Olivia Boyce looks into the ever-growing connection between theatre and technology, especially with recent advances showing the true potential of this partnership

Recent graduate BA English, current MA Literature and Culture student. Print Editor for Redbrick Culture. Appreciator of all things literary or stagey. Often found singing musical theatre tunes when I think no-one is watching.
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Technology, now more than ever, is making its mark on the theatrical scene

With the cost of staging a large production ever increasing, the modern theatre industry is in an almost constant interplay with the creative usages of new technological advances, striving to bring something new and exciting to the stage to captivate their audiences. Whether it be as seemingly simple as newer ways to light the performance space, or as complex as inventions hailed as potentially revolutionary, technology, now more than ever, is making its mark on the theatrical scene.

Modern stage productions are often dependent on the complex technologies and techniques they employ to provide a visual and auditory spectacle for their audiences. One such show that has captivated the theatrical world is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, based upon Mark Haddon’s book of the same name. Christopher, the fifteen year old narrator, sets out to solve the murder of his neighbour’s dog. His extraordinary brain, one which means he is exceptional at maths whilst ill-equipped to interpret everyday life, means his interactions with his environment and his understanding of the world are strikingly unique. Translating Christopher’s extraordinary narrative style to stage seemed an almost impossible challenge – and this is where technology proves to be a saving grace. Through projection and various other visual technologies, Christopher’s world, and his extremely mechanical mind, unfold on stage in front of an audience. Every surface is blank slate for Christopher’s inner mind, and the 7 Olivier Awards the show won, including many for technical design, speak to the successful integration of newer technologies into the show’s design.

More recently, and closer to Birmingham, an RSC production of Shakespeare’s otherworldly play, The Tempest, has garnered widespread acclaim after a groundbreaking collaboration with Intel, the computing tech giant, and Imaginarium, the special effects and design company co-founded by Andy Serkis (best known for his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films). With 2016 marking 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, the trio of industry giants set out to provide a worthy spectacle, in the process creating new technologies that have the potential to revolutionise the theatre industry forever, building upon those seen in shows like Curious Incident.

Intel have, in a process taking upwards of two years, worked with the actor playing Ariel, to create an 'avatar' that is projected onto specially designed screens around the auditorium

The character of Ariel, a sprite with various magical powers, is usually performed by an actor on stage in costume. However, Intel have, in a process taking upwards of two years, worked with the actor playing Ariel, Mark Quartley, to create an ‘avatar’, a version of the character that is projected onto specially designed screens around the auditorium. This avatar is based upon Quartley, whose costume is in fact a sensor laden suit, similar to a motion capture suit, that allows each performance’s avatar to be based upon the actor’s own movements in that performance, rather than one pre-recorded version. Real-time information taken from the suit is mapped onto the digital avatar, which is then projected via 27 projectors in the auditorium. The production also features, for the first time on a stage, real-time and live facial-performance capture, with Quartley wearing a large rig upon his head and shoulders in certain scenes that allow the avatar to express a startling range of emotion.

The sheer variety of actions the avatar is capable of performing is striking, possible only because of the remarkable accuracy of the sensors developed by Intel – the almost non-existent delay between his actions and that of the mirroring avatar is impressive, especially given the complexity and processing power needed to maintain the avatar. This is also combined within the production with various other visual spectacles, with an extended ‘masque’ or celebration scene that pulls out all visual and auditory stops, as well as a stage that lights from below, and a backdrop that becomes a storm, or rather, a tempest, almost magically. The production has been described as  having ‘State-of-the-art stagecraft’ and ‘today’s most advanced technology’, and these claims are spot on. The critical acclaim received, as well as the potential for application beyond the lofty realms of Shakespeare’s work, mean we are more than likely to see this technology, or even expanded versions of this, in future theatrical productions. However, its usage here is to, as the creative team intended, ‘encapsulate Shakespeare’s vision, inclusive of all of that magic, that wonder’, proving that modern technology and 400 year old plays can be a brilliant combination indeed.

Perhaps a more controversial, yet still widely acclaimed move, was the decision of the National Theatre to broadcast various productions to cinemas and other venues around the world, as part of a scheme called National Theatre Live. Beginning with a production of Phèdre starring Helen Mirren in 2009, it has now broadcast theatrical productions to over 5.5 million people in over 2,000 venues around the world. Its past screenings include critically acclaimed shows with sold out runs, such as the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire starring Gillian Anderson, and the recent Barbican production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as Of Mice and Men, streamed live from Broadway, starring Chris O’Dowd and James Franco. The broadcasts not only ensure that each production is preserved for posterity, with many enjoying further encore screenings, but also allow wider audiences across the globe to access landmark theatrical productions for a fraction of the price of a ticket or travel fare. This increased accessibility is a move that has been praised, and indeed the success of the NT Live scheme has led to other schemes, including several broadcasting opera and ballet, also reaching wider audiences. However, critics of the scheme suggest it detracts from the live theatrical experience, and may even harm a productions’ ticket sales, though most productions chosen enjoy successful runs regardless.

The theatre industry is ever more reliant on new and existing technologies to succeed. Whether it be the technical requirements of an established show like Wicked, which uses enough electricity to power 12 homes for 24 hours in each individual performance, or the newly emerging and industry-revolutionising technologies involved in The Tempest, theatre is and will remain a creatively technical industry.