CMU crew works with high-tech 'toy' - Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, November 18, 2010

CMU crew works with high-tech 'toy'

Oberon rises from beneath the stage and Puck drops through an abstract tree trunk to meet him, both in fluid motion, and Puck announces, "My mistress with a monster is in love."

It's a rehearsal for the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and when you think CMU, you're apt to think actors, like Daniel Weschler's Oberon and Ben Ferguson's Puck, or singers, composers, directors ... but this is, after all, a school that once was called Carnegie Tech, so training students in behind-the-scenes, state-of-the-art technology is a natural fit.

That's where that up and down comes into play.

For about 18 months and now three productions, the technology known as the Navigator has been employed in a CMU production, this time to traverse the dreamscape of Shakespeare's comedy.

"Navigator is a technical program that helps move people, scenery and machinery around the stage," explains Peter Cooke, head of the CMU School of Drama. "The reason we introduced it is it's in use everywhere, on Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, big theatrical productions, and we thought it was very valuable for our students to learn this technology ... and we're one of the few schools to have this sophisticated level of technology in the automation on stage."


"You can write your own rules with it," explained Kevin Hines, assistant teaching professor of production technology and management.

He said the next phase for CMU is getting equipment to build its own version of Navigator, a skill set with obvious real-world applications for students.

Mr. Hines and third-year MFA candidate James Southworth led the way down beneath the stage to the unassuming Navigator, a computer tower interfaced with a laptop, set alongside small monitors that show the programmer what's happening onstage.

"It's at least a generation ahead of all the competing technologies in that the front end of this software is capable of translating three-dimensional motion of scenery into what that scenery actually has to do. ... You write a cue into the computer and the cue would repeat itself flawlessy each time."

Mr. Southworth was like a kid in a candy store with this equipment, explaining how he created a chandelier of about 40 pounds and played with moving it in an enclosed space, stopping it on a dime in any direction. When it was suggested that this technology could be employed with the cameras that hover over the field during NFL games, Mr. Southworth scoffed at the thought.

"Give me something hard to do," he said.

The CMU production of "Midsummer" features a modern set designed by Anne Mundell, associate professor of scene design, and music by MFA candidate Erik Lawson.

Don Wadsworth, professor of voice and speech, directs the play Nov. 18 through 20 and Nov. 30 through Dec. 4.

"We're two days from an audience, so we're just about there," Mr. Wadsworth said on Tuesday. He's eager for reaction from a filled CMU's Philip Chosky Theatre because he's done a few trims to Shakepeare's work to emphasize the dream sequence.

"We didn't mangle him too much; I did cut repetitive things. The whole idea of this concept is that it's a dream and so I didn't want to put an intermission in the middle of a dream ... so we cut it down to 100 minutes."

He compared the Navigator's capability to "spectacular movie effects." Before a system like this, realizing a director's or a designer's vision would require the building of a practical set. Now, a 3D model can be translated and transported digitally for scrutiny.

"Anything that've seen that can be moved in the theater can be moved with this equipment," Mr. Hines said. "They conceive it; we achieve it."


Article Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette