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Technology Takes the Stage

There is much about the study and performance of music, theatre, and dance in the new millennium that hasn’t changed in centuries: talent, practice, knowledge, inspiration, and passion are still essential ingredients that drive the performing arts. Yet while these elements remain constant, in recent years performing arts technologies have evolved in unprecedented ways. As a result, the current era of performing arts is unlike any that has come before, with remarkable new possibilities for enhancing excellence and exploring creativity.

Technology is the backbone of any theatrical, dance, or musical production,” said Priscilla Lindsay, professor and chair of SMTD’s Department of Theatre & Drama. “The audience needs to see, hear, and feel a performance as fully as possible so that it is a rich, emotional, and unforgettable event. Modern technologies have given us the tools to enrich the whole of this experience, and students today are mastering the use of these tools.”

The Future of Music Making

Technology has become an integral part of music—from composition and recording to sound mixing and performance. “New technologies allow us to do things that we are not able to do with acoustic instruments or voices,” said Jason Corey, associate professor and chair of the Department of Performing Arts Technology (PAT).

PAT students are immersed in exploring technology-based arts through performance, with laboratories and studios for the interdisciplinary study of music, dance, theatre, engineering, art, film, and video. At the same time, all music students benefit from the perpetual advances in music technology.

Perhaps the most widely used new technology at SMTD is the professional studio loudspeakers (such as those made by Dynaudio, Genelec, and Meyer Sound), used for high-quality sound playback in classrooms and studios. “As a music school, we’re playing music in classrooms and throughout the School all the time,” said Corey. “It is especially important that our loudspeakers do not hinder what we’re trying to hear. We have professional-quality loudspeakers in some of our classrooms, but would like to acquire a greater number to accommodate our programs.”

One of the most revolutionary developments in music technology has been the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), introduced in the early 1980s, which had a powerful impact on music composition and recording. “MIDI has given musicians enormous creative power,” said Corey. “This innovative technology allows electronic musical instruments and computers to connect and communicate with each other, recording each MIDI note digitally. With the push of a button, the musician can then change the notes, tempo, and dynamics of the recording.”

New hardware interfaces, such as keyboards and mixers, continue to use MIDI to control audio software. “The PAT program is currently researching the next generation of sound and music control interfaces, employing new ways of thinking about sensors, data communication, and sound manipulation,” said Corey.

SMTD is eager to acquire the most significant new technological resources for student use, currently in short supply, such as plugs-ins that allow advanced sound mixing and processing of student recordings and compositions on the computer. With an eye toward the future, SMTD also hopes to create a host of highly configurable spaces with variable acoustics to be used for recording, composition, and performance. “Ideally, we would like to have a suite of interconnected spaces,” said Corey. “They could co-exist with a broader common focus ¾ such as a suite that is adjacent to a recording studio and mix studios with ample video projection, speakers, surround sound, multi-channel audio, and more immersive environments.”

Lights, Camera, Action

Theatrical productions today are employing technology more than ever before, affecting every area of theatre production. Today’s sophisticated digital lighting systems, for example, have profoundly changed the way lighting is created for stage ¾ providing dramatic effects that can alter color, pattern, and intensity. “It used to be that we had spotlights that were run by a single student in the balcony,” said Lindsay. “Now we have lighting that is controlled by a digital light board—with upwards of 300 lights per production—meticulously programmed by a lighting designer during hours of technical rehearsals.”

Meanwhile, emerging technologies for video projection have come to play a central role. Originally no more than stationary backdrops—such as the familiar city skyline we’ve all come to know—interactive projections today take scenic design to a whole new level, projecting powerful moving imagery and still photography onto the stage. From the special effects of Spiderman on Broadway to the elaborate set designs of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at The Metropolitan Opera, both experimental and controversial, backstage technical wizardry has vastly expanded what is possible. “We want our students to be able to recreate these plays, musicals, and operas in magical and fabulous ways,” said Lindsay. “To do this, we need sophisticated video technologies—now the industry standard—to prepare students for their professional careers.”

Video is also critical to acting students. “Acting for Camera Studio,” essential for required classes in both theatre & drama and musical theatre curricula, introduces students to the basic techniques of acting through the use of video. As an integral component of the curriculum, an upgrade of the current system to HD will help meet baseline demands for technical currency.
For scenic designers, technology has revolutionized their field, particularly through the use of computer-aided design (CAD) software for two-dimensional drafting of scenic elements and three-dimensional modeling. “I’ve seen students draft a two-dimensional representation of a renaissance period table, beginning with just one of the ornate legs,” said Lindsay. “Then, with the push of a button, the software constructs a three-dimensional model, with all four legs, that can be rotated 360 degrees and viewed from all angles.”

Using a variety of digital fabrication tools, it is now possible to take the designs created with CAD software and generate full-size pieces for the stage with a CNC router (for wood) or a water jet cutter (for steel). “Currently, our students use the cutter at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design,” said Lindsay. “Our goal is to equip the theatre design studio with these technologies so that access to them is unrestricted. With the right resources, the creative potential of our students is unlimited.”

Dancing Tools

While production technology for theatre also applies to dance concerts, the field of dance has also embraced technology in other fundamental ways. “Dance practitioners see video, motion capture, and the many digital systems of editing human motion as extensions of our abilities to mobilize ourselves in space,” said Peter Sparling, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Dance. “But these spaces are no longer strictly confined to the dance studio or stage. We can dance for many cameras at once, appear on multiple screens, and be wired for our motion. We can appear instantaneously on screens all over the globe. We can re-choreograph our motions while editing in Final Cut Pro, or drop our bodies into any simulated environment.”

Technology has also expanded audiences and provided vast opportunities for distance learning. Students can watch dancers anywhere around the globe, take classes from an artist in Berlin or Beijing, or Skype with an alumna in Amsterdam—all of which they have done.

“Screendance”—a diverse range of work that combines choreographic and film/video practice—is now an important part of SMTD’s dance curriculum. Students make their own dances for the screen, which become their screen identity, acting as “calling cards” on their personal websites, and introducing them to professionals in the field and potential new job opportunities. “Their skill sets cross over to the film and television industries, to movement science and rehabilitation, and to all aspects of marketing and public relations,” said Sparling.

In order to keep pace with the rapidly developing technology in the dance field to extend students’ creative capacities, the Department of Dance has defined its goals for the future: creating “smart” classrooms/studios with video projection capability (screen, projector, DVD player/computer compatibility, and audio); cameras for students and faculty use; editing suites with Final Cut Pro and the latest software; studio space with lighting for high-quality video; and a library archive comprising all departmental productions as well as a curated selection of professional works.

“Video recordings of technique class exercises, student productions, or composition studies become the tools for study, critique, and remodeling—just as they’re employed in making prized athletes more skilled in their performance,” said Sparling. “Students and faculty alike are engaged in productions that combine live dance with video backdrops; the real and the virtual interact in a pas de deux that has everything to say about our identities in a complex world.”