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KU Theater Department Reinvents Stage Design With Computer Technology

When the University Theatre at the University of Kansas in Lawrence first staged the play The Adding Machine in 1995, it garnered national attention. American Theatre magazine was impressed by the way the production utilized cutting edge computer animation in its set design. This week, the department opens a musical version of the play with its scenic designer intact while the technology used is now much more advanced.

The year was 1923 when Elmer Rice's play The Adding Machine made its contribution to the American expressionist movement of the time. Its central character is an accountant named Mr. Zero, who, after twenty-five thankless years at the same desk, is summoned by his boss not for praise but his walking papers. An act of homicide follows, as does Zero's trial, execution, and excursion into the afterlife. KU theater professor Mechele Leon describes how it confounded audiences and critics alike.

"When the play was done in 1923, the critics looked at this and almost unanimously said, 'Great first half. What happened in the second?' Leon says. "That's why the play has always been fascinating but (it's) always taken with a critical grain of salt, like, 'Wow, this play is so interesting but it's so crazily problematic'."

Bridging boundaries

When the theater department staged Rice's play in 1995, it caught the attention of American Theater magazine for applying computer technology toward a new way of conceptualizing set design. Theater professor Marc Reaney, who is also the director of The Institute for the Exploration of Virtual Realities in the department, oversaw the scenic design of that production.

"It was our very first production just getting our feet into the water in regards to using computer-generated backgrounds and some different kind of stagecraft that hadn't been tried before," Reaney says.

"The traditionalists were of course left scratching their heads. The young people, the college students, were thrilled that they had found somebody talking to them in a language they understood. And it sort of crosses a bit of a boundary between stage and cinema - they really liked that juxtaposition, of being able to see scenes that change very quickly and are very descriptive."

A return to form

A 2008 Off-Broadway production of Adding Machine: A Musical by Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith enjoyed an extended run and positive reviews, which inspired the KU theater department to stage the new take on Rice's work. Mark Reaney explains how the production will look given the advances in computerized scenography.

"The worlds are manipulated in real time by crew members, which we call virtuality drivers, and they're watching the actors," says Reaney. "And if the actors start moving around in the space, they can move the virtual world, as if they were playing a video game.

"We've got a whole battery of different kinds of animations for different scenes. When they're singing about math and writing numbers into their books, there's animations of numbers flying around the space, so we actually see the numbers on their bodies and on their faces and in their heads and flying out of their heads."

The speed of life

Mechele Leon, who directs the production, says that, with the advent of computerized projections and animation, theater itself is being approached and experienced in new ways.

"With projected scenery, we're now in a position where we're able to have things change at the speed at which life is led and your environment change at the speed at which life is led," she says. "When you're liberated from changing these physical objects, then you can actually move theater along at the pace of life."

Reaney says one of his most popular classes is "Computer-Aided Design for the Theater." Yet he admits that technology can do a million things even he hasn't figured out yet.

Adding Machine: The Musical, The University of Kansas University Theatre, November 15-24, 2013 at Stage Too!, Crafton-Preyer Theatre, Lawrence, Kansas. 785-864-3982 or KUTheatre.com.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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