Somatic Thoughts on Artistic Innovation

by Rachel Bowditch

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for Somatic Thoughts on Artistic Innovation

(The House of the Spirits by Caridad Svich. Directed by Rachel Bowditch. School of Theatre and Film, Galvin Stage, Arizona State University, 2012.)

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

 “Play is the highest form of research” Albert Einstein.

I am writing this at elevation of 5,430 feet in the sky at Naropa in Boulder, Colorado. I am participating in a weeklong somatic training intensive with Wendell Beavers and Erika Berland. Sixteen of us are spending the week deeply investigating developmental movement and systems of the body through experiential anatomy and the Viewpoints bringing us into an incredible “research space of play.” Confronted with the question of considering innovation in the arts, this week I am reminded of the importance of play as a powerful form of artistic research. Without deep play, we remain stuck in old ingrained patterns. Deep play is a necessity for innovation. We often equate innovation with digital technology or multi-media, however, the history of new media on the stage reminds us that there is nothing new about this.

Ever since Thomas Edison’s unveiling of the Vitascope in 1896, media has been incorporated into live performance. In the December 2006 Theatre Journal issue dedicated to the intersections between theatre and film, scholar Gwendolyn Waltz traces the history of what she calls “filmed scenery” or “virtual scenery” on the live stage back 110 years from the (550) Victorian magic-lantern projectors that projected still slides (563) to “vaudeville, music hall acts, magic shows, melodramas, motion picture stage shows, ballets, comedies and stage-and-screen multimedia performances” seen in a variety of contexts for a broad range of audiences (548).

In the article “Stage and Scenery and the Vitascope” a 1896 issue of The North American Review George Parsons Lathrop recognized the potential of film in heightening theatrical reality (552) such as trains speeding towards the audience, creating shifting atmospheres such as waterfalls, ocean waves, changing skies, and creating complex crowd scenes or military battles (553). According to Waltz, one of the first effects was a train speeding over sixty miles an hour running directly towards the audience, inspiring fear and thrills (Waltz 548). As Waltz notes, by 1921 “one out of five vaudeville houses had switched to silent films or split their bills between movies and vaudeville” (xxv: Vaudeville History).

New Picture (13)

New Picture (14)(The Sun Serpent by José Cruz González. Directed by Rachel Bowditch. Tempe Center for the Arts, 2011. Produced by Childsplay.)

As the “moving-picture revolution” seized the entertainment industry, films quickly supplanted live vaudevillian acts. Films became the main attraction threaded together by live acts known as “coolers” as the projectors cooled down between showings. By Waltz’s estimation, by the 1930s in the U.S. alone at least a hundred productions had incorporated some form of multi-media into the live performances (548).

The tense and tentative struggle between the histories of theatre and film was articulated by A. Nicolas Vardac in Stage-to-Screen (1949), who posited that film and theatre are ontologically unique forms, which in many ways they are. Waltz argues that this model suppresses the important interactions, overlaps, and cross-influences between theatre and film (549). There has since been an emergence of “post-Vardac” scholars and historians, such as Waltz, who seek to reclaim this unwritten history of new media and restore it’s proper place. They advocate a new historical model that reflects the “permeable inter-medial relationship of film and theatre to accommodate the shifting, improvisational, and experimental” nature of this convergence (550). Waltz identifies four basic modes that multi-media has historically taken:

a) Sound or narrator accompanied motion pictures

b) Interacting live and filmed performers

c) Alternating film and stage action

d) Filmed scenery (550)

However, in order for film to be integral to stage action, it had to contribute something unique and create an original effect or solution to a scenic problem (553). Often the juxtaposition between 2-dimensional film and 3-dimensional live performance is jarring as our eyes naturally gravitate towards the flickering light.

New Picture (17) New Picture (16)New Picture (15)

(The House of the Spirits by Caridad Svich. Directed by Rachel Bowditch. School of Theatre and Film, Galvin Stage, Arizona State University, 2012.)

How do we risk innovation by incorporating cutting-edge digital media technology onto the stage without compromising theatre’s unique ontology: “liveness”? How can the actor compete with the luminous aura of multi-media flickering across the stage? Is competition between “liveness” and “mediation” inherent or can there be a harmonious symbiotic relationship? As history demonstrates, there is nothing “new” about incorporating multi-media into the directing process. What is “new” are the constantly evolving digital technologies that media designers and directors have access to.

New Picture (19) New Picture (18)

(Machinal by Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Rachel Bowditch. School of Theatre and Film, Galvin Mainstage, Arizona State University, 2007.)

As a director working intimately with multi-media landscapes and technologies, my process is continually evolving as I work with a variety of media designers and employ various technologies to create a variety of visual effects. Working on Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (on the ASU mainstage in 2007) the multi-level set inspired by Russian Constructivist set designer Popova allowed the actors to traverse the stage like a jungle gym. Visual artist Muriel Magenta utilized a 3-D animation program called Maya to create a dimensional shifting landscape, while my second media designer Michael Matthews (former MFA candidate at ASU) focused on live projection design using Isadora. Working with state-of-the-art media technology, nine embedded surveillance cameras and 10 shifting projection surfaces, media artists Magenta and Matthews, sought to capture the idea of surveillance within the panopticon, of Helen being trapped in a world in which she is perpetually being watched. The media designers worked primarily with Maya, 3-D animation program, Adobe Photoshop CS3, Isadora, Quartz Composer, Adobe After Effects 7, and 16mm film to create original images and Dataton software to run the media.

In our process, I created elaborate storyboard’s to effectively communicate ideas between all the designers. Once in tech, there is a continuous challenge of balancing light and media levels so that one does not wash out the other. Often a beautiful lighting effect will over saturate and bleach out any media design. It is a delicate and careful negotiation and collaboration between the two mediums.

New Picture (21) New Picture (20)

(Anon(ymous) by Naomi Iizuka. Directed by Rachel Bowditch. School of Theatre and Film, Galvin Mainstage, Arizona State University, 2008.)

While working on Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous), a poetic story of a young boy, Anon, a refugee who has fled to America from some war torn land separated from his mother and family—media became integral to the design process. Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, Anon encounters Homeric characters on his long journey home to his mother, encapsulating several provocative contemporary themes such as cultural displacement, border crossings, war, illegal immigration, sweatshops, and the struggle to find one’s identity in the midst of unstable transnational shifts and forced relocation. Iizuka’s writing demands a visual and sonic poetry that brings the audience into a somatic world of textures, tones, and hues. Working with undergraduate media designer, Dallas Nichols (currently working in projection design with Cirque du Soleil), I storyboarded the entire show to create a visual poetry that captured these shifting worlds from the epic shipwreck of the Odyssey to the hammering of the sewing machines in a sweatshop to the war torn buildings of the Bosnian war. Nichols primarily used Adobe After Effects 7, digital film and Quartz Composer to create the media and Dataton to run the media. Using silver scrim to create a symphony of shadows for the pre-show to using actor-held squares of canvas for the procession of the shades crossing Hades, we sought to find alternative, shifting projection surfaces that captured the ephemerality of Anon’s ever-unstable, shifting universe.

New Picture (23) New Picture (22)

(The Sun Serpent by José Cruz González. Directed by Rachel Bowditch. Tempe Center for the Arts, 2011. Produced by Childsplay.)

Two other projects that heavily incorporated projection design was The Sun Serpent, a collaborative project with José Cruz Gonzalez, first produced by Childsplay in 2011 at the Tempe Center for the Arts in Arizona and The House of the Spirits by Caridad Svich at the Galvin Playhouse at Arizona State University. The Sun Serpent is a poetic story of the history of the conquest of Mexico told through the eyes of a young boy, Anahuac. With three actors and thirty-three masks, projections became an essential mode for telling this epic tale that incorporated thousands of people. Through silhouettes of battles, processions of refugees, and shifting geographical landscapes from the ocean to the jungle to the volcano to the City of Dreams, Tenochtitlan, we were able to convey an epic journey across multiple landscapes. Projection designer Adam Larsen crafted artistically rendered digital atmospheres and landscapes to convey Anahuac’s journey from the ocean to the city. The projections were on four 18ft textilene panels that served as a scrim as well as projection surfaces.

For The House of Spirits, we used six shifting projection surfaces to convey a complex journey through time.  As the audience enters, the play has already begun. Faded sepia photographs of the Trueba family are projected onto a silver scrim as the family moves as if floating on the three-story set behind the screen. The opening sequence was a torture scene between Alba and Esteban. In order to stage the violence, we see a projected hand of Esteban slowly caressing Alba’s naked back but he never touches her; when he hits the air, her body reacts. This stylization of distancing became a recurring visual motif throughout the play.  We took poetic license to fill the stage with words as Ferula, Esteban’s sister writes a letter in the air. Working closely with my media designer Alex Oliszewski, for Barabbas, Clara’s dog, we chose to create an interactive digital dog that appeared as an apparition. Clara could chase the dog and feed it treats; the dog would react or bark. During the Junta scene where the disappearances begin, each actor comes on stage with a white square of fabric. On each square is projected the face of a disappeared person. The stage is filled with faces held by actors in military uniform. On the last line, the actors drop their fabric and the faces disappear in an instant. As a visual artist directing for the stage and designing site-specific atmospheric performance work for public spaces, projection design and multi-media technology has become an essential tool for developing complex stage images and textured storytelling.

In an October 2008 article in Live Design, “How Do You Teach Magic,” authors Jake Pinholster, Kirby Malone, and Gail Scott White ask, “What does a curriculum for a “media design in the theatre degree look like with technologies continuously becoming obsolete the moment you have learned them? How do you keep up with the ever emerging new technology?” (29). How do we meet technology with our bodies on a somatic level? As the history of the field and the academic discipline is still being crafted and written, it remains on the edge of innovation, balancing on the precipice of the continuously “new”, an ever evolving struggle to stay ahead of the wave of the “already obsolete”. As directors and media designers incorporate “new media” into live performance, it is our charge and our obligation to remain experimental, fresh, and surprising – entering the fertile space of deep play, risking innovation as our daily practice (573).

Works Cited

Waltz, Gwendolyn. “Filmed Scenery of the Live Stage,” Theatre Journal December 2006 Film and Theatre.


small headshot_2011Rachel Bowditch, MA/PhD is a theatre director, performance studies scholar, and an associate professor in the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. Her directing work and site-specific atmospheric performances Transfix and Spectrum has been seen at over thirty festivals and venues across the U.S. including the New York International Independent Film Festival at Madison Square Garden, GenArts Festival (NYC), the Ontological-Hysteric (NYC), HERE Performing Arts Center (NYC), the New York International Fringe, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, The Kitchen (NYC), Taliesin West, Mesa Center for Contemporary Arts, Phoenix Art Museum, Scottsdale Public Art and Scottsdale Museum of Modern Art. Her work as a director and performer has been reviewed and featured in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Wall Street Journal, Theatre Journal, Newsweek, American Theatre, The Sun (NYC), The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Live Design, and Arizona Republic among other publications. Recent directing projects include Machinal, Anon(ymous), Bone Portraits, The Ophelia Project, Unreal City, Memory Room, The Sun Serpent and The House of the Spirits. Her book, On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man was published in 2010 as part of the Enactments Series (Seagull Press/University of Chicago Press). She is completing her second book Festive Bodies: Performing Utopia and Resistance in the Americas under contract with Seagull Press/University of Chicago Press). In November, she is directing a devised immersive site-specific performance Asylum investigating the history of women, writing, and madness through images, movement, words, and text at the Ice House in Phoenix and is remounting The Sun Serpent at Mixed Blood in Minneapolis in February 2014. For more information, visit: www.rachelbowditch.com and www.vesselproject.org

  • Kittymama

    Great photos. Beautiful but also inspiring and challenging to current artists.

  • Jeff McMahon

    great summation of the ideas behind this work, and called forth much of the complexity of your productions!