Research Entrepreneurs Accelerating Prosperity | Enhancing Theatre with Interactive Displays

At a December 2013 REAP Lunch and Learn, “Shakespeare and the Vista Spyder”, University of Waterloo Drama faculty, Jennifer Roberts-Smith and Paul Cegys, presented the concept behind their November production of Richard III. Paul Cegys presented the design options provided by the powerful Christie Vista Spyder for both the projection capabilities and the stage management controls for layering digital content and synchronizing it with the live stage action.  Designed for the broadcast market, Vista Spyder allows the design of a variety of layers and transitions of content. It can accommodate 8 input feeds, process feeds with layers and transitions, and a push of these to multiple projectors.

For most stage productions, digital display is used as scenery within the play. Actors move around it, observe it, are framed by it. Video content can add great context to a production as well. But once the characters start interacting with the digital display, it takes on extra significance, changing the overall experience for the audience and the actors. For the R3 production, three security cameras were set up around the stage and patched through to the Vista Spyder.  A live actor also carried a video camera on stage throughout the play to capture and broadcast the video feed through the Vista Spyder. This live video feed was integrated into the projection design for the backdrop. The Vista Spyder operator stepped through the cues for the various camera feeds and previously recorded digital content as directed by the stage manager.

What made the Lunch and Learn talk even more interesting was Dr. Jennifer Roberts-Smith’s discussion of the design concept behind the technology design. The R3 production is an edited version of the full Shakespeare script that examines the theme of the hyper-mediated society with instantaneous social media and communications. She compared our hyper-mediated to the concept of the ‘Panopticon’ building design for institutions, proposed by 18th century philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham, in which a single watchman could look out at the inmates in such a way as to have the inmates control their behaviour with the prospect of being watched.  We are, says Jennifer Roberts-Smith, living in a virtual Panopticon: the ubiquitous nature of digital and social media can be used to manipulate perceptions based on what is observed and what it projected.

In addition to the security and video cameras on the stage, the live actors were also tweeting in response to the action on stage and the audience was invited to participate through social media during the play.  Together, these mediated and projected display experiments were a particularly profound way to experiment with the themes of communications control and perceptions within the story of Richard III.

The Christie Vista Spyder will make a trip back to uWaterloo Drama for the March production, “From Solitary to Solidarity: Unraveling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith,” running March 19-22.  Dr. Andy Houston will explore how to use the technology to enhance and enrich this production. It will be very intruiging to see how the experience gained from the R3 production will influence and adapt to another theatrical vision.