Sounds From The Studio

Report from Studio Z, Chicago USA by Dan Zellner

This report summarizes the recent work of Studio Z. It documents the productions efforts and draws conclusions concerning the use of digital technology in live theatre.

History of Studio Z

I founded Studio Z in 1992 following a workshop of one of my plays at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. The collaborative experience and the care that was taken in developing my work inspired me to start a play development group in Chicago for local writers -- Studio Z. The workshop would serve a dual purpose: develop new plays and provide an opportunity for theatre artists to get together, share ideas, thoughts, and resources. Through this exchange of ideas, Studio Z began to experiment with video: videotaping short scenes from plays and broadcasting them on local cable television. The result of these efforts was "The Z Festival", metropolitan Chicago's first playwriting festival on video. The festival was just one of many firsts for the organization; it defined Studio Z's approach of experimenting with technology and the art of theatre.

Scene from The Z Festival

Theatre work with the Internet was soon to follow. Studio Z initiated collaborations using the Internet as a means of communication. In 1993, a play exchange/development workshop was established via the Internet with the South Australian Writers' Theater (SAWT) based in Adelaide. These exchanges and other workshops were quite fulfilling but it felt like we could do much more with the technology. Inevitably, major advances in computers, the Internet, and projection techniques were achieved. As I continued to experiment with digital technology many questioned its usefulness for the theatre. Reactions to our work ranged from indifference to outright hostility -- even now it seems that there are still those in the theater community who feel somehow threatened by digital technology.

Ross Barrett's "Sherlock Holmes and the Coming of the Fairies"
One of the Australian plays featured in the Internet play workshops

Why use digital technology? The generation to which I belong and succeeding generations of artists live in a extremely media rich environment. Whether the stage is bare or uses digital technology this simple fact comes through in all the work. When I learned of theaters using digital technology for production I had to go visit and see this new work. As a writer, it promised the means to express stories that came to me in a way that mirrored my perception of the world: a method of perception shaped by the media of my time. It is important to mention, and maybe this is an obvious point, that the introduction of digital technology into the theatre art form is just one moment in a history of integration of new technologies into the theatre. I personally think that many theatre artists lose sight of this simple fact.


I visited the Institute for the Exploration of Virtual Realities (i.e.VR): a unit within the University Theatre and the Department of Theatre & Film at the University of Kansas. Its goal is to explore the use of virtual reality and other digital technologies. Lance Gharavi, one of the founders of i.e.VR, gave me an excellent tour of the Institute. I also saw the show "Machinal" - a production that incorporated computer generated 3D graphics and video. This visit, along with consultations with Mark Reaney (another member of the i.e.VR team), provided me with a considerable amount of information concerning what I've come to call Digital Theatre - a type of theatre that uses projection screens and computer generated elements with live actors. With this first hand experience and additional research I began looking into producing Digital Theatre in Chicago.

Project Team

Tim Portlock (Lead Designer), Joseph Kowalenko (Technology Coordinator), Kathryn Farley (Digital Theatre Artist/Scholar)

As with any theatre production, a team needed to be assembled in order to accomplish this ambitious effort. It is very important to mention that theatre production in the United States can be extremely difficult especially for small theatre companies such as Studio Z. Support for the arts in the United States has been at a much lower level than in Europe. Through many meetings, presentations, and concentrated networking the initial team was assembled. Notable among these efforts was a visit to the University of Illinois' Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) - one of the foremost real-time graphics labs in the United States. The dialogue with the students and faculty of EVL was quite enlightening. These conversations centered around the use of media and its relation to the user (audience). The Studio Z project team consisted of Kathryn Farley (Digital theatre Artist/Scholar), Joseph Kowalenko (Technology Coordinator) and Tim Portlock (a graduate student at the Electronic Visualization Lab).

Components of the rig constructed with aluminum extrusions courtesy of 80/20 inc.

The Rig

Projection plays a major role both at i.e.VR and the Electronic Visualization Lab. Both of these research centers use a system called Passive Stereo Projection. This method of projection involves the use of two projectors for one projection screen. Audience members wear polarized glasses that make the projected dual images appear three dimensional. Joseph Kowalenko, our technology coordinator took the lead in designing the carts and screens that would support our digital stage. Kowalenko's background in presentational graphics, manufacturing, and project management made him uniquely suited for the project. His company, Meticulous Ltd., played a major role in the completion of the what we came to call "The Rig." Kowalenko consulted very closely with the Electronic Visualization Laboratory benefiting from their extensive expertise in projection. Our rig currently consists of a portable cart built to carry the projectors and the computer and a rear projection screen that can be set up and taken down easily. We are currently developing a controller station and a lighting rack that will accompany the other elements of the rig. A considerable effort was put forth in securing all the needed materials and partners to get our stage constructed. The effort was far above your typical production. As the work proceeded it felt a lot more like movie production than theatre production. The objective of the rig is to create in essence a portable theater that can be set up in a variety of different spaces.



DuSable Scene Design by Tim Portlock



Scripts and Shows

The first project that Studio worked to develop was DuSable: a script that I had written for traditional stage production. The play tells the story of Chicago's first non-native settler Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable. Adapting it for a digital stage was fairly straightforward due to the script's multiple locations and highly presentational style. Meetings with designer Tim Portlock provided many new ideas and concepts concerning the use of the graphic elements and interactivity. Portlock's background in traditional fine arts and digital technology served the project well allowing references to be made that would cross the boundaries between computer science and art. Kathryn Farley provided feedback on the script and also developed Studio Z's second project Dracula - a new and compelling version of Bram Stoker's classic tale. Farley is currently a doctoral student in the Northwestern University Performance Studies department. She has considerable experience in theatre direction and work with integrating video into theatre production. The contrast between the two projects would provide a good way to illustrate different ways that media could support and work with performance.

While the two projects were conceived and scripts were being developed, a tremendous technical effort was put forth in order to present scenes from these shows. Tim Portlock, Kathryn Farley and I also developed rehearsal sets in order to better understand our stage and inform the development of the scripts. These rehearsal sets involved very basic geometric objects used for physical movement experiments and potential acting exercises. Concepts of different directional movement of objects and other scenic elements were used in order to get actors and the scene controller used to the new environment (stage). Major discoveries concerning the use of behind screen area were made and the need for further exploration of audio was clear. While considerable progress was also made concerning the relationship between the actors and the computer controller, there is plenty work to do in the area of onscreen interactive objects and characters


Theatre Artist Greg Winston working with rehearsal set

MOVIE - REHEARSAL SETS (Windows Media, 2 MB approx)

Our first showcase of DuSable featured primarily the technology. The showcase featured a three screen/three cart setup. Due to the long time it took to develop both the equipment and the concept of the scenery, there was little time to integrate actors. The scene from Dracula that was developed months later featured actors and some rehearsal but again, we encountered the same problem of time for integration of the technology. While both the DuSable and Dracula presentations were very important and captivating experiences, I did feel that we were encountering problems that occur very frequently in traditional theatre productions: lack of time to truly establish a sense of place (i.e. use the stage/performance space to its fullest). As an actor, I had many times been involved in productions where only in the final week did one get on the actual stage where the performance was to take place. The digital theatre if properly executed should be able to facilitate a rehearsal process in which scenic elements (and interactive digital characters/objects) can be involved from the very beginning.


Moment from improvisational session using Macromedia's Fireworks™

MOVIE - FIREWORKS™ SESSION (Windows Media - 4 MB approx)


The experience of working with a capable team and cultivating the support to carry on the work was extremely valuable. I have been able to come to a number of determinations concerning future direction of work that will make digital theatre viable in the Chicago theatre environment:

1. Balance
balance between theatre and digital technology needs to be in place so that one does not subordinate the other. Studio Z is currently working on a theatre production model that maintains this balance and can be easily used and replicated. Another area for future exploration is distribution. Since all the scenic elements are digital, can a variation of the live performance be transferred to the World Wide Web?

2. Drawing Tools/Scenic Tools
In our current work with various software packages I have seen a distinction between drawing tools and scenic tools. The drawing tools can be used both as a way for the computer operator to improvise and interact with actors and to sketch design concepts for scenes with actors in place. The Scenic Tools (3D modeling packages etc.) provide a more traditional function in which the designer works alone to create scenic and interactive elements that are later brought into rehearsal and adjusted. Naturally, as with all distinctions, there exists some overlap between the two tools sets and both techniques can be used for the same project.

3. Improvisation/Multimedia Dell' Arte
As I see it, the best professional mode for digital theatre production in Chicago is an Improvisational theatre model similar to Chicago's famous Second City: a well known home for improvisational theatre in the United States. The Second City model features short scenes/sketches in a review format. For digital theatre purposes this works well because of its modular nature. It is very difficult to secure modelers and other graphic designers for a long term theatre project: most theatre companies do not have the money to cover this expense. Graphic designers are more apt to commit the time for a short project. Additionally, this model will provide more theatre artists with an opportunity to work with the digital medium and perhaps this will result in a digital theatre community. Improvisation fits well with the interactive demands of digital media. Another related model that Studio Z will be investigating is a form of Commedia Dell' Arte that I call Multimedia Dell' Arte. This form would leverage many of the concepts of Commedia to create a similar style of theatre. Sets featuring recognizable Chicago scenes would be used along with a collection of stock characters familiar to Chicagoans. Development time could be saved because the fundamental theatre elements would already be established; this then would free the artists to develop "digital lazzi." In many ways we are going back to many of America's theatre traditions (i.e. Vaudeville).

4. A University Model

The University model will differ considerably from the professional model. A model for developing full length plays must be developed because the tendency within the university is toward production of the classics and other traditional theatre works. Studio Z will be investigating ways that university theatre departments can leverage existing technology and human resources to produce plays in this digital theatre style. It is important to note that many efforts in this area are already underway. In the past I perceived a hesitancy to investigate digital technology due to the tremendous overhead and support needed. It is important for theatre practitioners to know that there is a "middle way."

Fundamental to the future of digital theatre is a common platform for theatre artists. Once this is accomplished there will be a new community of performers, designers, directors, and writers that will be able to create works that will speak and relate to a new type of theatre audience.

The Author

Dan Zellner has produced numerous collaborative projects locally, nationally and internationally involving technology for communication and production. His background is in acting, playwriting, and the development of new plays. He is currently the interactive writer on Virtual Vaudeville: a Live Performance Simulation System funded by the National Science Foundation:

Publications include:
'Definitions and Directions of the Theatre', p.19-29, Stephen Schrum (ed.) Theatre in Cyberspace. New York: Peter Lang.


Kathryn Farley -

Joseph Kowalenko/Meticulous Ltd -

Timothy Portlock -

Studio Z -


i.eVR University of Kansas -