Gibbons, David/Michigan Vue Magazine/January 2007: pp. 45-56
Enter a theater at the end of the 19th century and undoubtedly you would see a stage backed with painted backgrounds that depicted the play’s time and place. Early in the 20th Century, theatrical scenery called for more realistic settings and furniture to portray a play’s actual setting and the stage ceased to be a stage in order to become an actual living room, restaurant, or whatever.
Then early 20th Century theatrical designers Adolphe Appia, a Swiss, and Gordon Craig, a Brit, decided to give realism the boot. They wanted to create a mood and atmosphere on stage. They believed that the audience’s experience should be more theatrical, with an emphasis on the dialogue, performance and lighting, rather than suffering the distraction of a realistic setting, and they believed the audience needed to more actively exercise their imaginations as part of their play going experience.
So, Appia and Craig called for symbolic scenic pieces with platforms, ramps, steps, panels and drapes to make theatrical design more expressive; all dramatically lighted to create the desired effect. In contrast to realism, the “new stagecraft,” as it was called, expresses and symbolizes a play’s atmosphere and imaginative life, rather than attempting to reproduce realistic details of place, lifestyle, and social and economic status. This scenic theatricalism came to the United States in the 1920s. It still thrives today, alongside the realistic staging that came before.
It might be said that German Expressionism is a form of the new stagecraft. It became popular in Germany after World War 1 and found its place with the 1920 movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the movie, deranged Doctor Caligari and his faithful sleepwalking Cesare are connected to a string of murders in a German mountain village, Holstenwall. The locale is depicted with a distorted, high contrast monochromatic, expressionist type of setting that has since become pervasive in many horror films.
Today’s “New Stagecraft”
So what is all this leading to? Well, that was then, the early 20th century; it is now, the early 21st Century. What’s the “new stagecraft” today?
To find an answer, we need to look no further than Dearborn, Michigan. That’s right, Dearborn, at a community college no less: at Henry Ford Community College. You may recall their Virtual Theatricality Lab production of The Tempest in 2003. Under the directorship of Dr. George Popovich, the VTL set a national precedent for a new stagecraft of the 21st Century with that production.
The show, which played live actors against a stereoscopic 3D setting, was Dr. Popovich’s science fiction adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The production was well received, setting the bar for other theaters around the world. In fact, it became a regional winner at the prestigious Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival.
The Tempest’s fusion of stereoscopic 3D technologies with live theater was compelling and set the bar at a new level for today’s live performances. Popovich and his small band of theatrical reformists at the Virtual Theatricality Lab have set their own bar for today’s new stagecraft even higher.
Faeries, Goblins, and Spirits
The occasion was the VTL production of a heavy-duty play, authored by British playwright Caryl Churchill. Entitled The Skriker. It is abstract and perplexing, definitely no walk in the park. The word “Skriker” is derived from the words “shriek” and “scream”, and the title character is a “shapeshifter and death portent” that haunts and torments two sisters.
The Skriker, a damaged faerie from Celtic folklore, wants the sisters to drink from a glass of blood and thereby eliminate the future of humanity. Though the Skriker is fixated upon one of the women who is pregnant – and hungers for her baby – she primarily is out to avenge the savaging of the planet by mankind. In this sense, the play is an allegory about the mounting imbalances with nature now becoming more apparent.
The Skriker’s guises are many and include an old crone, a pretty faerie, and a female psychotic sexual hustler. The Skriker is also attended by other ancient mythical creatures just as damaged and out of place – but also out to avenge our trashed planet. Both the Skriker and these creatures occupy a “dimension gateway” between our reality and theirs. They are not depicted as real, but rather as fantasy elements. Though they may influence the course of events, they also may simply “hang out” in their dimension.
Needless to say, this is a difficult play to stage and perform – but the Virtual Theatricality Lab elected to break new ground with it. They dramatically redefined their own “new stagecraft” using an emerging 21st Century Technology, motion capture: real-time animated characters performing with live actors on stage.
After examining The Tempest, Dr. Popovich said, “the element that seemed to be lacking was a direct emphasis on the actor. While the interactive aspect of the production did provide some outlet for actors’ creativity, the overall 3D scenic approach did not involve the actors to a great extent. For this reason, we decided to explore the area of motion capture.”
Making Monsters with Motion Capture
Motion tracking, or motion capture, began as an analysis tool in biomechanics research. It expanded into education, training, sports and as the technology has matured, into computer animation for cinema and video games. The performer wears sensors or markers near each joint to identify their motion by positions or angles between them. Acoustic, inertial, LED, magnetic or reflective markers, or combinations of any of these, are tracked in precise increments. The motion capture computer software records the positions, angles, velocities, accelerations, and impulses, to log an accurate digital record of the motion.
Dr. Popovich had been planning to produce The Skriker for a long time. He put himself through an extensive research phase with the script to collect many images and descriptions of all the fantasy creatures from various sources. Though Caryl Churchill used the original folklore names for the creatures, she did not physically describe them in the script.
George Popovich was greatly influenced by cinema stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, who animated movie classics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. According to Popovich, “There’s a lot Harryhausen-type modeling in the creatures. That’s why I dedicated the program to him.”
Once designed, the various animated monsters needed to interact on stage with live actors. This is where the motion capture technology came into play. Each of the sprites rehearsed with live actors until their timing and cues were in sync with each other. Motion capture performers were outfitted with an Ascension motion tracking harness.
The performance metrics were mapped onto an animatic- a faceless, shapeless virtual humanoid on the computer. The movements were recalculated to match the physical proportions of each animated character. The characters came to life with movements that were a natural fit with actors live performances during the play.
“If the characters were animated first” Dr. Popovich noted, “then live actors would become a slave to them. The live actors would have to conform their performances to the pre-animated performances. Since the live actors rehearsed with the performers in the action capture suit, they communally set the timing for their performances.”
One of the people responsible for making all this technology happen was chief engineer and director of photography E. Alan Contino. Alan was also the chief engineer and video tech director for The Tempest. The process, according to Alan, is “once you do the motion capture of the characters, you stick them into Motion Builder, tweak the colors and design. Then you put them into a stereo rendering program. On The Tempest, we were using Lightwave and doing the interlacing with a pixel map using Targa files, and the stuff would take years to render.”
This time, VTL discovered free online software called Stereo Maker. “It will take video and just do it for you,” said Alan. “So that saved us some time, Still it took 750 digital files to do the play – half for the right eye and half for the left.”
“Irreality” Between Worlds
“The movement that you see in a fantasy creature isn’t what I’d call realistic,” Popovich said. “It has a dreamlike “irreal” quality. Even if it’s photorealistic, it is still has a motion that is not real. Irreality, I call it. We show the creatures existing in a dimension gateway between our world and theirs. We don’t attempt to present them as real, but as elements of fantasy. Sometimes they influence human events, sometimes they just observe, and hang out in the irreality between their world and ours.”
That irreality resides in 3D scenery behind the live actors on stage. The scenery is true to the tradition of German Expressionism: low key, deformed and portentous. John Wilson and Chris Dozier did an artful job of rendering distinctive lighting effects for each of the surreal settings. The intermediate “irreality” exists on three video and two slide screens contain the scenery where the creatures appear and interact on stage. The video screens contain scenery where the creatures appear and interact with on-stage actors. The slide screens complete the background panorama, but without the creatures.
Breaking New Ground
The Skriker as a play is no picnic for the live actors to perform. The show is one hour and forty minutes long, with no intermission. The play is written so that one actress plays all various incarnations of the Skriker such as a mental patient, derelict woman, woman in the pub, a child in the park, and on and on. Each of these creations requires a different accent from Cockney to “Pre-Bronx.”
Add the plethora of technological demands placed upon the VTL’s production, and you can see the troupe had their work cut out for them. Casting took about 6 months and 12 months were devoted to pre-production, recording the performances, creating the creature models and doing the scenery.
The result was a groundbreaking theatrical event in Dearborn, Michigan that may define the “new stagecraft” for the 21st century. Dr. George Popovich and his intrepid band of innovative thespians have fused film, video and computer technology with traditional live theater to establish an unique theatrical experience for years to come. They have advanced their benchmark set by The Tempest with this techno-production of The Skriker. Now it remains to be seen what the future offerings from VTL and their new stagecraft hold for us. Suffice it to say that whatever it is, Henry Ford Community College will be backing Popovich and the VTL 100%.