Omniscience is a futuristic mystery set in a bleak, war-torn dystopia. Control is the main exercise of the government. Privacy has vanished as surveillance cameras are located on every corner, every hallway, every workstation, and even in every home. This Orwellian script, by Canadian playwright Tim Carlson, challenges the audience members to look into their own worlds, their own societies, and even deeply at their own government to see where the future lies. Augustana College, in Rock Island, IL, produced the US college premiere of the play in May 2009, directed by Scott Irelan, with costumes by student Katherine Caldwell, and set, lighting, video, and sound design by me. Original music was by faculty member Randall Hall, and student Andrew Lia was stage manager.
"The themes of technological control, ongoing war, the loss of privacy and legal rights, and the bastardization of language—'newspeak'—set out in such dystopian novels as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and The Handmaid's Tale reverberated throughout Western democracies in the post 9-11 world," says Carlson. "Omniscience aims to show these themes are not Cold War artifacts but are active and more dangerous than ever."
The play depicts the future of war and post-traumatic stress found in soldiers returning from the front. Special Ops Lt. Anna Larson's return from war-torn NW5 has placed a strain on her relationship with her husband, documentary film editor Warren Atwell. The media outlet, Channel One, where Warren works is hired/controlled by the government to edit a positive spin on the war. In another storyline, George Ellis, an intelligence operative working for the government, and Beth DeCarlo, Channel One's Wellness director, parallel the tribulations of the married couple.
An allusion to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the script uses video feeds for "tele-screen" conversations between characters. This futuristic convention of communication was a key starting point in the design process. Wanting to exploit Carlson's poignant connection to Big Brother in the language of the play, the significant mise-en-scène was the 10'x8' steel-framed screen in the middle of Potter Hall, a 150-seat modified thrust. Using this Rosco gray projection screen as the surface, this monolithic partition allowed for projecting greater than life-sized talking heads, an eerie feeling in such a small, intimate theatre.
The script also calls for a number of different locations, including Warren's documentary editing suite and the executive lounge where Beth and George discuss an ongoing investigation into a terrorist bombing. The Beth/George scenes are ingeniously woven into the play's timeline to represent the most recent action, while all other scenes take place in the past. This unique play structure creates a mystery for the audience to unravel.
Along with these two locations, another recurring space is Anna's apartment. This is a challenge for the designer, as the same location used by Anna live on stage is also needed for filming as surveillance footage used by Beth in the executive lounge. The sequence of events in the surveillance footage is: Anna pacing indoors, outside her exterior apartment building doors, and then running throughout her building surroundings. Our choice was to create realistic surveillance footage—real action, real stationary camera positions, and real architecture.
This choice for realism in the footage required us to match Anna's apartment on stage. A second design convention that needed to be established for the audience was the use of projections to create scenery/locations. As the production designer (and also having worked on the play as set designer during the US premiere at Stage Left Theatre in Chicago), I had to find the appropriate space that would work for both live and surveillance footage.
As her post-traumatic stress is triggered by the sound of a garbage trunk, Anna looks out the window in the surveillance footage. Using the same window used in the footage, I videotaped the vertical blinds and rear-projected them on the main screen. The taped motion of the blinds and the accidental filming of students walking to class created a realistic background for the apartment scene, while still having this very theatrical sculpture as a centerpiece. This initial idea led to creation of the other scene's locations via projections—an architectural photo as a window view for the corporate lounge scenes.
Another thematically important location in this world is the "clear room," the only room at Channel One that isn't "plugged in" with security cameras. Irelan and I interpreted this to be a false truth, as we added video cameras underneath the platforms showing the live action on stage. "Carlson's text is so rich with questions of what is truth and what is rhetoric that it made sense to me that Warren would think the room to be clear when, in fact, there were eyes on all activity," says Irelan. "Within the context of our live theatrical performance, the choice also afforded Adam and I the opportunity to implicate spectators as 'cameras,' of sorts, seeing the false truth that was the world of these characters—a constructed truth, perhaps not too far from our own daily experiences."
The live-feed image was then interlaced within projected images on the main screen. Without taking away focus from the scene, the camera only showed the lower torso of the two actors on stage before a final intimate moment on the floor. This production used two basic classroom Sharp XR series projectors and two 17" Dell computer monitors mounted on each side platform for actor/video integration. Behind the main screen, the rear projector was the primary output. Beyond the tele-screenconversations and projected scenery, the screen also served as an editing browser for Warren's war documentary. As Warren finished an edit on his small display screen and keyboard on his stage left platform, he would run down to view his changes on the larger screen. The front projector, with a greater throw, was specifically used for creating ambient images for transitions between the more than 20 scenes. Focused on the stage floor, we also used the front projector for scenic atmosphere. For the clear room, I used curved metallic lines, digitally obscured, on the main screen while projecting the same image, but reversed, on the floor. With a deep red wash glowing over the whole playing space, the actors seemed to walk through an electronic grid. When Warren describes his frustration with living in a society without privacy, the live video camera was turned on, creating a rather surreal moment.
A second video camera was mounted over the stage and pointed toward the audience. During the preshow, we intertwined the audience footage with surveillance footage of robberies in the US and Britain we found on the Internet. Additional surveillance content included a group of terrorists walking around hotel lobbies after the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. Even though blurry and unrecognizable, this newsreel was a haunting indication of the world in Omniscience.
Knowing we had only the possibility of six projectors using TroikaTronix's Isadora as the video control software on an Apple Mac Pro with three video cards, I chose to add a futuristic plasma screen. Layered on top of the projected scenographic window in Anna's apartment, this image of the plasma screen allowed me to add another display, creating it virtually. This solution kept the expense down while adding another layer to the design.
With a small cast, Irelan wanted to give his understudies the opportunity to perform. This required a complete second set of video to be taped and placed into a whole new production in Isadora—a whole different challenge in the organization of the production. Technology integrated into the scenography of Omniscience became the fifth character in the play. "In theatrical terms, I was interested in using video as an integrated part of the storytelling, not simply a design element, to expose the role of surveillance technology," says Carlson. "This medium is more than a message; it's a weapon." Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan would be proud.
For this small liberal arts college's Theatre Arts program that uses the production season as a teaching environment, Omniscience pushed the limits of the technology within the department. Initial acquisitions of hardware, software, and cable will significantly reduce future production costs, as these resources will be available for the faculty and students as they integrate projections into productions and classroom exercises. Smaller departments, with restricted budgets, can smartly introduce projections into their scenographic program. Adding projections to the curriculum will definitely add to each student's experience. Then it will be my job, as professor of scenography, to teach them when not to use them.
Adam Parboosingh is assistant professor of scenography at Augustana College in Illinois and a member of the Associated Designers of Canada. He acknowledges contributions to his article by Tim Carlson, playwright and artistic director of Theatre Conspiracy, and Scott Irelan, PhD, assistant professor.