Mrs. Zero delighted in pointing out the flaws of her beleaguered husband, Zero, in the recent theatre department presentation of The Adding Machine. Only a handful of actors appeared on the Bradley stage, while others were beamed in via Internet2 from remote locations in Peoria, Florida, and Canada.
Mrs. Zero’s diatribe against her husband (shown above) was transmitted live from the Lab Theatre in Hartmann Center to the 32-by-9-foot screen above the nearby stage. Michelle Ziccarelli ’07 portrayed Mrs. Zero.
Director George Brown prepares Michelle Ziccarelli ’07 for a scene that multimedia majors went on to create with computers. “Shooting on a green screen allowed the background to be removed and replaced with anything we wanted,” Brown explained.
Virtual actors beamed in from hundreds of miles away, live actors onstage, and students using sophisticated computer technology added up to a production that was acclaimed by theatre critics and reported by Discovery Channel News.
The BU theatre department is no stranger to rave reviews, so what accounts for an 84-year-old play to be heralded as such a standout? For starters, a live actor was “beamed in” from a Canadian university 500 miles to the northeast; another performed live almost 1,000 miles away in Florida, yet appeared in front of a Peoria audience. Having virtual actors onstage was definitely a first at Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts—or almost anywhere in the world for that matter. Another first was that much of the larger-than-life virtual scenery was created by almost two dozen multimedia students at Bradley—not with hammers and paintbrushes, but with computers, innovative software, and HD cameras.
Bradley professors George Brown (theatre) and Jim Ferolo (multimedia) worked on the project for more than a year, along with co-directors at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and the University of Central Florida. It was not without its challenges. Some related to the use of revolutionary technology while others involved Mother Nature.
“The greatest challenge was doing something we had never done before,” remarked Brown, associate professor of theatre arts and chair of Bradley’s theatre department. “We had three major institutions with their own infrastructure and their own calendars. During tech (rehearsal), a snowstorm blew through Ontario and shut down the campus.”
Directors wanted the technology to be “invisible” to the audience but determined it was nearly impossible for them to comprehend the unique process. “Halfway through the run of the show I changed my curtain speech to instruct the audience about the technology,” Brown noted. “Early on, people were saying, ‘I thought that was videotape,’ and we had to explain that people were performing now in real time.”
Behind the scenes
Internet2, an advanced networking consortium to which Bradley and more than 200 other universities subscribe, allowed the remote performances to be transmitted to the Meyer Jacobs Theatre in the Hartmann Center. The transmission required an extraordinary amount of bandwidth and electricity. As much as 130 megabits of data per second were being handled by a “big brain” computer at Bradley.
“Not only did we bring Internet2 into this building by putting a fiber optic switch upstairs in our catwalks, we created an entire TV studio,” explained Brown, recognizing the irony of such cutting-edge technology in a building that is approaching 100 years old.
More than two years earlier, in the teleconferencing room of the Caterpillar Global Communications Center on campus, Brown first experimented with the technology of bringing virtual actors in from remote sites. A 20-minute presentation of Antigone was staged with the University of Central Florida in August 2004. Later, a short Beckett piece called Catastrophe was presented with the University of Waterloo. Those trial runs helped lay the foundation for The Adding Machine, which ran more than two hours.
“We found that people were more interested in how we did it, more so than why we did it,” said Brown after The Adding Machine’s six-day run. “They [the audience] wanted to know how the technology functioned and how we put these pieces together.”
One key component was the creation of virtual scenery by students majoring in multimedia. Ferolo, assistant professor and director of the multimedia program, led students in creating the play’s computer-generated imagery (CGI). Aside from his role at Bradley, Ferolo does commercial work. Creating panoramic backgrounds for music videos has exposed him to some innovative production techniques.
For two months, 50 to 60 hours of the directors’ time each week was devoted to the March production. With David Look ’07 as line producer, the multimedia students worked in teams to build composites (layered pieces of video) that were created with a combination of HD (high definition) video, still photos, and CGI.
“I had 20 to 22 students making media on a daily basis,” said Ferolo, acknowledging his expectations and artistic demands were very high. “There’s really no ‘done’ until the show goes up. I was continually refining and revising.” Reflecting later on the critically acclaimed show, he was quick to praise the students. “At the end of the day, I was so proud of what they created. I would put the work they did up against a host of professional enterprises.”
As for the “why” behind the groundbreaking production, Brown begins by explaining that theatre “has always grabbed ahold of new technology,” all the way back to the ancient Greeks. However, he continues to ponder the question of why.
“In redefining ‘live’ for theatre, are we intrinsically changing something? Are we taking the last bastion of human communication away by putting somebody a thousand miles away?” he wonders. “I’m still exploring the idea of ‘why’ myself—I haven’t come to a definitive answer about that yet.”
One thing about which Brown is certain is the importance of maintaining a play’s integrity. “My whole focus has always been on the clarity of the story—is the story being served by what we’re doing?” Regarding The Adding Machine, he remarked, “We took a story that was written in 1923, made a few textual adjustments to it, but for the most part it was the same play…and it had to stand up on the stage with all the technology.”
Financial support and technical expertise for The Adding Machine came from many supporters, including sponsors like Kenyon & Associates Archi-tects, Kuhlman Sound Co., and The Iona Group, which loaned a digital switcher and an HD camera for the run of the show. The camera was used in part to document the production, from Week 1 to Week 23. A video diary detailing the process can be found at addingmachine.bradley.edu. The production also received significant funding from a Bradley University Special Emphasis grant that supports faculty/student collaboration.
Bradley theatre and multimedia students can look forward to more high-tech productions in the future, according to Brown and Ferolo. “In terms of the learning experience, the students were blown away by it,” Brown reported.
Someday the theatre and multimedia departments would like to explore mobile performance, integrating laptop computers and cell phones. “Do you need a theatre to have a theatrical performance?” Ferolo wonders aloud.
The next collaboration between the three universities will likely be seen not only at the Meyer Jacobs Theatre, but in three theatres. Alice in Wonderland is tentatively scheduled for January 2008. The co-directors see the looking glass as an ideal setup for using virtual actors. “We’re still brainstorming through possibilities,” said Brown, explaining that this time he expects audiences in Peoria, Orlando, and Waterloo, Ontario, will watch the performance simultaneously.
The Adding Machine revolves around Zero, a loyal employee with 25 years of service and a life and marriage envied by no one. Expecting a raise, Zero is enraged upon learning that an adding machine will be his replacement. When the accountant is tried and hanged for the crime of murdering his boss, the stage is set for the exploration of Zero’s afterlife. Written by Elmer Rice in 1923, The Adding Machine is regarded as America’s first expressionistic play. Rice (1892-1967) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his next play, Street Scene, in 1929.