Adding Machine: A Musical

In November 2013 a new production of Adding Machine: A Musical was presented by the University Theatre at the University of Kansas. This production was the 10th in a series of experiments in which virtual reality (VR) was used as the scenic medium. In each successive production a new technique or technology was tested for its effectiveness in theatrical production. In this production the new operative was the use of real-time computer generated lighting coming from digital projectors mounted in the front of house position. Virtual scenic elements were created through the use of a computer and projector mounted behind a rear projection screen and functioned in a similar fashion to other VR productions that we have done in the past. This production was directed by Mechele Leon. The scenery, lighting and VR technology was designed by Mark Reaney, the costumes by Rebecca Damren. Rana Esfandiary was in charge of creating the content for the digital lighting and programming its control.

By exploring new creative use of technology where humanness of performance is the leading factor not leading factor leading factor not the cold mechanics of technology

One aim in all of our experiments in virtual reality scenography is to explore the latest technologies and techniques in real-time computer graphic media in relation to theatrical performance. Among the many discoveries that have come to us, a primary one is that the virtual-reality operators, by controlling the scenic environment in real time, have become performers themselves. In Adding Machine, a Musical, as in past productions, the operators of the virtual-reality lighting system were positioned in full view of the audience, putting them in the position of cast members of the show.

Furthermore, the driving factor in our choices of the virtual environments was to use the power of computer CGI graphics to reveal the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters on stage. For example, in the scene depicting the zero’s office the large clock ticks away slowly, the hands barely moving, to illustrate the grueling, punishing boredom in which zero has toiled for the last 25 years. When he starts to daydream, the walls of the office dissolve away into the distance, illustrating his need to escape his environment, if only in his thoughts. In this production we took this idea one step further by incorporating digital projections as the main source of front lighting for the show. In this way the performers were being wrapped in representations of their thought processes through the use of computer-generated animations, old movie clips, and works of art. The costumes for this production, while retaining period silhouettes, were realized in muted tones and shades of gray, in order to make them better receivers of the projected images.

It is a further aim of ours to speak to a modern audience in a language in which they are most accustomed. In our modern society, people typically gather information about the world, their communities and even their friends through electronic media. They sit for hours in front of a video screen be it computer, television, tablet or smart phone. Modern audiences are able to digest information at an increasingly rapid rate from both visual and auditory inputs. Our virtual reality productions present information to them in a manner in which they have grown most accustomed. The resulting pace is rapid. The visual information is varied. The scene changes happen in a matter of seconds, and through CGI technology we are able to accomplish special effects not typical in the ordinary world and only accomplished in the theatre through wires and other gimmicks.

Ventures into new and challenging spaces/ sites

In each of our experimental productions we have chosen to reconfigure the playing space to meet the unique requirements of the experiment. In Adding Machine, a Musical the audience was moved on to the stage floor against the back wall of the theater. The rear projection screen was hung at the proscenium and the rear projectors were located out in the house where the audience would have been placed in a more traditional production. In so doing, the audience gained a more intimate relationship with the playing space, the CGI lighting effects could be more carefully placed on the stage, and the audience had a higher vantage point from which they could see the stage floor upon which the digital lighting effects were displayed to their best advantage.

Creatively challenges conventions of performance, moves performance into a new realm

Our work in virtual-reality/theater production has been documented in countless journals, magazines, conferences, thesis, dissertations, and books. Among the latter are: Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation, A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, Quantum Theatre: Science and Contemporary Performance, Computer Visualization for the Theatre, New Visions In Performance (Innovations in Art and Design), Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology, and A Companion to Digital Humanities. One of the most prominent publications to describe our work is Oscar C. Brockett’s last book Making the Scene: a History of Stage Design and Technology in Europe and the United States. In the epilogue, “Looking Toward the Twenty-First Century” Dr. Brockett includes our work among a very few others when he wrote:

“One response to growing media technology is to make unique theatrical works for audiences who may be exposed to global visual aesthetics with the click of a mouse.”