Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Internet of (Theater) Things

I was at Maker Faire this weekend, and like so many other parts of the inter-tubes it was all IOT, IOT, IOT. And I'm wondering if it is time to rethink the usual objection to using Wifi in a performance context.

The old assumptions were that wifi wasn't reliable enough for performance. But then, we used to assume computers weren't reliable enough. I have seen the pleasant glow of the Blue Screen of Death from a sound booth or two, but I ran into many, many more people over the years who insisted on using tape, cassettes, or (eventually) CD's for effects playback because they didn't trust that a computer wouldn't break on them.

Well, I think most people have moved past that. Computers have become the default for sound playback as well as video playback. Crashes still occur but they tend to get ironed out in Tech; the show-stopper failures I have personally observed have been due to the batteries running dry on a production laptop.

I've seen a slow movement towards acceptance of iPad links to sound boards. I remember when the Yamaha board was iffy at best, but now that Wifi link is considered reliable enough for use in the time-critical environment of Tech and Sound Check on a professional-level show.

(On the other side of the technology-adoption bell curve, I've personally run numerous productions with laptop and software tools due to not having the budget for rack-mount equipment. Sub-mixed drums for one musical on the laptop, and that worked well enough that on a later production I few all of the sound reinforcement through it, using freeware plug-ins within Reaper to achieve a graphic equalizer for the house speakers. My last show, I was running sound effects, projections, and even running lights from the one laptop. And I've seen a lot of this sort of exercise in similar improvised micro-budget shows.)

After all, some of the oldest documented theater technology was borrowed and adopted methods from Elizabethan-era sailors; rope rigging, counterweights, whistle codes. It's a natural path from there to modern techs using cell phones to communicate to back stage (instead of trying to come up with the money for the old-school hardwired headset systems). And a lot of people are using DAWs for sound manipulation or MIDI hosts for live keyboards, or (again on the other side of the technological bell curve) personal music players or similar software like iTunes for backing track and effects playback.

In fact, at some levels of theater it is considered ordinary and natural to plug an MP3 player into the sound board and hit one of those little fiddly buttons at the exact instant called for in the script. (Putting the sounds on the hard disk of a computer with sound playback software that was specifically written for performance use is the more reliable alternative now!)

Which brings us to a segue. Effects -- or more broadly, all the possibilities of both the established ideas of theatrical lighting properties and scenery, and the less widely accepted ideas of interactive technology -- are not exactly called for in the script. One even suspects that in the golden age of musicals and old chestnut standards, the Annie and the You Can't Take it With You, the writer brought the same awareness of what could be practically done with multiple settings in scenery and quick-changes in costumes to what could be achieved in the way of on-stage telephone calls and so forth.

Which is to say, most shows don't require really clever technology to get a sound or lighting effect to happen in the right spot. Between the way the script makes the timing of the effect non-critical, and the way the presentational aspect of the box set with the missing fourth wall et al makes playing a telephone sound out of a speaker appropriate and sufficient (or at least sufficiently appropriate), there isn't a need for something more elaborate.

At least, not there. When you get to more modern works, and better yet, to those experimental works that straddle worlds of dance, improvisation, performance art, et al, there are plenty of spaces to explore more complex interactions than "play back a sound effect at a specific moment in the dialogue."

Of course, these also tend to get worked out in development. Sometimes I have had a performer or a puppeteer or a musician or whatever come up to me and ask, "I'd like to have this happen when I do this; is it possible?" But mostly, a choreographer or a props person or someone sees something interesting that's already out there in the world, and the performance is designed around how that existing thing functions; designed to accommodate the existing advantages and the existing flaws.

(Specific case in point; in a production of Wizard of Oz we used light-up globes extensively. Each time these were brought out, there was specific choreography to allow each performer to turn their back to the audience and page through all the available colors in these off-the-shelf devices until they got to the desired effect for that moment in the show.)

So it seems to me that the process of using the kind of effect modern electronics makes possible starts from the Designer. Instead of problem-solving something that the rest of the design team would like to happen, you become the one to suggest an effect. Which means you are effectively working out of what already exists or is known to be possible, rather than working from something that wants to happen on stage and developing a solution to it.

For that reason among others, I'm not that interested in the experimental end -- in the kind of process that puts accelerometer-controlled LED strings on a dancer, or whatever. Because as I pointed out above, this is more a process of adoption than design. You more or less start with available consumer products, and you develop a way to use them over rehearsal.

My interest from pretty much when I started using electronics in theater (where the height of my technological output was sticking leaf switches around a motor-driven cam to create a hardware string light chaser), is to, well, I'd call it "sweetening."

Here's a conceptual framework from another industry. A movie is more-or-less filmed MOS. In the older days this was a technical necessity, these days it is an artistic choice. Dialog may be taken from the shoot, but the totality of the sound environment in the finished product is a created thing. This is for focus and nuance; the noise is stripped away, and the only sounds still there are those that tell the story -- and they are pushed, too, for artistic nuance and emotional effect.

And this process has already begun in theater. We can't pan, zoom, or cut; we don't have that control over what the play-goer watches. But we do control lighting and we build and even paint scenery to place the eyes and the attention where we want it and to make essential story-telling and emotional points.

And artificial sound has entered. Even in smaller spaces, even in opera, subtle reinforcement and other acoustic shaping is already taking place. In larger houses and in the musical dialog is already passed through processing to make it larger than life in the same way Hollywood takes the best the boom mics and hidden lapel mics can carry back from the live stage, marries those with ADR done in the studio, and presents the final honed and processed mix to the audience.

At the very simplest level, I think we can now have the sound issue naturally from an on-stage walkie-talkie or phonograph or bugle (or appear to), and we can have the light from a television or cell phone (or the lights of other items of technology) doing what seems natural for them to do. The history of technical theater is full of examples of sticking colored lights in empty TV cabinets and sticking speakers under chairs and otherwise producing these illusions. Well, we can do them better now -- even if that means just pushing actual video out through a length of VGA.

But at the more complex level, I think we can have a gunshot sound "right." I think we can have a sword fight with the exiting (and thoroughly fake) sword sounds of a movie. And more subtly, I think we can treat voices and footsteps so the actors sound like they are walking a marble hall instead of wooden platforming.

But many of these require wireless control. Props move. Actors move even more. Cheap wireless is one of the necessary parts to make it possible to bring this sort of realized environment, this sort of naturalistic (or hyper-naturalistic) stage environment. And it may be that Wifi and the IOT has reached a point of maturity where it can be trusted in a production context. And not just on experimental theater pieces with fourteen people in the audience, but in staid professional theaters where your equipment breakdown is seen not by mostly your own circle of friends, but by hundreds of people paying thirty-five bucks a seat.

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