This blog series offers a multi-disciplinary approach to achieve the best practices for collaboration in the creative and production process of incorporating digital media into live performance. 

The more I know the less I understand. Full disclosure: I am classically trained as a theatre director from Carnegie Mellon Drama. In addition to being artistic director of my own theatre during my early twenties, I also spent more then a decade as an independent filmmaker. All these positions consider how to approach storytelling. When I was applying to graduate schools for media design, a respected, now colleague of mine rejected me from a very prestigious graduate program—she thought I was more of a director than a designer. I carried on and earned a MFA from Arizona State University and became a media and systems designer anyway, but I think in many ways she was right. I have the mindset of a director meaning I fully envision the total approach to telling the story, rather then just focusing on my area of design expertise. (I actually think this makes me a stronger designer, but who am I to say.)

The more compelling ways digital media in live performance weaves technology, systems, and design into the DNA of storytelling, the more it dramaturgically links them to the very core of meaning making. The true potential that media design offers the theatre are new methods linking the ancient art form with current digital technologies, such as augmented reality, virtual reality, telepresence, intelligent-responsive performing environments, etc. These realities are commonplace, or will be very shortly, in modern audiences daily lives. When incorporating digital media into live performance, it is not only incumbent that the media designer, but also the collaborators on the project consider the entire approach—what is commonly referred to as the director’s vision.

Digital media can do just about anything—anything that money and/or time can buy and we can envision.

And this leads me to what I don't understand, even though I know a lot more now then when I started on my journey to becoming a media designer. Even though the use of digital media of all kinds, most notably projections, is on the rise there seems to be minimal responsibility taken for how to meaningfully incorporate it into the very core of meaning by many directors.

Why is this?

I often find myself working with directors who are using digital media for the very first time in their productions. Directors don’t have enough, if any training, experience, or understanding of what digital media actually is and can do, let alone how to use it effectively in a stage production. This is an institutional problem that hopefully theatre programs that train twenty-first century directors will begin to address. In the meantime, how can a director better learn how to use and think about digital media within the theatrical world? How can you educate yourself before you are actually directing a show that is going to incorporate digital media?

First of all, you have to be prepared to spend time learning. In most cases you are the project’s leader. If you want to use digital media, you need to do the legwork and prepare yourself with the theories and practices of the tools your team will use. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Take some classes in video production, animation, game theory, digital media production, media theory, photography, etc.
  2. Read books and articles on the theory and production of the above topics.
  3. Read a few books and articles on the theories and practices of incorporating digital media into live performance.

Why is it important for you to take classes and/or read books on the subject? For the same reasons we had to take lighting design as undergrad directors—it is about learning the theories and languages that digital media use to tell stories. As a director, you are not a seamstress, but you know how to talk with the costume designer about hemlines and silhouettes. You need to be able to have similar conversations about animations, camera angles, color intensity, and more with your media designer. These conversations are important to the process and help create a better end result. You need to be able to think in the languages of the various media you are using to help craft your vision. Ultimately, it is up to you to lead a team with a compelling vision of how to use digital media in a meaningful way, or at least in a successful scenic approach. Or you need to realize that you are not in a position to do so, and share the control of the vision with your team.

an actress in front of an illustrated backdrop
Example of considered staging of live performers and projected characters in Wonder Dome's Leo the GEO-desic-Dome. Performers pictured: Julie Rada, Aubrey Grace Watkins, Alex Oliver and Jenny Strickland. Photo by Daniel Fine.

I've heard directors’ debate for hours about things such as whether a blue ceramic coffee mug is right for Miss Julie to “pretend drink” from. Yet, I haven’t often encountered the same amount of directorial consideration about digital content. It seems that some directors are complacent with a designer throwing up almost anything semi-related to the moment on a giant white screen upstage. (A giant white screen upstage? Is that the most considered choice for the world of the play?) It comes down to the director really considering the meaning behind the choices of all aspects of digital media design, including content, how content is displayed, real-time vs. rendered content, style, aesthetic, and how the design will be interacted with by the live performers.

The director must fully consider why there is digital media in the production. The director must be able to answer this fundamental question of “why?” There are many legitimate reasons, such as:

  • We can travel anywhere in time and space and that isn’t possible any other way
  • The best way to tell this story is by incorporating audience Twitter responses
  • It is my aesthetic and approach to making art

Less valid reasons, and perhaps why there is so much less-then-inspired use of digital media in live performance, are: everyone else is doing it and you want to be a cool kid too, or because you think it is so pretty. The answer to the question of why is the basic building block that determines if your production will successfully integrate digital media or not. If you can't answer the question of why you have media for each specific moment, then you don’t need it. Believe me: your budget and schedule will thank you for not including it, and you will more than likely have a more successful production in terms of a unified design approach and aesthetic.

Directors spend a great deal of time staging the production, yet often very little time thinking about how to incorporate the digital image into the full stage picture. In my opinion, it is part of the director’s job to also stage the media. The director needs to think about such things as:

  • From what side of the frame and where on stage should an animation begin?
  • Where the actor onstage is going to stand in relation to the projected image and how the two will interact.
  • What the interaction between mediated element and live element means or signifies. How does it help tell the story? What does it mean to an audience?

I’ve worked with directors who, for various reasons, cede the control of some, or all of the above to the media designer. This is a valid way of working. The director just needs to make an informed choice that she is doing so, rather than not giving time to considering it at all.

sketches and notes on a page
Example of director's blocking ground plan for staging live performers and
projected characters/elements for Wonder Dome's Leo the GEO-desic-Dome.
Created by Daniel Fine.

If you know you want to use media design, hire a media designer as early as possible, even before any other designer. Remember that media can be a character and shape a story in interactive ways akin to performers. So if you want to do something other than digital scenography, it is best to have these conversations often and early so that you can work as a team to come up with a vision that truly integrates media into the story. Hire a designer before you lock in any concepts. Work with her to explore the ways media can be used within your timeframe, budget, and personnel skills.

If you are new to using digital media, consider directing a smaller production where the stakes are low. Give yourself the freedom to experiment with ideas and various uses of technology. Along with your new education, more time and consideration, it is vital that you experiment to see how it all works in an atmosphere where it is OK to fail. It is in experimentation that the true work will happen and everything else will begin to gel.