Actors and Technology

I’m privileged to be a member of the Acting Conservatory in the Theatre Department at York University, Toronto, Canada. It’s a strong training program with a wide range of physical training methodologies, excellent voice work, acting classes and numerous devising opportunities. Some of the major tenets of our curriculum are: Actors need to be “real people in real situations” (often telling our young passionate students to please stop “acting” and just “be”); that acting is truly playing in the moment with the scene partner in front of you—allowing yourself to affect and be affected; that you must have the courage to reveal yourself: your dreams, your fears; your hopes, your vulnerabilities; to live truthfully.

However, with our company Out of the Box Productions www.outoftheboxproductions we have been extensively using intermedial and interactive technologies and critical questions have emerged: How do these tenets apply for the actor if their scene partner is Virtual? What if the performers are trying to affect a Kinect Camera? Do traditional training and creation processes support an interactive stage?

Susan Broadhurst wrote in her article Intelligence, Interaction, Reaction, and Performance “I believe that new liminal spaces exist where there is a potential for a diverse creativity and experimentation. These spaces are located on the ‘threshold’ of the physical and virtual, and as a result tensions exist […] I suggest it is within these tension-filled spaces that opportunities arise for new experimental forms and practices.” I believe it is our obligation to explore amid the human and technological exchange, to train our actors to work within the tensions between the flesh and the virtual; to embrace new staging modalities and new aesthetics.

During our research project Butterfly- a study interactive, we developed the term Animator to better describe the blend of knowledge, interests and investment needed of all participants for a successful outcome. Therefore we use the terms Animator Performer (AP) and Animator Technician (AT) when working in the world of intermedial and interactive performance.

This past month, on the creation and build of our most recent piece Rallentando- a restoration, I focused on new modalities necessary where technology creation is integral, and practice is acknowledged as intimately involved with conceptualization.

The following suggestions specifically address the needs and responsibilities of the Animator Performer (AP).

The AP must be an active consultant during the developmental process of intermedial performance. This demands that, for an integrated outcome, the AP stays in the room and in conversation with the ATs and with the technology. An increased understanding of what the AT is doing allows the AP to ask informed questions and actively feed into the project. Katja Kwastek in Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art articulates this as “Learning the Rules of the Game”.

As we discovered during The Butterfly- A Study Interactive, there must be a fluidity of process. During the Rallentando creation/build the talented AP

Katelyn McCulloch worked extensively with the Kinect Camera to control discrete light and video events during Rallentando.  In our debrief she reflected “The Animator Performer must remain in a place of “ready” while kinks are worked out which can be very tiring. You must stay present, keep your body warm and energy levels up so that when your Animator Technicians are ready you can jump in and do your job.”

Equally, the Animator Technician must place himself in the role of the Animator Performer to understand the required embodied skills.

The use of intermedial and interactive technologies demands specificity and rigor in the physical training of the AP. Our training curriculum for actors at York University engages extensive and rigorous corporeal proprioception training so that the Animator Performer can perform with accuracy and repeatability.

The Animator Performer must become a scene partner with technology; establishing relationship with the virtual body. Earlier I mentioned Susan Broadhurst who spoke about tension-filled spaces that opportunities arise for new experimental forms and practices. In working with the Kinect camera, Ms. McCulloch stated “To work with a scene partner such as this you must stay open and not be thrown off when what you’ve planned in your head doesn’t work out. It is a dance where no one person is leading.”

The AP must learn to play with technology. Robert Wechsler stated in his article Artistic Considerations in the Use of Motion Tracking with Live Performers: A Practical Guide “The best interactive performers we know are those with a sense of play. They have the attitude: ‘If the machine is going to talk back to me, then I’ll talk back to it.’”  Again Ms. McCulloch reflected, “If you try too hard to control it, it will inevitably change its mind so you must find playfulness, an improvisational spirit and ease when working with new technologies.”

For the Animator Performer, emerging interactive modalities require rigor, specificity, patience and a keen underlying sense of play. Kwastek states “Play cannot be pinned down in terms of fixed characteristics, but rather constantly oscillates between material and form, seriousness and pleasure, reality and artificiality, rules and chance, nature and intellect”

This text was my contribution to presentation that William Mackwood, Don Sinclair and I gave at the Conference Bodies on Stage: Acting Confronted by Technology, in Paris in June 2015. Our paper was entitled The Animator-Performer: emerging interactive modalities


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