In Focus: Interactive Theater - Part 3, Production

Article by Katharine Horowitz

Audience immersion and interactivity have always been the mainstays of haunted houses and historical reenactment sites, but the genre seems to be experiencing a recent eruption of popularity in the United States with such productions as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, or Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell, both in New York City. The last few years have also seen an increase in some impressive interactive theatre productions in the Twin Cities, but is there a lasting future for it here? And what challenges do companies encounter when building the kind of designs and stories needed to create a successful interactive experience?

This is the third in a series of articles examining the work involved to produce interactive theatre, and how we might foster its continued growth in the Twin Cities. We continue our discussion from last month with the designers of two recent interactive theatre shows. We will hear from audiences in the next article.

There’s an element of complexity in the technical process of interactive theatre that differs from traditional presentational theatre. The level of unpredictability is heightened. The excitement behind creating such constantly mutating intricacy is undeniable, culminating in an inescapable pride when it all knits together.

CTC Sound Director Sten Severson was the system designer for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (20K). Freelance composer and sound designer Michael Croswell designed the sound and music for Live Action Set’s Crime & Punishment (C&P). Working with very different budgets and in very different spaces, the two designers discussed their approaches and aesthetic.

FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING

Neither Severson nor Croswell had ever designed specifically for interactive theatre before. When approaching the system design for 20K, Severson drew from his experiences designing for modern museum installations and electronic opera. Croswell found inspiration from his 25-plus years of experience playing live music and becoming familiar with the changing nature of live accompaniment.

“When I composed the music for Crime and Punishment there were aspects of the work that required me to be meticulous like a composer, and there were aspects of the work that required me to have the ability to improvise like a live musician,” Croswell said. “It was a 50 minute show that asked me to essentially create a soundtrack for each room or speaker location... And each location was a different nugget of the story that I had to support or highlight.”

KEEPING UP WITH THE STORY

The bulk of the challenge for Croswell and Severson was keeping up with the audiences and the multiple performances areas, while still serving the immersive needs of the production.

“In a broad sense the goal of sound [for C&P] was to act like an emotional fog that blanketed the entire set,” Croswell said, “and to use sound as a timeline to allow for the cast to synch up throughout the playing space.” This necessitated Croswell integrating sound prior to tech.

As system designer, Severson had a similar task on a larger scale. The pressing question for 20K was: How to control an event that has multimedia, moves through the building, and overlaps?

“We identified the places we needed to be able to control,” Severson said. “And then we said ‘okay, well what technology can we use to allow someone at that location to control lights, sound, and video?’, realizing that we needed to be able to control ahead, too. It was impossible with the route to have someone run ahead and set things up.”

METHOD TO THE MADNESS

Severson wound up creating several control boxes, one for each performance area, networking each of them to a master computer that ran QLab and in turn communicated with the various audio and video playback computers, and the lighting console.

However, the boxes were just that: devices that sent out a signal via Telnet or web interface but had no way of knowing what happened and where. So Severson had to come up with a way for the boxes, and the people operating them, to communicate.

“I knew I had to find a way to tie these things together because natively QLab can’t talk to those little boards in those boxes,” he said. “So I had to find some way to connect the two and then provide sort of an overarching look at what’s going on.”

The answer was drawn from his experience with electronic opera in the early 2000s, during which he was introduced to Max, a visual programming language for music and multimedia (originally developed by IRCAM, a French institute for electronic arts and music, later distributed by Californian software development company Cycling 74).

“The basics of how [Max] works is really simple,” Severson said. “Even though it can really do incredibly powerful things, it doesn’t take a computing degree to figure it out. I know a little bit about programming but this sort of worked with my brain chemistry better. It’s meant to be used for audio and video. You can get very deep into very interesting programming stuff without having to be a programmer. Literally drawing lines between different objects and different things.

There were approximately seven control boxes on the wall, with the same number of modules in the Max software, each relating to one of the control boxes, and each with its own IP address.

Mac computers were distributed with QLab for each of the main performance areas. All communication originating from the master QLab computer was triggered by OSC commands, which in turn would trigger the appropriate performance area QLab computer, as well as sending out commands to each control box, which in turn would communicate what had just happened back to the master computer. A complete loop of information.

“The thing that made this take was being able to use Max and knit it all together,” Severson said. “It allowed me to use pieces of gear and software that weren’t intended to work together. QLab 3 OSC implementation made things a lot easier, so we didn’t have to try to control remote machines over MIDI, which is kind of the next best thing. Because Max also has an OSC component so it can receive and send OSC commands, I was able to translate everything back and forth from Telnet into OSC.”

Working in a more confined (and dusty) space, Croswell determined early on that the sound would be driven by multi-channel fixed audio playback driven solely by QLab, with each audio timeline divided into three-to-five minute blocks. However, with little to no staff to assist set-up, the process became a balancing act between time spent physically working on gear arrangement versus time spent working on the design.

“The very first steps of this project were to figure out how I could pull together enough gear to run a multi-channel audio system throughout the entire space,” Croswell said. “I had two 8-channel snakes that I ran to different halves of The Soap Factory's basement. (This means I had two 8-channel nodes that I could branch out from and run lines to each specific speaker location.) I had eight powered, full-range speakers that I used as main speakers to provide sound for the main soundtrack that synched up the cast. I then had six extra audio lines that I used in small radios and environmental effects.”

Croswell also made liberal use of QLab’s app for iPad, noting how much more difficult setting levels in such a fluid environment would have been without it. When not setting up gear, Croswell was working at night editing and tracking the music and sound to get it into QLab. He found the use of QLab’s app for iPad invaluable.

THE HEAT OF BATTLE

Because the system design, and the nature of interactive show, affected all the multimedia design aspects, Severson was sometimes concerned that any hiccups the system experienced held designers back.

20K lighting designer Craig Gottschalk never felt creatively stifled by the process, but did agree that it was a unique situation.

“It was interesting to be reliant upon a singular system,” Gottschalk said. “In a normal show setting, in which you’re in a space that’s designed for theatre, you can exist alone. If the sound board crashes, lights can still fire and the stage can still change scenery. In this case, if the system failed the whole show ground to a halt.”

He and Severson agreed that their struggles were not unique, with each department having the same challenge of how to make the show work in the space, with the existing budget, and everybody wishing they had more tech time. Looking back, Severson puts the integration of the control boxes and Max software into perspective.

“The truth of the matter is you don’t really learn how [things] work until you’re in the heat of battle, until you use it in anger,” he said. “You can do as much prep work as you want - it’s not going to actually fail properly until you try to use it for real.”

Croswell agrees, noting that the process required him to learn and adapt in real time and with limited resources. He also acknowledged how much the presence of an audience can change an interactive performance.

“Things really change once the audience arrives and starts to wander around inside the production,” he said. “When the fourth wall has been totally smashed and the very first audiences become part of the action the entire production team can expect to radically alter their work again (even after weeks of tech rehearsals).”

HINDSIGHT

For all the complexity - and complications - both men said they felt their designs were a success.

“The show ran very smooth, technically,” Croswell said. “The system was reliable and it sounded good. I felt that I created a lot of interesting sonic environments that worked well for each of the character areas and locations.”

Severson takes pride in his system design, but both he and Gottschalk wonder if interactive theatre is a financially sustainable method of performance, given the equipment, space, and limited audience capacity that can, in turn, affect ticket sales. Croswell, meanwhile, ruminates on the greater impact of live audience interaction than that of traditional theatre contained by the fourth wall.

Are audiences responding positively? Are they attending in numbers that make the effort it takes to produce worth it? In our fourth and final installment next month, we’ll examine audience reaction to interactive theatre in the Twin Cities.

Soapbox: Please Don't Call Me a Professional

Article by Tony Stoeri, Lighting Designer

I remember meeting Tony when he was an intern for the Fringe. Once Techs were underway, Tony shadowed Sean Tonko (then Tech Director of the Southern Theater, now Technical Media Specialist at St. Olaf College) in the Rarig Xperimental. His talent, intelligence and verve made a tremendous impression on all of us, and we were excited when entered the workforce and greatly saddened when he decided to leave for graduate school. For regular readers of my Recommends column, it will be no surprise that I’m thrilled to learn that he studied History. I’m very happy to be able to stay in touch with Tony and his sharp mind through this series - and I think you will be too. - Wu Chen Khoo

 Photo Credit:  Amy Osajima.     Maferefún   performed by Indiana University contemporary dance dept. students.

Photo Credit: Amy Osajima. Maferefún performed by Indiana University contemporary dance dept. students.

I've never been the snappiest dresser. Not that I have anything against people who do dress nice, but that’s never been me. I own exactly two button-down shirts, and my general concession to “getting dressed up” is to wear the pair of jeans that I own that doesn't have rips in the knees. So it's pretty understandable that the first piece of feedback I received on the first class presentation I ever gave in grad school was that I needed to “dress more professionally” (in my defense, I had been wearing my unripped jeans). Yet the feedback gave me pause. It’s not that I didn't understand what my professor meant when he said “dress professionally.” It was fairly clear he meant “dear God put on a collared shirt.” But on the other hand, what does it mean for a lighting designer to “dress professionally”? In several years of actually working as a professional, no one had ever commented upon the suitability of my wardrobe before. Why was this suddenly an important aspect of my identity as a designer? Are people who wear ties inherently better at drafting or something?    

Before we talk more about my wardrobe it’s probably useful to have some background information on who I am first. My first step on the path that would lead me to being a designer came in eighth grade, when the sophomore in charge of lighting at my high school abandoned me in front of an Express 48/96 with the sage advice “You'll figure it out” and went to go do important high schooler things. Though slightly traumatic, that first experience was enough to get me hooked, and I began working on lighting in our high school theater department whenever possible. Soon, I found a friend of a friend who ran a theatre company for teens and I signed on as their “lighting designer”- which I put in quotes because I had very little idea of what I was actually doing.  

The summer after graduating from high school, I wrote a letter to then technical director of the Minnesota Fringe Jeff Larson, begging him to let me work for free. I was given the title of “technical intern” and dropped into a group of experienced technicians and designers, all of whom were at least a decade older than me, and not really sure what to do with me. They magnanimously tolerated my presence and shared their knowledge with me, playing an instrumental role in developing my understanding of what being a designer and a technician meant. I kept working the Fringe during summers over the course of my undergraduate career (though no longer as an unpaid intern) and designed everything I could get my hands on at school and at home. After graduating in 2013, I took up freelancing, and happily lived that life for a few years before I up and went off to grad school.

Until I began attending grad school, I had never taken a formal class in lighting. My undergraduate degree is in history, focusing on early 19th century nationalism. So not really a lot of overlap with lighting design. I learned instead through experimenting on my own, watching other people work, making mistakes, and building relationships with several mentors to whom I owe more than I can express. Nothing in my experience ever came close to formal training or an educational atmosphere. Everything was on the job, practical, and focused on achieving the end goal- executing the design.  

When I became an MFA candidate at Indiana University, these qualities made me stick out like a sore thumb. There are twenty-four students that are masters candidates in the Design and Technology program at Indiana University, spread across five areas of study (lighting design, scenic design, costume design, technical direction, and costume technology.)  Of these students, over twenty came directly from undergraduate institutions, almost exclusively from theatre departments. There are only three of us (myself and two others) who have spent a significant amount of time (over a year) working in the field. Upon coming to the program, I found myself surrounded by people who understood the world we work in very differently than I do.    

Above all what struck me was the fact that my graduate school seems to cultivate the myth of Professionalism with a capital P: It is the holy grail; what everyone is striving to achieve. Yet no one really articulates what exactly constitutes Professionalism. For example, during my first semester all of the first year design and technology grad students were having a class discussion about artistic collaboration. One of the professors asked the class how they would handle another member of the production team who simply refused to collaborate. I raised my hand and said what I had done when I found myself in similar situations: “You work hard, keep your head down, get through it, and then never work with that person again.” This answer was tacitly frowned on, because it was not what Professionals do; Professionals Collaborate (with a capital C), regardless of the reality of the situation.

The identity of a “professional” is a difficult one to define in our industry. It seems that it must in some way be tied to skill, but beyond that I have trouble parsing the boundaries of who constitutes a professional. Both technicians and designers have unions, but their membership is far from all-encompassing and does not include many excellent practitioners. Nor can we look to earning power to define it for us - for many it is difficult or undesirable to make a living as a full time technician or designer, even if they are highly skilled.  I've been to small theaters in the middle of nowhere where the in-house “tech guy” is an incredibly astute technician - in addition to serving as the sound designer, plumber, cleaning staff, the IT department, and whatever else is needed. To refuse to recognize this person as a technician seems unfair, yet they may be unfamiliar with the equipment and protocols outside of their venue. The director that takes on the role of designer, the stage manager who picks up electrics calls to make money, the designer that works only for one company and has a day job, the union hand that only takes a call once a year and spends the rest of their time at another job - all of these people challenge our conception of what defines a professional technician or designer.

If we struggle to define who exactly is a “professional,” one would think it might be a bit easier to define what “professionalism” is - the step back to a more abstract concept allows us to ignore many of the practicalities that make defining the “professional” difficult. And to some extent, it is simpler to talk about “professionalism” as an abstract. After all, there are some pretty universal basics - don't be a jerk and respond to your email being the two biggest, in my opinion. Beyond that, there are even some things specific to our industry that I see as being fairly fundamental. I feel fairly safe saying that “professionalism” in a LD involves providing a plot, as opposed to scrawling your ideas on a bar napkin. For an electrician, “professionalism” might involve, at the very least, showing up to an electrics call with your own wrench. Yet beyond these fairly obvious examples the term once again becomes murky.

For example, one of the most alienating experiences of my graduate school career thus far occurred during a class that was all about drafting standards. The professor told me and the two other lighting students in the class to bring in examples of our drafting to look over. When my turn came and I pulled out my plot, there was a small moment of stunned silence, before they all proceeded to (metaphorically) rip my plot apart and tell me everything that was wrong with it. To be clear, they weren't talking about my actual design; what we were discussing was line weights, specific shades of black and gray, the size of the circle surrounding the channel number, fonts, etc. And its not that my plot was ridiculously sloppy; it was very clean, easily readable, and communicated the necessary information clearly. The difference lay in how we conceived of a light plot. For my professor and my two classmates, my light plot was a vehicle through which I signaled my professionalism to the world by meeting certain standards, however arbitrary they may seem. It had value on its own, separate from the design it represented - I would put it in my portfolio, show it to potential employers, and they would say “he seems professional, lets hire him.”

Coming from my background, I had not really thought of light plots that way before. I have never had a potential employer ask to see a plot. Only a handful of times have I been asked for a resume or photos of my work. Almost all of my employment as a freelancer came through references, word of mouth, and interviews. The people that interviewed me for jobs rarely knew much about lighting - they were looking at how easy I was to work with, trying to gauge whether I was secretly a crazy person that would foam at the mouth and throw yelling fits during tech. To me, my light plot was a means of streamlining the execution of the design. The only way it affected my identity as a designer lay in whether or not it served that purpose. I don't think my professor or classmates would call me unprofessional, and I certainly do not think they are. Yet our understanding of what that term entails could scarcely be more different.

In an industry as varied and unique as ours, I think the concept of professionalism as a single set of standards is useless. In order to make it truly representative, its definition must be broadened to the point that it becomes self-referential by necessity - we end up with the idea that a “Professional” is one who displays professionalism, while “Professionalism” is the behavior of a professional. And there is a danger in this that goes beyond semantic ambiguity (as terrifying as that is).    

I strongly believe that the best way to grow - as a designer, a technician, or anything - is to expose yourself to as many different thought processes as possible; to see something from as many angles as you can. To me, that is the function grad school serves. I am learning new ways of viewing things, and learning new skills that can only make me more versatile as a designer. I take what makes sense to me, adapt and expand on what resonates, and leave the rest by the side of the road.    

Every time we use the term “professional” in our industry, even if we use it with a very specific meaning in mind, we give strength to a social force that inhibits learning and closes us off to growth. Many of us are discouraged from experimenting and expanding, adapting and adopting, because of a fear, conscious or subconscious, that we will fall short of the vague standards of “professionalism.” This is not to say that we cannot recognize competence, good presentation, and respectful and useful behavior. It’s simply about using different language. It’s a matter of semantics.

Soapbox: Thoughts On Design

Article by Mike Wangen, Lighting Designer

 Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

I have been giving a lot of thought recently to the nature of my work as a lighting designer and just how art and design intersect with the art and craft of theater.  Several things prompted this, I recently had the privilege of designing a new production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean which used light, setting, and sound design in a highly abstract manner to emphasize the poetic nature of the work.  Since his plays are usually presented in a realistic setting, we expected some resistance to this and were pleasantly surprised by the generally positive reactions of the audience.  Some critics were not as kind, however, and one in particular felt that the lighting design spent too much time “brightening and dimming with the moods and emotions of the words and not telling us what time of day or night it was.”  

I also recently read a piece on Chagall’s work as a set designer for The Jewish Theatre of Moscow in the 1920s which mentioned that at one point he was highly criticized for creating designs that were too provocative for the stage.

In both cases, the critics were obviously writing from a preconceived point of view and felt that the designs should do nothing more than reinforce their rather rigid views of what the world should be.  They were not to be considered on the merits of the direct emotional impact they might have had in amplifying the words of the writer and actors.

Light has been a part of the theater since the beginning, when storytellers weaved in and out of the glow of the campfire while telling their tales.  The ancient Greek theaters were built into the sides of hills facing west to catch the last rays of the sun at its most dramatic moments.  Italian Renaissance theaters developed intricate pulley systems to drop glass filters over candelabras over the stage as well as elaborate mirror systems to direct candlelight as best they could.  We are all affected by light every day, it makes us feel good, or frightened, or humbled by the simple beauty of a golden sunset, a rainbow, a lightning storm.  It is visual poetry.  I’ve always felt that my job in the theater is to enhance the narrative and poetry within the playwright’s words with a visual narrative in support of those words.  It’s not just to “tell the audience the time of day.”  It is a collaborative process in which the audience members are also active participants.  This is what sets it apart from film.  It’s interesting to me that we often perceive movies as being real while we go to theater, which is real, and call it “playacting.”  So, how can we transcend that feeling  of “acting.”  The human mind is very flexible and adept at filling in the blanks.  We create the world in our minds, as a friend told me.  In the production of Gem of the Ocean which I worked on, there was a moment during a monologue about growing up in slavery and looking out over the sky at night to pick out individual stars and name them as lost friends and relatives.  Often, an actor would be placed in a spotlight during a moment like that, but we chose to fade the lights on her into silhouette while glowing many small lights over the audience.  The audience became participants in the moment.  We’ve all seen the stars at night and I’m sure everyone in that audience could imagine the beauty (and sadness) of that moment in their heads more fully than any literal projection of stars could have done.  This is the beauty and art of what we do.   

The danger in all of this, of course, is that the designs will overpower the words and actors and devolve into pure spectacle.  With today’s technology this is rather easily done.  Video projection has added another dimension to theater design today.  I have seen some highly effective use of video and also some egregious examples of projection which have only served to distract from the words.  It is, nonetheless, an exciting development.  

We must always try to serve the play and not let our egos control our decisions.  Perhaps I’m guilty of that myself and the man who criticized my work on Gem for not telling him the time of day had a valid point.  I think not, and I will always believe that freedom of expression will lead us in the right direction.  At least, I hope so.

Wu Chen Recommends: Programming

Given the degree to which our modern lives are integrated with computers, it makes a lot of sense to know something about what’s going on behind the curtain. Unfortunately, programming is often portrayed as arcane, uncool, and/or exclusively male.

That is all utterly ridiculous.

Programming, ultimately, is a language and a tool. There’s no reason for it to be gendered.

And it’s amazing on so many levels: it’s helpful in modern daily life; it’s fun, creative problem solving; the skills fostered are tremendously applicable to a wide range of fields, including the performing arts. But where to start?

Python is an extremely accessible, free programming language with a ton of support. Whether you’re completely new to programming or have some prior experience, this is a great language to try out. It’s designed to be much more readable, much more forgiving and extremely versatile. The guides linked here are very friendly, free, and come with lots of great exercises and projects to help you teach yourself - though like most things, it’s often more fun with a friend!