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High-tech Drama: Ed, Downloaded

Michael MitnickWhen the literary staff at The Denver Center commissioned playwright Michael Mitnick to write something, the deal came with a twist: the play should incorporate visual technology in a way that was integral to the storytelling. So often video is used in the theatre to augment or even replace set design: an image of a New York street or a leafy park can come and go with the flick of a switch. But what we were curious about was could today’s state-of-the-art visual technology be used narratively instead of decoratively? Could videos and projections, like those songs in musicals that carry the action forward, advance the story in exciting and unexpected ways, perhaps even forging new types of hybrid playwriting?

Intrigued by the challenge, Mitnick dreamed up Ed, Downloaded, a story set in a future world only slightly more advanced than our own. Ed, who is terminally ill, has decided to have his brain downloaded upon his death, taking ten memories with him into the great beyond. His girlfriend Selene works at a “forevertery” (a repository of digitized brains) and facilitates this cutting-edge procedure. When curiosity gets the better of her, she peeks at Ed’s memories, only to find that instead of herself, most of his memories are of Ruby, a vital young street performer Ed met shortly before his demise. And so Selene, who is not amused, decides to do something about it.

Mitnick takes pains to present the human story first. In fact, the whole notion of the forevertery doesn’t appear until the third scene.

Meghan Wolf in the 2012 reading of Ed, Downloaded at the Colorado New Play Summit“I wanted to establish the play firmly in terms of plot and character and drama onstage before bringing in the technological world. But once it was introduced, I wanted the two to coexist in a way that made each dependent on the other.”

That they do. In fact, the entire second act is a thrilling display of the interaction between the live actor playing Selene and the projected memories she is so unhappy about.

“If you were to look at a physical copy of the script,” Mitnick points out, “once the video is introduced, the page is rotated, it’s in landscape mode, in three columns. The character of Selene appears in all three columns talking with herself, stopping and starting, editing memories.”

Which makes Ed, Downloaded fiendishly difficult to present in standard play reading format. In fact, in the two workshop readings that this play has had, the videos were presented, whether in a rough, or “scratch,” version or more fleshed out with actual location shots. Charlie Miller, who is designing the video for the production and has been attached to the project since day one, felt the workshops with projections were invaluable: “It helped us hear how it sounds when you have layer upon layer of sound and video, especially in the second act. It also allowed us to develop a visual vocabulary for the show. Because we have the same director [as we had for the reading], we can start up our work on the production at 30 rather than at 0.”

Sam Buntrock, directorThat director is Tony-nominee Sam Buntrock, who made a splash with his 2008 New York revival of Sunday in the Park with George that was designed entirely with projections. “I was thrilled when Sam joined the project,” Miller continued. “I knew that he had a real eye for video and how video can successfully integrate with live performance.”

Mitnick appreciates Buntrock’s dramaturgical skills as well: “Sam is certainly someone who not only realizes the potential of a piece on the page, but he’s someone who can elevate the material. I’m very fortunate to have found him, and I’m glad he’ll be by my side in a piece that’s as ambitious and daunting and perhaps foolish as this.”

The production will be staged in The Ricketson Theatre, which seems ideally suited for a play with so much filmic material, given that it started out its life as a movie theatre. And the human scale of the theatre will work especially well for this three-character play.

Except for a film of the Grand Canyon that Ed shows on an old school pull-down screen in Act One (he works in a natural history museum), all of the video will be projected on state of the art screens. 

“We have this really cool new screen technology,” waxes Miller, “SpyeGrey, made by SpyeGlass, is a semitransparent film that when affixed to plexi-glass becomes an amazing projection surface that glows like a TV monitor, so it will look very futuristic.”

The memories will be projected on two large screens made of this material and suspended in the air over set designer Jim Kronzer’s minimalistic forevertery with its downloaded brain boxes perched atop pedestals like so many terra cotta soldiers.

But back to Ed’s story. Mitnick didn’t invent the idea of brain downloading (or uploading as it sometimes is called). Some scientists predict that within the foreseeable future, we may actually be able to download or digitize the contents of the human brain. According to Mitnick, the main stumbling block is the vast amount of digital storage needed. But the question always arises when science fiction draws nearer to non-fiction: Just because we can, should we?

The playwright is not sure whether he would, but he is curious about what it would be like to recapture a perfect moment: “It’s fascinating to me what it would be like to live that moment again and again and again, to exist within these euphoric moments.”

Ed, Downloaded plays Denver’s Ricketson Theatre January 11-February 17, 2013. Tickets: 303.893.4100.


This article first appeared in Prologue, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s subscriber newsletter. 

Different Kinds of Magic in Ed, Downloaded

Sam Buntrock, director of the world premiere of Ed, Downloaded

by Sam Buntrock, director

When Michael Mitnick first handed me his “multimedia play” Ed, Downloaded, I turned its pages with significant trepidation. Don’t get me wrong. Michael is a brilliant writer and I was thrilled to be reading his latest work. It was just that the title page stated that the play required the use of projection… and that is what made my palms sweat.

Let me explain.

British projection designer Tim Bird and I share a mantra: “Never do projection in the theatre.” As glib as that is, it speaks to an unavoidable truth. Yoking the disciplines of film and theatre together in a coherent and satisfying way is not an endeavor to be embarked on lightly.

Playbill of Sunday in the Park with George

Tim and I worked together on a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George, a production that started life small, off-West End in London, and ended up crossing the pond to Broadway with great success. It used projection, a lot of it, and the effort it took to accomplish what we set out to achieve almost did us in.

You see, film and theatre production share similar concepts, but their processes and workflow have almost opposite needs. Theatre is about developing a performance that can fully exist in the moment. Film is about capturing fragments of performance so that they can be skillfully arranged and aligned to create a whole.

In theatre you edit as you go; in film it comes at the end. Attempt the two at once and it’s like trying to solve which comes first, the filmic chicken or the theatrical egg. And it’s never a shortcut or a budget saver. Projection designers have to constantly push back against the idea that projection is cheap. Projection done well is expensive. I’m not just talking technology; I’m talking content—that which is projected. Thanks to the financial heft of TV, film and video games, a contemporary audience is very sophisticated when it comes to content. 

But the thing about projection in theatre is not just the challenge of can it be done, it’s the question of should it be done…. Developments in technology through the last decade have seen projection become more and more common as an element in theatrical production. Projection designers, once a rare and peculiar breed, are now commonly spotted in a playbill. Projection in theatre has become ubiquitous, and as a tool used sparingly to enhance and subtly augment more traditional stagecraft, it’s often a beautiful thing. But it’s merely a tool, one of many, and leaning on it excessively and in unwarranted ways is like a carpenter crafting a table with only a hammer.

Meghan Wolf in a reading of Ed, Downloaded

It’s when projection takes a front seat that the trouble often starts. I am talking about the explicit use of the moving or photographic image within the theatre— the use of photo/film/video as a significant element scenically and/or narratively.

The scenic question is easier to answer. If you project a large bustling New York street behind two actors engaged in a delicate romantic scene there’s going to be a conflict of interest: the audience’s. Most people will struggle to keep their eyes on the actors. There’s something hypnotic about the moving (or even photographic) image that pulls us in and seeks to conquer our attention. It can dominate and dwarf everything else. If you’ve ever sat in a bar with a sports game on a large flat screen you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Theatre is not a literal form. We sit together in the dark and watch actors perform in abstracted spaces— fragments (some more than others) of what they are designed to represent. Theatre engages our imagination; it asks us to complete the picture. Film works differently (though it too is best experienced together in the dark). Film, through a lens, presents us with fragments of the complete truth, shuffled together to create a string of progressive events, our imagination engaged in creating the illusion of consecutive time.

Time, I suppose, is the central issue, because it’s not just a question of what we are seeing, but of when we are seeing it. Film is inherently past tense; it has already happened. Theatre by its very nature is live. Whether Shakespeare or Mitnick, it is happening now—the audience is experiencing it in the moment, and its very nowness is essential to its power. Film says “this happened, this is something that happened,” while live performance says “this is happening, this is this.”

So that bustling street scene and those two actors are the combination of then and now. Just because we experience them both in dark rooms doesn’t mean that what we are experiencing is the same thing. They are different kinds of magic, and different kinds of magic don’t necessarily mix. I mean you’d hardly expect Dumbledore and Gandalf to share the same spell book. To let these two kinds of magic work together on stage one has to allow film to be part of the theatrical vocabulary—not an adjunct or an annex, but integral to the needs of the narrative. Projected imagery, for the most part, is too strong a force to be integrated surreptitiously or go unnoticed. It has to be there for a reason.

In the light of these concerns, I guess you’re wondering how my first reading of Ed, Downloaded went? Well, the fact that I’m directing its world premiere at The Denver Center should give you the short answer. The long one would go something like this…

Michael Mitnick, playwright

What Michael has written demands the use of video, of recorded performance. There is no other way of doing it. It is integral to the language of the play; it’s vital to its theatrical vocabulary. Ed, Downloaded deals with memory, and in Michael’s writing, filmic imagery is vital to the vocabulary with which memory is portrayed. 

Not only is film past tense, its relationship to how we remember is potent. People talk of “photographic memories” (and one can only wonder what people called an impressive ability to recall before photographic permanence arrived in 1822). Film critic Mark Kermode describes how film replicates “the peculiar card-shuffling experience of memory,” and how maybe that’s what allows our brains to so readily decipher the often complex code of edited film. In its sequential imagery, live action film is the simulation of how we remember, of how we dream. With Ed, Downloaded Michael has written a play that brilliantly exploits this relationship.

That’s not to say that in 20 years someone won’t successfully revive it without projection, unpick the needs of the play and triumphantly present it with finger puppets or some-such. That’s because the play is not about projection. It’s about the unexpectedly profound effect of one human being on another, and how love can radically change how we view ourselves. It’s about what we choose to remember and what we need to forget. It’s about how little we can ever really know. It’s about love. It’s about loss. It’s about iced cream.

Ed, Downloadedplays Denver’s Ricketson Theatre January 11-February 17, 2013. Tickets: 303.893.4100.


Sam Buntrock, who staged this production of Ed, Downloaded, is a Tony-nominated British theatre director and former animator. He lives in New York. This article first appeared in Applause program magazine.

 


Day 5c: Colorado New Play Summit

Michael Meghan Wolf (foreground) with Todd Bartels and Mandy SiegfriedMitnick’s multi-media play, ED, DOWNLOADED, just let out at our COLORADO NEW PLAY SUMMIT. Question: if you were able to preserve 10 memories, what would they be?

That’s exactly what Ed’s wife discovers following his death. Set sometime in the future, Ed had the ability to preserve 10 memories that would live in perpetuity. Unfortunately for him, his wife didn’t agree with his choices and she edits his memories to fit her emotional needs. 

Mitnick was commissioned by the DENVER CENTER THEATRE COMPANY; our one stipulation? Incorporate multi media. Our in-house multi-media designer, Charlie Miller, captured the preserved memories on video that provided a backdrop and catalyst for the action on stage.

Next up is the world premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s THE WHALE. Stay tuned.

Day 5b: Colorado New Play Summit

HOMEFREEWe’ve just wrapped up our third reading of the COLORADO NEW PLAY SUMMIT. Lisa Loomer’s HOMEFREE was a moving play about three homeless youths. During the course of the play, we gained insight into each of their motivations behind seeking a life on the streets vs. the relative security of their own homes or a shelter.

Consider what “Homefree” means - free of the constraints (rules, confines, expectations) that you might find in a home. Whether by force or by choice, the homeless individuals in the play each had a poignant story to tell. One central character, JJ, sang a common refrain: “I’m living my life in shades of gray,” that proved to be a metaphor for each of the lives we encountered in this new play.

Next up, Michael Mitnick’s multimedia workshop - ED, DOWNLOADED. What happens when you can download 10 memories that live in perpetuity and your wife doesn’t agree with your selections?

Day 4c: Colorado New Play Summit

Following two exciting new play readings, our guests headed into the world premiere of TWO THINGS YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT AT DINNER. One of the most exhilarating aspects of a new play festival is when you can see the play’s development from a reading one year to a full production in a subsequent year.

That’s what we experienced with Lisa Loomer’s play about how the taboo topics of religion and politics can threaten relationships. How will it change? Will it match how you imagined it? Will you be disappointed or surprised? The sense of wonder is all around us and we dive in.

Following the well received play, we all piled into The Jones Theatre for the late-night and immensely popular PLAYWRIGHTS’ SLAM. Think of a poetry reading. Playwrights regale audiences with excerpts of pieces in development. Participants include:

Samuel D. Hunter

Lisa Loomer

Lauren Feldman

Michael Mitnick

Richard Dresser

Jeffrey Haddow

Karen Zacarias

Marcus Gardley

Eric Schmiedl

Lucianne LaJoie

Kirsten Greenidge

Spirits are high and the crowd is loving it. What a great way to end the first day of our readings!

Day 3: Colorado New Play Summit

Wow! A combined 125 hours of rehearsal have been put into preparing for our COLORADO NEW PLAY SUMMIT, which begins tomorrow! Plus we are officially SOLD OUT. (If you want to come and don’t have a ticket, you are still encouraged to head down and check for available seats.) But at this point we have DOUBLED the number of “industry” representatives over last year.

PLAYWRIGHTS who are expected to attend include: Jeff Carey, Steven Cole Hughes, Terry Dodd, Richard Dresser, Lauren Eason, Lauren Feldman, Marcus Gardley, Judy GeBauer, Kirsten Greenidge, Jeffrey Haddow, Neal Hampton (composer), Samuel D. Hunter, Luciann Lajoie, Carter Lewis, Leslie Lewis, Felice Locker, Lisa Loomer, Robert McAndrew, William Missouri-Downs, Michael Mitnick, Steve Moulds, Henry Murray, Philip Penningrot, Max Posner, Theresa Rebeck, Eric Schmiedl, Helen Thorpe and Karen Zacarias.

DIRECTORS expected to attend include Hal Brooks, Sam Buntrock, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Mike Donahue, Pam MacKinnon, Art Manke, Christy Montour-Larson, Ethyl Will (music) and Justin Zsebe.

THEATRES represented include Actors Theatre of Louisville, Arena Stage, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Contemporary American Theatre, Creede Repertory Theatre, Curious Theatre Company, Dallas Theatre Center, Indiana Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Lincoln Theatre, Milwaukee Rep, New Dramatists, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Primary Stages, Page 73, Soho Rep, South Coast Rep and Third Law Dance Theatre.

Our New Play Summit is relatively new compared with others around the country. Now in our seventh year and under the leadership of Artistic Director Kent Thompson and New Play Development Director Bruce Sevy, we have quickly created a new play festival that is attracting attention. National Public Radio is continuing its interest. American Theatre magazine will cover the festival. And we’re delighted that the American Theatre Critics Association will once again hold its Winter meeting to coincide with our event.

Despite the long days and intense work, there is a feeling of anticipation as everyone gets ready to welcome our local and national guests. The excitement is palpable! We will see what tomorrow brings.

Day 2: Colorado New Play Summit

The second day of the COLORADO NEW PLAY SUMMIT had our 100 artistic team members actively engaged in five hours of rehearsal. The casts and crews of Lisa Loomer’s HOMEFREE and Richard Dresser’s THE HAND OF GOD had an “on stage” rehearsal when they worked in The Jones and The Ricketson theatres respectively.

Meanwhile, the casts and crews of Jeffrey Haddow and Neal Hampton’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY THE MUSICAL, MIchael Mitnick’s ED, DOWNLOADED and Lauren Feldman’s GRACE, OR THE ART OF CLIMBING were rehearsing in our cleverly named (and painted) Yellow, Purple and Orange rehearsal studios.

But you might be wondering what happens on these days. While directors SAM BUNTROCK (Ed, Downloaded), MIKE DONAHUE (GRACE…), PAM MACKINNON (The Hand of God), MARCIA MILGROM DODGE (Sense & Sensibility) and JUSTIN ZSEBE (Homefree) work with the actors on bring the script to life with tone, inflection, dialect, etc., the playwright spends a lot of time listening, gauging and refining.

Then lines are cut, dialogue is added, scripts are changed, copies are made and the whole process begins again tomorrow in preparation for the weekend’s public readings.

And then there’s tonight - a time for the participants to see plays that went through this same process last year and are now being fully produced by our DENVER CENTER THEATRE COMPANY: THE WHALE by Samuel D. Hunter and TWO THINGS YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT AT DINNER by Lisa Loomer.

Then there’s a little food and drink to connect, refresh, reminisce and anticipate what the coming days will bring. 

Kent Thompson opens Colorado New Play Summit

Kent Thompson welcomes participants in the COLORADO NEW PLAY SUMMITAnd we’re off! More than 100 playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, actors, stage managers and other key staff gathered this morning to kick off the DENVER CENTER THEATRE COMPANY's seventh COLORADO NEW PLAY SUMMIT.

Five readings of new works in development, plus two full productions of new plays and the ever-popular Playwrights’ Slam will be experienced by theatre industry representatives from across the nation, local and national press, and local theatre patrons. 

Participants gather to kick off the COLORADO NEW PLAY SUMMITThe casts are assembled and the work has started on the second floor of our Newman Center. Here’s what you can expect coming up Feb 10-12:

SENSE & SENSIBILITY
THE MUSICAL
Based in the novel by Jane Austen
Book and Lyrics by Jeffrey Haddow     Music by Neal Hampton
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Music Direction by Ethyl Will 

ED, DOWNLOADED
by Michael MItnick
Directed by Sam Buntrock
Dramaturgy by Douglas Langworthy
Multimedia Design by Charlie I. Miller 

THE HAND OF GOD
by Richard Dresser
Directed by Pam MacKinnon

HOMEFREE
by Lisa G. Loomer
Directed by Justin Zsebe
Dramaturgy by Liz Engelman

GRACE, OR THE ART OF CLIMBING
by Lauren Feldman
Directed by Mike Donahue
Dramaturgy by Liz Frankel 

Stay tuned for a daily recap of our work in development.