Report: ‘Technodramatists Performance Laboratory’ at TheaterLab

A new theater-and-tech company combining live performance, experimental music, and interactive games and narratives enhanced with the latest in cutting-edge technology, Technodramatists, under the leadership of Founding Artistic Director Lorne Svarc, has launched its immersive Technodramatists Performance Laboratory in a three-week engagement at TheaterLab. The original production features the group’s signature development of weARlive, the first augmented reality face-sync app designed specifically for live performances, which the audience is invited to try out before and after the show and during intermission.

Bess Miller as the Emcee. Photo by Technodramatists.

The four-part presentation opens with the introductory remarks of Bess Miller as the company Emcee, whose speech is a witty combination of Shakespearean language and quotations with post-modern techie lingo and commands to Alexa, and whose costume synthesizes a current lab coat with an Elizabethan-style ruff, breeches, mustache, and goatee. She makes it laughingly clear that the evening’s acts are works in development (“not yet finished, but we present them anyway!”), underscoring the advisory in the program notes (“you’ll observe and interact with work in all stages of progress, witnessing both unlimited potential and near certain unmitigated disaster”). While there were a few malfunctions on the night I attended, the future promise is apparent in the exciting new visionary applications.

Opening the performances is a music-and-dance segment, last night with Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Johnny Butler and AnA Collaborations dancer Alex Jenkins (a different musical guest is featured each week). Choreographed by Jenkins and Audrey Rachelle, the visceral mood of Jenkins’ abstract conceptual movement, recalling the retro modern expressionist dance style of the mid-century, is set by Butler’s polyphonic electro-acoustic soundscape created by the attachment of his saxophone to an advanced algorithmic sound-processing system.

Promotional image with Claire Tyers. Photo courtesy of Technodramatists.

Next up is Claire Tyers’ Error: A Comedy Of, an adaptation of selected scenes from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, in which she plays all of the roles. Her on-stage performance, directed by Noa Egozi, is augmented with weARlive projections (technical direction by Robert Lester) of her synchronized facial expressions as real-time motion-capture animations of theatrical masks representing the different characters (cleverly referencing the classical tradition and using identical ones for the comedy’s pairs of twins) on scrims and screens around the white-box space (lighting, set, and projection design by Kris Stone). Here the post-modern tech serves more as a redundant distraction than an enhancement, capturing only the faces, and not the expressive gestures, minimal props, and movements of Tyers’ engaging full-body portrayals, with the technical equipment she wears (camera, harness, and control vest) fully visible to the audience. While Svarc noted that an app for full-body sensors is in the works for the future, the upcoming presentations in this current run might be better served if she emerged into view at the conclusion of the piece, allowing the projected masks to be the focal point during the performance, and then revealing the real-life performer and technology involved afterwards.

Perhaps the most visually focused of the segments is Autokorrect, a weARlive face-sync improv featuring Technodramatists’ in-house troupe hilariously ad-libbing based on selections and suggestions from the audience. The terrific team of Sarah Sixt, Anne Veal, and Emily McKeown, dressed in black in the traditional manner of bunraku puppeteers (so as not to distract from their on-screen avatars), deliver the individualized voices and facial expressions of an array of cartoonish characters with distinction and laugh-out-loud humor.

Gretchen Poole and Elizabeth Saunders in Kids Play. Photo courtesy of Technodramatists.

In the fourth and final act, Reese Thompson’s Kids Play, directed by Kristin Heckler and performed by Gretchen Poole and Elizabeth Saunders, alternates between segments of live performance and face-synch projections, as their characters grow from pre-teens to their mid-twenties, and confront issues of gender and sexuality. As with Error, the on-stage presence of the cast, necessarily fitted with the very visible technical devices, again presents something of a distraction from the projections, but the weARlive app successfully enables the adult actors to portray the younger figures and to age convincingly through their on-screen avatars (technical direction by Svarc).

Though still a work in progress, Technodramatists Performance Laboratory provides a fascinating view of the latest in face-sync and avatar technologies and their potential applications in the performing arts. We can all look forward to future developments with this innovative young company.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, including an intermission.

Technodramatists Performance Laboratory plays through Saturday, June 22, 2019, at TheaterLab – 357 West 36th Street, 3rd floor, NYC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.