Creating Theater in 360°

January 18, 2019

 

Judd Farner is a theater producer, teacher, and arts advocate currently teaching drama at Riverdale Ridge High School in Brighton, Colorado. Judd is also the founder of The New Commedia, a small theatre company that creates original, local-grown productions including performances created for and put on in the OtterBox Digital Dome Theater at Fort Collins Museum of Discovery for the Fort Collins Fringe Festival. As a theater producer, Judd was able to bring his background in melding live performance, narrative storytelling, and fulldome technology to create original performances that were praised by audiences as well as other Fringe Festival producers. We’ve invited Judd to share his experiences in creating theatrical art in the dome space.

Stories always need a way in which they are told. Some stories work best told through dance. Other stories are served well through the written word. While even more are best served through a painting or a photograph. I learned to tell stories through theatre. It is an art form that combines the visual and the verbal to share a narrative.

I was first introduced to DomeLife (I dunno if that’s a real word, but I’m making it one now), when I met Ben Gondrez through an arts leadership workshop in Fort Collins, Colorado. Our friendship began, as all good friendships do, over drinks. Hooch to be exact. Not that it matters to the process of Dome Theatre, but anytime I can slip hooch into a post, I’m game.

Ben invited me to come check out his, at the time, newly forming DomeLab. A periodic gathering of Dome technicians coming together to share their trials and tests in creating Dome content. It’s not often you get to wander into a 360 theatre and watch people fiddle with the mechanisms that make the thing work. I think the last time I had been in a dome was on my fourth grade field trip to the planetarium and we watched stars or dinosaurs or something…

I was fascinated by the fact that there were people who could wrap their minds around the technical elements of creating a projection on a dome. Admittedly though, I was a little nonplussed at the content we were watching. It was, and I mean this with as little offense as possible, a lot of screen savers. There wasn’t much, if any, in the way of plot or story. This was where I knew I could contribute.

In an experimental storytelling setting like a dome, I knew I couldn’t go with any theatre maker I knew. The temptation to simply use the space like a traditional theatre was strong. The perfect collaborator for a production as unknowable as creating a 360 performance would be Nick Holland. His willingness to buck convention along with his skill at weaving an adventure was ideal.

At the time, I was still a producing partner for the Fort Collins Fringe Festival, a perfect event (and deadline) for a project like this. Fringe is all about original thinking and unusual spaces. With a team in place and a finish line set, Ben, Nick and I got to work.

A lot of Nick and my process comes from a starting place of an idea and then the adjustment of that idea to fit the needs of the space and story. In this process, we leaned on Ben quite a lot to guide what we were able to do. For our first show, The Mystagogue Holland Show, we focused on live filming in 360. The story Nick built had to do with the String Theory and alternate universes and the traveling between them.

 

 

We learned a lot very quickly about what it would take to combine the two mediums, live performance and digital media. The dome is a pretty potent acting partner, but it is also a bit of a stage hog. It’s tough to not be dwarfed by the magnitude of the screen and the architecture of a space the naturally points the audience upwards. Opting to lean into the partnership was the best decision we could have made.

There were moments when the live Nick, travelling through universes, was in conversation with the filmed Nicks above. There were moments when the dome became a projected setting of a starscape in which live Nick performed in front of. The ending saw live Nick transported into the domescape and he became film Nick wrapping up the show.

It was all a big experiment that through willingness to break convention, skilled specialists, and solid collaboration developed a new story to be told.

In my second year of playing with the dome environment, I made the plunge into 360 animations. I had the fortune of meeting Adam Goss through another visit to DomeLab. I pitched my needs and made a connection.

The concept for the second show was that a traveling salesman had come into town and was hocking a hat that could project what was happening inside a person’s head. With a pasta strainer and some poorly held together wiring and lighting we had a contraption. Through another successful process of collaboration, I was able to work with Adam on pitching what I was hoping to achieve and he would come back with the variation that was possible. The beauty of having an entirely original story was that it could adjust to accommodate the medium. You work the story so that it feels natural in its space.

 

 

I think this is the most important thing I’ve learned working in a dome space and now getting to see a few other dome pieces come to fruition - the story and the technology should work together. Through intentional collaboration these two elements can push each other into unknown capabilities. When you have a storyteller asking how to make something happen and a technician who gets to play with a new way of working a specific tool or technique and vice versa when you have a technician offering up one of those tools or techniques as a way to help tell the story better, then you get to create performances that are as equally technically sound and emotionally captivating.

To read more about Judd’s work in arts education advocacy as well as stories, tips, anecdotes, words of wisdom and failure in teaching drama, check out his website Create. Perform. Respond.
 

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