- James Huston
A generation of Americans growing up with social media, interactive gaming and cellular technology has changed the opportunities for artistic creativity and the interests of the audience. What if, instead of going into a theater just to sit and watch a performance, you could become part of the process of shaping it—and even become part of the performance itself?
That notion is at the heart of Dance Engine, a project developed by Michigan State University faculty member Alison Dobbins and BYU-based Michael Kraczek and Kori Wakamatsu. Dobbins, the project director, had been looking to create something that would bring audience members into the process of shaping a work as it's being formed. When she met Kraczek at a professional conference, she realized that his background in a wide range of technical theater made him an ideal part of this idea. "When I look for collaborators," Dobbins says, "I look for people used to doing interdisciplinary work. They're comfortable with the fact that we have no idea what we're doing."
The concept evolved from Dobbins' notions about the audience controlling elements of a production, up to and including joining in the performance. There were conceptual challenges to address, including how to cue audience involvement rather than have them staring at their phones throughout a performance; "if they're looking at a screen, they're not looking at the actors on stage," she says.
So Dance Engine finds a way to prompt that interaction while still remaining focused on the activity going on in the performance space. Before the production begins, audience members are invited to visit a website on their mobile devices, and enter their seat number. Once the lights go down, audience members in individual seats are signaled by a light that they're being sent an instruction. At different points during the show, that instruction might involve choosing one of three different words to determine the tone or mood of the dancers' performance, sliding a bar up or down to slow or speed up the tempo, control the lights, or even move their phones in a way that changes the dancers' movements.
It all builds to a section that invites audience members themselves to join in the dancing. "There are single- or few-word prompts to get people to move in certain ways," Dobbins says. "The dancers are there to help, but basically it becomes a flash mob."
As an example, she recalls one Dance Engine performance where there was a toddler as part of the audience, and they sent the prompt, "Follow the baby." "It took the baby a while to realize that there were 40 adults doing what it was doing, like smacking the ground with their hands," Dobbins says.
For Dobbins, this kind of interactive experience represents the changing nature of the way people consume media and entertainment, when we often watch what we want when we want, on demand. "At a very base level, we have control over what we see and when," Dobbins says. "How do you attract an audience that is ready for something like that?"
This kind of unconventional performance does, of course, come with its own unique set of challenges. For one, the dancers need to be comfortable with a work that, while it has certain fixed elements, is largely improvisational in nature, and needs to provide a foundation for audience members to feel comfortable joining in. "There is some set choreography," Dobbins says, "so that when the tempo changes, you can tell. And [the dancers] do ensemble work in rehearsal, so they have cohesion. But dancers who can act are the ones who succeed best, because they can communicate an objective. They are comfortable connecting with an audience while performing, rather than being objects for the audience to watch."
There's also the realization that, any time technology is involved, there can be glitches, like audience members losing their connection to the website during the performance. Dobbins notes that there are redundancies and backups built into the production, but that the most important thing is focusing on the interactive component as being about more than technology—including being the kind of show that is inclusive across age ranges and ability levels. "We always train the dancers in helping [audience members]," Dobbins says. "We also tell the dancers that the show is about the human connection."
And Dobbins says she can tell when Dance Engine is working, because she can feel the connection. "I can tell if they're getting involved if there are a lot of laughs, or a lot of response early on," Dobbins says. "We've performed at elementary schools, at festivals, and we tend to get a lot of people up and moving in new ways. When I see that, I feel success, like 'We've got it, this group is in.'"