Performances take new leaps with digital technology

Bono in "U23D"
Image courtesy of National Geographic Films

As lead singer of U2, Bono is known for his electrifying stage presence. That presence takes a whole new aspect on an I-Max screen where he's 60 feet tall and three dimensional.

The "U23D" was filmed during the band's Vertigo tour of South America in 2006. Using 18 high definition digital cameras stationed around the stadium, the film takes the audience swooping across the crowd and right into the midst of the band.

Christiansen Music Hall
The Christiansen Music Hall at St Olaf College in Northfield
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

It's a long way from the soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to the Christensen Music Hall at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Yet, there is a connection between Bono and the students in the practice rooms. St. Olaf, the home of the famed Christmas Festival, recently used digital technology to reach a new national audience.

"We were simulcast in 197 movie theaters. We drew over 9,000 people," said Bob Johnson, manager of music organizations at St Olaf.

Johnson said the college was discussing how to mark the Christmas Festival's 100th anniversary in December 2011. He said someone suggested following the Metropolitan Opera's example of simulcasting productions to movie theaters around the country.

"We all kind of chuckled, and didn't think too much of it," Johnson said. "And then someone said, 'Why wait until the 100th anniversary? Why not do it this year?'"

The Christmas Festival was already going to be broadcast nationally through Twin Cities Public Television. All the College needed to do was get another satellite truck and a distributor.

Bob Johnson
Bob Johnson is manager of music programs at St Olaf. he says St Olaf learned some valuable marketing lessons with this year's simulcast and hopes to at least double it's audience next year.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

St. Olaf worked with Colorado-based National CineMedia. It runs a nation wide digital distribution system.

National CineMedia started a few years back simulcasting rock concerts. It then added movie events, such as a 25th anniversary screening of "The Blues Brothers." That show included live interviews with Dan Ackroyd and James Brown.

Then came the idea for live Metropolitan Opera simulcasts. National CineMedia Vice President Dan Diamond said it's been remarkably popular.

"Last year we saw in the neighborhood, for six performances we saw right around 200,000 attendees for these events," he said.

Attendance is up this year. Diamond said while seeing an opera at the Met in person was a unique experience, the simulcasts offer a front row center seat for everyone.

"The sound is outstanding, the picture is outstanding, and you get views and angles of the theater that you don't see when you are in a stationary seat at the live performance," said Diamond.

Diamond said many people bring their children, building what he said will be a whole new generation of Met fans.

"There's a desire for this sort of upscale experience."

The technology offers theater chains a way to target specific audiences too.

Recently, the Galaxie 14 theater in Rochester, Minn., was the only venue in Minnesota to simulcast a performance direct from La Scala, the famed Italian opera house. Ron Krueger II is president of St. Louis based Wehrenberg Theaters, which owns Galaxie 14.

"Given what I would characterize as a broader sophistication in the Greater Rochester market, given the strength and professionalism that surrounds the Mayo clinic and IBM, there's a desire for this sort of upscale experience," he said.

Krueger said in other theaters the chain has offered live screenings of sporting events. He said they don't charge for those, but it's a good way of drawing customers during quiet movie times, and they do sell a lot at the concession stands. He also pointed out that tickets are already on sale for the Hanna Montana 3D film opening next month.

And how about this wrinkle on this digital revolution?

This weekend three college drama departments in Orlando, Fla., Peoria Ill. and just outside Toronto, Canada, will present "Alice Experiments in Wonderland."

It's a modern day take on Lewis Carroll's classic tale, one where Alice listens to an iPod.

What's really revolutionary is that the action will take place in front of audiences in three theaters that are hundreds of miles apart, all connected by digital cameras and projectors through the internet.

John Shafer, of the University of Central Florida, is the Orlando director. He described the stage as dominated by two sail-shaped screens. He said the audience in his theater will see things like the Cheshire cat being chased by one of the Tweedles.

'Alice's Experiments in Wonderland'
'Alice's Experiments in Wonderland' uses digital technology to link three audiences in three theaters hundreds of miles apart. characters appear to move from one space to the other. Audience members watch the action in their own theaters, and follow what's happening at the other theaters on the screens onstage.
Image courtesy UCF News and Information(photo Christine Dellert)

"She ducks behind a screen, he bounces off of it, and all of a sudden she disappears physically in Orlando, and runs across the stage in Canada," Shafer said. "While she disappears there, she then shows up in Illinois, before completing the circuit and coming back to join our audience in Orlando."

Of course it takes a Cheshire cat actor at each theater to complete this illusion, but Shafer says it's very believable.

There have been technical and timing issues to solve, and Shafer said his performers were ready to cover if they lose the connection. On a larger scale, he wondered about the legal and contractual issues involved with creating by having performers appearing on a stage together, despite the fact they were not even in the same country.

However, he said he's excited about having what he called a new artistic palette. He can imagine collaborations between some of the major theater companies in the world, where performers don't have to leave home.

Incidentally, Shafer said they're already planning one other use for the interconnection: it's how they'll hold the cast party too.