What is Past is Prologue

Cohen, Martin F/The Detroit Free Press/March 30, 2003

     Ten years in the making — more like 410, if you start with Shakespeare — here comes the virtual-reality version of “The Tempest.” You could argue that all theater is virtual reality, but George Popovich’s production, which opens Wednesday at Henry Ford Community College, is the real virtual deal. The actors are live — without them, it wouldn’t be theater — but except for a couple of ladders, the scenery is all projected on screens in 3-D, and playgoers are handed special polarized sunglasses to view the full effect.

     Some action takes place on-screen, but not all of it is prerecorded. When Jason Mercury, who plays Caliban, shows off his magic abilities by waving his hands and making a piece of wood move at his bidding on the screen, that’s not a film; one of the crew members is using a joystick to manipulate the projected image.

     Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” full of magic, seems an ideal first project for Popovich and Henry Ford Community College’s Virtual Theatricality Lab. Popovich, professor of theater at HFCC for 18 years, is fond of quoting science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

     What got Popovich thinking about a brave new world where theater and computerized realism meet was the 1992 movie “The Lawnmower Man,” which used virtual-reality sequences. “I thought, ‘Wow, onstage, with live actors. A big problem, though: I had no clue how to do it.”

     So he set about learning. But then something happened that perhaps only the imagination of Shakespeare could have predicted. As Popovich was acquiring knowledge, the technology kept changing. “We had this old clunky software,” he says; the equipment he started out with would seem as quaint today, he says, as “Thomas Edison’s basement.”

     Zip forward a decade, and the stage of the college’s Adray Auditorium is loaded with complicated computerized rear-projection systems and other high-tech electronics, not to mention seats for the audience. Everything — actors, screens, projectors, control booth, technicians and audience (the capacity is about 60) — will be onstage. Over the past four or five years, the theater department has received some $140,000 from the college’s Technology Improvement Fund to establish the Virtual Theatricality Lab and to develop the production

     Instead of a faraway island, the play is set on a faraway planet. Instead of the shipwreck caused by the title storm that traditionally begins the play, Popovich’s production has the storm cause the crash of a spaceship. At one point, the actors are seen onboard the spaceship on-screen. At another, they are live on stage. At another, the exterior of the spaceship is shown on-screen. For a director, there is enormous flexibility.

     For the actors, there are a few special challenges. Conversing live with an actor on video takes some getting used to, says Greg Kjolhede, who plays the magician Prospero, the main character. It isn’t just getting the timing down, he says; it’s becoming comfortable with not seeing the face of the person you’re talking to because both the live actor and the screen actor are facing the audience.

     It might be just as disconcerting to look at the actor on-screen. At times, live Prospero is talking to his helpful sprite Ariel on-screen, and shiny, metallic Ariel looks like something between C3P0 from “Star Wars” and an Academy Award statuette. But Ariel’s lip movements are lifelike.

     “Those are real vowel sounds,” Popovich points out. “It’s a lip-synch program.”

     And — with all the computer programs, the demultiplexers, the credits that acknowledge head videographer and systems designer Alan Contino with “digital compositing for trio floating head sequence” — the words being spoken are still Shakespeare’s. And somewhere, he’s got to be smiling.

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