CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The first message an audience member receives before a theatrical or music performance or dance is to turn off cellphones and refrain from texting or taking photos.
John Toenjes is telling audiences the opposite: Leave your phones on, and use them to interact with and enhance what you are seeing onstage. An interactive app Toenjes is developing may cause the phone to flash lights, play music or show images of the performers’ faces. It may direct audience members to do something, or show an enhanced image of what is happening onstage through augmented reality.
“It’s as if we’re bringing the stage out into the audience,” said Toenjes, a composer and the music director for the University of Illinois dance department.
Toenjes formed the Laboratory for Audience Interactive Technologies and has been building an app that will integrate technology into performances, with the help of a National Center for Supercomputing Applications Fellowship during the 2014-15 academic year.
Toenjes will use the app in a new dance piece he’s creating with Chad Michael Hall, a choreographer and dance professor at the University of California, Irvine. Hall is spending two weeks as an artist-in-residence with the U. of I. dance department. A free performance of the show “Interface: Critical Mass” will take place at 7 p.m. April 8 and 9 in the Playhouse Theater at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
John Toenjes, a composer and music director of the University of Illinois dance department, has been developing an app to add technology to theatrical performances and enable the audience to interact with what is happening onstage. It was first used in a dance performance, “Interface: Public Figure,” pictured here. A new work, “Interface: Critical Mass,” will also use the interactive app.
Photo by Skye Janel Schmidt
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“It’s experimental. It’s not a finished work, but we’re experimenting with how we can use the app in a theater situation,” Toenjes said. “The whole point of a phone is it’s a participatory device. How can we use a participatory device to engage the audience, not just as viewers, but as participants?”
Toenjes teaches a dance and technology class, and a few years ago he and his class looked at how they might incorporate tablet computers into a dance performance. That led to Toenjes developing the 2014 show “Kama Begata Nihilum,” in which dancers carried networked tablets and the audience could see an enhanced version of the action onstage with an augmented-reality app. For example, audience members could point their phones at a giant robot and see it shooting laser lights and sending messages.
Hall incorporates digital technology and social media into his work. The “Critical Mass” show is the third installment of his “Interface” series, in which he explores how theater can use and respond to technology.
“There are no seats in the theater,” Hall said of “Critical Mass.” “The audience moves freely with the dancers through space like in an art gallery. We’re playing with the idea of giving the audience a choice.”
For example, they will have the option of becoming participants by taking a selfie when they enter the theater. A selfie will later be projected to the audience, with the instructions to gather around the person shown in the photo, who will be in the spotlight for the moment.
A previous “Interface” show – “Interface: Public Figure,” which was staged by Hall’s company, Multiplex Dance, and toured in March – used the LAIT app and focused on social media and how it influences how we think of ourselves. Audience members watched videos created by the performers and gave them “likes” in real time. The performer with the fewest likes was unfriended.
Toenjes has been testing the app in various types of performances. It was used to ring cellphones onstage on cue in the U. of I. theatre department’s production of “Kingdom City” at Krannert Center in February.
He’ll soon release an updated version with expanded capabilities. It will allow the audience to give feedback as well as receive information. For example, audience members might be able to choose the music they want to hear or the direction in which a play will go.
Also, a show’s director could send different messages to different groups of people in the theater.
“We really have to play with how to use phones effectively in a theatrical setting so we’re not taking away from what’s going on onstage,” Toenjes said.
There are other potential uses for the app as well, such as projecting special effects at rock concerts or sporting events. Toenjes led a research team funded by the Illinois Learning Sciences Design Initiatives that looked at how the app might be used to study learning in group environments.