It’s not your father’s stage anymore

BY FRANK READYSpecial to The Post and Courier

There is real danger afoot in the fictitious Bayou Mansions, an event that threatens to change the landscape of stages across the globe.

Little Evie Eames has been kidnapped, taken hostage by a corrupt government intent on lobotomizing the city’s children, turning them into mindless little zombies, albeit polite ones.

Then out of the darkness steps a lone hero, a tenement caretaker ready to turn his broom to the streets. He’s going to mop the floor with these guys, putting it all on the line, risking life and limb all in the name of saving a poor, sweet, innocent — drawing?

Evie Eames is a piece of animation, literally a two-dimensional character that interacts with the flesh-and-blood thespians who populate “The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets,” courtesy of a well-placed projector.

It’s a new theatrical reality, one that blends the grounded emotion of the stage with the endless possibilities of video, a fantastical combination that has come to define some of the most prominent shows at this year’s Spoleto Festival.

“The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets,” “Leo,” “Feng Yi Ting,” “Traces” and “A Crack in Everything” all utilize the medium of film to sidestep the pesky pull of physics and spatial logistics that can pose a serious challenge to artists looking to create a brand new world.

The integration of video into theater productions has become prevalent in the last 10 to 15 years, according to Sharon Graci, co-founder and artistic director of Pure Theatre. Nowadays, she said, people are conditioned from a young age to absorb a lot of information visually.

“What I believe is significantly impacting the use of video projection is a combination of improving technology that overcomes inherent limitations, as well as a willingness of artists and audiences to both create and experience live performance from a high-tech perspective,” Graci wrote in an email.

Suzanne Andrade, writer and director of “The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets,” uses animation to help give her story scope and create a richly textured world in which audiences could become involved. Environment is as important as character, if not more, she said.

“We quite like the idea of sort of caricatures, you know, not really deep, emotional kinds of characters,” Andrade said. “It’s about sort of types, putting types on the stage.”

Then the animation works its magic.

“Anything is possible when you’re working with animation, which is brilliant. So any idea you have you can pretty much make work, and at the same time you have certain constraints, which creatively is always really good,” she said.

Andrade and 1927, the performance company she formed with animator Paul Barritt, took their inspiration from early films, where simple but effective animation techniques would influence future prime-time cartoons like “The Flintstones.”

The citizens of Bedrock operated on a tight travel budget, either running past the same background again and again or, better yet, remaining still while their surroundings rotated around them.

It’s a stylistic flare that is paid homage in “The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets” when an unflinching actress is carried by the animated hand of God upward into the stars.

The intermingling of flesh and blood with digital projection provided a host of logistical challenges foreign to a traditional theater production. Improvisation and spontaneity were precluded.

“Once you’re on stage you’re quite straight-jacketed by the animation,” Andrade said. “We have tiny little spike marks all over the floor. You have to stand in exactly the right place at the right time or the magic is lost.”

The opera “Feng Yi Ting,” by Chinese composer Guo Wenjing, was directed by someone enamoured with projected images; in fact, he’s a filmmaker. Atom Egoyan and set designer Derek McLane presented a work that combines traditional Chinese operatic forms with new music and tells the story of a long-ago Dynasty.

Video was used to project large images of the singers in real time on layered scrims as well as to propel the narrative forward using pre-made sequences.

Even the supertitles, displayed in Chinese and English, were animated (by videographer Tsang Kin-wah), their individualletters spinning away like snowflakes in a gust of air.

Specificity of movement also was crucial to “Leo,” a physical theater production that utilized video projection to create a surreal reality in which acrobat Tobias Wegner’s alter ego could go on adventures unimpeded by the laws of gravity or geography.

Wegner performed the necessary acrobatics on stage, using very precise movements that were then inverted by a video projector, creating the illusion that he was walking on walls or swimming with fish.

It took Wegner time to adjust to the warped reality mirrored beside him on stage. In early rehearsals he spent much of his time looking at a screen, making sure that his visual illusions held together.

He got rid of the monitor after only a few days, finding that his concern with executing the trick was inhibiting him from moving around the space freely.

“We got very used to thinking laterally and after a while I sort of discovered this whole new movement vocabulary and to be quite honest I didn’t have to think about how it looks like anymore because I had sort of adapted to this mode,” Wegner said.

He wasn’t the only artist at Spoleto trying to avoid becoming entangled in a sea of AV cables. The acrobatic cast of “Traces,” a production of Les 7 Doigts de la Main that opened this week at the Memminger Auditorium, was eager to explore the ways in which video could be used to form a more intimate thematic connection with their audience.

To help foster this intimacy, they’re showing a slideshow featuring the cast’s baby pictures.

“I feel the audience is going to really feel like they know us, like we’re talking directly to them and we’re really sharing something between us and the public,” performer Valérie Benôit-Charbonneau said.

Graci, of Pure Theatre, said sophisticated technology allows video to be a complimentary extension of the drama unfolding onstage.

Innovations like sensor technology, facial mapping and recognition software have made it possible for static design elements to become more fluid instruments of storytelling — if an artist chooses to use them.

“Just because the capacity to integrate these elements into a production exists doesn’t mean that we have to, or even should,” Graci wrote. “I believe what is most interesting about the future use of technology on stage is not only who is using what technology and how, but who isn’t, and why.”

Frank Ready is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University. Adam Parker contributed to this report.