HFCC Virtual Theater Presents Caryl Churchill’s ‘The Skriker’

Suchyta, Sue/Dearborn Times Herald/26 November 2006: E19

     Students in the theater department at Henry Ford Community College will participate in a production “one of a kind in the world – really”, according to Director of Theater Arts and The Virtual Theatricality Lab, Dr. George Popovich.

     “The Skriker”, a play by contemporary feminist author Caryl Churchill takes its name from the playwright’s invented faerie. But audiences must not expect this sprite to be a harmless Tinkerbell. The Skriker, whose name is an amalgam of the words “shriek” and “scream”, is out to destroy the earth, or at least, to enjoy watching humans do so.

     “Nobody loves me but at least it’s a sunny day”, says the character, alluding to this end late in the play “This has been a comfort to people as long as they’ve existed. But it’s not available anymore. Sorry. Nobody loves me and the sun’s going to kill me.”

     The apocalyptic drama originally produced in London in 1994, is Churchill’s critique on what she perceives as a self-destructive capitalist culture. The action centers on the title character’s attempts to seduce two young mothers to accompany her into the underworld – a reaction on the part of the faerie realm to the destruction humans have brought upon the natural world.

     At rise of the curtain, the street-wise Josie has already been driven mad by the Skriker’s taunting while naïve Lily is only beginning her acquaintance with the shape-shifting pixie. Throughout the course of the play, the Skriker will appear to the pregnant Lily in the guise of a southern girl, an old woman, and a would-be-lover in an attempt to win over the girl.

     The play, usually produced by large universities and theater companies, presents a visual challenge to a production team.

     “Playwrights today are making scripts that require changes in scenery and locale like that of film,” Popovich said. “They’re essentially unproduceable by the old methods.

     Which is what makes this play perfect for HFCC according to Popovich.

     “You can do anything you want with digital media.”

     The college’s production has two sets of actors: one live, one digital. While the former group of actors will interact with the audience and set as expected, the digital team has a more complicated role.

     Using a technique called “motion capture”, the digital cast transfers movement and voice onto computer-generated characters. The digital roles have been rehearsed and recorded in real-time by actors wearing special suits that transfer the actor’s movements to a digitally represented character.

     Live performers interact with these characters, which are projected onto different screens built into the set. 3-D glasses and surround sound complete the eerie effect of the holographic character’s reality.

     However cinematic the effect, Popovich points out, “This is not a movie — It’s not ‘The Lord of the Rings’. This is serious theater.

     The production has required a great deal of research and has been a learning process for students involved in HFCC’s Theater Production Experimental Theater, and Digital Production courses.

     Since Churchill English by birth, has based much of this work upon Celtic folklore, Popovich required his classes to read up on legends concerning spirits and sprites in the British Isles. Students used software such as Lightwave and Maya, the same used by professional teams in Hollywood to create creatures such as King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 film.

     “The software we used has a four-year learning curve,” Popovich explained. “We had nine months.”

    Actors creating holographic characters had to explore new techniques to represent their roles effectively. Acting in motion capture required bigger, slower movements according to Popovich, while also demanding the actors to move with more precision than normally necessary onstage.

     “The Skriker” is the second production for HFCC’s Virtual Theatricality Lab. The first was a rendition of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” in 2003. A second production of “The Tempest” won HFCC much acclaim for its innovative use of virtual reality at Illinois State’s American College Festival in January 2004.

     The production began yesterday and will run Wednesday through Sunday until Dec 2 in Adray Auditorium in the Mackenzie Fine Arts Center on the HFCC campus, 5101 Evergreen.

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