George Lucas Super Live Adventure and its connections to Marvel Universe Live!

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For someone who really was never much of a comic book fan, it’s pretty strange that I’ve now seen Marvel Universe Live! three times. Why did I see this show so many times? Because it’s a spectacular and remarkable technical achievement. I’m on sabbatical this semester working on a bunch of articles about the evolution of live show technology and its impact on current story telling techniques, and Marvel Universe Live!, I think is a show technology milestone in a long line of shows, and belleweather for the future. The first version opened in 2014, and version two, Age of Heroes, started touring in 2017. I saw the original version in Tulsa back in 2015, and Age of Heroes both here in Brooklyn and up in Bridgeport, and got a very nice back stage tour the last two times I saw the show.

Marvel Universe Live! is basically a stunt show, with amazing performers in the roles of the various Marvel characters, who have to recover some orb thing to (of course) save the universe. And from a production aspect, it’s remarkable, and uses just about every arrow in the quiver of the modern live technology story teller: scenery, lighting, sound, pyro, amazing puppetry, automated rigging, lasers, video mapping—you name it. The entire thing is run on time code, so once the first act starts it goes until intermission unless there is a problem. The fight choreography can only be so accurately timed, so sound effects for the punch sounds and so on are triggered by a technician using a keyboard. In addition, each of the performers (and even some of the set pieces) is tracked using Blacktrax, where each person or item to be tracked is fitted with a small pack with several emitters; the 3D position of each performer is then tracked by a large array of cameras positioned on the massive truss system over the stage. This position information is then sent to WYSIWYG, which positions each moving light to track the appropriate performer on a scene by scene basis (there are no followspots on the show), and to the Disguise (D3) video system for video motion tracking, and the laser projector system. It’s pretty cool and pretty remarkable, and incredible that they move this massive show from arena to arena each week.

As I write this, the show is wrapping up it’s US run, but it’s on its way next to Europe and if you’re interested in show technology I really recommend seeing it.

The Super Live Legacy

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It’s fascinating to me the parallels between Marvel Universe Live!, and it’s long-lost 1990’s predecessor George Lucas Super Live Adventure. GLSLA is so forgotten that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, but I have a bunch of friends who worked on it, including my former (and sadly no longer with us) boss George Kindler, so I’ve been hearing stories about it for many years. Since it’s quite possible you’ve never heard of it, let’s go over it a bit.

The website Tested did probably the best writeup on the show, and interviewed the director Scott Faris, the production designer Douglas Schmidt , and my friend sound designer Jonathan Deans. They also made a short video that tells the story and shows some pretty good photos and so on, it’s probably best to watch this if you haven’t seen it:

And here’s a Japanese advertisement:

There’s also some information on the show here, a report from a cast member here, and 9 parts of (vintage quality) video from the show here.

GLSLA Tech

The technology on Super Live was pretty astounding, especially for the time. But from our perspective here, what’s most interesting to me is how much of it was custom made. And, I remember George (and Damon Wooten and Jeff Berryman) talking about quite a bit of interactivity, which Scott Faris discussed in the interview:

And our laser guys worked out a system of interlocking safeties so an infrared beam would target on the chest of a stormtrooper and when it got positive feedback it would fire the laser, and when the laser fired a squib charge would go off on the stormtrooper, and he'd fall and die. It looked just like the movies."

JT Tomlinson, who also worked on the show expanded on this 10 years or so ago for an interview I put into my book:

Show control for GLSLA [Super Live], was a Golder Group system, specified by myself, then designed and built by Damon Wootten, with George Kindler as consultant. Damon previously worked for Charlie Richmond,who recommended him to me for this show. We used show control to trigger multiple systems on commands from the stage manager, and also to sync various systems via time code from the LCS/Doremi sound system (LCS serial number one!) or 35 mm film projectors. Commanded systems included lighting, automated scenery, projection, lasers, fog effects, and pyro. One real challenge during production was getting SMPTE from an optical film sound track! GLSLA and KÀ are also similar in that regardless of the amount of computerized controls, neither show is/was automated in the theme park or cruise ship sense; i.e., all or mostly to time code. GLSLA and KÀ are both cued in the classical theatre fashion: a calling Stage Manager maintains the pacing. We had good help on Superlive, including the fine fellows mentioned above, and these current Las Vegas players: JT Tomlinson (now Head of Automation at KÀ) was Technical Director, Todd Toresdahl (now Head of Automation at Mystere) was Head Carpenter,Bill Wendlandt (now Assistant Head of Automation at KÀ) was Assistant Carpenter, Keith Bennett (now Production Manager at Mama Mia) was Head Electrician, JO Henderson (now Lead Automation Operator at O)was the Show Control operator, and Jonathan Deans (now Cirque Sound Designer) was Sound Designer.

Connections, Differences, and Advancements

Many of the innovators from Super Live went on (as JT details above) to have long careers backstage throughout the industry, and the director Scott Faris continued to work on these kind of shows, right up through the recent Walking with Dinosaurs. And while as far as I know, no one on the production team from GLSLA worked on Marvel Universe Live!, it’s actually the same producer, Kenneth Feld and Feld Productions.

But there is a technological heritage as well. A lot of what was hand made and groundbreaking on Super Live is now widely used technology that can be purchased off the shelf. And technology has made the integration simpler—today we have Ethernet. But the massive sets on Super Live, which may have killed the show’s touring future, today could be done with video mapping as they do on the Marvel show (see the following series of photos):

The Blacktrax tracking makes the positional tracking practical; the one big difference I see is that, like so many modern shows, Marvel Universe Live! is for the most part locked down in time, synced to time code.

But all these things—plus so many other innovations of the last 25 years or so—make a show like Marvel Universe Live! practical and cost effective, where Super Live was not. And Jonathan makes this point in the Tested article five years ago: "To do that show now would be stunning. … All the technology, we could do that easily now, in every aspect. Technology has grown up and we'd be able to do that in our sleep almost. But of course, we'd make it a lot better."

A New Form of Theatrical Performance and a Remarkable Show: Say Something Bunny

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I wrote recently about the types of live shows I enjoy the most: those without a fourth wall. That rules out a lot of traditional theatre, and especially much of “experimental” theatre, where “experimental” is often code for insufferable and self indulgent. But I’m happy to report on an experiment that succeeded amazingly well: Say Something Bunny, which—as far as I can tell—uses an entirely new form of theatrical performance to tell a fascinating story.

As you can see from this blog (and my instagram feed), I try to stay on top of this kind of thing happening in NYC, but somehow this show ran below my radar; it’s been running since 2017. But I was listening to Penn Jillette’s podcast (episode 467), and Penn raved about it after a recent trip to NYC. We have similar tastes in many ways, so I paused the podcast mid episode and bought tickets. Other than reading the logistics in the emails sent by the production after buying tickets, I went into the production completely cold, and if you want to do the same—while there’s not really any significant spoilers below—you should stop reading now and buy tickets for yourself.

The show is based around a single performer, the amazing, talented, and charismatic Alison S. M. Kobayashi, who created the show as “director, performer, researcher, co-author, [and] co-producer“ along with Christopher Allen, who is credited for “co-author, co-producer, dramaturgy, [and] technical design“. In the show, Ms. Kobayashi tells a story of obtaining an old wire recorder; inside were two wire recordings. Listening to these recordings hundreds of times, she embarked a dogged (obsessive?) detective process that led to the discovery of amazing details about a NY area family.

I’ll leave the rest of the family details for you to discover by seeing the show (or via reviews, like this excellent one from my friend and colleague David Barbour), but I had two overall thoughts about the family’s story as told by Ms. Kobayashi. First, it's kind of amazing what kind of story she could draw from old, mysterious recordings (the story gets so outlandish by the second act that I started thinking that she had made the whole thing up, which would have been an incredible achievement in and of it self; I did some post-show googling, and it seems the story is true.) But secondly, listening to this 1950s family, sometimes recorded surreptitiously (something I did to my family with a cassette recorder as a kid in the 70s), I was also thinking about how mundane family stuff and relationships are a universal theme, and that every family has some interesting story and/or drama. But talking after to my friend who I took to the show—who had a pretty disastrous and abusive upbringing—she couldn’t relate to the family dynamics at all. But she liked the show and was—like me—fascinated by the form and the telling.

The Form

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The show is built into a studio space way out on the west side of Chelsea, which these days is the land of expensive art galleries and the touristy High Line. You enter by pressing a buzzer on the street, walk up some stairs next to a neon sign for an adjacent hairdressing studio, and then you’re let into a little waiting area. At showtime, a curtain is drawn back and you see the playing space: a large round table, and a few seats on risers in the back with home made music stands containing scripts. There are only about 25 seats total, and seating is done by order of arrival; we got seats on the risers. As soon as I saw the script, I thought about heading for the exit, thinking this was going to be some twee, forced participation “immersive” theatre piece (immersive being the theatre buzzword of recent years); however I didn’t think Penn would have raved about the show if that were the case. Each person is eventually given a character name and a script, and Ms Kobayashi immediately puts everyone at ease by saying—twice if I remember right—that no one will in the audience will be saying anything. Instead, each audience member is assigned a character in the show as a way of tracking and identifying with the characters, and the script is a way to follow the story.

In reality, this setting/audience/script/character structure is the core, brilliant performance device that draws in the audience, and—as we soon see—gives Ms Kobayashi, alone on the stage, people to perform with and to as she tells the story. Given the conference-room style setting, there never really is a fourth wall, and she eventually performs directly to each member of the audience. I’ve seen a lot of experiments with this kind of thing (like my friend Christene Jones’ excellent and powerful Theatre for One that we hosted at my school 10 years ago) that can be awkward or uncomfortable for introverts like me; but in the safety here offered by Ms Koybayashi I felt totally at ease.

As she starts delving into the story, we hear snippets of the wire recordings, and she supports the stories of her investigation with a tight, rapid-fire array of audio, images, video recordings, live video and simple light cues which all lay out evidence for the story, like an artistic court room presentation. She sometimes presents things directly; other times she uses props, live and recorded video and costume changes to tell the story. She also moves around the wire-reel shaped table to bring the story to everyone.

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The woman who checked us all in was sitting next to Ms Kobayashi, and had her hands under the table; I suspected that she was running everything via QLab. At intermission I confirmed this (see photo); she is credited as the “operator”.

One thing I’m writing about on my sabbatical this semester is the maturation of show technology; my premise is that our array of show technologies which have matured in the last 20 years or so has given us a robust technological story telling toolbox that we can now use to enable really sophisticated and cost-effective high-tech storytelling, and I would argue that Say Something Bunny has benefited significantly from (or exists because of) this maturation.

The tech here is smooth, very well integrated, and an important core part of the production, but there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been done 25 years ago. However, back then the technology required would have been expensive and needed a large crew, and all of that would have required a truck load of money. Instead, today, everything in this show—audio, video, and lighting—was controlled using one laptop running the very affordable QLab software which is very easy to program. Having this cost effective, mature tool makes shows like this practical financially, and enabled the creators to develop this on their own in a truly DIY fashion.

So in the end, I would argue that this new form of performance storytelling is built on three important foundations. 1) The brilliant device of assignment of characters to audience members and using the script and the conference room setting. 2) The availability and affordability of mature show technology (even for the wooden table itself, designed by graphic designer Michał Dudek, and was, I would guess, drawn on a computer and CNC-cut). And, most importantly 3) The creators’ creativity, determination and persistence.

As much as the show worked, I think the creative team could benefit with collaborations with theatrical designers; there were issues with speaker placement, sound score, lighting, and video that I think could all be addressed and improved to make the story telling even more powerful. But none of that takes away from what Ms. Kobayashi and Mr. Allen have created: a remarkable show powered by a new, compelling, and truly engrossing form of storytelling. This work is so specific to these creators and this story that I’m not sure how this form can be used for other stories (or should be), but I’m fascinated to see what comes next and inspired by their accomplishment. The run is limited (as of this writing it’s extended to July) and the audience is tiny, but so go see Say Something Bunny soon if you can.

If you can’t get to the show, I’ve embedded a couple video clips below. If you are going, it’s better to skip these and let this magical production surprise you.

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Roadside America in Shartlesville PA

I’ve driven by it a bunch of times, but never made it in. But on Saturday I finally stopped into Roadside America in Shartlesville, PA. The main creator, Laurence Gieringer, died in 1963, the year I was born, so it’s a sort of living time capsule. I didn’t really plan to stop by, so I didn’t have the right lenses to show detail, but here’s some general shots.

There is a regular night show (you can see above), which is entirely manually operated:

I talked to Richard Peiffer (that’s Village Supervisor Jon Jordan pictured above), and it turns out that (besides being a retired nuclear submariner, about which he had lots of good stories) he is the primary guy who maintains the whole thing, with a title of “Road Foreman of Track, Trains, and Trolleys “. He showed me around a bit and it was really incredible behind the scenes, and, well, very, uh, let’s say “vintage”. The whole thing is so massive and spectacular and old school that it’s definitely worth a visit (and admission is only $8).

But get there soon, since the whole thing is up for sale, and a employee led kickstarter failed, so the future is uncertain. Here’s a picture of the guys from their Kickstarter, that’s Richard on the right, with a “Make Trains Cool Again” hat, and Jeff Marks, restoration artist on the left.

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Below is a video from PennLive.

Lasers and Fireworks FROM A PLANE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I’ve been in show business for about three decades now and have worked on or seen literally thousands of shows. So it takes a lot to impress me, but this did it:

Yes, it’s synchronized lasers, fireworks and LED’s ON A PLANE! This video which went viral yesterday was at the Avalon Airshow in Australia, and the show is the “LLP Night” show (laser led pyro) from the geniuses at Scandinavian Airshow. Apparently they’ve been doing this for a couple years, here’s a video from one of the planes.

I want to see this in person!

I Love Live Shows But Not the Fourth Wall

Ann Courtney of  Mother Feather

Ann Courtney of Mother Feather

The fourth wall is a performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. wikipedia:

I grew up in the middle of nowhere, saw my first concert in 1977 (Led Zeppelin), and wanted to work on this kind of stuff and so I went to school for technical theatre in 1981 because it was the closest thing I could find in those days to concert touring. Working backstage on theatre productions was really fun, and that took me into a long run of working on all kinds of shows, into grad school in 1987 and into a bunch of theatre sound design. It was all fine but I think sometime around 1998, when I did my last theatrical sound design, I finally realized: I don’t like the fourth wall.

I mean I’ve seen or worked on probably literally a thousand shows, and I knew this all along, but somewhere in there I realized that the shows I most enjoy--music, variety, comedy, circus, vaudeville, magic and even educational lectures--all acknowledge that the audience is actually there.  In the same way that I don’t like realism onstage (when film does it much better) it just seems very weird to me to have the performers pretend the audience isn’t there. Of course, the boundary is always mutable, and some decorum must be maintained. And I especially like it when, in fact, the performers have a give and take with the audience.  But isn’t that why we’re all there? We are there for the performers and the performers are there to be with us. Why put up a barrier?