Interactive projection in the theater

Today I saw the off-Broadway show Gorey. It was essentially an eccentric romp through the eccentric psyche of the artist/writer Edward Gorey.

The production employed projection to bring some of his creations to life. In one scene, Gorey interacted with an animated version of the main character from his story The Doubtful Guest.

Like most such theatrical moments, the projected images were animated beforehand. That pre-built animation was then projected onto a wall of the stage, while the actor precisely timed his movements to make it seem as though he and the animated character were having a moment together.

There was even a moment when “Gorey” fed an apple to the animated figure of the doubtful guest, an eerie recreation of the work of Windsor McCay, who had done the same thing in 1914 — feeding an apple to a projection of his animated character Gertie the Dinosaur within a live theatrical performance.

We spoke with the director and projection designer after the show, and were surprised to discover that they had never heard of either Windsor McCay or Gertie. Perhaps some ideas are just so good that they are destined to be invented over and over again.

Of course one of the great things about live theater is that it is never exactly the same twice. Unfortunately, interacting with a previously created animation removes much of that quality. The live performer must do everything at exactly the right moment, or the illusion is broken.

Having seen this show, I am now more motivated than ever to user our interactive Chalktalk animated drawing program in theatrical performance. Rather than “performing” with a previously created animation, it would be so much cooler to perform with an animated character that is truly responsive in the moment, and responsive to variations in the performance of the live actor. Every performance could then truly reflect the unique emotional interaction with that night’s particular live audience.

Windsor McCay had no choice but to interact with a character that does exactly the same thing every time. But now we have a choice. A century after Windsor McCay and Gertie, we might finally be ready to truly bring animated characters into the glorious world of live theater.

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