Virtual Reality Adds Depth To Live ‘Tempest’ Production

Woodwards, Shantee/The Detroit News/15 Feb. 2002: D15

     The actors at Henry Ford Community College are being chased with rocks and wood as they prepare for their upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. But the flying objects aren’t real. They’re part of the college’s plans to bring virtual reality to theater. The college’s spring production of ‘The Tempest’ will be the first real test of the Virtual Theatricality Lab.

     “This is a combination of a play and a live TV show,” George Popovich, Henry Ford’s director of theater, says.

     The Henry Ford version of the “The Tempest” will resemble the 1950s film, “The Forbidden Planet” with a spaceship and planets. The audience will wear 3-D glasses and see images directly in front of their faces. During the performance, puppeteers backstage will control the images from computers. The virtual characters and sets will be able to interact with performers on stage. Technicians also will use the projectors, a 15-foot screen, and several computers to produce the play. This is similar to the technology used in theme parks like Universal Studios and Disney World.

     “We’re trying to bring all the elements together,” said actor Greg Kjolhede, who portrays Prospero in the play. “I worry about what I have to worry about and let (the designers and technicians) worry about what they have to worry about. It’s all part of the creative process.”

     Henry Ford’s Department of Theater Arts began investigating the concept of virtual reality technology in 1994. The department received two grants from the college’s Technology Investment Fund that allowed them to develop a lab and find performance space. Over five years the department received a total of 130,000.00.

     The play originally was scheduled for April 2002, but the date was pushed back after Popovich and the crew immediately became bogged down with the amount of work they would have to do. Establishing the concept for different images and getting the technology to work right was a challenge, Popovich said.

     “We saw what we were dealing with,” said Popovich. “This has been an educational experience about learning.”

     “The Tempest,” tells the story of a group of people shipwrecked on an island, where they encounter a magician and his daughter. The story opens with a ship battling a huge storm. In the virtual version, the group will ride a solar-powered spaceship that crashes. But the production will not change Shakespeare’s language to modern English. One of the play’s highlights will be Ariel, a magic fairy. Actress Joanna Graham supplied the voice for Ariel, who will be displayed as a computer-generated image. The robot-like image lip-syncs Graham’s words and can perform a variety of facial expressions, including smiling and frowning. The godlike character Prospero also is unique and will be displayed in several scenes as a head on a floating background.

     The technology has posed some challenges for the crew. They have been trying to find the best way to make Prospero’s staff appear to chase the two actors on two different sides of the stage. But everyone is confident they will be able to pull it off by the play’s premiere in April

     “It’s been a learning experience,” said Nicholas Riley, who handles the animation for the play. “I came in as a student and I’m still learning.”

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