How Digital Media Are Changing Traditional Performing Arts

By James Ambroff-Tahan

Theater and opera have long been multimedia art forms, combining traditional drama, music, and movement with lighting, sound, and projection effects. But these days, new technologies and new media are becoming increasingly visible on stages, and directors are finding creative ways to enliven and reinterpret traditional art forms.

Newer storytelling tools and methods—such as video projection—have not come without some criticism or tension, particularly in traditional genres like Shakespearean theater and opera. But while theater or opera critics might be expected to resist newer technologies, even production artists have questioned liberal use of their craft on stage.


“I think theater is about seeing the performer, and in my design work I try to lift the performer to the forefront of visual importance,” says Alexander V. Nichols, the video designer for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s recently completed production of Macbeth. “I'm always conscious of trying not to be too heavy-handed with video. I use it to reinforce the performers rather than distract from them. But that said, audio and video many times have complemented the performer.”

There were several scenes in Macbeth in which Nichols’s videos were projected, including throughout the first act—when fog, clouds, moonlight, flying debris, and a shape-changing palace appear—and in the well-known Act 4, Scene 1 apparition-raising rite performed by the three witches in front of the usurped throne. Throughout the play, Nichols’s main objectives were to define atmosphere and location. He says that many atmospheric effects, like roiling fog, were meant to indicate the unstable environment the characters exist in.

He notes that some resistance to videos comes from sound designers, who may find that they are too loud, but he says that videos have become “part of the design playbook that is expected in a certain way.” He adds, “If a director is aware of how it can be used and integrated with the rest of a show, it can be a very powerful thing.”

The witches’ scene was a prime example of the importance of the director in making sure that the actors and the projections are in harmony, according to Nichols.

“Dan Sullivan, the director, was interested in using the video to make the apparitions seem larger than life, so we sort of followed his lead for what was needed to fit into the play on that score,” Nichols says. “We’d get together in a technical rehearsal and work through and discuss timings in terms of the video cues, but Dan really was the one who tried to work with the actors to integrate them into the whole composition of the scene with the video.”

Nichols relies on Adobe software for creating much of his work, including his videos for Macbeth: He uses Adobe Photoshop for scenic design work, measuring scenic ideas and adding lighting to them, and he uses Adobe Illustrator for 3D modeling.

“Just dealing with theatrical design for video, you have to think a little bit off the screen because you're dealing with nonformal surfaces, nonformal aspect ratios, and divisions of viewing, so the first approach is to look at the surfaces that need to be projected on,” Nichols explains. “And one of the reasons why my favorite program is Adobe After Effects is because it allows you to form media in nontraditional aspect ratios, which, in the theater, is almost constantly needed…. Probably 90 percent of the videos that we use on the screen in the theater were made up of at least four or five layers of movies and still imagery. So between Photoshop and After Effects, I try to compose these layers and take them into the theater in our playback system.”


While some critics and members of production crews have been resistant to newer forms of media in Shakespearean theater, audiences have been more receptive. And that’s even more true for more-modern productions.

“I don’t know if audiences have come to expect video, but on a big Broadway or West End show they have come to expect something spectacular to look at, and video can help deliver that,” says Finn Ross, who was the video designer for the 2015 Tony Award winner for Best Play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. “I think theater is a very contemporary art form, but it is very easy to just keep doing the same thing, especially in a world were artistic risk is increasingly out of favor as commercial security becomes the paramount motivating force in a production.”

According to Ross, whose Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play was one of five Tonys that the play won, the popularity of videos in modern theater has been matched by its acceptance among production crews.

“I have never encountered resistance from fellow members of a creative team,” Ross says. “If video is in the show, then we all want it there to serve some purpose or another that only video can do. When I started out in my mid-20s, I was working with a lot of directors and designers 30 years older than me who I had always admired because their work was always moving the form forward, and they were coming to video to help with that.” 

The form moves considerably forward in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a tale about an extraordinarily gifted teenager with autism named Christopher Boone, who is not only a mathematical genius but also an omni-aware person able to see things that other people don’t grasp.

Such an imaginative main character provided Ross fertile creative ground. He created a set design composed of walls that seem to be lined with graph paper, with multiple mathematical figures and other symbols displayed on it with video, suggesting what is going on in Christopher’s mind.

“We wanted to let people into Christopher’s inner world, because it is so difficult for anyone without a spectrum disorder to understand what it is like. So the idea was to create a space that could be anything from a very structured simple street to an explosion of white numerical noise from his brain,” Ross says. “We also wanted to create a playground for Christopher. He loves computers and technology, so we packed the space with technology so Christopher could play with it.”

Ross believes that creating videos for plays can be difficult because so many plays strive for naturalism. For that reason, he says that theatrical videos work best when they are not trying to be real.

“In Curious, we never try to make anything look like something it isn’t,” Ross says. “The transformations of the space are in the audience’s imagination—we are not literally trying to make the set look like the street Christopher lives on. It was very hard to make the whole world of the show to such strict rules, and I am really proud to have achieved that.”

He says that 90 percent of these effects were crafted in After Effects, which the team used to map content onto an “unfolded map” of the show’s set. “We use a lot of After Effects’ built-in stroke effect, as well as Trapcode Particular. A few things are made in Photoshop and then taken into After Effects to be animated. I also use Audition a lot for taking in bits of music from a show and laying out markers very accurately to the soundtrack, to then export that data into other programs.”


Transforming a space to help stoke an audience’s imagination can be a production issue in the big-house world of opera. But producing an opera with multimedia abstract locations can help create a director’s desired spatial qualities, which is what director Francesca Zambello was seeking when she tapped the talents of contemporary artist RETNA for the San Francisco Opera’s fall 2016 production of Verdi’s Aida.

“His artwork creates spaces where the story unfolds, so that it is suggestive of something much more timeless,” Zambello says of RETNA, who was born Marquis Duriel Lewis. “His graffiti work is inspired by hieroglyphics. So taking our cue from that, we've used those kinds of visuals to make a much more abstract setting. It's modern because it has much more of a visual edge.”

RETNA, whose calligraphic murals provide the environment for the San Francisco Legion of Honor’s “The Future of the Past: Mummies and Medicine” exhibit, is creating a similar theme for the set design of Aida, although in the opera a major portion of his artwork will be in full-stage moving panels that will help set the atmosphere, mood, and timeframe.

“The idea behind the work is I always like to represent past, present, and future,” RETNA says. “I have always been fascinated with stuff that just felt kind of timeless. And I hope that’s what we were able to accomplish.”

RETNA is excited about his first artistic collaboration with a theatrical production and believes that the interaction of dancers, opera singers, music, lighting, and his own contribution will make for a special experience very different from anything he has done before.

“Normally, my work is a kind of a solitary experience, with whomever is helping me do it, and then the response I get from someone looking at it,” he says. “But I’ve always been fascinated about seeing it utilized in a different way. So that, by far, will set different standards for my work. So now there will be interaction; it will not be just something to look at but something functional.”

RETNA first created graffiti art at the age of eight and later took classes in multimedia and graphic art, many of which involved using Photoshop and Illustrator. Those Adobe programs would prove quite handy in his workshop’s production of artwork for Aida.

“When we were initially proposing what we had planned for Aida, we put together something using Photoshop and Illustrator, and that we presented to Francesca,” RETNA explains. “It definitely helped to be able to show that visual idea, because you could adjust lighting and different things. So we took paintings that I had done, broke them up, turned them into these rooms, and then lit them using Photoshop to create these ideas that we could turn around on a much quicker level.”

Zambello’s decision to employ RETNA’s visual artistry for Aida is in keeping with her philosophy of integrating past and present forms of art as part of creating bold new visual contexts.

“I think that anything that brings together different art forms, particularly contemporary art forms with more classical ones, gives a special look to each of them,” Zambello says. “I think it's not just a one-way street.”

May 9, 2016

Layout: Nicolle Rodriguez

Macbeth photographs courtesy of Kevin Berne Images and Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time photographs © Joan Marcus, courtesy of the National Theatre

Aida production design by RETNA (artistic designer) and Michael Yeargan (set designer)