Looking At The Future: Computers Meet Theater

Richard Marsh/Dearborn Times Herald/April 17, 1997.

Imagine a classroom in which entire works of Shakespeare are available at the click of a button, or students can tour an ancient Greek Theater or act out a scene with another actor thousands of miles away. Dr. George Popovich of Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn has imagined just that and even more. With the help of computers and other technological wonders, the theater department head is bringing the teaching of theater arts into the 21st century.

“What I’m trying to do is to at least demonstrate the computer technology in every theater class so that every student will get a taste of how theater actually uses computers,” he said.

What began with an overactive imagination and a fascination with science fiction films and computers for Popovich resulted in his earning a $39,000 grant from the HFCC Technology Investment Fund to develop the technology that could revolutionize the theater classroom.

“Teachers can customize their teaching materials for any type of course,” said Popovich, a resident of Romulus. “And the kids really like it. Young People today are very visually literate and seem to comprehend all this. Images are like the basis of visual grammar for them.”

Popovich said for two years he researched computers, software, and other equipment and available technology that could be used in the classroom before he applied for the grant. He began to implement the programs in the classroom in September. Self-taught, Popovich said it would have cost thousands of dollars in training if he had attended seminars and classes to learn how to use the equipment — digital cameras, both still and video, computers, and scores of software programs.

He still spends many hours outside the classroom adapting the technology to his needs. As a result, his students can use the Internet, which has thousands of theater sites, for numerous applications.

“The amount of information on the Internet is practically limitless,” Popovich said. “There are literally thousands of libraries at my service via the internet. I don’t have to leave my office.”

The Internet has been particularly useful in his Shakespeare classes, Popovich said. he can access any of the Bard’s plays, download the scene he wants and print it without leaving his office. Students can even watch famous Shakespearean actors such as Sir John Gielgud and Patrick Stewart perform the scenes. With the Real Audio archives, which has hundreds of musical sites, directors can select music for their plays t the touch of a button, Popovich said. Teachers and school play directors also can access that information, saving hours.

Using applications from CU/See Me, an inexpensive software program, Popovich has linked his acting students with people in Australia and Japan. Theatrical use would make it possible for actors from around the world to act in the same play. Virtual reality, known to the public mainly for its applications in video games, is another technological advance Popovich has embraced. Via Virtual Reality, he can take his students on “tours” of famous theaters throughout history. And with computer-aided design, he can even design three-dimensional sets, complete with lighting effects. The application is used in professional theaters, he said, saving money and time by allowing designers to “walk” through the three-dimensional sets before they are built.

“This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds,” he said. “VR already is used in the medical profession, by car designers and by the Army, which uses it in training. CAD programs also can be used in the same way to design makeup and costumes, Popovich said.

One of his goals is to create an archive of virtual models of famous theaters throughout history to be used in the theater classes. By using a combination of Adobe Photoshop, an image-editing program; Adobe Premier, a digital video editing program; and the multimedia programs, Macromedia Director and Adobe Persuasion, Popovich is able to come up with a variety of customized teaching tools. For example, for his horror and science fiction classes, he assembled a slideshow of classic horror films by scanning hundreds of photographs of old and lost films — after obtaining the proper rights, of course, he said. Then, he added text and titles as well as video clips and sound for a program tailor-made for his students. Using a wireless mouse, he can present the program on a multi-sync television monitor hooked to the computer monitor. Using a software program called Dramatica, Popovich can analyze student plays, a device he will use for the upcoming new playwrights’ workshop.

“The program doesn’t write dialogue,” he said, “but it analyses the relationships and logic of the characters. This program has been used in a number of Oscar-winning films, including ‘Forrest Gump’.”

Finally, Popovich plans to use the technology to create a website for the community college’s theater department, cataloging with pictures and sound many of the plays the department has produced over the years.

“Actually, the technology makes my job as a teacher more complicated,” he said. “That’s because the more we can do with it, the greater the choices we have. As I understand it more and more, the challenge becomes greater, and I like that.”

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