Dream On: An Acting Class Explores the Digital Landscape

min read

Key Takeaways

  • For the actor, today's digital technology provides career and business support while — thanks to the increasing use of digital acting counterparts such as linear animation films, games, and virtual simulated performances — threatening the actor's livelihood.
  • An intermediate acting class added digital technology to investigate how it might enhance character interpretation and explore whether it could play an integral part in the performance without becoming the performance.
  • The acting instructor fostered creativity with traditional acting skills, while the technology expert provided tools and instruction in their use for students, with mixed success apparent in the final performances.

Technology and theater are old acquaintances. They've functioned as effective collaborators, from the Greeks' use of deux-ex-machina to the revolving stage of Kabuki Theater in the 1750s and the mounting of footlights in the 1880s to today's use of computer-controlled lighting, sound, scenery, and even seating configurations. Technology has become an indispensable part of the live performing arts despite departing from historical precedent, providing us with both new opportunities and unforeseen challenges.

For the actor, today's digital technology is a double-edged blade, providing career and business support while threatening the actor's livelihood — thanks to the increasing use of digital acting counterparts such as linear animation films, games, and virtual simulated performances. The teaching of acting remains relatively immune to the caprices of lurching technological evolution, however. Teaching acting persists pedagogically as a hands-on practice, with a deep focus on psychological realism, voice, movement, and period styles and an overarching concern with technique and the importance of the corporeal and the emotional.

The Ideas Incubator

Cecilia J. Pang: The seeming disconnect between the practice and the instruction of acting was on my mind as I planned my Acting 2 course at the University of Colorado Boulder. I revamped the traditional scene-study curriculum to include the active use of digital technology in one of the performing assignments. My objective was to investigate how students might use technology as an aid to enhancing character interpretation and to explore whether technology could play an integral part in the performance without becoming the performance. The number of sign-ups resulted in two sessions totaling 38 students. Each section met for an hour and fifty minutes twice a week. This was my first experience with teaching this course at Boulder, so I built my syllabus with the intent of exposing my students to the nontraditional acting styles of Bertolt Brecht, Anna Deavere Smith, and absurdism. I also approached the technological assignment as a symbiotic pedagogical tool; the students and I would learn from one another.

My biggest obstacle was that I consider myself a member of the "creative class," an idea person who doesn't know the difference between an alpha channel and a monitor dongle. Fortunately, Dave Underwood, at that time in CU's Office of Information Technology, was eager and willing to help with the technical needs. He assisted the students in "visioneering," the process by which they mapped their ideas onto the physical reality of practical technology.

Scene from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, featuring David Goldberger and Alexandra Traub (30 seconds)

Before asking the students to dive headlong into technology's deep end, I wanted them to explore other instances in which digital innovations were successfully fused with live performance. For this, I created a wiki page on which they could share their research results. The students had little trouble finding appropriate examples, although a sizable majority of what they posted was enormously expensive and irrelevant to executing their own projects. There were notable exceptions: enlisting Apple's Siri to play various roles onstage, as well as the use of texting and skyping to develop and enrich a story.

As it turned out, one scene that experimented with texting had a modicum of success. The idea, to perform the opening pick-up scene entirely through texting, modernized the narrative of the 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago and made it thoroughly relevant.

After surveying successful technology/live-performance collaborations found online and discussing why and how they hit the mark, I gave students a deadline for presenting their tech ideas with a play in mind. Some of their initial thoughts included:

  • Live-stream feed into another room to see the other actor's personal thoughts
  • Using two computers on stage with two actors in the room, but watching the performance on screen
  • Performing a scene before a white backdrop on which their alter egos were projected as shadows, which contrasted with the live action on stage
  • Interacting with scenes from other films to incorporate into a live-action scene
  • Use of clickers or cell phone applications to collect audience response, with graphs to dictate acting choices
  • Using voice recordings or projections to reveal sub-textual thoughts of the character Annie Hall
  • Incorporating one character, on stage, as a ghost-like figure who shows up on screen
  • Using a mix between projection, live-stream camera, stage lighting, and audio
  • Interacting with prerecorded images using a projector
  • Interacting with a third character portrayed on stage via a television monitor
  • Use of a composite mirror idea with the program Keynote
  • Using two projectors projecting images simultaneously onto actors in white clothing, coupled with live sound alteration
  • Using multiple television monitors to portray multiple characters
  • Coordinating live sound to a choreographed, prop-free fight scene
  • Live, amplified music paired with a prerecorded "green screened" or digital backdrop, using Photoshop to create a backdrop for a scene
  • Creating intricate soundtrack and soundscapes using Garage Band, live video feed or Skype, and two projectors
  • Integrating a homemade, self-contained movie with live acting
  • Use of shadow forms, live or prerecorded shadow play, with the use of a discreet light source, an opaque screen, actors, a camera, and back-projection
  • Live webcam feed of a remote location, enlisted for use as a set

It is worth noting that 13 of these ideas made it all the way from conceptualization to realization. Some died quickly, while others graduated to the "great-ideas-for-future-use" file.

The Technical Phase

Dave Underwood: My first encounter with Cecilia's students took place early in the semester when I introduced them to my department's services. The second visit took place two months later, when I helped the class work through their ideas. At this stage of their project development, the students were expected to begin forming the nuclei of their plans for marrying technology with dramatic performance. But an interesting Catch-22-like situation surrounds experimentation with creativity and technology: planning a project depends a great deal on familiarity with the available technology, but mapping out a technology "laundry list" is a pointless exercise without knowing exactly where the project is headed. This is where the workshop becomes an invaluable part of the process. With a bit of direction, the class was able to search out gaps in their evolving works.

As a multimedia lecturer and consultant at the university, I've come to know when to encourage and when to caution students wading into the digital realm. Often, I've discovered, students "over-tech" their projects, and typically write unnecessarily complex solutions into their planning. Backing students all the way out of their proposed project plans and asking them what it is, in the simplest possible terms, they are trying to say, is an extremely effective exercise; it's the rare case that didn't profit from a more simple treatment. The acting students were generally amenable to such dialogues. The help they wanted generally came in the form of infrastructural (as opposed to concept-strategic) assistance. It's worth noting that production needs were typically redundant, with the bulk of demand focused on the use and availability of DV cameras, tripods, FireWire cables, microphones, data projectors, and VGA junctions. My colleague, Tim Riggs, and I were able to distill hardware needs as well as executable "recipes" into a fairly narrow laundry list of equipment and plans. As an aside, and not surprisingly, the acting class was almost entirely Macintosh equipped (these were, after all, not business or engineering students). This made outfitting the class considerably easier.

Another way I helped Cecilia's class was through coaching. This office-hours style of support is a natural outgrowth of making in-class visits focused on multimedia production and analysis. Giving presentations without the follow-up offer of one-on-one coaching is an inherently impotent exercise. Yes, the student knows that a shattered-glass look will make his or her poster on gang violence more compelling, for instance, but how does one do that? Or, sure, Scorsese did great work with extreme close-ups in Taxi Driver, but is that something that would work in a personal-narrative video about a classmate's untimely death? (Yes, by the way, it will!)

When students embark on new, nontraditional paths of self-expression, they encounter roadblocks, both in the conceptual realm as well as in the use of the technology. Through my involvement in the classroom, I've adopted the philosophy that great student ideas deserve great support. And many of the performing students had great ideas.

BFA-Performance Sophomore Satya Chavez Describing Her Experience

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Transcript: The technology that I ended up using for my piece was a lot of sound equipment technology. We also spliced together a few pieces of music. I did take advantage of the mentorship session with Dave. It was very helpful not only to get our questions answered but also to come up with new creative ways to make our vision come to life. What happened in my case was we wanted to use microphone and amplified sound for different ways. What Dave let us know was the different effects we can have [with] the microphone, such as a reverb or an echo. It was incredible helpful to work with him.

A coaching session with a performance duo often started with sketches of how the desired performance would look. This most typically took the form of a very rough schematic (spatial) or storyboard (temporal). From there, the students' needs could be culled from a series of if-then questions, which drove discussions of desired audience reactions balanced against production effort and complexity. Of the 19 student teams at work in the Acting 2 class, eight used off-site coaching. (In my experience, this ratio is fairly typical of student response to offers of coaching.)

As I do for student "clients" from other disciplines, I helped many of the acting students produce various images requiring advanced Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator skills. Helping students up and over the obstacle of minor, yet critical, content creation has become a standard part of my role on campus.

Many IT professionals confuse teaching the use of technology with teaching how to leverage technology. In other words, the core idea climbs into the back seat and technology takes the wheel, leaving the route-finding process to chance and often rendering the end product dilute and uncertain. The beauty of coaching is that it allows ongoing challenges to this orthodoxy. I often found myself asking the actors why a certain technological mix was requested and what, in fact, lay at the nucleus of their plans. If, as in one case, the students were working with a remote video feed, the logical question became: Was this truly giving the audience a sense of virtual, parallel experience? Would there be an easier way to say the same thing without the potential for a critical breakdown?

Pang: While Dave stressed simplicity and elegance in prescribing the appropriate technology, I worked hard to remind the students that if the technology upstaged their own performance, they were not succeeding. "Make it simple, make it effective, and, above all, innovate" was the message the students heard as they fine-tuned their performances. Most importantly, I emphasized — repeatedly — the need to use technology only as an integrated enhancement to the performance, and never as a separate, competing creative entity.

Each team was allotted 20 minutes of class time for technical rehearsals, in which they played with the logistics and variables of their scenes. These short previews allowed me to gauge their progress and assess their performances and creativity as well as their understanding of the assignment. They also worked with partnering teams, who served as "tech buddies" and assisted in managing the mix of technical elements. Twenty minutes was clearly not enough time to flatten the many wrinkles, but it was all I could afford. It should be noted that almost all the rehearsals for the scene took place outside regular class hours. In retrospect, the class could have profited greatly from another week for dress rehearsal.


Pang and Underwood: The acting students took some surprising paths in their quest to incorporate technology in their performances. And avoided others. For instance, no team elected to use green-screen technology in their work — a device one might have thought to be a favorite in an assignment of this nature. Nor did any team use artsy digital backdrops (hoping against hope that the "wow" factor of a swirling, fractal landscape would induce their instructor to forget that the assignment required that the technologies used be meaningful). Mercifully and notably, the majority of student teams chose to keep things simple and manageable. They tackled dramatic problems from a wide variety of works, ranging from scenes by Shakespeare to Samuel Beckett, Neil Simon, Broadway musicals, original work, and short story adaptation. They were off to a very good start.

The teams chose a few dominant thematic styles to fulfill the assignment. One involved using technology as a way to reveal the subtext of the performance. This multichannel, parenthetic device led to some very intriguing theater. In Lend Me a Tenor, the players used two concurrently running projectors to reveal the unspoken desires of the actors. This wry, ironic dissonance was also put into play in scenes from Pick Ups (with discreet audio tracks) and The Importance of Being Ernest and Barefoot in the Park (with choreographed, synchronized "copies" of the actors digitally projected as shadow forms on a screen). This striking juxtaposition of what we say and what we mean is, in some ways, low-hanging fruit; current film, television, and theater use it frequently.

Three of the teams in the class chose to use digital technology to portray an additional character in their performances. They met with mixed degrees of success. The acting duo in Angels in America performed a three-person scene in which they interacted with a digital third character. Most interestingly, the two live actors played ghosts visiting the on-film protagonist. The nucleus of a very good idea was there, but the lack of crisp timing between live action and video recording kept the piece from getting off the ground.

Scene from Sorry, Wrong Number, featuring Brielle Farrell and Brendan Milove (36 seconds)

In Sorry, Wrong Number, for instance, members of the audience entered into the story line. Responding to projected questions concerning the possible fates of the play's protagonist, respondents texted their opinions to a common number, with the collected results subsequently woven back into the play. In spite of spirited, heart-and-soul performances by the actors, the piece sadly fell short, due to the failure of key pieces of the interface. According to BFA-Performance Junior Brendan Milove,

"The use of technology broadens me with what is possible in a theater setting and what rules can be broken. That being said, with technology comes a risk of things not going well, and in my scene, things did not go as planned. But I'm still proud of my concept of using audience voting to determine the direction of the scene. And I really enjoyed the assignment."

Scene from The Golden Shower, featuring Eric Bowerman and Shannon Shadbolt (1:38 minutes)

A third piece, adapted from a short story on the nature of memory, featured the protagonist in conversation with himself. The discussion was about a past lover, and for the illusion of this mirrored dialogue, the students used a live feed of the actor as captured by an off-stage camera. This instantaneous, yet displaced, interaction between the segment's principals created an atmosphere that perfectly informed the tone of the story.

Acting and technology work best together when the marriage has simple goals. The Golden Shower is an original scene about a husband and wife fighting on "Couple's Court" TV and how they use film they've shot as evidence for grounds for divorce. The script is hilarious, the footage is clean, and it was clear that the actors worked hard to incorporate the digital media as storytelling device. The scene not only showed the actors to be strong theatrical performers but also positively reflected their potential as film performers and scriptwriters. The piece is a lovely integration of writing, acting, and technology.

Scene from Proof, featuring Rya Dyes and Stephanie Spector (1:24 minutes)

Technology-based channels injected into live performance can effectively and efficiently support a feel of dissonance. But if that sense of removal and disconnectedness is not the aim, things quickly lose traction. For instance, in Proof, an experiment in showing the breakdown of the main character's world, live webcam images from the streets of New York were intercut with footage of the collapse of the World Trade Center. While collapse is central to the theme of the piece, the 9/11 allusion took away from rather than reinforced the storyline. In this case, in spite of a commendable turn of acting by the student creators, the added "noise" of a supporting digital channel was counterproductive.

Scene from Title of Show, featuring Gina Lovell and Morgan Peters (1:12 minutes)

In the creative process, success oftentimes is best realized by going slightly off-script. The ability to engage trial and error as a normal and useful part of the project's workflow is actually a good thing. The students performing a scene from Title of Show initially planned to use screen-capture software to pre-produce a short video in which an unseen user browses the Internet looking for "inspiration" to accentuate the plot, which documents an artist's creative process. But the "pre-canned" video quickly threatened to take on a life of its own. The software involved was quite complex, and the editing of the video could have been an assignment in and of itself. The students opted out of video and into PowerPoint, a much more comfortable and fluid environment in which to hatch their ideas. The scene worked because the actors focused on giving convincing performances and made certain the constituent technology in their production was in line, not at odds, with their message. This ability to turn on a dime and find a more appropriate and manageable solution is admirable.


Pang and Underwood: In retrospect, the requirement of technology-based content in an intermediate-level acting class was ambitious and possibly overreaching. Student comments, gathered after the performances had been given, ranged from somewhat shell-shocked ("I've learned that technology is very accessible as a tool to use in theater; but it is also very unpredictable") to accepting ("Technology is something that is very scary to rely on; however when the proper amount of time and planning is put into it, not much can go wrong"). Students found that the key to success, or even near-success, lay in preparedness and testing. While some felt that the technical execution had hurt the quality of their performance, they all concurred it had been a worthy experiment. According to theater senior Leigh Barnholt,

"Even though our final product was more of a disappointment than a success, the creative process was much more interesting and educational than that of a scene performed without technological elements. For the class overall, however, I felt that the performances were very much more substantial. Some were more successful than others, but each had a clever idea behind it that was still entertaining to watch."

Barnholt went even further to proclaim that the experiment had, in fact, affected her long-term career plans — not as a performer, ironically, but as an aspiring theater director.

Most of the students avow that they intend to create future performances with the active presence of technology. Theater and business junior Jackson Smith wrote,

"The main reason for this is because of the options that it gives to interpreting a scene. Also, I want to put technology to better use in my performances because it is so prevalent in today's society."

BFA-Performance Sophomore Jesse Pacheco on the Marriage of Theater and Technology

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Transcript: I think theater is sort of moving and entering into this digital age...and I think theater can adapt to that, and use all of these technologies at our disposal. I don't know if it affected my career plans…I still want to be an actor, I still want to be a director, and I still want to write. But it [technology] opens my eyes to the unlimited possibilities that live theater presents. And that you can turn a piece to whatever you like. Truly. All you need are the resources, the technical know-how, and the knowledge of the people to surround yourself with in order to see whatever you want your piece to be to come to fruition.

Pang: Considering that the final equipment list was rather thin (two cameras, two tripods, two projectors, and two projection screens), I was amazed by the broad spectrum of approaches and methodologies these actors invented. While I could not see a direct correlation between the use of technology and the quality of their performances with this one experiment, I definitely noticed increased creativity among the same students in the Directing class and an increased eagerness and initiative to use technology in their theater projects. Satya Chavez concluded,

"I am definitely taking advantage of the fact that I had this previous experience in Acting 2. For example, in the Directing class, we do many exercises that involve sound, audio, visual effects, and it's been great to help with my future creative process. All in all, I think it's really important to integrate the technological aspects in the curriculum because if nothing else, it makes you more rounded as an artist."

Additionally, even though digital technology was first packaged for us as a time- and labor-saving aid, the actors undoubtedly found themselves thinking "If only we could just act, and not figure out how to include all of this technology stuff!" The demands of learning some new piece of software or how to override the auto-balance on a video camera or how to adjust images so that they perform better with backlighting were all time-consuming, and my hair-splitting requests for high performance standards may have been a tad...well, overwhelming. Ideally, I would love to give a class of this nature twice the amount of time, to develop, tweak, and rehearse their projects. As long as I'm at it, I might restructure the syllabus and spread the assignment throughout the semester, spending a week each on conceptualization, visioneering, dry runs and dress rehearsals, previews, and performances. Another idea might be to have all the student teams in the class "treat" the same scene. The results, undoubtedly cubist and far-ranging in nature, might allow students to see with much greater clarity how the various levers of active technology might move the story.

Underwood: I saw another limitation early on in the project: time's handmaiden — space. Collaborative, technology-driven projects such as that undertaken by this acting class require a dedicated space in which to work. Camping out in a traditional theater environment and jerry-rigging projector mounts, drop-screens, and camera capture zones is a challenge in and of itself. Breaking the entire operation down at the end of class, only to have to set it up again in two days, constitutes an overwhelming amount of needless, unwanted overhead.

Pang: So, Dave, what would you have done differently?

Underwood: I would have supplied an inventory of available resources and told the students to work inwards from the outer edges of possibility.

Pang: Isn't this a dream-killer approach?

Underwood: As a designer, there's liberation in knowing one's limits. Of course, ideally we would have a dedicated, 24/7 space available for students to work in.

Pang: Dream on, Dave, dream on.