October 24, 2020

1994-04-17 – The News Journal

1994 04 17 The_News_Journal_Sun__Apr_17__1994_

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T
E
CIENCE

Theater designers turn
to computers to stage

elaborate sets for shows.

By GEOFFREY F.X. O’CONNELL
Stamford (Conn) Advocate

Ever since I was a young boy,

I went to theater halls,

From Broadway down to SoHo.

I must have hit them all.

Still. I ain’t seen nothin’ like this,

In any amusement mall,

These deft, tech/design boys

Sure play a mean Macintosh Quadra 950
with 32 Mb RAM, 2M1) VRAM and a 515 MB

MicroNet internal hard drive and Apple Hi-Res
ROB monitor‘

e language of theater production is

changing. Computers, once relegated to

menial box-office tasks, are increasingly
taking center stage. Theatrical designers are
expanding the range of sensory possibilities
for directors and their audiences.

At the leading edge of this exploration is
"The Who’s Tommy," the runaway Broadway
hit based on Pete Townshend's 1969 song cy-
cle. As the production's national touring com-
pany heads out across the country, more the-
atergoers will experience this high-tech
kaleidoscope of' sight and sound.

"Tommy" careens through scene changes
like a pinball in an arcade game. In a tradi-
tional Broadway musical. 15 scene changes is
busy. In "Tommy" there are seven just during
the overture.

"'l‘here is no question that one of the things
that made "l‘ommy' possible is computer tech-
nology.” says Tony Award-winning director
Des MeAnuff. The slide projections, which tell
st) mueh ol' the story and add eolor and specta-
ele to the production, were developed on a
Macintosh computer system. The show. with
four times the number of scene changes of
most Broadway musicals. uses both front pro-
ieetions and a 37-foot-byv25-foot baek-projec-
tion screen to display more than 2.200 slides to
achieve the desired effects. During rehearsals.
35 separate computer hard drives were in use
to keep the pace of the show in the fast lane.

"All that imagery is rolling at an incredible
rate," says MeAnuff. "But this was not a case
of just showing off technology; we needed
something to move the narrative, to express
'l‘ommy's inner states. Remember. the central
eharaeter ot‘ the musical is deaf. dumb and
blind for most of the action. We were looking
to ereate a surreal landscape that was a repre-

E --’-~~-v<-. t,“- 4 { .«W~ . .4. Leading the way in the use at computers In theater sets is the Broadway hit “The Who’s Tommy.” The slide projections were developed on a Macintosh computer system. sentation of Tommy's traumatized state." Contrary to some critics’ concerns about technology dehumanizing the arts, theater art- ists like McAnutT and his collaborators are finding computers a tool for increased creativ- ity. "In my opinion, the new technology has humanized some aspects of the theater." says McAnuff. "I’m sure there have been critics of innovations in theater since the Elizabethans moved indoors. When stages were. lit with gas lamps instead of candles. critics complained about 'the unnatural quality of the light.’ " Although McAnuff can recite a litany of' gradual technological developments as basie as the Winches that move scenery on and oil stage. there is no denying that "Tommy in- habits uncharted territory. "Behind the scenes. it seemed there were endless 'teeh‘ tables with glowing lights." says projections designer Bo Eriksson, a principal along with Wendall Harrington in the New York-based Mom's ldea Hut. which de- veloped the projections for "Tommy." "We knew one power surge would wipe us out." The designer says that the sheer volume of slides, masks and overlays could not have been produced reasonably even without tight deadlines unless the design team was using computers. "Many of the photographic ell'eets could be done with slides alone and without comput- ers but it is very tedious work,” says Eriksson. "And you have no idea what you’re going to get until it‘s all exposed, so if you don't like the result you have to start all over again." Ironically, freedom from tedium bred a kind of tedious freedom. "You could see exactly what you were going to get and you could change anything, endlessly," he says. There are more than 2000 images projected during the course of the musical. Theoreti- cally. each image would have to be the same dimensions as the projection screen arrays to be seen Clearly. Finding. or creating from scratch, this many images that precisely fit the screens' dimensions would have been im- possible. "But we could take any image, scan it into the computer, then squish it around so it was fitting our format," says Eriksson. Eriksson and his associates actually pro- duced around 7,000 of these manipulated im- ages, which includes a set for the national tour and a backup set. Eriksson loves the technology. but cautions those who would vest it with magical powers. "It doesn't give you any help with the ideas." he says. "If you don't have a strong vision, computers can actually make it tougher for you. You can get lost in the details." "But the important thing, like with any- thing else," Eriksson says, "is knowing when to stop." The Children's Wlng of the Wilmington Drama League wnl hold auditions tor its spring FableFest at 1 today and 7 pm. Monday m the lobby ot the Wilmington Drama League. Needed are 24 to 26 people. ages 10 to adult, tor a variety of roles in three tables: "The Reluctant Dragon? "St. Stanislaw and the Wolf" and “The Ugly Duckling " Minorities are encouraged to audition FableFest wull be performed June 10 to 19. Call 792-9227 Audition announcements are a regular feature ot the Sunday News Jeurnal. For your theatrical or musucal group to be listed, audition information must be received no later than two weeks before the event Please send all pertinent information. including a daytime telephone contact, to Auditions. The News Journal, P O Box 15505. Wilmington 19850. —W—