Lights dim. Music swells. Actors stroll downstage. There’s methodical misdirection during almost any scene change in live theatre—distractions from the brigade of black-clad stagehands pushing and pulling scenery wagons to transform bedrooms into backyards. And although scenery automation systems are standard in lavish Broadway productions, even they have limitations.
But what if scenery wagons could be wirelessly automated and able to “know” how, where, and when to move by using microelectronic and robotic technology? They could twirl beside teenaged Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, slow a turn to dramatically heighten Hermione’s reveal in The Winter’s Tale, or react instantly to what happens onstage.
“We could literally have actors and scenery dancing into new positions with each other,” says Alex Owens, a graduate student in Purdue Theatre's technical direction program in the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts. “Scenery could become part of storytelling in a way that makes theatre more immersive for actors and audiences.”
Owens is among a team of five Rueff School students writing a revolutionary new act in scenery automation. Their work could earn Purdue Theatre a prize of leading-edge technology, entwine the university’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and stagecraft curricula for years to come, encourage more environmentally conscious theatrical productions, and empower technical directors toward greater technical and artistic expression.
Advised by Rich Dionne, a clinical assistant professor in theatre who researches scenic automation technology, the Purdue team is one of three finalists in a national wireless scenery control contest co-sponsored by Stage Directions (a trade publication) and RC4 Wireless, a company that creates wireless motion technology for theatre, film, and TV. Later this year, RC4 will bring its newest wireless automation control system, the RC6, to Purdue, where three graduate students and two undergraduates will use it to control a 4’x4’, 150-pound scenery wagon. They’ll be judged on how well the wagon carries weight; maneuvers with speed, accuracy, and silence; and affords actors low clearance to safely step on and off as it moves.
The winning university will receive a full RC6 system, a $10,000 package that would enable wireless scenery automation in future Purdue Theatre productions. In the meantime, in order to be sure that their scenery wagon works properly, students on the team have programmed their own automation from scratch, outside of a commercial system, to test it. Their design for the wireless scenic unit is still in the implementation phase, which will continue into the fall of 2014. Purdue’s wagon boasts plenty of nuts-and-bolts advantages, including its ability to carry a half-ton of weight (well beyond the contest’s 400-pound minimum) and to run quietly with a wheelchair motor. And while a win is welcome, it’s hardly what matters most to this team.
“We weren’t content to just do what the contest wanted,” Owens says. “We wanted to do cool new things with wireless automation that we didn’t have an opportunity to explore until now and to think differently about how to control scenery.”
Using the contest as a springboard, the team is designing intelligent features for its wireless automation system—meaning it can detect the location of other set pieces, adapt to a changing environment onstage, and perhaps someday interact with performers.
“There are certain terms an old scenic guy like me recognizes, like ‘track a line,’ ” says Dionne, who created a class for the project so that students could receive course credit. “Typically, it means cutting a groove that wagons would follow in a wooden floor atop the stage. They heard something entirely different, which was that wagons could find and follow an arbitrary line onstage that they could change on a whim.”
Putting their own technological spin on “tracking a line,” the students recreated a homegrown version of the RC6 system and enhanced its robotic capabilities. Following a line is common in robotics, but lines are often painted in specific colors that could inhibit theatrical design. Instead, the students utilized inductive sensors that could move the wagon by detecting metal at various distances across a stage.
“If we can lay down a thin wire that we can then pick up, move around, and change, it’s an extremely novel use of existing technology,” says team member Steven Hnath, who’s also a graduate student in technical direction. “We can use this technology repeatedly without cutting into wood we’d have to throw out after each production.”
Sustainability matters to Owens, who estimates that, at best, half of the wood allocated to scenery wagon grooves can be recycled for another show. “Here, you only have to consider carbon costs of the robot, which are offset by reusability over time.”
The team’s design also mimics a system shutdown safety feature using common wireless microphone gear, includes ultrasonic edge detection, and uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to track the movement of scenery onstage.
“RFID relies on tagging set pieces with stickers like what you find on clothing at a store,” Hnath says. “Through a receiver, the robotic wagon recognizes these tags and determines how far away they are, like landmarks on a highway, to know where it is on stage.”
The team’s work has already impressed their colleagues. Dionne and his students were awarded a $10,000 project grant from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology to continue working on this project for the next year, even after the contest concludes. The company hosting the contest, RC4, has also recognized that the Purdue team’s design aims far beyond the original specifications. RC4’s staff members have discussed the possibility of sharing the software code for the RC6 unit with the team, allowing them to hack into it and add on new features.
Dionne says this research, which is refined by trial and error, could easily continue for years, both in Purdue Theatre and the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, of which he’s a founding faculty fellow. This new Purdue institute is transforming STEM instruction to meet modern students’ needs and tethering curricula to cultural, sociopolitical, and geopolitical issues. Hnath hopes those who follow in the team’s footsteps will embrace the academic integration and artistic inspiration inherent to intelligent wireless scenery research.
“At Purdue, we have a great connection to an engineering school where we can learn alongside engineers and not just take a theatre version of an engineering class. That only makes us more marketable and thoroughly educated,” says Hnath.
“Plus,” he continues, “the bulk of our job is telling designers that what they want is too expensive. In our field, we’re not often considered artists but rather artisans who build things. Now, we can make an artistic impact, flex our muscles in movement profiles and how wagons curve onstage, and truly collaborate with artists to make theatre happen.”
This is not the first time Purdue Theatre has worked in conjunction with another area of the University. They helped in developing the Stresskin with Forestry years ago. This technology [also referred to as "structural insulated panels" - Ed.] is now being used in both theatre and construction. This type of innovation is vital in advancing theatre in new production venues and making our students more marketable.