Theatre Engine puts audience in control

Imagine a dance performance where the audience had control over the lights, or where audience members could decide what the dancers would do next, or even control their movements directly. It sounds like it could be very bizarre and chaotic, and, in some ways, that’s what “Theatre Engine” is. The innovative show premiered on Saturday, March 7 at Dittmann Center, combining cutting edge tools of technology with the age-old urge to move our bodies.

The project began two years ago when Todd Edwards, the designer and technical director for the St. Olaf Theater Department ran into faculty from Michigan State University at a conference, who at the time were beginning to work on the idea of an interactive, multimedia performance. The result was a collaborative effort that involved Michigan State, St. Olaf and Brigham Young University to develop and research this type of performance.

The performance was framed by 30 chairs set up in a square formation around the dance area in Dittmann’s Studio One. Audience members in those chairs were given Android tablets, each connecting to the unique ID of that audience member’s chair. The rest of the audience could watch, but not interact.

Director of the program Alison Dobbins, from Michigan State University, introduced the performance and emphasized that it is a highly experimental research project. She urged audience members to actively participate, but left out the details, opting to let the audience explore as the show progressed.

There were five sections to the show, each with its own unique type of interaction between dancers and viewers. As the dancers made their entrance, the first mode, “Adjectives,” was activated. Every few seconds, the spotlight would shine on one of the audience members, and the tablet in that person’s hands would show a list of words from which to choose. The word that was chosen, which was anything from “hero” to “quicksand” to “anger” to many others, would be announced on stage by a computer. The actors would then immediately switch to portraying those emotions, suddenly going from enacting a scenario where they are drowning in quicksand to being furious with each other, shoving things and stomping around.

After a few minutes, the lights dimmed and the second section, “Call & Response,” began. The spotlight would shine on five audience members at a time, one for each dancer. These five people now had control over the dancers by moving their tablets. Either tilting left to right or shaking or turning, they could alter the dancer’s movements. The motion of the tablet would signal auditory cues to the dancers that they could interpret in various ways. Audience members were able to make the dancers do anything from a slow relaxed dance to an erratic motion. One member even got his dancer to jump up and down gracefully.

The third section, “Drum Circle,” was an attempt at getting all audience members interacting, with or without a tablet. The dancers prompted everyone to start drumming on their chairs and thighs. Some of the chairs were set up so that drumming on them would amplify the sound and signal cues to the dancers, effectively getting the audience to control the rhythm of the dance with their drumming.

“Light Switch” was perhaps the most interesting section. The lights all dimmed, and virtual light switches appeared on the tablets. Flipping them would toggle spotlights on dancers. The catch was that the dancers were only allowed to move when their lights were off, becoming frozen as soon as the light was activated. The concluding section, “Poses,” invited all of the audience members with tablets onto the floor. Directions would appear on the screens, such as “mirror your partner,” “get groovy” or “cha-cha.” The result was more than 30 people dancing, suddenly and collectively switching styles every few seconds.

“Theatre Engine” is definitely a unique experience, and what excites Anthony Roberts, the Artist-in-Residence in Dance who was tasked with preparing the students to perform, is the idea that the performance itself evolves over time. The fact that it’s all very experimental means the performers get to tweak and improve it based on feedback. On a more subtle level, the performance itself will always be slightly different because new audiences will interact in varying ways.

Roberts sees a lot a potential for this idea. He is very excited about the notion of taking something that usually absorbs so much of our attention and isolates us, and enabling it to open up new forms of communication and interaction. In many ways, the “Theatre Engine” project gives us insight into the novel ways in which technology can nurture, rather than hinder, social connection.

Photo Courtesy of Dean Neuburger