Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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actor being wrapped in lights
Top: Professor of Theatre and Drama George Pinney (left) watches as lights and electrical wire are wrapped around actor John Armstrong by Associate Professor of Theatre Technology Robert Bovard. Below: Armstrong is draped in multicolored lights and reflecting fabric.
Photo by Chris Meyer, University Communications

actor wrapped in lights
Photo by Chris Meyer, University Communications

Sets Alive

by Ryan Piurek

When I was a child, during the height of my parents' involvement in community theater, I would inevitably be dragged away from my Saturday morning cartoons to a local church or smoky town hall to help out on a task I dreaded: building the set. Sadly unable to tell the difference between a Phillips- or flat-head screwdriver, I'd prepare myself for a day of misery, full of rusty nails, shaggy carpet, wood planks, scalding hot lamps, tangled piles of electrical wires, and cans of paint, not to mention a design crew cut straight out of the movie Waiting for Guffman.

I often wished I could be off playing with my friends, but I had to admit a part of me admired the dedication and ingenuity of my fellow set-builders. I marveled at how they transformed some wood, splashes of paint, and cardboard tubes into a café in Paris, a New York City nightclub, or--in one of the most creative set pieces I can recall--the ‘best little whorehouse' ever to grace the Clinton (Conn.) Town Hall, which, come to think of it, may or may not have included a rubber chicken. (My policy when it came to my parents' community theater adventures was, "Don't ask. Don't tell.")

These long-forgotten memories flood my mind on a muggy summer evening as I sit in the living room of Indiana University theatre and drama professor George Pinney. With the sun setting across the Bloomington, Ind., sky, Pinney calls to order a meeting about his bold new project, Dance-scape. Pinney is a 2001 Tony Award nominee for the hit Broadway musical Blast! Seated across from me are award-winning composer/stage director Jonathan Vanderkolff and Robert Bovard, professor of stagecraft and head of theatre technology at IU Bloomington. Local artist and freelance costume designer Scott Jones will join the group later that evening.

Earlier, in his campus office, Pinney outlined his vision for Dance-scape, describing its potential to revolutionize the way theatrical sets are designed and viewed by audiences. The project will "push the boundaries of the symbiotic relationship between set design and choreography," he says, by using performers as the set's structural foundation, with wireless lighting technology and costumes wired for lighting effects. Dancers will interact with this "human set" in a contemporary dance piece about the theme of "man against metal, flesh and blood against profit, and the destruction of self-identity," Pinney says.

Just as in my community theater days, I'm out of my element again. Only now the discussion isn't centered on staple guns and screwdrivers, but on fiber optics, LEDs (light emitting diodes), lamps, sockets, batteries, wireless microphones, and polyurethane foam, all of which can be strapped to actors' bodies as they move.

Several fat books sit on a jagged stone coffee table in front of us, serving as resources for Pinney and his fellow Dance-scapers as they brainstorm. There's a large book about Wagner's epic Ring Cycle, a grand opera production frequently accompanied by vibrant lighting, lasers, and video effects. One book documents Cirque du Soleil's Varekai, a high-energy dance and acrobatic performance featuring spectacular lighting, dreamlike music, and extravagant, otherworldly costumes. As I thumb through the books, I get the distinct impression that Pinney will summon any type of technology to achieve his artistic vision. When someone mentions using a "star" curtain, Pinney's eyes light up. "I think that'd be really cool," he says. His mind racing, he adds, "Or what about those little globes with static electricity?"

Dance-scape will culminate in a 15-minute concert and dance piece that will premiere at the IU Faculty Contemporary Dance Concert in January 2007. Pinney swears me to secrecy about specifics, but the play promises to be futuristic, abstract, spiritual--in the director's words, "beyond fantasy." Bright light--lots of it--as well as new paint techniques and fabric shaping will come together in ways that will challenge audiences' imaginations.

Pinney intends to create an "experience," and he doesn't mean the word lightly. He's not interested in the $8.50 movie-theater experience where audiences are bombarded with dazzling special effects but aren't moved emotionally. Talking through how to stage a possible fight sequence between two main characters, Pinney urges his collaborators to think expansively. "When they hit each other, I want something to happen. Like when you throw a rock in the water. But I don't want them to look like light sabers!

"That's what's wrong with Broadway right now," Pinney adds. "They're creating theme park rides that don't have a lot to do with the human condition. You can use [new technology] wisely and tie it to the human condition, or you can just smash up the theater."

Pinney has had the vision to create an "organic human set" for several years now. While choreographing Blast!, he began toying with various wireless technology and lighting tools. As he explored the available technologies, he became increasingly interested in illuminating, literally, the ways in which the human form can give new life to theatrical sets. His fascination with the human body and voice and his desire to incorporate them into the actual set design led him to formulate the basis for Dance-scape.

Dance-scape is funded in part by IU's New Frontiers in Arts and Humanities program. In his grant proposal, Pinney writes, "The human form in all of its glorious ability to move in an infinite amount of ways will give the set a life that inert wood and metal cannot." The set, he says, will be "closer to a living, breathing character than an inert platform and drop."

For Dance-scape to work on a physical and emotional level, the human body and voice need to be seamlessly integrated into the set, but not restricted in what they can do. "The key is wireless," Pinney says. "We want to open up a door for set pieces that can be very kinetic." As he envisions it, the sets themselves will be attached to the performers' bodies, so that when the performers move an arm or a leg or kneel down, for example, the audience is transported to a new destination. Technical guru Robert Bovard will supervise the wiring of performers with battery-powered lights. This will give performers total freedom of movement, while providing Pinney with additional characters.

"I've always tended to work with the set as a character," Pinney says. "Now, without the restrictions of cable, the sets can move just like the dancers. Light itself becomes a character. Just as I'd cast a human being, I'm casting light as a character."

Pinney says the essence of his work is revealing the truth. And light, at least metaphorically, is the ultimate revealer. Light is also closely related to time and space. As part of Dance-scape, Pinney will examine how light can be used to illustrate time passing or emphasize key moments in life.

Imagine, he says, a scene with a man standing in the middle of a crowded New York City subway station. The man sees a pretty woman getting into one of the trains. Suddenly, he has a choice. Does he go home to his wife? Or does he follow the alluring stranger? While the other subway riders scurry to their various destinations, he ponders this potentially life-altering decision. In real life, this event would be over in a matter of seconds. If he were to stage this event, though, Pinney could use new technologies to dramatically highlight this brief moment in time and convey the emotions of the undecided man. Using the Dance-scape model, Pinney might choose to outfit the other subway riders in costumes ribbed with livewire lights, which would be controlled through a computerized lighting board. The effect would create a kinetic quality around the motionless man whose critical choice could change his life forever.

The naked voice, too, can reveal much about human nature, Pinney says. Working with composer Jonathan Vanderkolff, whose credits include stage director of the Broadway production of Blast!, he hopes to create an original score that explores the human voice and the potential for many different sounds. The composition, to be sung primarily a cappella with some backing tracks, may feature aspects of Malayan chants, African tribal sounds, or Korean ritual songs. Costume designer Scott Jones will construct masks, like those used in ancient Greek theater, to further enhance the singers' voices. "The naked voice goes to the heart of who we are," Pinney says. "It's part of the organic approach we're taking."

When Jones arrives at the meeting with masks, moldings, and Medusa-like headpieces, or Bovard reaches into his duffle bag and pulls out a fluorescent glow stick, it's clear that theatrical set design has entered a new realm. And Pinney acknowledges that their approach to set building is novel. "The technology has been around for a while, but the application of it to the absolute extreme we're taking it is very new."

This newness--as well as the unique collaboration taking place between composer, set/costume designer, and choreographer--has Pinney and his team most excited about Dance-scape. "We've all worked with these things, but we're coming from different areas," says Jones. "I may not know a thing about lighting, but I know a lot about costumes, and now we're bringing those experiences together."

As the meeting ends, I begin to wonder. When set design goes wireless, what will happen to those old works of wood and metal? What will become of my former set-design colleagues when the actors are plugged in, taking the place of wood and metal to actually become the scenery? Have we turned the corner on the days of nails, thumbtacks, and glue?

Maybe. If Dance-scape catches on, it could become a model for future theatrical performances that thrill, excite, and provide audiences with fresh ways of seeing, feeling, and believing. One thing is certain. In terms of set design today, everything goes. "I tend to be pretty inclusive in creating things like this," Pinney says. "What it falls down to is, we're opening up choices. We're looking at the different resources and building our tool box."

And he's not talking screwdrivers anymore.