival painting to the incorporation of photography and film, she explained.

“Theater has always been a mixed media form,” Morrison said.

Morrison said that because video technologies “are so embedded in our daily lives” they are quickly becoming an important way of conveying the realities of modern life and communication on the stage.

In “Richard 2012,” for instance, the use of projections helped to “make [it] a completely different kind of event,” creator Alex Kramer ’13 said. The show used live video feed of the actors and audience members, as well as video clips from the news media and political ad campaigns in projections around the stage.

For “Richard,” the use of projections is necessary for conveying to audiences the show’s message about the media-saturated culture of the presidential election, Delgado said. Roberts said he hopes other students like those involved in “Richard” will use the projections technology available to them in ways that advance the artistic goals of their projects, and not simply because “it’s the hot new thing.”

Book Pro for the Whitney Humanities Center’s theater so that future shows can also benefit from computer-based lighting and sound mixing programs.

One up-and-coming theater innovation is LED lighting technology, which allows lighting designers to far more easily create any color on the spectrum, including blended shades not possible with conventional light fixtures, DeLand explained. He added that this semester’s “Spring Awakening” production made use of LED lights to great effect, and that spaces around campus including the Off Broadway Theater and the Morse-Stiles Crescent Underground Theater now have new light boards compatible with LED light fixtures.

New computer software now gives sound designers a similar plethora of options, Roberts said.

“I got into sound design when some people were still splicing together tape,” Roberts said. “Now there’s an infinite amount of sources available… it’s limited only by the computer’s memory.”

Modern technologies make technical work in theater less labor intensive and more “user-friendly” than it has been in the past, Morrison said. DeLand explained that the new LED-equipped light boards are “a lot more intuitive” to students who are used to working with computers.

By allowing directors to more easily “dabble” in the technical aspects of shows, new technologies are inspiring more students to begin working on the technical design side of theater, Delgado said. UP Peer Advisor and sound designer Josh Stein ’13 said the undergraduate theater scene has historically suffered from a lack of students on the design and technical fields given the number of shows going up — lighting designers, for instance, have sometimes become “burnt out” due to the high demand for their skills. He said that it is necessary to recruit and retain students with technical skills by giving them more creative outlets.

Delgado said he has already witnessed the increased engagement of students with theater’s technical aspects after they are exposed to the mixed media elements now possible with new technology. He cited the example of Charlie Polinger ’13 as a student now interested in gaining experience as a sound designer after experimenting with recent developments in sound technology as the director of “Richard 2012.”

“[New technologies in theater] force actors and directors to have a deeper understanding of the technical sides of production,” Morrison said, adding that her class next semester will blur the lines between various roles.

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