Tempest Tech: Shakespeare Doth Digital

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

In a year that marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), The Imaginarium and Intel are bringing special-effects technology to the theater.

For the RSC’s winter season (November 2016 to January 2017), The Tempest will feature a 3D-animated character — Ariel the sprite — live on Stratford-upon-Avon’s most hallowed stage.

“We have set ourselves the challenge of creating the most technologically advanced production we have ever staged,” said RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran. “[We are working] to give our audiences something out of the ordinary.”

Shakespeare’s plays have long celebrated the extraordinary. Four hundred years ago, drums boomed offstage to create the sound of thunder; popping firecrackers became magical spells; actors appeared through smoky trapdoors or were lowered dramatically from the rafters on creaking ropes.

Today, performance-capture technology can transform an actor’s movements, facial expressions and vocalization into extraordinarily lifelike digital characters.

It’s a process used widely in video games and blockbuster movies.

The RSC, Intel and Andy Sirkis’ The Imaginarium spent more than a year researching how to bring the same technology to the theater.

In this winter’s production of The Tempest, an actor behind the scenes acts out the role of Ariel — the spirit bound to serve the magician Prospero — and motion-capture technology projects the actor’s 3D avatar on stage. Because the theater is live, the projection changes with every performance.

“Together we are creating a human-digital interaction that feels ‘alive,’” said Penny Baldwin, ‎vice president and general manager of Intel’s brand.

“Since its first performance in 1610, Shakespeare’s late, great play, The Tempest, has been a vehicle for delivering the greatest spectacle that live theater could create,” said Baldwin.

“Shipwrecks, storms, fantastical creatures and magical masques have challenged the most ambitious companies to deliver their most ground-breaking stagecraft,” she said.

Robust Intel Xeon and Core i7 processors crunch the huge amounts of data that enable the real-time digital content projection.

“We have an opportunity to break new ground and thrill our audiences by bringing together the best of live theater with cutting-edge technology to deliver an amazing experience,” she said.

The RSC’s ambitious production is just one part of the celebrations to mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year.

In April, BBC Two and the RSC hosted Shakespeare Live! from the RSC, that featured “Shakespeare-inspired work” that spanned across musical genres including hip-hop, blues, musical theater, jazz, opera and classical.

The cast included luminaries such as Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Rufus Wainwright, Joseph Fienne, John Lithgow and many more.

Shakespeare Live! From the RSC will also be screened live in the UK and later in the U.S. via BBC Worldwide.

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