MACBETH
ACTORS THEATRE OF LOUISVILLE

Journal of Theatre Design and Technology

MACBETH: A MULTIMEDIA TOUR DE FORCE

Mixing Old and New
While Masterson knew he wanted to combine ancient rituals and high-tech elements in a production of Macbeth, he hadn’t actually done much with multi-media, except for slide projections, which he had come to hate. But he saw this lack of experience as a good thing because, as he said, with a wink, “I wasn’t bound by any sense of what was doable or not doable.”

He hated slides because the images were never bright enough and the control technology which was affordable for small and mid-size theatres was clunky and slow and unpredictable. If you tried to do anything clever and complicated, a projector would invariably jam and a slide would burn up and the whole effect would be ruined.

The summer before Macbeth, ATL conducted a workshop to explore ways to combine high- tech and low-tech. Among other experiments, they shone their new digital projectors into mirrors which were then moved around to alter and warp the projected images. They also projected images onto three-dimensional surfaces. Masterson had seen this technique used very effectively in a piece called Invisible Skin by the video artist Valerie Sullivan Fuchs when it was exhibited at the Swanson Reed Contemporary gallery in Louisville.

Fuchs’s work frequently incorporates modern and ancient technologies. For Invisible Skin, she projected images of waves, the ones generated by boats moving up and down the Ohio River, onto a clay piece that was etched with patterns of concentric circles. The interplay of the clay object—an ancient technology—with digitized images of waves—the natural forces that create clay—was the same kind of thematic idea Masterson was exploring in Macbeth.

Fuchs was invited to join the design team. As Masterson said, “I drew her into this murky production...and probably here too, ignorance was a real asset. She had no idea what she was getting into.” Fuchs was excited and immediately agreed even though, as she admits, she had no experience in theatre, she didn’t know the creative process, or the traditions, or the kind of work that goes on in rehearsals.

Software Solutions
Other key players in the Macbeth workshop were Jason Czaja, audio supervisor, and Cobert Davis, assistant sound designer. They were responsible for providing the multimedia technology and making it work. From the beginning, as the creative team started to develop a page-by-page storyboard, Czaja and Davis realized they would need to invent control systems that were much more flexible than the kind of DVD playback systems the theatre currently owned. In 2001, digital video processing was just migrating onto personal computers so Czaja and Davis spent several weeks searching for and evaluating software applications that might meet the considerable needs of the upcoming production of Macbeth.

They settled on two applications: Production Designer (www.wetelectrics.com) is software for synchronizing and outputting video, audio, MIDI, and serial elements of multimedia presentations; and VDMX (vidvox.com) is a software-based video mixer tuned for real-time performance of audio visual material. VDMX’s creator, Johnny DeKam, worked closely with ATL, going so far as to modify the software to accommodate the way ATL was using MIDI for controlling some sequences of cues.

In production, there were four computers controlling video input from disk and from four live hand-held cameras. Output went to four projection screens.

Timing Is Everything
Before rehearsals started with actors, the multimedia sequences were about seventy-five percent complete. Fuchs normally takes up to three months to shoot and edit a five-minute piece for one of her exhibits. She discovered working on Macbeth that the pace in theatre is much faster. During a two-month pre-rehearsal period, she created fifty-two video sequences. In spite of the extensive experimentation with and preparation of the multimedia elements, when rehearsals with actors began there was still much to discover about how to best integrate the live performances with the projected images. The rehearsal studio was crammed with video, sound, and lighting equipment: four video projectors, four computers, a sound system, four or five lighting instruments, and even a headset cueing system to enable stage managers and technicians to practice and debug some of the more complex sequences. “We had to rehearse it as much as possible,” Masterson said, “from the first rehearsal, so the actors [would be comfortable] working with all this stuff around them.” “We really had two rehearsals going on, simultaneously, from the first day.”

“One of the key questions,” Masterson continued, “was timing. How fast do these images move.” Their main concern was pulling focus away from the actors, and early on realized that, in general, the projected images should move very slowly.

The Banquo’s Ghost scene is a good example of the way multimedia was an integral part of this production of Macbeth. The actor playing Banquo stood in the pit (visible to the audience) and spoke his lines while a live video image of him was projected onto the large screen up center. The other actors in the scene reacted to his ghostly, projected image. “The audience could see everything going on,” said Czaja, “the wires and everything.” Masterson added, “This was a design decision early on. We didn’t want to hide the technology; we wanted the audience to see everything because that was part of the thematic idea.”

Gathering Inspiration
Some of the ideas that found their ways into Macbeth had been developed in a workshop with Squonk Opera in Pittsburgh and in the intensive workshop in Louisville. “We had played with the idea of using a video projector as a follow spot,” said Masterson, “projecting both recorded images and live images.” When the rehearsals with the actors began, several effects had been developed. “For instance,” Masterson continued, “I knew that in the soliloquies I wanted a live close-up of the actor’s face projected on his torso.”

Tony Oursler is a video artist who animates non-living objects with the use of projectors. Masterson had seen an Oursler installation where he projected a face on a blank doll head. This idea was incorporated into the way Macduff’s children were portrayed. Another artist who influenced Masterson was Bill Viola, who uses contemporary images—“the same world that my eyes see” he says—to reveal their latent metaphoric and symbolic state (Viola 2002). Masterson said that Viola’s work, especially a retrospective exhibit he saw at the Whitney Museum in New York, opened his eyes to the way video art “was not in a box. It could be in a theatrical space and could create an environment in many different ways.”

Fuchs said that in her work, the video image, which is animated, not still like a painted scene, changes the object onto which it is projected. It gives the object a spirit, or a spiritual quality.

Rhythm and Color
The animated quality of video can be a problem for directors though because it draws attention to itself. Masterson acknowledged that when you add new technology to a theatre production, it’s difficult to keep the focus on the story. “It’s easy,” he said, “for the event to be all about the technology.” “You need discipline to keep it about the actors and the audience. The technology should always serve the story.”