Digital-Age Theater
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 12 (December 2003)

Digital-Age Theater

Ever since the ancient Greeks first took to the stage more than 2500 years ago, theatrical productions have spread to virtually every society and have evolved in virtually every way to reflect the culture of each place and time. Yet several aspects of the productions—including the static nature of the stage environments and the “single-medium” nature of the performances—have remained fundamentally the same.

Now even these facets of the performing arts are undergoing a dramatic transformation, as theater artists and producers adapt to one of the most significant cultural influences in history—computer-based multimedia technology and its pervasive integration into our information and entertainment industries. Indeed, this revolution is spawning a new genre of theater performances for a new generation of audiences tuned to the digital age.

The current generation is hardwired to process multiple streams of dynamic visual imagery almost instantaneously, says Mark Reaney, a theater professor at the University of Kansas, which recently staged a multimedia presentation of Mozart's The Magic Flute (see "Setting the Stage," pg. 30). For example, people watching CNN-type newscasts can process several windows of visual information at once. And computer gamers can do the same, even while managing the interactions of multiple game characters. Therefore, productions such as KU's The Magic Flute—which featured simultaneous interactions between live actors and CG characters, sets, and props that are projected onto several giant screens on stage—are proving especially appealing to this plugged-in generation.

Unfortunately, such works, at this time, are limited mainly to university productions, for a number of reasons. First, audiences tend to be more accepting of the technology. Second, creating high-quality digital imagery is expensive in terms of equipment and manpower, both of which tend to be more accessible to universities than most commercial groups. Third, commercial theatrical producers, like their feature-film counterparts, need to be reasonably sure of a return on their investment before proceeding with this type of project.

Another obstacle is that the current theater producers tend to be less accepting of the technology-theater marriage. "To them, theater is special because it is live," explains Lance Gharavi, assistant professor of performance technology at Arizona State University. "So when you start interjecting virtual elements, it's like letting the thieves into the temple. They believe the living presence that theater exemplifies is sacred."

Thus, for the foreseeable future, digitally enhanced performances will continue to proliferate and evolve, albeit slowly. Indeed, Gharavi, for one, expects to see more university-based interactive theater utilizing virtual reality, stereoscopy, sophisticated holograms, and body sensors used as input devices, whereby a gesture would initiate a specific computer command. To that end, he is beginning work on an independent production called IM/UR, a live performance of a love story about a zombie and a cyborg starring two actors and a full cast of technology—animation, video, stereoscopic CGI, virtual reality, real-time sensing, and more.

With such exciting possibilities as these, it's time to usher commercial theater directors and producers into the 21st century. "Computers, computer graphics, and television are the lingua franca of the new generation, who understand on a deep, intuitive level the meaning and uses of this technology," says Delbert Unruh, director of KU's The Magic Flute. The financial risks associated with new technologies and techniques may be daunting. But the potential payoff of being among the first to bring the best talent together to tap into the tastes of 21st-century audiences could be huge.

Karen Moltenbrey
Senior Technical Editor