by Gabriel Sandu
Once upon two freezing winter days, on the 25th and the 26th of February, The “George Ciprian” Theatre in Buzău organized a special experiment: audience participants were invited to interact with their own shadow – a 3D avatar, but also that of a playmate physically located in a different room of the theatre. Sounds complicated? Maybe, but it’s not.
We live in a time when our relationships are increasingly mediated by technology, and our perception of distances shrinks day by day. Scientific progress gave us the Internet, the small devices on which we can communicate at anytime, the apps via which we can see each other. Even low-cost flights, which make possible for us to cover once unconceivable distances, are also the benefit of technological development and democratization.
But what do you think happens when art and technology shake hands and offer you a type of presence that can be experienced only at the theatre?
That’s the subject of the European cooperation project Tele-Encounters, directed by Marina Hanganu (Artistic Director), Ion Mircioagă (Associate Director) and Javier Galindo (Spain theatre director). Theatre artists and multimedia experts are experimenting around the concept of telepresence, with stories of Romanian families separated by migration standing at the basis of their future theatre performance that will premiere in June 2018.
And so the Kinect device allowed the Buzău audience who came to The “George Ciprian” Theatre at the end of February to play with their own digital avatar, and also with that of a partner. Basically, via the application created by Mindscape Studio, the participants’ silhouettes were transformed into an animation they controlled directly. In pairs, standing in two different spaces of the theatre (stage and studio room), the participants first learned to control their own digital shadow and interact with their partner’s. The rules of the game are simple: if you close your left fist, you delete what you drew with your right fist. If one fist is closed, the other hand must stay open, so that the commands sent to the Kinect device do not invalidate each other. All movements must be clear for the sensor to be able to read them. Then everyone started playing, especially the children.
Lots of hearts and stars were painted, distant embraces and hi5s were exchanged. But the live drawing function seems to have been the most enticing for participants.
Marina Hanganu, Artistic Director of the project, recounts that the strongest sense she got from the participants was that of “companionship based on play” and a sort of “concession and cooperation” attitude.
“If one proposed an image or a gesture, the other continued it. For instance, some of the participants were drawing together the same image, such as a heart. The two spaces were also connected through sound, but very few persons were interested in verbal communication – the animation was enough.”
The majority of participants came in pairs, and the fact that they knew each other contributed to the fast creation of a sort of intimacy, Marina Hanganu believes. However, there were also people who interacted without knowing each other previously, and the dynamic between them was more self-centered. If at the beginning they didn’t seem much interested in interacting, in touching remotely, they gradually started to talk via the microphone and cooperate.
The audience who took part in the Tele-Encounters experience were thrilled, they took pictures and they surely left with worthwhile memories and even future plans: a little boy aged no more than 10 asked loads of questions to the animation team and told them he also wishes to become a computer programmer.
It’s easy to see why telepresence fascinates. It’s an instrument to open doors to virtual worlds and to explore new breaches in reality. “Tele-presence is not an illusion of physical presence, but rather a different type of presence”, explains Marina Hanganu, “it allows us to be close, although we’re physically far apart.”
The experiment at the Buzău theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the technical department. The multimedia team (interaction designers Cristian Iordache and Dragoș Vasiloaia and sound designer Florin Ciocan) and the technical crew of The George Ciprian Theatre (Gabriel Ilie, sound technician, and Gheorghe Ilie, lights and video technician) were the operators of the application and the ones who explained to visitors what to do.