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October 3, 2023 rebekah@sharpshellsolutions.com

Tech and the Theatre:

You Don’t Have to Be an Actor to Be a Star!

Explore the evolution of tech in theatre, from ancient practices to CGI and 3D printing. Discover how tech helps today’s productions shine.


A brief history of Tech in Theatre: From Early Beginnings to Today’s Technology 

 The world of theatre has been a transformative space for storytelling, creativity, and human expression for millennia. Over the centuries, as technology has evolved, so too has the world of theatre, integrating new innovations to elevate the art form. Today’s blog post will take you on a journey through the history of technology in theatre from primitive beginnings to the cutting-edge tech of today.  The William Daniel Mills Theatre Company encourages those whose talents are based firmly in the tech fields to participate in theatre productions, give flight to imagination, and further the integration of art and technology. 

The Humble Beginnings  

The origins of theatre date back to ancient civilizations; orienting open-air theaters east to west, Greeks and Romans used the power of natural sunlight to light the stage in the afternoons while sparing patrons in the orchestra section from the heat.  Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre continued this tradition as it had only a partial roof with the center uncovered allowing natural sunlight to illuminate the stage.  The Greeks used simple machines like the “deus ex machina” – a crane mechanism – to hoist actors or props, creating a sense of divine intervention or supernatural occurrences.  Masks, rudimentary costumes, and basic props helped actors distinguish their roles. While technology was minimal, creativity was boundless. 

The Renaissance and Beyond: Tech Takes the Stage 

With the advent of the Renaissance, indoor theaters became more popular, bringing with them the need for artificial lighting. Candles and oil lamps, managed by “lamp trimmers”, were used to illuminate stages, but they also brought risks, with many theatres succumbing to fires.   

By the 19th century, gas lighting became prevalent. This not only reduced fire hazards but allowed for dimming effects. Later, the invention of the limelight, which used a combination of oxygen and hydrogen to create a bright, focused light, changed the way performances were highlighted. 

Enter the 20th Century: Electric Dreams 

The introduction of electricity revolutionized theatre tech. Electric bulbs replaced candles and gas, leading to the development of spotlighting, movable lighting that could follow actors as they moved across the stage, colored lighting using gels, and more complex lighting grids. 

Sound technology also made its mark. The introduction of microphones and amplification systems meant actors no longer needed to project their voices as forcefully, allowing for more nuanced performances. 

Digital Age: Theatre in the Time of Computers 

The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw theatre embracing digital technology. Computerized lighting boards, digital sound systems, programmable rigging, and other machinery transformed the way productions were staged. 

Projections became an integral part of many performances, with high-resolution projectors capable of displaying intricate backdrops or dynamic scenes that could change in real-time. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) began to find their place in experimental theatre setups, providing immersive experiences for audiences. 

Today and beyond: A Seamless Blend of Art and Tech 

Modern theatre is a testament to the harmonious fusion of art and technology. Advanced sound systems deliver crystal clear acoustics, while LED screens offer vibrant backdrops. Automation allows for intricate set and lighting movements, while wireless sound tech ensures actors can move freely without being encumbered by wires. 

As we look ahead, the possibilities are boundless. With advancements in holographic projections, laser lighting innovations, AI-driven performances, and immersive AR/VR experiences, theatre could be a realm where the line between actor and audience through technology blurs completely. These technology advancements expand the possibilities of what is possible in today and tomorrow’s theatre productions. 

Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI)  

The use of Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) in theatre has transformed the way productions are staged, offering creative possibilities that were once thought impossible. While the film industry has been using CGI for decades, theatre has traditionally relied on practical effects, sets, and costumes to create its magic. However, with advancements in technology, CGI is now playing a pivotal role in the world of live performance. Here’s how: 

  • Dynamic Backdrops and Scenery 

  • Instead of using static backdrops or physical sets, some productions utilize large projection screens or LED walls to display CGI-created environments. This allows for dynamic scene changes, transitioning from one locale to another seamlessly, or even creating moving, interactive backgrounds. 
  • Interactive Performances 

  • CGI can be combined with real-time motion capture to create interactive performances. For instance, an actor’s movements can be captured and used to control a CGI character on a screen in real-time, allowing for interactions between live actors and virtual characters. 
  • Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) 

  • While AR and VR are not strictly CGI, they often incorporate CGI elements. For example, using AR glasses, an audience might see CGI effects overlaid on the live action, enhancing the theatrical experience. Some experimental theatres have started exploring VR, where entire performances might occur in a CGI environment. 
  • Special Effects 

  • Traditionally, theatre relied on practical effects for moments of magic, be it trap doors or wirework rigging. With CGI, effects like characters transformations, people and objects flying, or magic spells can be realized on stage. When combined with practical effects, the results can be breathtaking. 
  • Enhanced Storytelling 

  • CGI allows for a broader palette of storytelling tools. Fantasy and science fiction themes, which might have been challenging to stage convincingly using traditional methods, can be brought to life with the help of CGI, creating worlds and characters that captivate the audience. 
  • Cost-Efficiency 

  • While the initial setup for CGI can be costly, in the long run, it might be more economical than building large, intricate sets, especially for productions that run for a limited time or tour various locations. 
  • Challenges and Criticisms: 

While CGI offers numerous benefits, it’s not without challenges: 

  • Technical Issues:

  • Like any technology, CGI can fail. A malfunction during a live performance can be disruptive. 
  • Authenticity:

  • Some purists argue that over-reliance on CGI takes away from the raw authenticity of theatre, making it more like a film. 
  • Cost:

  • High-quality CGI and the necessary equipment can be expensive, potentially excluding smaller theatre companies from using it. 

The incorporation of CGI into theatre productions is a testament to the nature of theatre to adapt and evolve. While it’s essential to strike a balance to ensure the essence of live performance isn’t lost, when used judiciously, CGI can elevate a production, creating unforgettable experiences for the audience. 

3D Printing  

The use of 3D printing in today’s theatre is an exciting development, merging the worlds of technology and performing arts in innovative ways. As 3D printing becomes more accessible and affordable, theatre companies of all sizes are exploring its vast potential. Here’s a look at how 3D printing is making its mark on the contemporary stage: 

  • Set Design and Construction: 

  • Intricate Pieces: Designers can create intricate set pieces that would be difficult, time-consuming, or costly to produce using traditional methods. This is especially useful for period pieces or fantasy settings that require unique, non-standard items. 
  • Modular Sets: 3D printing allows for the creation of modular set pieces. Multiple parts can be printed and then assembled on stage, offering flexibility in set design and storage. 
  • Costume Design: 

  • Accessories and Jewelry: Designers can produce custom accessories, like crowns, jewelry, or buttons, tailored to fit a particular character or theme.  Period pieces can be replicated inexpensively to resemble an historic original for added authenticity. 
  • Custom Fittings: Using body scans, costume pieces can be 3D printed to fit actors perfectly. This is especially beneficial for costumes that need to be form-fitting or have complex structures. 
  • Flexible Materials: With the availability of different printing materials, designers can create flexible costume elements, such as wings or armor, that move naturally with the actor. 
  • Props: 

  • Tailored Props: Need a specific wand for a wizard or a unique gadget for a science fiction play? 3D printing allows prop masters to design and create specialized props to fit the needs of a particular production. 
  • Durable & Lightweight: 3D-printed props can be durable, lightweight, and easily replaceable which is beneficial for props that need to be used frequently, carried around the stage and may suffer wear and tear or breakage. 
  • Mask and Puppetry: 

  • Custom Masks: Masks can be 3D printed to fit an actor’s face perfectly ensuring comfort, visibility, and the ability to speak or sing without facial movements being inhibited. Creating custom masks also cuts down on time in a makeup chair affixing prosthetics that would normally take hours to apply.  This also allows actors to make quicker character changes in instances where the character goes through some kind of transformation throughout the production. 
  • Puppet Parts: Puppet designers can 3D print specific parts, allowing for greater detail and customization in their creations. 
  • Special Effects: 

  • Mechanisms: 3D printing can be used to create mechanisms for special effects, like moving set pieces or items that need to be “broken” on stage repeatedly. 
  • Interactive Elements: With the integration of electronics, 3D-printed elements can have interactive features, like lighting up or making sounds, enhancing the theatrical experience. 
  • Education and Workshops: 

  • Model Sets: In educational settings, students can design and print miniature set models, aiding in the visualization and planning of a production at scale. 
  • Hands-On Learning: Workshops can introduce participants to both theatre and 3D printing, teaching them to think innovatively about design and production. 
  • Challenges: 

While 3D printing offers numerous advantages, it also presents challenges: 

  • Time Consumption: Larger pieces can take a significant amount of time to print. 
  • Material Limitations: While there’s a variety of printing materials available, there are still limitations regarding flexibility, durability, and finish. 
  • Initial Costs: The upfront costs of good quality 3D printers can be high, although this can be offset by the savings and flexibility they offer in the long run. 

The addition of 3D printing in theatre represents a frontier of possibilities, bridging technological advances with artistic creation. As technology continues to evolve, its role in theatre will undoubtedly expand, offering even more exciting opportunities for innovation and creativity. 

Beyond LIVE: 

Live streaming capabilities have also transformed the reach of theatre, making it accessible to audiences worldwide. During global events like the COVID-19 pandemic, many theatre companies turned to streaming platforms to continue their craft, taking the theatre experience to audiences in their homes. 

Moreover, theatre tech now extends beyond the stage. Mobile apps for ticket bookings, interactive audience engagement tools, and virtual theatre tours are enhancing the overall theatre-going experience. 

At its core, theatre remains a medium of storytelling, emotion, and human connection. No matter how advanced our tech becomes, the heart of theatre – its ability to touch souls, provoke thought, and inspire change – will remain timeless.  Tech has become an integral part of that storytelling process.  Those interested in technology and innovation as it applies to theatre are always welcome to explore the possibilities at the William Daniels Theatre Company.   

The William Daniel Mills Theatre Company encourages the advancement of the arts in all areas of theatre production including technology.  To support the William Daniel Mills Theatre Company, please follow this link:  DONATE 

The Daniel Mills Apprentice program is dedicated to providing students the opportunity to “earn while they learn” from locally and nationally recognized professional theater artists. The program offers free training to exceptionally talented young adults along with PAID work on stage and backstage while collaborating with established professionals. 

Apprentices have the opportunity to work within Orlando Shakes, Rollins College, Orlando Fringe, and Weathervane Theatre (RI) in the areas of performance, directing, theatre design, technical theatre, education, and more. 

Please stay tuned for information on upcoming shows! 

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