Global Theatre Workshop – U.S. (NYU) /U.K. (Google Campus)

We all know what happens when people gather via new media to overthrow dictators. What happens when artists converge in the virtual space to tell stories? The powerful vortex of the collective imagination may be as transformative. When using new technology, the leap is how to innovate artform.

As part of Velocity Lab 2012, an Anglo-American ensemble engaged in workshops experimenting with telepresence in live theatre. British actors gathered at Google Campus London while American actors converged at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Global Theatre Lab

From October to December 2012, the actors from both sides of the pond interacted via Vidyo’s telepresence platform. In video – American actors: Zoey Martinson, Adam McNulty, Danielle Skraastad, Matt Citron, Neysa Lozano. British actors: Francesca Bailey, Mark Donald, Thomas Rushforth, Wendy Windle. Jonathon Ward (NYC) and J Dakota Powell (London) overseeing the workshop. Locations: NYU Tisch Arts, NYC and Google Campus London. Dec. 9, 2012.

Jonathon Ward led the workshops, using improvisational games to guide talent and provide structure. Because the work is frontier, there is no proven vocabulary or common language. We’re stepping into the deep blue sea. We can only begin to frame relevant questions.

Ward: “In doing the improv with this technology…you, the actors, control the close-up, the long shot, etc. In effect, you’re the editor. You’re making the shot. Even in terms of the environment you’re in, you can change the camera angle. You can move the camera up so it’s looking down on you. You can put the camera below you so it’s looking up. You can change the lighting and the location.”

“All of [these variables] turn the actor into the director, the lighting person and the photographer. It is a lot of responsibility.”

Ward: “I do think we live that way. If we’re the kind of person with an iPhone who takes photographs of things and puts it right on Facebook, we’re living in images all the time. And we’re controlling those images and putting out those images.”

“What this media offers is the possibility to pull all of that together. But it does put it in the actor’s hand more than anyone else. As far as I’m concerned, I can set up the equipment and put out ideas but whether a story is told…we can really form [the story] from the collective imagination.”

Global Theatre Workshop at Google Campus

LAB PROGRESSION

The transatlantic ensemble progressed in three stages.

Stage I: Who Are You?

The first step was the most intimate – call it the getting-to-know-you stage. The British and American actors used improvisation to connect to each other, establishing a rapport over the fibers. Mirroring and counting games helped actors to pick up on and reflect each other’s verbal and physical cues onscreen.

Stage II: Where Are We?

Local actors began to explore their private space – work stations – while interacting with remote actors in their spaces. The natural geography of each space provided the “set.” Similar to site-specific work, a “set” doesn’t need to be constructed. Space can be selected and photographed. Ironically, the more real and region-specific the space, the more interesting on camera.

Actors could manipulate their webcams to control how other people entered or viewed their spaces. At the same time, they could explore their respective spaces and even exit off screen. Once presence was made known and felt by the ensemble, the lack of presence – vanishing – became evocative. An empty space was never really empty. It’s akin to stored energy in a muscle; the potential for action was always lurking.

Stage III: Where Can We Go?

Actors used mobile devices – iPads and Smart Phones – to roam into public spaces – hallways, elevators, balconies and streets. Geography suddenly ballooned. They could stream right into the Vidyo platform from their own devices without any overhead management…ala plugging into the Matrix. All they needed was a wifi connection to become part of the collective story. Other real people – the public, passersby, other NYU students in the hallways – became part of the virtual landscape onscreen.

Ramping up to TimeWave, the international festival fusing technology and live performance, we’ll explore various ways to use this powerful technology to tell human stories. In 2013, the Anglo-American alliance in telepresence will continue in the same spirit of playfulness, openmindedness and discovery.

IMPROV GAMES TO EXPERIMENT WITH TELEPRESENCE

The lab used improvisational games to experiment with multiple screens. Three screens/work stations were set up in New York City and three in London, England. 

REMOTE INTERACTION

American and British actors interacted via improvisation on multiple screens. Establishing rapport across the fibers is key to communication. The element of play enabled actors to explore the technology with a degree of freedom. Fewer strictures - yet some structure - unleashes the imagination.

 

MOBILE DEVICES

Mobile devices, such as iPads or Smart Phones, enable actors to travel out of fixed work stations and into other spaces - streets, hallways, elevators, balconies, etc. With a wifi connection, we can stream from the mobile device right into the telepresence platform. Actors can establish geography-on-the-go and create specific worlds. The fluidity is new and startling.

 

COLLECTIVE BRAIN

The Anglo-American ensemble discussed their experiences during improvisations.

(from Discussion 1) - Jonathon Ward (NYC): ...as we move out into space it becomes…looking at something else. And it seems to me there were tremendous little pieces in discovery in what could be done and the images that could be created. There were lots of ideas around it. The next question is: how do all of these pull together into something.

Zoey Martinson (NYC): I thought it was cool, some of the camera movement. But I thought it was very effective when it was one or two cameras were moving and the other cameras were stationary. Then you could focus on the moving cameras or the new pace or speed of what you’re seeing without getting overstimulated and dizzy.

Francesca Bailey (London): Maybe it would be worth trying muting the sound unless you’re one of the two key players. Unless you’re A or B. Because I was finding it really hard to concentrate so much noise from different… I’m trying to put sound to which screen it was coming from…which could be useful sometimes if you don’t quite know where the sound is coming from. But in terms of actually focusing on a person, that would be a way of developing…last time we played with muting microphones.

Adam McNulty (NYC): There was a quick little moment between Francesca and I when we first started doing…both cameras started moving around and all of sudden that got my brain working. To me it was fun to all of sudden to move with her or away from her. When she moved away, I would chase after her. When she moved to me, I would come back away. To see that movement in both cameras… It could be fun to play with some more mobile units.

 

 

Jonathon Ward: In terms of telling story it’s interesting exploration. But in terms of getting an audience engaged, there may be ways to pass the story. At this point, you’re carrying the story… defining that in some ways.

Zoey Martinson:… this person is sleeping on this screen and you watch them go to sleep. Suddenly boink boink boink and new screens come on. You’re going to assume those new screens are part of that person’s dream or subconscious in a weird way. Like you’ve already bought that medium without having to move at all. Or you’re doing a Law & Order thing…and one person is in the squad room talking about something that’s happening or something they think will be happening…and you can actually see that this person is in the kitchen…and this person pushes open a door and strangles that person or beats them up. You can actually see that while on another screen all these people are having that conversation. And that’s the beauty of this medium…artistically compose without words.

Ward:…what Dakota is doing now. I just saw cookies. And I thought umm, cookies. And with Dakota moving it’s like upstaging what’s happening. With something happening on camera, the attention can go someplace else. Right now, Wendy and Francesca start taking it with the action.

Adam: The other thing I was thinking...is taking away the hands, all the different hands that are in…trying to actually tell a story. So like we’re passing things off. And actually just creating different worlds. What was interesting to me was where you have a world like Zoey’s – where it’s just her apartment, it’s on her bed. She’s lounging around. That’s her world of stillness, that’s her own little world. And then you’ve got two other worlds where Francesca is… or where actual communication is happening. And you see all these things happening on screen and somehow they’re related but they’re not. You can take away some of the impetus to try to control the storytelling. And each little screen or each little world tells their own story in a different way. But the only thing you’re really choreographing is who’s in what room, what environment are you in? Each space is telling its own story and when you bring it all together, it ends up telling its own story in its own unique way. That then allows the audience to follow…well which screen am I going to be watching at this moment? Which also then allows every single audience member to have a completely different story.