I had a mixed reaction to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Dream,” a 30-minute online experiment inspired by the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which is being presented live online for free through Saturday. What I saw on my laptop screen was kind of…painterly, which sometimes meant lovely, but often faint and murky. But what the RSC is doing is thrilling — it’s The Future of Storytelling; as it certainly was a few years ago on Staten Island.
That’s where, at the 2017 Future of Storytelling Festival (aka FoSTFest) on the grounds of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, I met Sarah Ellis, RSC’s director of digital development, who was explaining the motion-capture technology (similar to the technology routinely used in blockbuster movies like Avatar and Beneath the Planet of the Apes) that the theater had used for a stage production of “The Tempest” the year before — and that it’s using now in “Dream.”.
In “The Tempest,” the character Ariel was presented as both the performer Mark Quartley and a projection of his monstrous avatar flying above the stage. The technology also allowed for a range of sophisticated projection design. Theatergoers saw a banquet table laden with a sumptuous feast, which was comprised entirely of light rather than food. In this way Prospero’s “rough magic” was brought into the twenty-first century.
The plan for “Dream” was to use the technology to present the work both on stage and online in 2020, but those plans (as everything else) were derailed by the pandemic.
So now, the live actors wearing sensors drive the movement of the characters solely on your screen. An animated Puck and four sprites, Moth, Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed, each taking vaguely human form but made from different natural material – rocks, branches, moths (for Moth of course) and a giant eyeball. Puck occasionally recites some of Shakespeare’s words as they float through a faded green forest, before storm clouds enter.
It is also now interactive: For £10 (roughly $14), you can inhabit one of the fireflies that surrounds Puck. The RSC promises that your firefly helps guide Puck’s movement, although I’m dubious. Puck is portrayed by EM Williams, a non binary actor, which seems like spot-on casting for Puck, but we only see them as a human in an introductory video and the 15-minute talkback.
And the talkback is in some ways the point of this demonstration; we see the actors in their sensor-filled suits and the avatars on the screen behind them, which oddly presented images on my laptop that were richer, deeper and more intriguing than most of the ones during the “play.” During the talkback, the actors and creative and technology team talk about how the did what they did and, in effect, about the future of theater — which is what we are all talking about these days, no?