Blurring the Lines: New Horizons in Multimedia Theatre

Jaclyn Hales in ZTC's Multimedia Production _Rings of the Tree_.

In my MFA program at Arizona State University, there’s been an increasing trend towards digitizing theatre. Production after production that I’ve seen there, they have some sort of technology or film related component. And it’s not just Arizona. All across the country, all across the globe, technology is making its way into playhouses and theaters. Video, projection, multimedia– it’s becoming a common practice to see these elements make their way into a production.

Purists may think this rather disturbing. After all, isn’t that defeating the beauty of LIVE theatre? The intimacy, the visible perspiration, the spontaneity of it all?  All of that, although I agree with it to an extent, especially for certain productions, is not seeing the great possibilities attached to multimedia theatre. Certain shows require the traditional approach. There’s something simply wonderful with having a straight forward piece of theatricality set in a black box theater, where nothing is interfering with that magical chord building between an audience member and an actor standing not more than 15 feet away from her. It’s beautiful, it’s intimate, it’s magic. And I want to keep that. But there are other shows that could benefit from a little extra. Much of that same character anchored intimacy can still exist within a multimedia piece, but then other layers can be added to create another kind of awe.

Shea Potter and Heather Jones in ZTC's "The Snow Queen."

As a writer, one of my focuses has been the use of beautiful language. As a culture, I think we put less and less emphasis on vocabulary, aesthetic language and poetry in our writing. That aspect will always find its place in my work. However, I’ve also really been enjoying adding a different approach to my work as of late. Maybe it’s partly that I’ve been working on writing screenplays as well in my Dramatic Writing program, so it’s put my head in a different place, but in addition to writing beautiful, lyrical language, I’ve enjoyed focusing on creating visuals– on creating visions.

I’ve written a play called Manifest, which will probably be produced in 2013, about world mythology, and that’s where I really got a taste for writing multimedia theatre. Just adding some screens on which could be projected some film and visual components really opened up new horizons in how I could approach writing for the stage, which is usually very confined and limited to what can be brought onto the stage and the technicalities involved therein. In bringing in that relatively simple technological advancement, suddenly I had a larger canvas to paint on.

Garr Van Orden and Aubrey Bench in ZTC's "The Death of Eurydice"

The first practical effort on my Utah based Zion Theatre Company tried on this front was with a group of my short plays, “Jinn,” “The Snow Queen,” and “The Death of Eurydice” (for a review of those shows go here  ). This was in many ways an experiment for my company, to see how this approach would work for us on an artistic level. The results were quite positive. From what the production team told me, there’s definitely a learning curve with some of the technical and digital components, but it was also exhilarating to see new ways to tell these stories.  Some of the things the directors did were as simple, but effective, as projecting film on a screen to act as memory. Some involved much more nuanced effects that made it seem as if snow were falling on stage or that people were walking in and out of the screens.

So we at ZTC have gone another step and have taken a previously performed play of mine,

Rebecca Minson is ZTC's "Jinn"

Rings of the Tree, and adapted it into a multimedia piece. It was interesting that rather than going to the old stage version to adapt it, I rather went to my screenplay version of the story and, using its more visual template, I found that it was much easier to adapt from that version. The directors Jyllian Petrie and multimedia director Danor Gerald have been working some real theatrical and cinematic magic with the piece, which premieres at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City on February 3 and also plays in Utah Valley at the Grove Theater in Pleasant Grove (for more on the production, see our Facebook Event, or go to ZTC’s website). The show has required a full on film shoot! Danor and Jyllian have called upon professionals within the Utah film community and implemented great swaths of the story into a film medium that interacts with the stage aspects of the show. Everything I’ve been hearing about the show is rather impressive and I’m prepping myself to be blown away by what they’re going to accomplish. There’s even been talk of setting up aspects of the show that you can interact with on a tablet or smart phone. It’s a whole new world with new possibilities.

Jaclyn Hales in ZTC's production of _Rings of the Tree_.

The trap you have to avoid, of course, is not to make it gimmicky and to truly make it seamlessly complimentary to the script and its characters rather than fighting with the literary and character driven aspects of the show. But if that can be accomplished, and I’ve seen it accomplished, I see no problem with integrating technology with theatrical productions. After all, what would have happened to theatre if it had refused to move indoors or adopt electrical lighting? Moving onward and progressing technologically and creatively is not the same as sacrificing the traditions of the theatre on the altar of convenience. After all, there will always be shows where I think all that will be needed is an intimate black box, some basic lighting, actors and some seats for the audience. Then there will be the shows where I will want a breath taking, panoramic vision.


About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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One Response to Blurring the Lines: New Horizons in Multimedia Theatre

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Interesting. I was not aware of this direction in drama — though it makes sense in today’s world.

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