Seeing With Three Eyes

OK, I've been way behind on my reading, and I just finally got through the Spring 2008 issue of TD&T (USITT's journal), which contains a great article by Holly Poe Durbin an "Entertainment Costume Designer" (I like her already because she used the word entertainment rather than theatre!) based in California.

The Article is called Seeing With Three Eyes, Design For Live Performance: Theatre and Themed Entertainment, and it's part of a series of articles about design for different types of performance.  I particularly liked her approach to the article, since she seems very open minded, and covers the whole entertainment world, and not just theatre.  She starts by summarizing the "three eyes":

The intent of the story governs how we translate content into a poetic space and the degree of realism or stylization appropriate for the project. Does the story happen to the audience directly or is it one step removed, with events happening to another party the audience identifies with? The degree of realism or stylization reinforces that experience. Stories with intricate plot points or complex word play often take place within a receding environment, one that deemphasizes the setting, so the mind can focus on verbal information. Storytellers often choose overt, presentational environments for stories that manipulate
human emotions such as thrillers, musicals or comedy.

The second designer’s eye, immersion, encompasses the audience’s ability to lose itself in the story. Designers aid immersion through clarity—a vivid impression of story reality—and through evoking emotional response in the audience. The third eye is interaction, the relative mixture of verbal and visual information or shifting between design areas to create a changing rhythm and focus.

And she seems to share my belief (articulated in my book) that what we do is storytelling, no matter whether we are doing classic theatre or a corporate sales event, and she comes up with a definition pretty close to what I used to define live performance.

It is now common for live entertainment to incorporate recorded elements, in particular sound and video. Therefore it may be beneficial to establish how live performance differs from recorded entertainment like film, television, and video games. After talking with designers and directors in all areas of the industry, I propose to establish three ideas that define design for live performance. First, the artist and the audience occupy the same time and place. It is possible for performing artists to participate via live feeds, but for an event to be considered live at least one performer should share the time and place with the audience.

Second, the performance time sequence cannot be altered (replayed or fast forwarded) by the audience. Time shifting is an established aspect of traditional storytelling but when the audience jumps forward or backward in the story, or even creates his or her own story as one can do in video games, the performance is no longer considered live entertainment.

What's interesting (and forward-looking) to me about her definition is that by saying "the performance time sequence cannot be altered... by the audience", she doesn't rule out interaction initiated by the performers (which of course, is a big chunk of what I advocate in my book). Continuing:

Third, the visual/ technical aspects are synched with live action; design events and cues are interconnected with some type of live triggers (a performer finishing a line, hitting a tape mark or activating a digital sensor) and that information is not embedded in the media itself as in film or DVD technology.

What constitutes “story” in entertainment is debated by theorists and critics around the world. Don Carson, a concept designer working in both themed entertainment and virtual world design says story is a larger idea than the linear series of plot points. It is “an all-encompassing notion of the world that is being created. A set of rules that will guide the design and the project team to a common goal. Once you have created this story you do not break them [the rules] …if they are broken your visitors will feel cheated.”  ...

She goes on to address the impact of technology on performance (she seems to be a very tech-savvy costume designer!) and other issues.  I could debate some points in the article, but all in all it's a very thought-provoking read and I recommend it. Unfortunately, you have to be a USITT member to be able to get the article online, or buy a back issue (or maybe check your local library (do those still exist?)).   If you are a USITT member and missed the article, you can get a PDF here, but you have to put your member number in the "username" field, and your last name (with first letter capitalized) is the password.