A ballerina waiting to go on stage

How Technology is Changing Theater Design

Every Job is a STEAM Job is our series looking at why kids will need tech literacy and coding skills to succeed in their future careers, no matter where those careers take them. Previously, we looked at how technology is changing teachers, fashion designers, architects, journalists, small business owners, and the professionals protecting our national parks.

Like any art form, theater is a reflection of society. It tells stories of our history, our culture, and events we live through today.

That means theater is also molded by our society. Technology has changed the stage, from local productions in churches all the way up to Broadway. Designers and theater students aren’t just learning basic principles of acting and directing; they’re also learning how to use technology to enhance their visions.

Here is how technology is changing theater and why the next generation of designers will be tech experts.

Theater is Thriving in the Age of Technology

In an article for the Northeastern College of Arts and Sciences, Greg St. Martin writes that theater is often called “the fabulous invalid” because it has always been viewed as a dying art ever since the advent of the radio (and then television, and then internet streaming).

However, the popularity of Broadway productions such as The Lion King and Hamilton prove otherwise. In a world where we can watch whatever we want whenever we want, audiences are still drawn to a good story.

“There is some­thing that we seem to crave about the live expe­ri­ence that is primal for sto­ry­telling and being live in the room with the per­former and having a unique expe­ri­ence that only you are having,” he says, citing Bey­oncé’s Lemonade as a similar example. Throughout the centuries, the theater community has embraced technology instead of fighting it.  

Young People Tend to Modernize the Arts

In an article for Tech.co, Sarah Willis explains that more young people than ever are being drawn to theater and are changing how traditional stories are presented.

“You don’t expect young people to be excited by the music of their parents, so why would they be engaged by the same old theater?” she writes. “The new generations are always at the forefront of new developments in the arts, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that today’s young theater-goers are looking for a different kind of experience.”

It’s entirely possible that theater traditionalists who decry technology are the same people who lamented electric guitars in the 1930s or the rise of color TV in the 1960s.

Stage performers in LED light suits

Theater Reflects Culture and Society

The very concept and history of theatrical arts means that it can’t afford to ignore modern technology if it hopes to stay relevant. Ever since the era of theater in Athens under Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, theater has served as a commentary on life.

Zachary Small at Howl Round writes that today’s playwrights and actors need to embrace motifs such as the stock market, drone technology in war, and digital communication to tell the stories of our time. We are a culture created through technology, and that needs to be depicted and explored on the stage.

While technology plays a crucial role in the content of theater, it’s also revolutionizing how productions are created. From prop departments to costume designers, technology is bringing live productions to the next level.

3D Printing Makes Set and Prop Design More Precise

The growth of 3D printing has become a massive time-saver for production companies across the country.

In an article for Playbill, Robert Simonson interviewed famed set designer John Lee Beatty and his associate Kacie Hultgren. Beatty, like most lead designers, requires a scale model be built to preview the set. Historically, this has involved piles of foam core, X-Acto knives, and hot glue. However, with 3D printing Hultgren and Beatty can design their sets online and then send the prototypes to be made of plastic. This saves considerable time and effort — especially in an industry operating on tight deadlines.

“I don’t feel guilty asking for 24 lamp posts, and then asking for two more,” Beatty said.

Baylor University Turns Plastic Into Magic Beans

The Baylor University theater department has also been using 3D printing for years, and not just to create set models. For their production of Into the Woods, the props and costume department used 3D printers to create synthetic “magic” beans, along with other accessories for the witch’s costume.

During the learning process, students still learn traditional costuming techniques, but they also have the opportunity to mold a digital “ball of clay” into exactly what they need for a show. This makes their vision less hodge-podge, reliant upon what they could find or make themselves, and more precise in execution.

From Magic Beans to Comedian Puppets

Of course, once a creative field such as theater discovers a new technology, the ideas start flowing. For example, Owen Collins, associate professor in the theater department at Washington and Lee University, was first exposed to 3D printing in 1999. While he only just recently was able to add a printer to his set shop, he continues to experiment with its possibilities, including the creation of a Stephen Colbert bust as an experimental puppet head.

As 3D printers become more affordable, you can expect to see this technology in local productions and even community theaters.

Tech backstage

Technology Makes it Easier to Find and Change Sound

Sound design is one of the most subtle ways for a theater to move a production. While the actors, sets, and even lights are highly visible, sound is heard — and more often, felt.

Victoria Deiorio shares her thoughts on the importance of good sound design on HowI Round. “Sound design focuses on the emotional journey of the play,” she writes. “My job is to understand how the director would like the audience to feel at every moment.”

She says some of the best moments of her career came when an actor said they couldn’t get a feel for the scene or monologue until they heard the music playing underneath them.

Technology Opens the Door for Better Sounds Faster

In many ways, the internet has lowered barriers for sound designers to find the exact music and noises they need to move a production.

In an interview with Music Theatre Today, Kai Harada explains exactly how technology has changed sound design in the past 10 years. In the old days, if a director wanted a new sound effect it would take a whole day — Harada had to call studio libraries and wait for them to mail a few CDs to review.

Today, he can look up sound effects in a few minutes and build them into a show. With a few keystrokes, he can layer sounds to set the whole scene.

“It has made us FAR more efficient, but the caveat is that it also introduces the possibility of what I’d call ‘superfluous sound effects’ — just because it’s easy for us to add a sound effect doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for the show,” he says.

Microphone Technology Also Improves Live Performances

Not only is technology advancing how today’s sound designers find sound, but it’s also giving them the tools to place mics and set up acoustics for better performances. In an article for SoundGirls.org, Yvonne Gilbert tells her experience of miking actors in Rent.

She had to find a delicate balance between the actors and the band, which typically wasn’t there during tech week. This meant moving mics around from the hairline to the forehead to hear actors better.

“What seems like a small movement in position made a huge difference to the amount of level we could get from the mics,” she writes. “It didn’t look great, but if we had used booms then they would have been very visible, as well.”

If the goal of theatre is to immerse audiences in the message, then improvements to sound technology and mics can only improve the transformative experience.

Video and Multimedia Can Transform Performances

Speaking of transformative experiences, more companies are working with multimedia and combining live theater with recorded video.

Jersey City Theatre Center Used Multimedia to Connect Generations

Last year, The Jersey City Theatre Center presented And Then They Came For Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank, by Jim Still. This was a multimedia production with videotaped interviews from two friends of Anne Frank —  Holocaust survivors Eva Schloss and Ed Silverberg — mixed with a multicultural cast of live actors recreating live scenes from World War II.

Each show featured talkbacks with the cast, director, and Eva Schloss herself, now 87, who is renowned for her lectures on oppression and genocide. Not only did this add a human element to the production, but it also took a historical topic and wove it into the discussion of today’s issues in refugee care and Syrian genocide.

Actors on stage

Multimedia Transports Audiences to Scotland in MacBeth

Multimedia works best when it complements great acting. If it serves as a crutch for the cast to lean on, it can leave some designers to manage a delicate balance between an amazing experience and a distracting video.

“I’m always conscious of trying not to be too heavy-handed with video,” Alexander V. Nichols told Adobe Creative Magazine when asked about creating video for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Macbeth. “I use it to reinforce the performers rather than distract from them. But that said, audio and video many times have complemented the performer.”

In this case, the production team used video to enhance the set with fog, clouds, flying debris and a palace. Nichols’ goal was to create an atmosphere and bring the audiences to 14th century Scotland.

“Video technology has been influencing theater for decades, but never has it been easier or cheaper to incorporate into productions,” Catherine Love writes at The Stage. “Even student shows are now making use of sophisticated projection mapping.”

Many students approach video as a common tool to get the right look they want for a set or production. Essentially, it creates a new canvas for set design, scene interpretation, and plot use.

Actors and Using Technology for Lines

While technology has revolutionized how directors and designers create the production, it has also affected how some actors take the stage. Some critics have questioned whether this change really deserves a standing ovation.

For example, Michael Riedel at the New York Post reports that Al Pacino, when shooting China Doll, was being fed dialogue through a Bluetooth earpiece (and there were also seven teleprompters on set to help him pick up his lines).

Riedel admits that this technology is ideal for aging actors who might not have the memory skills that they used to — James Earl Jones (84) and Cicely Tyson (90) are two talented examples — but says this is unforgivable in younger actors who simply don’t put in the effort. He calls out Bruce Willis, 60, who wore a massive earpiece in Misery and added dramatic pauses before each of his lines before delivering them.

While some find this technology distasteful, most theater fans would never deny James Earl Jones his place on stage just because of age, and in-ear technology can let audiences appreciate some of the best actors of this time longer than they otherwise would.

Critics will argue about the use of teleprompters, video media, and sound technology in theater for years, but the important thing is that artists are experimenting with these tools to advance their craft. Not every use of multimedia footage in a play will be a success, but if every director, designer, or actor gave up after a flop, then theater wouldn’t be as amazing as it is today.

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