It can be argued that theatres and stage performances have always, to some extent, employed the latest technologies of the time. Mechanical devices, lighting, and materials have become standard as part of any performance.
But as technologies like 3D printing, CGI and other developments improve apace that the theatre's of the future could become unrecognizable to those that preceded them.
In the 1980's more modern technologies began to change the industry forever. Computer-generated effects began to appear and digitized sound astounded crowds with their clarity and complexity.
Technology has literally changed the stage, from church productions to Broadway. Today stage designers and theatre students need to learn not just the basic principles of acting and directing but also how to use technology to enhance the final production
In fact in the internet age, it's critical this art form at least keeps pace with its competitors. Whilst it might seem that stage performances are in decline their popularity seems to be picking up.
Broadway productions like The Lion King and Hamilton show that it is far from lame duck and seems set for a long and healthy future. This is, in large part, thanks to production crews embrace of the best and latest technology.
In the following article, we'll explore some examples of how technology is transforming stage performances.
Modern theatre productions also benefit from a mixture of live and pre-recorded footage to provide immersive and entertaining shows. For example the recent production of And Then They Came For Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank from the Jersey City Theatre Center featured a mixture of videotaped interviews with friends of Anne Frank and live actors.
“Video technology has been influencing theater for decades, but never has it been easier or cheaper to incorporate into productions,” Catherine Love writes at The Stage. “Even student shows are now making use of sophisticated projection mapping.”
By blending video or CGI with live action performances stage directors are given near endless possibilities to work with. Of course, most need to make sure that any video used doesn't overshadow the actors on stage (and vice versa).
3D printing is revolutionizing the industry
3D printing is an example of a technology that is 'shaking up' set design and, by proxy, stage performances. Stage designs and props can now be created using this technology saving both time and, by extension, costs.
As early as 1999, Owen Collins Associate Professor at the Theatre Department at Washington and Lee University was first introduced to the technology. But it wasn't until recently that the technology dropped enough in price to make it a viable option for set and prop design.
Famous set designer John Lee Beatty was recently interviewed by Playbill about how this technology is helping the industry in ways never before thought possible.
Historically scale models of sets needed to be built as part of the planning process. This used to require piles of foam core, X-Acto knives, and hot glue. With 3D printing, however, this process has been simplified considerably.
Set designers can now create prototypes online and send them to be printed off in plastic form. This process saves them a lot of time and effort and really helps them meet tight deadlines that are very common in the industry.
“I don’t feel guilty asking for 24 lamp posts, and then asking for two more,” Beatty said in the interview.
But this technology can also help production teams manufacture film props en masse, and with ease. For a Baylor University production of "Into the Woods" props and even costumes were 3d-printed.
It was mainly employed for the creation of synthetic "Magic Beans" but was also used to make some accessories for the witch's costume.
The beauty of this is that traditional prop and costume design can be limited to what "can be found left lying around". Now with 3D printing props and items can be made out of a literal digital "ball of clay" with the only limitation being the designer's imagination.
Sound design has been greatly improved by technology
Whilst the stage design, actors, costumes, props, and lighting are obvious parts of any production, sound design has always been one of the subtlest (but important) parts of the entire experience. In fact, it can be argued, that great sound design is almost as important as what you can experience with your eyes.
“Sound design focuses on the emotional journey of the play,” wrote Victoria Deiorio. “My job is to understand how the director would like the audience to feel at every moment.”
Historically things like sound effects would take days to produce. Today directors and production teams can simply lookup sound effects and download them in just a few clicks in seconds.
Using computer sound design packages these can even be layered with ease to dramatically set the scene desired by the Director.
“It has made us FAR more efficient, but the caveat is that it also introduces the possibility of what I’d call ‘superfluous sound effects’ — just because it’s easy for us to add a sound effect doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for the show,” said Kai Harada.
Sound capturing devices like microphones are now much smaller and easier to deploy than ever before. Sound production can be refined very easily today with even small relocations of microphones making enormous differences to the final production.
After all its the goal of theatre to immerse audiences in the message, then improvements to sound technology and mics can only improve the transformative experience.