Digital video transports Alice into Wonderland

Last February, students from a Canadian and two American universities made theatre history by performing together in a single play: Alice (Experiments) in Wonderland, from three separate geographical locations, and in front of three different live audiences.

This feat was accomplished by: the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Bradley University in Illinois, and the University of Central Florida.

Their “convergent telematic performance drama” was made possible through digital video transport system (DVTS) – a broadband technology similar to video conferencing – and high-speed advanced distribution technologies provided by ORION and CANARIE Inc.

CANARIE is a non-profit corporation funded by the Canadian government to promote use of advanced research networks, and the applications and services that run on them.

ORION (Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network) is an ultra high-speed research and education network in Ontario.

  

This unprecedented initiative by the three universities was recently honoured at the 2008 ORION Awards. The event, held in Toronto, celebrated Ontario’s contribution to research, teaching and learning.

Winners were chosen for their success in creating innovative technology, and engaging in work that’s having a profound impact here and around the world.

Prof. Gerd Hauck from the University of Waterloo accepted the ORION learning award on behalf of the production group. Other group members were George Brown from Bradley University in Illinois and Paul Schafer from the University of Central Florida.

Hauck said the cast from all three locations rehearsed and performed together by streaming actors into various sites, who interacted with local performers at each theatre.

“We had Alice drop into rabbit hole in Florida and show up in Waterloo or have the White Rabbit run across the stage in Waterloo and end up in Florida,” said Hauck, who is chair of the department of drama and speech communication at University of Waterloo and co-director of the performance.

“Our performers were at three sites, thousands of kilometers apart, but we created both a real space with real actors in front of real audiences and virtual actors in front of virtual audiences.”

The idea for the performance goes back several years when Hauck was conducting an acting workshop at the University of Toronto and began exploring theatre work with video conferencing, he said.

Hauck started his virtual experiment with actors in Berlin and they were interacting with his Toronto class through video conferencing – passing imaginary presents back and forth, and throwing balls.

After the class concluded, he received a $250,000 research grant to continue researching and purchase what he thought he needed – video conferencing infrastructure. He began collaborating with Brown and Schafer, who at the time were doing their own collaborative performances of small plays.

Their first effort together, was not Alice, but a play called The Adding Machine, which took place in one location, at Bradley University, and recently won an Internet2 Idea Award from the American counterpart of ORION.

But Hauck took it a step further with Alice (Experiments) in Wonderland, by having live audiences with live actors at three simultaneous locations.

The 90-minute performance involved around 150 students, 33 of whom were actors with speaking roles (11 at each campus), and about 120 others working as designers, directors and camera operators.

The play” lent itself well to this form of technology because it takes place in a wonderland”, where time and space is abolished.

Technology must tell the story in a different way, Hauck said, rather than be used as a gizmo.

“Alice moves around as if she’s an avatar or digital character. We were able to create digital characters – the flowers were digitalized and use video and audio tricks.

You could enlarge Alice or shrink her to the size of a foot by using a projection screen, and she could appear huge standing in front of a tiny door. Rabbits running, Humpty Dumpty falling – these are all things we could do.”

However, the logistics of bringing 150 people together in three different cities, two countries and two time zones was daunting, he said.

There were also a lot of technical challenges to overcome.

“When you send all of your information from one location to the other two and it’s broadcast live to their audiences – it takes about a half second to pick up their sound, so you pick up your own echo a half second later.”

Internet stability is also an issue, Hauck said they avoided going through routers and created direct connectivity between the partners with the help of ORION, allowing the broadcast of “TV quality images” on the big screens.

“If we had done this via satellite, which is how the new groups like CNN or CBC do it, it would have cost us about $30,000 – this cost us nothing,” he said.

The schools are planning a new project, entitled Voices, which is a “genocide-awareness” program that will have actors in each of the six continents who have experienced  the horror, either in Darfur or Bosnia, and have lived through it.

The starting performances will go across the globe at different times and performers will play in each of their respective time zones.

There will be 24 performances in 24 days, Hauck said, and will be scheduled for sometime in 2010 or 2011.

“My research is interested in exploring how we can invest in new digital technology with human qualities,” he said. “Most people think technology’s use in science is de-humanizing, but I want to explore the creative uses, the broader applications that arts can bring to technology.”

Hauck’s biggest aim is to reintroduce theatre to younger generations. Most theatre performances have lost a few generations, he said, with actors performing to audiences filled with white-haired individuals.

The Waterloo professor said it’s time the YouTube generation was brought back to theatre. “We had young kids come see Alice in Wonderland in big numbers. The kids get it. They have a different frame of reference and a different set of expectations – they really appreciate it.”

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