New production puts audience members in control of performers
At most theatrical performances, audience members are asked to put their cell phones away.
But at a show that will open at St. Olaf College in March, audience members will be asked to take their cell phones out — and use them to control the movements of dancers.
Theatre Engine is a multi-media performance event that combines live dance, electronic music, computer programming, and smartphone technology.
Housed at Michigan State University, the project has drawn together experts from around the country to create a performance that incorporates — indeed, relies upon — the mobile devices that nearly every audience member carries in his or her pocket.
“We live in this very interactive world, and what we wanted to do is find a way to use that same technology we use for video games in a live performance,” says Todd Edwards, the designer and technical director for the St. Olaf Theater Department and one of the experts who began working with the Theatre Engine project two years ago.
As the project got off the ground, Edwards asked the St. Olaf Dance Department to get involved. This fall Artist in Residence in Dance Anthony Roberts worked to prepare 15 first-year students to perform in Theatre Engine when it comes to campus.
“Collaborating with graduate students and faculty from other schools has been a great experience for our students,” Roberts says. “They’re learning how to be creative, and how to think, move, act, and respond in the moment.”
After its initial performances at Michigan State, Theatre Engine will travel to St. Olaf. It will then continue on to Brigham Young University.
And at each stop — in fact, at each performance — audience members will see something entirely unique.
How it works
Using an app developed by computer scientists at Michigan State, audience members will have a small avatar of a performer on their smartphone. If the avatar is wearing a green costume, then that audience member controls the performer wearing a green costume.
As audience members move their phone, the computer program takes the GPS/accelerator data from the device to a server. There the program translates that into audio cues for the performers, who translate them into various moves.
“It gives the performers a lot of creative interpretation,” Edwards says.
As the performance evolves, the app invites audience members to take a more active role by doing things such as changing the lighting, making sounds, or striking a pose.
Through all of it, a composer will be creating a computer-generated soundscape, in real time, to match what is evolving with the performance.
As audience members become more involved in the piece, Roberts says, there’s a subtle shift. They have gone from being the “controllers” of the dancers to being invited into the piece. As the environment evolves, the cues get more cryptic.
“The idea is that we get them to the point that the phone is set down and they are brought into the space,” Edwards says.
That, he says, is perhaps the most significant hurdle that smartphones present.
“One of the biggest challenges the piece has is treading the line between being in the moment and not in the technology, with heads down staring at screens,” Edwards says.
An evolving performance
The goal is that by the time Theatre Engine leaves St. Olaf, the performance will contain elements it didn’t have when it arrived from Michigan State. Each institution will continue to build on the piece by reacting to the actions of audience members, Edwards says.
“There’s no completion, no ‘finish’ to this piece,” he says.
Yet he notes that after seeing a few trial runs of Theatre Engine in Michigan, he’s mesmerized by the possibilities.
“We saw everyone from little kids to elderly adults participating,” he says.
Although the audience will eventually be drawn into the piece, the initial performers will be the first-year dancers taught by Roberts.
Christy Dobbratz ’18 has enjoyed the cross-department collaboration of this project and the opportunity to explore the innovative side of dance.
“It has been interesting to explore my own capacity to work on the fly and develop my improv skills,” Dobbratz says. “I am a little nervous for the performance, but as long as we as dancers keep an open mind and give it our best shot, the audience will enjoy it.”
Cosimo Pori ’18 says despite the ubiquity of smartphones, he had never considered using technology to literally control dancers. Such a complex concept is exciting to participate in, he says, and has provided a valuable lesson in teamwork and trust.
“It is exhilarating to be part of a project that is taking audience participation and interactivity to an entirely new level,” he adds.
Theatre Engine performs at the Wagner Bundgaard Dance Studio One in the Center for Art and Dance on Saturday, March 7, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, March 8, at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. The performances are free and open to the public, with general seating and no ticket required.