Tempestuous Tech

Tempestuous Tech
Jem Alexander

By Jem Alexander

February 10th 2017 at 2:30PM

It’s unexpected to see a 400-year old play push the technological boundaries of live stage performance, but that’s exactly what the Royal Shakespeare Company has done with their latest production of The Tempest. Jem Alexander asks how games influenced the show.

William Shakespeare was way ahead of his time when it came to using technology for his performances at the Globe Theatre. Now, 400 years after his death, this spirit is continued by the Royal Shakespeare Company up in Stratford-upon-Avon. Its latest production of one of the bard’s final plays, The Tempest, takes advantage of the Unreal games engine to bring to life the character Ariel in a way that’s never been done before.

The RSC partnered with Intel and a London-based studio called The Imaginarium to put together the performance. Both companies have a large amount of experience in the games industry, which was vital in bringing to life the first live digital on-stage performance of its kind.

“The technical expertise of our team as games content creators was very useful,” says Tawny Schlieski, director of client research at Intel. “But probably the more interesting bits are the pieces we needed to unlearn. For example, game controls are actually highly artificial. They are a mechanical system created to move characters and weapons around, not a reflection of human movement."

One of the more stunning aspects of the play is the fact that you have the actor and the avatar on stage at the same time, moving simultaneously. Not only does this ground the character to the actor, no matter its form (Ariel has a habit of changing shape often), but it demonstrates to the audience that these very subtle movements are being translated in real time.

“For our work, we needed a very nuanced set of movements. [The actor] Mark controls the avatar on a single plane, and the technical team controls his ‘flight’ in real time. Humans are very good at movement, and amazingly nuanced in their physical reactions. Capturing that motion directly from the human, rather than artificially generating it, is both cheaper and gives you a better result.”

This need to use motion capture and games technology for the performance comes from the cutting- edge nature of the endeavour. “We don’t have much choice. There is basically no kit dedicated to live digital performance; which makes sense, because we were doing this for the first time," Schlieski says.

“Using existing software allows us to experiment rapidly, and have solutions that we can share with audiences. Seeing how audiences respond is a key piece of our overall development strategy. Gaming engines also have the advantage of being relatively accessible, which allows new artists, like the ones at the RSC to learn and produce rapidly.”

The foundations that have been set with this performance should pave the way for more crossover between theatre and games in the future.

“To really empower performance, we need stronger tools to produce different and more interesting movement,” Schlieski continues. “New gaits and more flexible torsos are much more interesting than bigger explosions and better weapons inventory management. It will be interesting to see who creates the new mods that power these new priorities.”

Games industry professionals will be highly sought after to jump ship to the performace art space, thanks to the wealth of knowledge they have to ffer to develop live digital productions such as this.

Talented game developers have a great set of core skills to move into new kinds of content creation, like live performance. I think the developers who move the fastest and the farthest will be the ones who can rapidly adapt to their new teams. There are a thousand little things that are different about working in a theatre company: deadlines, implications of change, chain of command... The dynamics are very different, and core skills alone don’t make good teammates. We’re all going to have to learn the ropes together.”

Improvements to the technology will feed into future performances, which are likely to happen at the RSC and beyond, according to Schlieski: “The artists who created The Tempest are most definitely planning to use the kit again, and I believe that many other live performers will as well. To quote Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the RSC, ‘the genie is out of the bottle, and she isn’t going back in.’”