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October 8, 2016

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Tech takes a bow at arts festival

Program Code: 0909346161005001 Source: 2016 Shanghai International Arts Festival

THE 2016 Shanghai International Arts Festival that kicks off on Wednesday will marry traditional stagecraft with some technological wizardry.

There will be smartphone-supported “immersive” theater, allowing audiences to play leading roles. There will be unmanned aerial vehicles dancing in the night sky, and artificial intelligence robot improvising their own music live.

It’s all a fresh new experience for audiences during the month-long arts gala, and producers are aiming their sights at the young generation smitten with all things digital.

Those who prefer more traditional performances won’t be left out in the cold. The festival playbill includes the Mariinsky ballet and opera troupe, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Monte-Carlo Ballet.

Wang Jun, president of the Shanghai International Arts Festival, says the accent on technology this year mirrors the changing world we live in, a world defined by new age technologies.

“Almost all movies today require audiences to wear 3D glasses, and virtual reality is sweeping the game world,” she says. “Technology has been introduced to stage productions abroad for the past 10 years. We are now taking the first positive steps in China.”

Still, she admits, it’s an open question whether stage arts really need technologies like virtual reality to succeed, or whether these technologies actually hinder the substance of performances.

“We are letting audiences see all the possibilities before coming to their own conclusions,” she says.

At the Shanghai Theater Academy, audiences at performances of “Duality” will don headphones and start on a journey through a detective story by getting clues from messages and from interaction with pop-up characters.

It’s the first digital immersive theater in Asia, and it will be performed from October 15 to 22.

Rather than passively watching, audiences attending “Duality” will take a leading role in the story the minute they turn on their apps, according Tong Tong, the young director of the production.

“It is like a role-play game in real time,” she says.

Because of their intimate role, audiences will be limited to 10 people at each performance. They will have to “pick their way” through the academy campus, guided by pop news, WeChat video, text messages and phone calls — all delivered through their smartphones. En route, they will encounter real actors, and conversations will come through the app. They will even hear the inner thoughts of the characters.

Becoming part of the plot is what appeals to people in immersive theater, according to Jess Feast, director of Storybox, which is producing “Duality” in conjunction with the Shanghai Theater Academy and the Shanghai International Arts Festival.

A similar production by Storybox was premiered at the New Zealand Arts Festival in Wellington in February.

“The app turns the audiences’ phones into the characters’ phone — thus turning audiences into characters,” says Feast. “The smartphone has become such a way of life for people. People use them all the time. That’s how we live. So, it is natural to have smartphones working as devices in immersive theater.”

He adds, “I hope Chinese audiences enjoy the show as a new way of using their phones. It will be an interesting experience to find one’s phone suddenly becoming unfamiliar, as though it has been taken over.”

The first Shanghai Interactive Festival of Theater, which is allied to the Shanghai International Arts Festival, is keen to promote technological innovation as a way to reshape our thinking about performing arts.

Three of the five programs in the interactive festival, to be staged from October 16 to 30, deploy artificial intelligence robots in performances. The works include “Murmuration,” a dance by 35 unmanned quadrocopters in the night sky on October 21, and “Shimon Robot and Friends,” a concert of music between human and robotic artists on October 28.

There will also be a paper puppet theater telling the story of a romance between a human and a robot. It will be supported by the live interactive cinema “Nufonia Must Fall” on October 22-23 and 27-28.

Two programs — “My Name Is Bai Xiaofei” and “The Dreamers” — leave space for future updated versions with technological elements, according to Chen Qiang, artistic director of the interactive festival.

“Advancing technology provides artists with more choices in their innovative creation,” says Chen.

The new wave of stagecraft combines the traditional way of telling stories with technology that expands its potential.

“It is not simply about inserting technology in traditional arts,” Chen says. “In most cases, a new ‘vocabulary’ needs to be invented to tell a story when technology is introduced. Uncertainty may surround some of these creations, but there are also new possibilities never before imagined.”

It’s a bit of a gamble for both producers and artists and investors. Finding financing can be difficult if you are proposing a new, untried entertainment genre, Chen says.

He says all three technology-dominated performances were funded this year by the festival, an indication that new methods must be allowed their moment on the stage.

“The generation born post-1990s is a generation of smartphones and virtual reality games,” he notes. “These technologies influence the aesthetics and the imagination of the young. But, of course, we still need talent and skills to mount these kinds of programs.”


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