Post by Peter Torpey, M.I.T. Media Laboratory
Over the past three years, I’ve played several roles throughout the production of Death and the Powers, working closely with Tod Machover and Alex McDowell to figure out what is necessary and possible to present the story of Simon Powers. From thinking about how to tell the story, to visualizing how all of the disparate elements would look like onstage, to designing and writing the software systems that bring the show to life, my involvement in this project has been exhilarating and challenging.
In the story, Simon must come alive in The System as the environment. I’m very interested in the process of mapping expressive and meaningful representations across media and researched approaches to taking a live performance, abstracting it away from the human body, and re-embodying it in a completely non-anthropomorphic form. The goal is to preserve the quality and intent of what the actor does naturally in order to create a compelling performance in whatever form the character takes. We call the resulting approach Disembodied Performance.
The Disembodied Performance System for the opera is comprised of two software components. The first is a real-time mapping and analysis system that I wrote as part of my master’s thesis. It was created to allow any input to control any output, be it the visuals, robots, Chandelier, theatrical lighting, and so on. Originally part of my plan for a unified show control system, the mapping system still serves as the cornerstone for turning Jim Maddalena’s performance into the visual representation of The System.
The second software component I’ve developed for the Disembodied Performance System is both a rendering system and a design environment that translates the performance data from the mapping system into the visuals. It’s a unique piece of software that acts something like a combination of video compositing software and a lighting board.
I work with Elly Jessop to create the appropriate mappings for a given visual look and consult closely with Alex and Diane Paulus during rehearsals to shape the overall look and response of the set as the opera unfolds. It is important that these systems be flexible and robust so that changes can be implemented on the fly. During the actual show, I mix the visuals, subtly shaping how the performance data influences what is seen onstage so that Jim Maddalena’s performance and intent always come through.
My work on the opera has drawn from nearly every skill set in my arsenal to conjure up both the actual systems and aesthetic language that represent The System. Having experience in both film and theater also allows me to function as a bridge where the two worlds meet in this project, combining practices from both domains to create something revolutionary onstage. In Death and the Powers, we’re rethinking what it means to have technology as a part of production design in the theater. With these new techniques, what can we do onstage that we couldn’t have done before using traditional practices? How can these innovations be used to better tell stories?