Digital Performance Lab designed to keep creatives in Arizona
Arizona is suffering a drain of young artists and creative designers leaving for more arts-friendly areas. But a Phoenix-based ensemble is hoping to invigorate the local small-theater landscape with cutting-edge technology for the stage and a dynamic place to showcase their talents.
To get there, they’ll need to find funding and financial support from the community.
Phoenix’s Orange Theatre is a residency led by ASU alumni that brings together digital media designers, developers and actors to collaborate on the creation of new, interactive technologies for the stage and performing arts.
“One of the reasons we formed is because we have a lot of experience in digital media and the theater but very little financial support from the community,” said Matthew Watkins, Orange Theatre’s artistic director and a 2010 ASU graduate. “It’s the reason why a lot of people end up leaving Phoenix.”
Watkins said that although Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the country, Arizona is 50th when it comes to arts funding. He said he has seen talented Valley-based artists leave for well-paying jobs in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and London.
Made up of seven ASU alumni and two artists in residency, Orange Theatre recently launched a new initiative called the Digital Performance Lab to attract and retain young creatives to do exciting work without leaving the state.
After the Arizona Commission on the Arts put its Art Tank initiative on hold, Orange Theatre is asking the public for funding to support its programming and ideas. In January, Orange Theatre received a $10,000 prize from the Art Tank but now needs additional funding to bring its “revolutionary” wireless 3-D tracking system to market.
“With funding we could easily do this in three to six months,” Watkins said. “Without funding, considerably longer.”
On June 25, members of the ensemble held a free public demonstration of their work at ASU’s Lyceum Theatre on the Tempe campus. Actors and designers demonstrated a network of portable, matchbook-size wireless sensors that allows instant triggering of complex lighting, sound and media cues and creates a more interactive and exciting theater experience for actors and audience members alike.
The system would allow for a less expensive stage tech setup, which would benefit small theaters that often have smaller budgets. For example, high-quality projections of scene backgrounds could take the place of a physical set that must be built and painted, and a less instrusive microphone assembly would allow for better sound.
“This technology adds another paintbrush to use as a tool to execute a design,” said Ian Shelanskey, an Interdisciplinary Digital Media and Performance graduate student in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.
“Custom technology in theater will be as cutting-edge as Computer-Aided Design was to architecture. It can make a presentation really come to life.”
It also adds a little spice to an actor’s performance, according to Katrina Donaldson, who along with Carrie Fee and William Crook performed a scene from Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Blood Wedding” as part of the demonstration.
“I’m excited for all of the possibilities this system can bring to a production,” Donaldson said. “A small movement by me on stage could trigger a tidal wave of chaos, and having that secret knowledge makes it kind of fun.”
The company plans to make the software and hardware developed in the Digital Performance Lab available to other independent performing-arts groups at an affordable price.
Future plans for the lab include an education program that teaches best practices for actor-designer collaboration and a digital performance resource library based in Phoenix. Pending other future funding, the company hopes to make the residency an annual program.