Performance Enhancer
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 11 (November 2003)

Performance Enhancer

By Phil LoPiccolo

Mark Reaney produces experimental virtual reality-enhanced productions for the University Theatre group at the University of Kansas. For more information about augmenting stage performances with digital imagery, see "Setting the Stage," pg. 28.

A: I had been using modeling programs to design traditional stage sets, but when VR software became commercially available, I had the harebrained idea to project views of my models onto a full-stage projection screen so that the director and I could envision how the finished set would look. While viewing one of these presentations, it occurred to me that we could create wonderful new sets if we were to use the VR simulations as part of the production.

A: Mostly scenic simulations. Digital scenery can be very energetic and can depict a broad range of locales often called for in modern plays. We're also doing more experimentation with CG characters and CG-enhanced characters. These can be kind of tricky because when you use them, it is easy to move out of the realm of live performance and into animation.

A: They are bridging the gap between cinema and live performance. By incorporating the new media, we can use many of the storytelling techniques that audiences have become accustomed to in film, and still maintain the immediacy of live performance. This has the potential to increase the pace of a performance and present information from many sources, such as live performers, CG characters, on-video characters, multiple sound tracks, and an array of digital scenic elements. In many of our VR productions, the audience was asked to wear 3D glasses, earphones, or head-mounted displays to help them access all this information.

A: The ones featuring fantastic or abstract environments have been more successful than those that just digitally re-create a realistic locale. We have tried both and found that audiences are more willing to suspend disbelief of an environment that is totally foreign to them and requires them to engage their imaginations. We've never had the problem of asking too much of an audience or of giving them too much to watch. In fact, quite the opposite is true; the faster and wilder we can make something, the better the audience likes it.

A: Aside from the usual ones of time and money, right now one of the biggest limitations is the relationship between the performers and the projection screens. Having actors stand still before a large backdrop is very "19th century." It is also very limiting for directors and actors who are accustomed to a lot of movement on stage.

A: We and others are experimenting with different projection surfaces including water vapor and smoke. Perhaps someone will come up with a practical hologram.

A: Our next experiments at KU probably will involve completely surrounding the audience with a CG environment. I also would like to involve our dance department and see how fast and fluidly we can make our digital scenic elements move.

A: I would love to see the day when theaters are designed and built for the purpose of digitally enhancing live performances. In such venues, performers and "scenographers" could conjure scenery and props out of thin air in realtime. With enough resources, every wall in the theater could be rigged to show digital content, making for a completely immersive experience.