Campus Life


Bacchae blends new science, ancient drama

By Katie Grove
Campus Life Staff

Matthew Causey/DramaTech
DramaTech and PTRL's production of The Bacchae blends technology and tragedy in new ways. Here, an actress demonstrates some of the custom props.

Ancient Greek tragedy will never be the same after February 27. Indeed, the opening night of The Performance Technology Research Laboratory's (PTRL) production of Euripides' The Bacchae marks a bold step forward in the quest to integrate experimental multimedia technologies with traditional theatrical performances.
In this unique collaboration between PTRL and DramaTech, cutting-edge media technologies will both blend and clash with live actors to tell the story of the Greek god of theater's rampage for recognition which results in odd "scenes of cross dressing, human dismemberment, ecstatic dancing and murder."
Planning for the production began a year ago, while PTRL was in its infancy and the Georgia Tech School of Literature, Communication, and Culture (LCC) was attempting to design a Performance Studies minor.
Greg Abbott, a DramaTech faculty member in LCC, along with LCC assistant professor and PTRL principal investigator Matthew Causey, thought that a collaboration between DramaTech and PTRL would be an ideal way to mesh drama and science with the School's curriculum.
"We are as concerned about humanities as technologies," notes Causey, the director of The Bacchae.
This interest in the mixing of traditional drama and unprecedented technology makes PTRL unique in the field of art, performance, and technology experimentation. Even while exploring new multimedia technologies, PTRL places emphasis on the question of how humans see themselves within the context of the ever-changing world of multimedia.
"[We're] trying to understand how it is to be a human in today's hypermediated culture," explains Causey.
Although almost 2,500 years old, The Bacchae is the ideal text in which to present these relevant, abstract questions about our own psyches. The Bacchae is essentially a play about the theater and how people think and respond to it as an art form.
Causey emphasizes that although some people today see the Internet as an outlet to limitless possibilities, they should be aware that cyberspace is just an illusion and that our fantasies must end with the flick of the computer's power switch. Just as people should examine their own reactions to media technology, the play is highly "self reflexive" in that it analyzes the theater itself as an art form.
The technologies that PTRL uses to convey these modern social themes is varied. Some, such as video projection, are common technologies utilized in unique and unconventional ways. Yet, the ground-breaking aspect of The Bacchae lies in the experimental technologies researched and developed by investigators at the Performance Technology Research Laboratory.
For example, an advanced camera system can sense pre-programmed movements by the actors and trigger specific audio samplings according to these gestures. These different audio clips, including echoes and other sounds, can be altered by advanced audio devises and played back at either random or scripted moments.
Perhaps the most interesting new media technology being utilized by PTRL is digital scenography. This technique is analogous to the "blue screen" effect used in TV weather reports and cinema special effects and permits the scenery to be altered at any time. Because the stage and theater walls are painted completely white, digital scenography can be used to project anything behind and around the live actors.
Although PTRL is focused on making these new media technologies work on stage, they are aware that much more than impressive technology must be attended to before a production is presentable and complete.
"We still want a real, viable experience for the audience," explains Causey.
To enhance the tangible presence on stage, PTRL and DramaTech have attempted to juxtapose the new technologies with archaic, industrial-age machinery formed into giant puppets. These puppets, called "ubermarionettes," were constructed by PTRL out of old, often unusable materials found in the salvage yards of Atlanta. Live actors fit into these ubermarionettes, which are fashioned with monitors, screens, and microphones, and interact with them.
According to Causey, these grotesque puppets serve as prosthetic devices for the actors and "erase the boundary between human and machine... to find a way to extend the actors with the technology."
The Bacchae is a ground-breaking production which poses questions relevant to modern humanity through the use of both new multimedia technologies and traditional dramatic techniques. The concepts presented are particularly relevant to the technology-minded community at Georgia Tech.
The Bacchae will appear at the DramaTech Theater February 27-28, and March 5-7, and will certainly be nothing like anything Tech students have ever seen.

Copyright © 1998 by Gregory S. Scherrer, Editor and by the Student Publications Board

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