Christine A. White ,
Dept of English & Drama,
Loughborough University of Technology,
Leicestershire, UK.

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Scenography and the fourth dimension -

the use of computer rendering to replicate the

"time" dimension of theatricality

Christine A. White

English and Drama Department Loughborough University LE11 3TU t



The development of computer rendering packages for specific theatre problems have become more and more complex and revolutionary. Their contribution has been primarily within the field of Scenography, that is, areas of visual design in the theatre of lighting and of setting. But there has not been a discussion of the nature of the theatre product and how it may be affected by such technology and the performance skills and design ideas which come from the interactive process during a technical and subsequent dress rehearsals which may directly affect the efficacy of the final performance.

Traditionally, theatre presentation has used this production period of technological experimentation, as part of the creative process. The use of computers to short circuit this experimentation will inevitably change the nature of the theatricality of that performance, perhaps resulting in the reification of the spectacle which can be created on screen. The implications of this for live theatre are very profound and by default we may create another form of multimedia entertainment.

The scenography of presentation for theatre, works in an ethereal time zone. As a dynamic form, the final design of setting and lighting is not achieved before or after the customer sees it - but during their viewing time. In this sense it is the most interactive of designs.

Computers may be a tool to aid theatrical production but as part of a process for an interactive performance their use raises questions of what, and how, the performance and the performative can be achieved.

This century, theatre scenography has involved designers in the choreography of plastic forms. The development of new stage technologies, though originally to exact a more Naturalistic presentation, have now become utilised to effect a more fluid and abstract method of performance. An orphic response to our world.

Theatre has become more international, with productions such as Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon etc. These are transferable and mutable from nation to nation, through the technology that has been created. Our arts are now repeatable across the world in every minute detail and this has been brought about by the greater sophistication of the technology used to create them. What this actually does to the acting is not that difficult to discern. These productions are personality proof and are concerned with the replication of image, in this sense they do not require the actor to be anything other than the `Uber Marionette (1), the manipulated doll of the authors of the piece.

Computer Aided Design has implications for the performance skills and techniques of the performer. The actor is rehearsed into the blue-print of the show which has been created at some distance from traditional performance skills. The actors' contribution to the whole has been by passed by the scenographic team and their manipulation of images. The actor becomes a player in a large computer game of virtual reality. More real in the sense of actually being there, but in terms of contribution, the actor is totally manipulated.

Through the use of CAD and this type of design process theatre can become very like the Ford Production line, mass production in order to be most economically viable a monument to Taylorism. The commercialism of theatre has grown over the last twenty years, in part due to this ability to replicate.

The sets of productions and particular effects, what internationally is referred to as the scenography, often receive applause from the audience as would previously a particular soliloquy or characterisation by an actor. A kind of technological colonialism has occurred and this is where theatrical activity has been levelled. You may see the same production of Phantom of the Opera from London to Tokyo, from New York to Manchester - and this is seen as an advantage. The technology of mutability means that once a marketable product has been found it can travel and we can market the quality of `a good time', the marketability of human experience.

The theatre has been Disneyfied into a theme park of spectacle.

An inevitable product of CAD for theatre scenography is its use for television settings and lighting. As television makers look to the future markets of a multi-media world (1) theatre is leading to a world of multi-media, environment experiences. A virtual reality. The words virtual reality seem to be used to describe the technological notion rather than the actual human experience of what "virtual reality" means. This again may result in a new entertainment product of software development.

The operator in the future can create their own theatre on screen and design their own environment.(1)

Many set designers are now using two dimensional Computer Aided Design systems to generate set layouts, superimposed on stock studio plans, stored in the CAD system. This often means using a library company such as Modelbox who over the last 10 years have drawn and collated the major theatres in Britain. But as the price of the hardware came down Modelbox saw their company become less of a resource. Designers would not pay [sterling]1,000 per day to work on their plans, when that was likely to be their fee for the whole production. The programs can be very simply adapted to the requirements of any given programme, and information such as a circuit schedule and colour cutting list can be automatically produced for the electricians. The very powerful three dimensional graphic engines now available, make it possible to develop the two dimensional set layout into three dimensions, and to colour, texture and even lighting effects, with amazing realism.(1)In this way a camera may be moved through a set, examining different shots in detail. It may be that this technology can provide a meeting of minds for all the creative team, where a "look" for a programme or theatre event may be visualised and agreed upon, with each member of the team then going away with an accurate hard copy of the desired treatment for the show.

What seems imperative is for a decision of how the technology can and should best be used before it arrives.

It could enable a director to choose a style and then simply instrument match the rendering thus the designer and lighting designer once more slips towards the operator and facilitator - the interface between the director and the technology, rather than computer aided design being a tool for the creativity of the designer and having the ability to use the technology for their artistic decisions. CAD also lends itself to computerised and motorised lighting units, with the studio lighting plot actually being updated automatically, as physical changes take place. Similarly, the director can choose styles of design, box set, expressionist and equally well mix them to create the look she wants. Once this is achieved, at what point do we simply give up going to the theatre and make a piece of software that the audience can look at, at home on their own p.c.?

The very fact that US production is geared to cost cutting and profit making means that the time actually spent in a production week is precious and needs to be clearly planned. The creation of a mutable product produces profit. The London West End's production ethos is changing to this method of fitting up for a show.

This means that the process changes - lighting is undertaken without the cast. Flying is `blocked' and the actors are `blocked' around the objects of the set.(5) The picture on the stage a 3D event takes place in a 2D zone and consequently neglects the importance of the fourth dimension. The impetus for the performance changes from a cohesive unit not necessarily actor centred but at least humanistic, to an event of technologically parallel to the Stuart Masques of Inigo Jones - where the actor is again another object in the theatre machine(5) The performance of objects in space. The activity of movement and computers as part of a theatrical dimension, work from the individual and not the societal in this sense the computer contradicts the nature of theatrical performance.

Theatre is an art which does require the fourth dimension of time and space in order to operate. The many variables of theatre and constant flux of a performance require the whole, and all its elements to be viewed and then balanced by the scenographic team. The use of CAD as an assembly line package to make theatre may change this view. We have a highly plural theatre culture in the UK ranging across West End musicals, alternative theatre, a physical theatre rooted in mime but based in text, national companies with high production values which produce the classics. A computer generated theatre could have its place, but the aesthetic of such a theatre needs to be considered. As a tool for pre-production computers are very useful but as part of an interactive performance this method of production raises problems of what theatricality actually means and what and how the performance of the Performative can be achieved. The success and productivity of this area of design is not its ergonomics and saleability but its fourth dimension - the use of time and space to extend and shape the substantive product - the theatre experience.

[c. C.A.White.]


1. As described by Adolphe Appia and later discussed by Edward Gordon Craig. The theatre production was to be the work of one artist who would manipulate all elements including the actor to form an harmonious event. The actor's role would be as an element under the authorship of the director. Uber Marionette coined by Craig.

2. Original research for undergraduate dissertation (Johanna Watts) on Independent television companies in the UK suggests this is where these companies feel they must move to offer a different product than the terrestrial television channels.

3. In the USA Computer Aided Design is used by Production Arts, a hire and design company in New York for installation work. Jane Head, a designer for the company believed this technology was more likely to be used by technicians in the theatre rather than designers, as designers are less likely to trust the data sheet! This highlights the different jobs and the different methods of training in the USA, but she also believes that the use of the technology should not limit creativity. Interview with the author at Production Arts New York July 1993.

4. On VDU and with subsequent copy to colour plotter, slide or video tape.

5 'blocked' refers to the way in which objects, actors etc. are told their basic moves. This usually occurs at the start of the rehearsal process and is the blue print to work from. It is only written down in note form by the deputy stage manager and rarely is made into a schematic plan.

6 . Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones produced masques for the Stuart Court. Jones was often reviled by Jonson for detracting from the text of the masques with the sets and lighting effects of the scenes which he created.


Roy Strong and Stephen Orgel, Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court, Sotheby, Parke, Bernet, California, 1973.

Adolphe Appia - Essays, Scenarios, and Designs, translated by Walther Volbach, edited and with notes and commentary by Richard C. Beacham, Ann Arbor:UMI Research Press, 1989.

Walther R. Volbach, Adolphe appia, prophet of the modern theatre: a profile, Middletown, Connn., Wesleyan University Press, 1968.



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