Technology in Theater: One Step Ahead

by Brett Elliott

in Audience & Community Engagement,Global Connections

Post image for Technology in Theater: One Step Ahead

(Photo Caption: An audience member listens to spoken text, and music by local Chicago musicians, during a performance of en route. Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented this special production of en route devised specifically for the City of Chicago by Australian company One Step at a Time Like This in the summer of 2011. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.)

The time:  present.  The settings:  public and private spaces throughout downtown Chicago—at the intersection of the city’s business, government and cultural districts. The concept:  an interactive and site-specific reworking of Shakespeare’s classic Measure for Measure (now titled Since I Suppose) which takes audiences on a journey through the city of Chicago to awaken a heightened sense of culture, politics, and human interaction. Set to music, text, video, and live performance, Since I Suppose encourages participants to see and interpret their surroundings through a new perspective while exploring their own relationship to people, to space, and to time.

Since I Suppose is the current work being developed in collaboration between Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) and Melbourne, Australia’s artist collective, One Step at a Time Like This.  Over the past 26 seasons, CST has redefined the role of a contemporary theater rooted in Shakespeare’s legacy, producing plays and musicals that range from large-scale spectacle to intimate performances and serving as the region’s foremost producer of international artistry. Since 2001, One Step has garnered worldwide praise for their site-responsive work that focuses on the activity of the audience as an essential element in the experience. Our first project together was the critically acclaimed and sold-out Chicago engagement of One Step’s en route in 2011. Subsequently, Chicago Shakespeare Theater sought to reengage with the artists of One Step in the co-creation of a new work which would use the storytelling and text of William Shakespeare as its basis while continuing to explore alternate forms of presented theater.

(Video of en route from Cultural Connections on Chicago Tonight)

The month-long residency supported through TCG’s Global Connections – IN the LAB program brought four One Step company members to Chicago, and I project managed the day to day collaboration between Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the One Step team. This work together included some more traditional tasks such as costume pulling and location scouting, but much of the collaboration centered upon the use of technology and multimedia, and often took artistic cues from Chicago artists, politics, and architecture. One primary focus during this period was an expanded exploration of technology in Since I Suppose to incorporate the usage of digital hand held video devices. In previous works, One Step has frequently used Mp3 players to provide a soundscape for their walking journey through a city. The soundscape would typically be scored to music and text and would give audience members prompts as to where the next leg of their journey would take them. One Step wanted to investigate how video can take this pathway to another level.

The incorporation of video devices provided a platform to view ‘follow films’ to move audience members through a curated series of performance locations.  These ‘follow films’ were conceptualized early in the development process but were realized and refined during One Step’s spring residency at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The team engaged with a local videographer who created live footage of characters from Since I Suppose traveling (in costume) from location to location. The end result had audience members (myself and other staff members for this exercise) traversing the city ‘following’ a character on the screen—in the palm of their hand—while listening to music and text that scored the journey. This new medium will ultimately create a way for audience members to be engaged for the full two hour journey and never be removed from the performance piece, even between interactions with live actors. Having the opportunity to experience a trial run of this technique, I can say that this first attempt was very successful and uniquely incredible to take part in.

This process, especially in actual performance, will not be without challenges. For example, Since I Suppose is scheduled to play during evening hours, but with only two people entering the journey every 15 minutes, and a showing time span of nearly six hours, the changing daylight and surroundings become problematic. Ideally the ‘follow films’ would parallel the audience members’ physical environment.  To accomplish this, multiple videos of varying degrees of daylight will be shot for the fully realized version of this work.

A dedicated app for the mobile video device is also being developed, in order to create a fail-proof way for audience members to move seamlessly between ‘follow films’ and live interactions along the journey.  As has been learned through One Step’s previous work, when audience members are required to select tracks from a playlist based on verbal instructions, user error can occasionally hinder the artistic experience—for example, if a participant forgets which track they played last, or are unfamiliar with the user interface on smart mobile devices. The creation of an app will safeguard the process, only allowing the user to advance to the next sequence by a large arrow button, but also allow slight flexibility to pause the sequence or incrementally advance/rewind if they are proceeding slower or faster than the actor walking in the ‘follow film’. An incredible amount of observation on audience usage and interaction was accounted for and noted during the residency in order to inform the development of this new app.

One Step spent their four week residency finding a route for the Since I Suppose journey,  further creating their re-imagined Measure for Measure story, drafting scripted elements, and then populating the sequence with the ‘follow film’ technology. Through the TCG Global Connections—IN the LAB program, Chicago Shakespeare Theater was able to deepen its legacy as a leading cultural ambassador by engaging with these renowned international artists from Australia to support the creation of a groundbreaking new form of storytelling.

Since I Suppose is tentatively scheduled to play Chicago in the Spring of 2014.

Elliott.BrettBrett Elliott is a second year MFA/Arts Leadership Fellow at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a two-year MFA program that pairs full-time employment at CST with full-time coursework at DePaul University.  A graduate of Saginaw Valley State University, Brett received his BA in Theater with an emphasis in technical theater/stage management.  Brett spent three years as Executive Assistant at the internationally recognized Eugene O’Neill Theater Center before beginning the Chicago Shakespeare/DePaul program where in his first year he worked with Black Watch by the National Theater of Scotland, line produced Leave it to Ludwig a joint production between CST and The Chicago Chamber Musicians, and project managed a residency of Australia’s ‘One Step at a Time Like This’ in their development of Since I Suppose.