Breakthroughs In Distance Theatre Bring Actors And Audiences Together For A Digital Alice In Wonderland
Student performers from three universities—University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, Bradley University in Illinois, and University of Waterloo in Canada—leapt from stage to stage in a digital-age version of Lewis Carroll’s classic that achieves the latest breakthroughs in distance theatre technology. Alice Experiments In Wonderland merged the three university stages, casts, and audiences into one interactive experience, as spectators went through the looking glass and into an innovative wonderland created via Internet2 high-speed connection (as much as 150Mbit/s), 2D and 3D sets, and multiple screens.
The co-directors for Alice were George Brown, chair of theatre at Bradley University, Gerd Hauck, chair of theatre at University of Waterloo, and me.
Together, our theatres created a one-of-a-kind project that proves that a unified design concept and production can be executed for the benefit of audiences at multiple sites using broadband technology in an affordable fashion. Alice is the third distance collaboration between UCF and Bradley and the second among the three partners. This type of theatre has been called “convergent theatre” because the production depends on the convergence of technology and other disciplines with live theatre.
Brown is usually modest about his achievements, but in candid moments, he has written, “We are doing something tonight [with Alice] that has never been done before…we will be making history.” Canada’s The Globe and Mail ran the following: “Welcome to one of the most ambitious, experimental theatre projects ever conceived—Alice (Experiments in Wonderland)—a multipoint telematic performance for children and adults.” Hauck is quoted in The Record saying, “It’s the first time in theatrical history.”
I concur with my colleagues. Brown’s directorial masterpiece, Adding Machine (“Add It Up,” LD July 2007), still stands as the most skillful and unified integration of digital/distance technology to date. It used sophisticated 3D modeling environments created by Jim Ferolo. However, Alice was the next logical step, the merger not only of actors in different venues with one audience, but of three audiences with three complete casts performing together as one in a unified design environment that transcended space. The goals, challenges, and successes of Alice were different and have created a replicable and affordable paradigm that others may follow and improve upon. The room for growth in convergent theatre is amazing.
An important point is that, at our location, we used our normal operating budget and came in more than 20% under. Satellite technology is too cost-prohibitive for most theatres. In 2005, American Theatre wrote, “If you had to judge by what is happening on contemporary American stages, you’d never know that the Microchip Age is in full swing.” The reason for this has been simple: budget.
But, Alice was unlike other distance projects. Other institutions can build upon the paradigm created for Alice because the methods we used are affordable and exciting for theatre artists and audiences. This production has proven that broadband multipoint full-production collaborations are within the reach of any institution with the determination to explore new artistic possibilities.
The simple logistics of merging full production calendars of a medium sized private institution in Illinois, a medium-sized Canadian public institution with different academic terms, and the sixth largest public university in the US were daunting. The task was led by UCF student and production stage manager Leah Higginbotham (advised by Disney professionals) and her counterparts Jessica Moore at Waterloo and Justine Palmisano at Bradley. During Alice, they were all linked through Skype and AIM. Logistics and clear communication (as in Adding Machine) continue to be the two most consistent challenges with this type of collaboration. It is very easy at a distance to assume you know what your partners are thinking when you really do not.
The design and script were based on the imagination of a modern, 11-year old girl, reflecting the world she knows, complete with iPods, Internet, cell phones, and pop-culture. This is why the Caterpillar costume was built from floating green pool noodles (imagine trying to find pool noodles in Canada in winter). There was a global lead designer for the project and a local designer at each site. UCF held a formal global designer meeting as early as March 2007. This included all global designers except sound and hair/make-up. These positions were selected at a later meeting when Brown and Hauck visited UCF. I had already visited Bradley in 2004 and Waterloo in January 2007. Set and costume construction were done locally and globally but executed to keep the design unified, while allowing for performance space differences. UCF had the largest stage space, followed by Waterloo, and then Bradley. All were quite different physical structures with different audience seating. An example of how this worked may be seen in the sails/screens. These were all cut at UCF and shipped to our partners after discussion with the local designers. The screens function equally as well for front and rear projection. The material was also very cost effective. This was a major goal for Alice; we wanted this project to encourage other institutional forays into the realm of collaborative possibilities. We also wanted to break away from the rectangular shape associated with projected imagery. The design reflects this desire. Screen fabrication was by Curtiss Mitchell, who was an outside hire.
Costume construction was sometimes a local build and sometimes a global build and then shared. The costumes for three White Rabbits, three Cheshire Cats, and three sets of Tweedles (Dee and Dum) were built at partner institutions and shipped to UCF, while UCF constructed and shipped other items, like the three Gnat’s heads. Some costumes, such as the Caterpillars, were built locally.
The three shop teams used their collective knowledge to execute costumes from the global lead costume designer, Tan Huaixiang, while sharing effective cost reduction measures. Some characters existed only locally; others were replicated and existed globally, so the illusion could be explored of the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit, for example, traveling into and occupying all spaces. Those involved with costume construction are to be commended for adapting so well to this new production environment. Theirs was the smoothest development and execution of design and reveals a new system of shop protocols.
Media creation was a happy collaboration to which all locations contributed, coordinated by global lead designer Vandy Wood and the co-directors. Waterloo student Monty Martin contributed the opening montage, while Brown provided key content, including the Technowizard entrance and the parental control piece that Alice activates during a search for “bunnies” that takes the audience briefly into the dark side of the Internet. UCF designers were key in developing the Rabbit Hole media, the giant Alice “drink me” scene, the Carpenter and Walrus scene, the “Bread and Butter Fly” sequence, the Mushrooms, and the Jabberwocky. Both PC and Mac systems were employed, and of course, the data files for these elements were quite large. Bradley supported a server where the teams could post media creations, and partners could readily exchange work. Some UCF content was created with digitally enhanced puppets that were designed by an outside professional in collaboration with Wood.
Network personnel at all locations were key to this project. UCF would have been lost without the assistance of its Network Operations Center, and the same may be said of Waterloo and Bradley’s networking offices. While we explored the possibilities of multicasting, which would have lowered bandwidth usage, we settled on uni-casting for the event. Each site both sent and received approximately 75Mbit/s. Non-networking folks would just call it a total of 150
Mbit/s, but networking types insist on the difference.
However, while comparing information, we discovered differences in institutional measurements for the exact rate of data transfer. The explanation turned out to be that the result varies depending upon where in the broadband pipeline the measurement is taken due to non-production related packet traffic. During Adding Machine, it was not necessary for Waterloo and UCF to connect to each other. In fact, Waterloo and UCF took turns connecting to Bradley because of the resulting loss of quality signal when all three were connected simultaneously. Adding Machine stage managers used telephones to “cue” the other sites to reconnect and participate in their scenes. This arrangement would not work for Alice. Without the networking departments of all three institutions working together, the connectivity and higher networking demands of Alice would not have been achieved. As a result, more bandwidth and computers were successfully used at peak sustained broadband usage during the entire length of the show. We used
Polycom for discussions/global production meetings and DVTS for performance.
Costume designs, under global lead costume designer Tan Huaixiang, were based on the imagination of a modern, 11-year-old girl, complete with iPods, Internet, cell phones, and pop-culture.
Unlike during Adding Machine, this time, all sites used multiple cameras and switchers. In addition to the stages, each site used a local studio. While no green-screening took place in Orlando, we used the studio to lower production costs while maintaining production quality. For example, Humpty Dumpty was shot in the UCF studio, live. His wall appeared to be much larger and higher than it actually was, due to the camera angle, so we did not have the expense of building an entire wall to complete the illusion. This wall appeared in all three locations, lowering construction costs for all. We also used the studio when Alice expands and becomes too large to fit through the door. A combination of an extreme close-up of her foot and a miniature set created a cost-effective illusion.
All cameras and switchers required camera operators and a local director of principle photography to select the shot to be shared at the partner sites. At UCF, there were four cameras used, three static and one mobile. So, the lighting department and camera ops had to cooperate to achieve the desired goals. Genlocking cameras are recommended for these collaborations. The work of our UCF directory of principal photography, Don Merritt, was never seen on site at UCF but produced for the partner locations. Our partners followed the same process. It was at this juncture that feedback took place about light levels and types of shots each local site required. This was a discussion unique to Alice. For Adding Machine, the UCF office that we converted to a green-screened, one static camera, I2-connected studio did not allow for light level changes locally, and there was no concern for lighting design at UCF because there was no audience to serve. Alice designers and crew, however, had to adjust to serve the three locations.
The sound design global lead was Andy Allen at Waterloo. Like others, he posted his design elements to the accessible website, but local execution was still required to address unique echo issues and to provide audience-level quality sound for each location. The sound issue was something we learned we had to resolve from our Adding Machine experience. Only Bradley had audience- and performance-level sound, a major challenge going into this production. The solution required local adaptations of theory, provided by an outside workshop (courtesy of Bradley) by Dr. Brian K. Shepard from the University of Southern California. The workshop was multi-linked by UCF via a Polycom 4000. While an effort was made to unify all sound systems to have the same gear, this “one size fits all” approach had to be tweaked for each local system and space. Different equipment was used locally, but we found a way to fit our systems together globally. “We activated the sidechain differently,” says sound designer Martin Wootton. “We used group sends instead of auxes. Groups 1 and 2 were fed to the send computers, and 3 and 4 were open at the output. At the output matrix, we used two of the matrices with groups 3 and 4 potted up as the ML3000 has an insert on the matrix and not the groups. A TRS connection was made from the matrix insert directly to the sidechain input of the DBX.”
Brown describes the Bradley setup as sound “sent to the partner institutions routed through a Behringer XR440 Multigate Pro Quad expander/gate to control local echo, into a Mackie 16.8 mixing console and then into the Canopus ADVC110 converter box where it joined the video signal being transmitted via DVTS. The sound-receive came off the DVTS computers, through the Canopus ADVC110, and into the sound board, where it was processed with an RNC 1733 sidechain compressor to eliminate the echo from the remote site before it was sent to the amps and speakers.”
The local studios were also handled differently. For example, Bradley ran its studio audio through TroikaTronix Isadora. Brown explains, “We used a second Canon GL2 Digital Video Camcorder that was connected via a FireWire cable to a Macintosh PowerBook G4 laptop running Isadora software.”
At the UCF site, we did not run live video or audio through Isadora. We used a studio mic and a direct video feed from the camera. “This was due to the fact that our studio was upstage, and the audience would have heard the actor’s dry voice and the latent video and audio,” Wootton explains. All sound designers were linked together live through computers during the performances to collectively execute the sound design and to handle/merge all sound cancellation and echo issues.
The Rehearsal Process
At UCF, we treated our rehearsal like a film set. This meant we endured a lot of waiting. French scenes were not practical because we often did not know how fast we would be able to work or at what locations cast members would be available, because our academic/production schedules were so different. The cast’s patience and belief in the process were amazing. Almost every rehearsal had additional students in attendance or outside visitors. They wanted to learn as much as possible about the new work. In fact, students in our department and from other departments attended multiple UCF rehearsals just to become part of the crew of Alice. Two of our camera ops were selected from this group of eager students, and both film and digital media students joined our cast and crew.
Waterloo students were so focused on the project that many demanded involvement in the writing process, going beyond the assignment of dramaturgy. The script, the first-ever created specifically for a three-point performance of this kind, contains contributions from Waterloo student Amy Senenstein. An entire song was created for the Humpty Dumpty scene that was written The script went through 51 versions and took two years to complete and scored by UCF cast members Sam Waters and Ross Alonga, and performance ad-libs from all sites were approved for inclusion. I was responsible for the script adaptation from the novel written by Lewis Carroll, and it took two years to complete. There were 51 versions, due to production challenges.
This did give our designers some concern. But, they met the challenge and created a unique, unprecedented, and beautiful production. This process involved approximately 300 faculty, staff, and students. I have left key people out. With a project of this size, it is unavoidable, but on this project, there were no small players. It is important to highlight the contributions of all cast, design, and especially production team members because it was their adaptability, creativity, and immense effort that created a unique visual and audio environment in a new theatrical arena.
Leah Higginbotham, SM: University of Central Florida
Jessica Moore, SM: University of Waterloo
Justine Palmisano, SM: Bradley University
Andy Allen, Global Sound Designer: University of Waterloo
Martin Wooten, Local Sound Designer: University of Central Florida
Steve Krave, Local Sound Designer: Bradley University
Vandy Wood, Global Set Designer: University of Central Florida
Amanda Haverick, Local Set Designer: Bradley University
Christina Olinski, Local Set Designer: University of Waterloo
Tan Huaixiang, Global Costume Designer: University of Central Florida
Becki Arnold, Local Costume Designer: Bradley University
Jocelyne Sobeski, Local Costume Designer: University of Waterloo
Costume execution was a collaboration led by Dan Jones, University of Central Florida Becki Arnold, Bradley University Jocelyne Sobeski, University of Waterloo
Lisa Huberman, Global Hair/Make-up Designer: Bradley University
Christina Olinski, Local Hair/Make-up Design: University of Waterloo
Dan Jones & Tan Huaixiang supervised Local Hair/Make-up: UCF
Bert Scott, Lighting Design: University of Central Florida
Scott Spidell, Lighting Design: University of Waterloo
Forrest Sayrs, Lighting Design: Bradley University
Vandy Wood, Global Media: University of Central Florida
Monty Martin, Local Media: University of Waterloo
George Brown, Local Media: Bradley University
Kira Phillips, local properties mistress: University of Central Florida
Joe Recchia, local properties master: University of Waterloo
Drew Overcash, local properties master: Bradley University
Pete Acquaviva: University of Central Florida
Keith McGowan: University of Waterloo
Alex Buholzer: Bradley University
Principles Of Photography
UCF Selected Lighting Gear
1 ETC Emphasis® System with Insight Faceplate
2 Strand CD80 Dimmer Racks
4 SGM Giotto Spot 400
4 SGM Giotto Wash 400
3 Altman Zip Strip
8 Altman PAR64 MFL
16 Strand 6" Fresnel
14 ETC Source Four PAR MFL
8 ETC Source Four PAR WFL
2 ETC Source Four 10° Ellipsoidal
2 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal
14 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal
46 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal
7 ETC Source Four 25°-50° Zoom Ellipsoidal
16 Wybron Forerunner 7.5" Color Scroller
UCF Selected Video Gear
1 TroikaTronix Isadora
5 Sony 17" LCD monitors
1 Sony Vaio XL1 Digital Living System
1 Sony Betacam
3 Proxima LCD projectors
2 D/A converters
1 40-channel video switcher
2 1x6 Video DA
4 Viedo monitors
1 Rackmount 3-channel 8" LCD monitor
1 Polycom 4000
2 Datavideo DAC-200 DV Converter
2 StarTech VideoView (ST122)
4 Dell desktop
1 Apple G4 desktop
UCF Selected Sound Gear
1 Allen & Heath ML-3000 48ch LCR
2 Pre Sonus ACP 88 8ch Compressor/Gates
18 Sennheiser Evolution 500 Series Receivers
17 Sennheiser SK 500 Body Packs w/MKE-2
1 Sennheiser SKM 500 Handheld Wireless Mics
2 Mackie SRM450 12" with Horn Active Enclosures
1 Apogee AE2 w/P2PV Processor
1 Echo Layla 24/96 8ch Multitrack
1 Stage research SFX v5.6 Audio Playback Software
1 Clear-Com MS-200c Base Station
6 Clear-Com Belt Packs with Headsets
6 Production Intercom BP-1 Belt Packs with
Eartec Cyber Headsets
1 DBX 231 Dual Graphic EQ
1 Behringer XR4400 4-channel Expander/Gate
1 DBX 1046 4-channel Compressor
1 DBX 266XL Compressor/Limiter/Gate
2 Yamaha 2031 Dual Graphic EQ
1 Yamaha SPX-2000 Multi Effect Processor
1 Bogan CTS-1100
1 QSC RMX850
2 ProCo DB-1 Passive Direct Box
2 RaPco ADB+8 Active Direct Box
2 Live Wire SPDI Passive Direct Box
2 Yamaha MSP3 Active Monitors
1 Behringer Eurorack UB802 Mixer
1 Dell Desktop Computer
1 Gateway 17" LCD Monitor
1 Dell Laptop with Wireless Internet and Skype