I’m Robyn Torregrosa, an Electrical Engineering student from Brown College with a background in Theater Design, Theater Technology and Human-Centered Design. I was drawn to the field of electrical engineering because (among other things) one professor described it as “practically magic.” I am fascinated in the intersection between electrical engineering, design and the arts.
This summer I had the honor to travel to London on a Bybee Travel Fellowship for the opportunity to attend professional workshops, go on backstage tours of professional theaters and opera houses, attend West End shows and explore small fringe theater offerings. I packed my itinerary with a variety of experiences to explore how electrical engineering innovations lighting, rigging and special effects features make a director’s vision come to life on stage. Here are just a few of the highlights:
One of the most unique experiences of the trip was the Digital Storytelling Workshop run by the National Theatre’s Immersive Storytelling Studio. For those who don’t know, the National Theatre is the most prominent publicly funded theatre venue in the UK. In addition to the variety of classic and contemporary productions staged year-round, the National is dedicated to education. During this particular workshop, I learned about various innovative National Theatre projects which utilize technology such as 360 video capture, virtual reality, augmented reality and facial recognition software. The workshop, intended for those ages 16-25, had attendees who came from a variety of backgrounds: film, acting, architecture, computer science, art, lighting design and more. It was incredibly insightful to see how other students could see this technology’s potential in each field and in theater.
This branch of theater is beginning to toe the line between live theater and recorded content. For instance, one project from the studio Draw Me Close paired a VR headset streaming an animated virtual world with tactile experience. The piece, which appeared at Tribeca Film Festival, immerses an audience member in the story with the use of an HTC Vive VR headset. The audience member steps into a physical set and its virtual counterpart to become Jordan, a five-year-old boy. Jordan’s mother is played by an actor wearing Orion motion capture gear. Her motions in the physical world are mirrored by her illustrated character in the virtual world.
The most important takeaway from the workshop is that all of this technology is used as an aid for storytelling rather than as the art itself. The Immersive Storytelling Studio is only interested in using a piece of technology if it enhances the way an audience experiences a story. Each new piece of hardware or design tool has to “earn its place” for it to be used.
A photo of me trying on a VR headset to see a clip related to wonder.land, a musical inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the VR experience, the Chesire Cat floats around and sings to you in a psychedelic garden.
Later that week, I went back to the National Theatre to see how set and lighting designers work with the Immersive Storytelling Studio to translate VR worlds into something a whole audience can experience. Ugly Lies the Bone is a play about a young combat veteran, Jess, who uses VR therapy to treat pain from injuries sustained during her tours in Afghanistan. Basically, this is the perfect play and perfect setting to learn more about how designers incorporate emerging technology.
The internationally renowned set designer, Es Devlin (who counts the London Olympics’ Closing Ceremony and the set for Beyonce’s Formation World Tour among her many credits!) created a bowl-shaped set which mimics the user’s view in a VR headset. The surface of the bowl is populated by a 3-D bird’s-eye-view map of Jess’ hometown. During the scenes where Jess puts on her VR headset, the virtual world is projected onto the set, enabling the audience to simultaneously see Jess inside her real and virtual worlds. In these moments I could see how the designers worked to change technology that could be at times isolating into something an audience can experience together. In this way, the technology drove the designer to find a new way of visualizing a character’s emotion.
Here is a promotional photo for Ugly Lies the Bone (as an audience member, I was not allowed to take photos of the set). In the foreground, Kacie uses a VR headset. In the background, a map is projection mapped onto to the bowl-shaped set. Photo by Mark Douet
Later that week, I went to see the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on the West End. This play, adapted from the bestselling novel by the same name features a similar approach to displaying a character’s inner thoughts for an audience to see. In Curious, the projection was integrated more fully into the play itself as a main driver of scenic change rather than in a few moments as in Ugly Lies the Bone. At first the set appears sparse, but throughout the course of the play it reveals a highly programmable LED coordinate system and motorized elements which reveal other set configurations. The programmable lighting fixtures and digital projector above the stage were cued to parcel out different locations. While Ugly Lies the Bone used digital projection and projection mapping technology to simulate virtual space, the same engineering solution was used to give the characters in Curious a physical reality.
I was able to get a ticket to one of the final performances of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a play that features innovation in set and lighting design (winning Olivier Awards for Set Design and Lighting Design). I also was able to attend the Farewell to the West End, a panel discussion with the original author, Mark Haddon, director, Marianne Elliot and set designer, Bunnie Christie.
At the end of the week I was able to snag tickets to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on stage at the Palace Theatre. Potter fans may know the show as the latest installment of the franchise, and theater buffs know this show for winning a record 9 Olivier Awards including Best Lighting, Sound, Set, and Costume Design. I loved seeing how the play incorporates both classic “stage magic” (stage revolves, trapdoors, projections, flight harnesses) and magic tricks in unexpected ways to bring the wizarding world to life.
There were distinct moments where I could hear the audience actually say “wow” in unison. One example of this is in a scene where characters use a time-turner, a magical time-travel device. To create this effect, the magic and illusions designer, Jamie Harrison, combines a magician’s classic “floating ball” illusion with the impact of a stage-sized projection. The projection is mapped onto the set, making it appear as though the walls are melting and transforming before our eyes. Here, the digital projection technology enhances the audience’s experience befitting of this magical world- true theater magic! Another piece of technology is the rigging used in the theater. The play takes advantage of its tall ceilings by rigging actors and motorized puppets which swoop down to travel over the audience. A complex automated program ensures these tricks can be performed safely night after night.
One of the main reasons I chose to travel to London was to see the wealth of Shakespeare that is performed in and around London every summer. Shakespeare’s plays are rife with opportunity for special effects and theatrical engineering. Scenes jump between locations, times of day and even between reality and dream states. There are witches, ghosts, tyrants, fairies, battles, incantations, shipwrecks and storms. Originally, Shakespeare’s productions featured sparse scenery and did little to mask actors’ entrances and exits, relying on the audience’s imagination to fill in the rest. Now, productions can be as groomed as a scene in a movie, with programmed lighting and automated scenery. Directors can now use technology to simulate the magic woven into Shakespeare’s plays.
Early this year, Intel teamed up with the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Imaginarium Studios to bring motion capture effects once solely reserved for post-production CGI in feature films to the live stage in Shakespeare’s hometown. This use of ground-breaking digital technology in The Tempest marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and illustrates how emerging electrical engineering technology enhances beloved pieces of history.
Of course, at the top of my must-see list was a play at site of the Globe Theater. One of the challenges of lighting this theater is that the theater is open to the air. When I went to see an evening performance of Twelfth Night. There are many lighting challenges to this play:
1. Inconsistent light due to weather conditions (fortunately I went on a night without rain, but the show must go on rain or shine!)
2. The waning light as the sun sets
3. Lighting a stage which must be viewed from 3 sides
4. Lighting a stage where the audience is both high (the theater has 3 balcony tiers) and low (just as in Shakepeare’s time, the Globe sells“groundling” tickets to audience members who stand for the duration of the performance looking up at the stage).
Some of these challenges were solved in the spirit of early lighting technology, like using multiple lighting fixtures from different vantage points to reach all the areas of the stage as well as utilizing reflective costume pieces and props (sequins, confetti, a disco ball) which allow a designer to make use of low-light situations. On the electrical engineering side, designers can utilize modern fixtures with cued paths to follow to ensure an actor is lit for an entire scene as well as program a fixture to adjust its light intensity to account for a setting sun.
A view of the stage in the Globe Theater prior to the show and with different cues. Notice the “groundling” audience members, the tiered seating and thatched roof. The theater was built as a replica to the stage as it stood during Shakespeare’s time.
Experiences during my travels allowed me to see everything from the ETC lighting consoles used for programming lighting schemes to the motorized rigging mechanisms which raise immense set pieces. In looking at theater productions from both the audience and engineering perspective, I am able to see how all the technology, operators and supervisors are configured to make sure the majority goes unseen. Electrical engineering technology in the form of followspots, projection mapping, programmable LED lighting and scenic automation systems played a huge role in bringing each experience to life like never before. Overall, the travel fellowship allowed me to attend workshops, backstage tours and shows that enabled me to experience the intersection of electrical engineering innovation and theatrical effects. I am incredibly grateful to all of the people who have made this experience possible and strive to encourage others to study the intersection of the arts and engineering.
To learn more about study abroad at Rice, click here.
Robyn Torregrosa is a junior ELEC major with a background in Theater Design. She participates in research through the ECE department's PHAST VIP program under Professor Joseph Cavallaro. Robyn is a member of the Rice IEEE student chapter, a mechanic at Rice Bikes, and the External Vice President of Brown College.