Tag Archives: Theater

A Few Things Drama Can Bring to Computer Science

So, yesterday I wrote:

[W]hat can Drama bring to Computer Science?

The easy one is presentation/communication skills.  A CS student might be brilliant, but that doesn’t mean they can present or communicate.  And if an idea can’t be communicated, it’s worthless.

But what else?  Any ideas?  I’m going to think about this for a bit, and I’ll see if I can come up with any more.

I posted the question on Twitter, and on my Facebook.  I was quite surprised by the amount of feedback I got back – apparently, quite a few people are interested in this topic.

Thanks for everybody who posted, or who came up to talk to me about this!  Let me summarize what I heard back:

  • Without a doubt, work in Drama hones movement/body senses.  It also trains us to use and take care of our body, and voice, like a musician would take care of a musical instrument.  Spending too much time hunkered over a keyboard can have detrimental effects on the body over time – I can personally admit to having absolutely awful shoulder tension, no doubt to my constant typing.  I only became aware of this tension, and how to deal with it, thanks to my work in Drama.  The dichotomy between body and mind is, in my humble opinion, a Western myth, and when you stop separating them, and get them to work together, amazing things can happen.  Just ask any contact improviser.
  • Drama is also emotional work.  No, this doesn’t mean we sit in a big circle and cry, and get credit for it.  Emotions are something that we study – how to mimic them, how to summon them out of ourselves, how to describe them, and abstractly represent them.  This is where Psychology, Drama, and Human-Computer Interaction might have some overlap.  In particular, it must be remembered that theatre is a communications medium between the actor(s) on stage, and the audience.  A webpage is also a communications medium.  Perhaps the theatre can teach a website a thing or two about communication.  I wonder what Marshall McLuhan would have to say on all of this…
  • Drama folk are creative, and are used to doing impossible, unreasonable things.  If you ask them to fly, they’ll figure out a way of doing it.  It’ll probably be abstract, and involve crazy lighting effects, but they’ll do it.  Production Managers are used to getting crazy, impossible requests from Directors all the time.  In my opinion, that’s what Directors are for!  Sometimes (usually due to time constraints), the Production Manager just says no to the Director – usually, though, they just go ahead and make impossible things happen – like building a triple layered reflection box.  This thing was a beast, and used a ton of computing power for live, context sensitive visual effects. I’m proud to have been a part of that.
  • In Drama, if the project is no fun, the end result suffers.  I’m pretty sure the same goes for software.  Drama students have a way of finding the “game”, the “jeu”, and the “play” (that’s why it’s called a “play”, people!) in what they’re doing.  The best actors are the ones who are clearly having a great time on stage, and are sharing this with the audience.  I believe this is applicable to software development…
  • If you want to think about complex systems, think about the stage.  At any given moment, n actors are on stage, interacting with various bits of set or props, interacting with each other – and each has their own motivation and personal story.  It can’t be a coincidence that the I* modeling language orients itself around terms like “actors” and “goals”.  It also can’t be a coincidence that many adventure game engines refer to in-game sprites as actors…

But now I want to hit the big one.  There is one thing that I really think Drama can bring to Computer Science.  Drama students are very good at it.  From what I can tell, Computer Science students rarely get exposed to it.

That thing is collaboration skills.

I already know that a few of my fellow Drama students will laugh at that – and say, “there are plenty of people in this department without collaboration skills”.  Yes, this is true.  But they tend not to do very well, or produce anything too interesting.

For me, the best, most exciting stuff comes when I’m with a group, and we’re not sure where we’re going with a project, but we just try things. We all throw a bunch of ideas in the middle, and try to put them on their feet.  The most unexpected things can happen.

Two years ago, I took a course in Experimental Theatre.  We were broken down into groups of 3 or 4 right at the beginning of the term, and given this challenge – show us what you like to see in theatre.  Show us what you think good theatre looks like.

That was it.  A blank canvas.  No script.  No “spec”.  Just each other.  It felt hopeless at first – we’d improv things, trying to get a feel for what our group wanted to do.  Nothing would happen, it’d fall flat.  We were lost.

But slowly, something started to piece itself together.  We found some material that we wanted to play with (The Wizard of Oz), and a subject that we liked – “home”.  What it means to be home, why people leave their homes, why we miss home, why we can’t stand home, what if we can’t get home, etc.  We divided the work up into 4 sections – 1 for each of us:  Dorothy, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man.

It’s really hard to describe what we did.  The characters and structure from The Wizard of Oz was just a playground for a huge meditation on what “home” meant to different people.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the Robert Dziekanski Taser Incident happened just a week or so before we were to present.  It integrated perfectly into our piece.

When we finally presented it, some people were incredulous, others nauseous, others outraged.  Some were crying.  We had a huge class debate on whether or not it was appropriate to include the film clip of the Taser Incident in our piece.

But a lot of people really got something out of it.  And I believe a bunch of people from that class went to a protest rally about the incident that took place only a few days later.  I heard a lot of really positive things.  We were so excited by it that we almost took it to the Toronto Fringe Festival.

In my opinion, that was one of the most interesting, educational, horrifying, and rewarding art pieces I’d ever been involved in.  And it all started from nothing.

When are Computer Science students grouped up, and told to make whatever they want?  When are they given total freedom to just go crazy, and come up with something beautiful?  Something unique?  When are they given the frightening prospect of a blank canvas?  Maybe I’m being naive – but where are the collaborative creativity assignments in computer science education?

Now, I can imagine someone shouting – “but what about those group assignments!  What about CSC318, or CSC301?  Those were collaborative!”.

My friend, thanks for trying, but there’s a distinct difference between group problem solving, and collaborative creation.  In my mind, for collaborative creation at its best, the ensemble starts with nothing and must create something from it.  It’s the difference between having a script to toy with, and not having a script at all.

And don’t just tell me that an independent study fits the bill.  The word “independent” sabotages the whole idea – the key word is collaborate.

Oh, and did I mention that Artful Making sounds like an excellent book? Why don’t you go to their website, and read the forward by Google’s own Dr. Eric Schmidt.  I found it very illuminating.  I think this is going to the top of my to-read list.

Thanks to Blake Winton, Veronica Wong, Cam Gorrie, Jorge Aranda, Neil Ernst, Peter Freund, Jennifer Dowding, and Yev Falkovich for their input on this.  Yes, those little conversations made an impact!

Memorizing My Lines

In all of my performance classes, without fail, I’ve had to memorize lines at some point or another.

This year, in Voice class, I had to memorize an edited version of JFK’s “We go to the moon” speech.  I was the one who edited it, and it came down to about a little over a page of text.

And I memorized it, fluidly, in about 3 days.  Not bad.

So, here’s how I normally go about memorizing my lines:

  1. If there is an original recording of the speech, or lines in question, avoid it at all costs.  Do not taint your performance with someone else’s interpretation.
  2. Understand the text.  This is the most important part.  What am I saying?  Why am I saying it?  Who am I saying it to?  Why do they care?  Why do I care?  What is causing me to speak?
  3. Examine the text for clues.  What is the key word, or idea in each sentence?  Look for rhetorical devices, like metaphor, repetition, etc.
  4. Break the text into “argument” sections.  These are usually just paragraphs.
  5. Record myself speaking the lines, without any “acting” – just speaking them normally, and adding the appropriate pauses and breaks for punctuation.
  6. Break that recording up into the argument sections, and put the individual files on my MP3 player in speaking order
  7. While I’m walking in between classes, play the sections.  Listen to myself, pretending I’m the audience.  Ponder how to deliver what I’m hearing.  Ponder how to deliver any rhetorical devices.
  8. Start to speak the lines with the recording.  For me, this is the kinesthetic learning bit.  My mouth and lips learn the “dance” of the speech, so that if I happen to forget a line, my mouth and lips know where to go for the next line, which may remind me what my next line is (understanding the logical structure of the argument also helps to pull out of forgotten lines – if I need to get from A to C, of course I need B…)
  9. Repeat repeat repeat.  Keep playing the MP3 player, and speaking the lines to myself.  Go section by section.
  10. Play the MP3 player even when I’m working on other things, so that it’s playing in the background.
  11. Sleep (without the MP3 player playing).  It’s amazing how, in the morning, all the stuff that I’ve been repeating in my ears and with my mouth is still there, and comes faster and naturally.
  12. Now I’m ready to try to rehearse this thing.  If I have scene partners, I get together with them and just give it a shot.  If I’m doing a solo performance (like with the JFK speech), I try delivering it aloud to an audience of friends.
  13. Practice practice practice.  Rehearse.  Don’t get stuck in a delivery pattern.  I try new things:  I dance the speech, yell the speech, whisper the speech, seduce with the speech.  I get playful.  I put the story of the speech at higher priority than my performance; what is absolutely necessary is that the message/story gets across.  The “acting” is secondary.

And that’s how I do it.  Nothing special, and it works for me.

Sound in Theatre

I’ve been doing sound work in theatres since high school, and I’ve run into some pretty interesting software over the years.  I’ve used audio editing tools like Sound Forge, Audacity, Audition, SoundBooth, etc.  I’ve composed music in Cubase, Sony ACID Pro, FruityLoops, Apple Logic Express.  The list goes on.

But once the music is composed, and the sounds are all edited, how do you play them back during a performance?

The old way was to play them through a CD player; you’d burn all your sounds and music to disc, and then track through.  God help you if you had to do a cross-fade on an actor cue though, because that would mean having two CD players, cuing them up simultaneously, and doing a manual cross-fade on the mixer.

There are better ways to do this.

In fact (and my boss, UCDP Tech Director Peter Freund would agree with me on this), there seems to be a trend nowadays to put more emphasis in programming and preparation, and to make playback mostly automated.  It’s true for lights (lighting boards are pre-programmed with cues, and then the lighting operator just hits the ‘GO’ button to go through each transition), and it’s now true for sound.

Check out this piece of software. It’s called QLab.  And it’s free!  This is what we use at the UCDP.

But there’s a small problem:  it’s only for Macs.  Which blows.

Actually, it really blows.  As a modern web-developer, I take cross-platform applications for granted.  Sure, IE may quirk out, but we can usually work around that (thanks jQuery!  Prototype!).  QLab, however, is Mac software, and that’s all she wrote.  It’s really kind of heartbreaking.

If I had the time, and if someone would pay me, I’d look into writing an open-source cross-platform QLab clone.  In Java, maybe.  There’s probably a ton of issues doing cross-platform sound work, but Audacity did it – why can’t I?

Just a thought.

Oh, and yes, there is a free piece of playback software for Windows called Multiplay that’s alright, but I find QLab a bit more flexible.

From GSS to UofT Drama (UCDP) – Part 3

(In case you missed them, here are parts one and two.)

After my second audition to DRM200 (when I was actually hoping to get into DRM200), it took a week or two for the names to get posted.  My name was on the list, as well as another GSS student – my friend, Anjali Mulligan.

I have to say, I was pretty happy – since the massive failure of Engineering, this was one of the first times that I got the sense that something within the University was interested in me.  My bruised ego was getting some ice put on it.

I was happy, but also a little apprehensive.  You have to remember, I hadn’t been on stage since 2004, and this was two years later.  I felt rusty.  And, again, the style of theater that I’d learned at GSS was very different from what was taught at the UCDP, and I didn’t know if I could change my spots.

Those who’ve worked in theater know that stage work is very intimate with the other actors.  You spend loads of time with each other, you have to be able to get into each other’s space, you have to understand each other’s perspectives.  Since I had been in Engineering for a year, I’d gotten used to feeling isolated, and working alone.  This would be my first exposure to ensemble work in quite some time.

So, I was gratified in finding out that I had an outstanding class.  All very talented, all very friendly.  Collectively, we had a hodge-podge background: first year students, mature students, students from other countries, students who had worked professionally in film and television, and more.

It’s wonderful how, when a group goes through hardship, they bond – like melting under heat and pressure.  Over the course of the year, working with instructor Ken Gass on scenes, improvs and monologues, we all became very close.  It was a very good feeling.

The UCDP has a very positive atmosphere in the student community.  We all look out for each other.  When the 200’s do their first monologues, the entire student body usually shows up to support. It is overwhelming, intimidating, and wonderful.  The 200’s just recently did their Shakespeare scenes, and the audience was packed.  The 300’s also did some contemporary work, and a ton of students showed up.

So, the take home message:  the community at the UCDP is really talented, great and supportive.  You’ll be hard pressed to find a more interesting collection of people!

UCDP Showcase: The Directors’ Shows

I’m super exhausted tonight, but I wanted to make sure I wrote about the UCDP Directors’ Shows – because they’re coming up!

Let me explain.

At the UCDP, there is a 400 level course for Directing (I think it’s called Seminar in Directing, but I’m not sure…check the course calendar).  The students in this course each select a play that they’d like to direct, and pitch a concept to the UCDP faculty for consideration.  Upon approval, they cast the show, start rehearsals, work with designers, work with production people, and slowly assemble their shows.

They’re also my friends and colleagues, and I think they’re all very talented!

So the shows from this year’s directors are coming up.  Here are the dates and descriptions, copied verbatim from the program website:

Week 1: Thursday – Saturday March 12th -14th 2009  8pm

White Biting Dog –written by Judith Thompson, directed by Yevgeniya Falkovich

In the beginning there is a rapidly shrinking universe that is one life.  A young and successful man seems to have lost the warm little centre of his world, that something which is the reason for waking up in the morning, the “stuff that makes a smile rise up”.  He hasn’t smiled in years, he’s become emotionally numb, and settled in a place where the search for any meaning in life has ended with inconclusive results, where there is a void so profound that he lacks even the drive to keep filling it with day to day living.  It is at the moment when he stands at the top of a bridge prepared to exit when the play begins.

The Universe –written by Richard Foreman, directed by Olga Ryabets

This play has no story, no climax or anything. I think the point is contained not in the play, but rather in the experience of watching the play. I think experiences like this can potentially help a person in dealing with the unexpected. This is a theory I am testing out.

Week 2: Friday – Sunday March 20th – 22nd 2009  8pm

Shape of a Girl –written by Joan MacLeod, directed by Sarah Miller-Garvin

Little Girls Killing Each Other: It’s 1997 and all of Canada is shocked by the murder of Reena Virk, a young girl killed by several female classmates who claimed she had stole their boyfriends and spread rumours about them.  15-year-old Braidie stands alone on a beach and finds herself haunted by the similarities between herself and Reena’s murderers, forcing her to rethink everything she’s based her world on.

The (abridged) Adventures of Ali & Ali and the aXes of Evil: A divertimento for warlords – written by Marcus Youssef, Guillermo Verdecchia, and Camyar Chai, directed by Jiv Parasram

They made it through Mogadishu! They brought Hilarity to Haiti! They made Kabul Kollapse with laughter (may be related to bombings)! Now we’re bringing them to the UCDP! They’re Ali Hakim, and Ali Ababwa! And they’re bringing a Korean!

GSS / Highschool Folk Auditioning for DRM200:  It would be a good idea to see these shows – it’ll certainly get the interviewer’s attention if you tell them that you saw some student work at the UCDP.  Big plus.  If you miss these shows, it’s not the end of the world, but still, any edge you can get…