Royal Shakespeare Company Reimagines The Tempest

Deb Miller Landau iQ Managing Editor
The Tempest

To mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, the Royal Shakespeare Company whips up a storm of performance-capture technologies to dazzle audiences and celebrate The Tempest.

A wicked storm, fantastical spirits, a magician with otherworldly powers – these are elements of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that have challenged artistic directors since the play’s first performance in 1611. How to convey the magical world of Prospero’s Island? How to show the powers of Ariel the sprite? How to create a fantasy world in live theater?

The Tempest calls for spectacle from the very first moment,” said Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)’s artistic director Gregory Doran. He said the play has always been a marriage between art and the latest technology available at the time – from trapdoors, trapezes, pulleys and hoists to fog machines, lasers and fireworks.

The Tempest
Working on the set for The Tempest.

“Shakespeare’s imagination was a pretty massive, capacious ocean of genius,” said Doran. The Tempest, he said, was Shakespeare’s last solely authored play.

To celebrate that genius and commemorate the 400th year of Shakespeare’s death, Doran and the RSC wanted to go big.

Doran asked himself, if Shakespeare were alive today, what technology would he be exploring? What would he do with today’s technologies?

The Tempest

“So I talked to my digital team and I described what I wanted with The Tempest and asked: how could we do this?”

Sarah Ellis, Head of Digital Development at the RSC, found the answer in a flying whale.

She had seen Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynote at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, where he demonstrated a cinematic and augmented reality scene out of the steampunk-themed book series, The Leviathan. People in the audience saw a huge animated whale swim off a giant flat screen out over the crowd, as if by magic.

Ellis clicked the “Contact Us” button on Intel’s website and the journey began.

She passed the video on to Doran. He saw the potential for something truly ground breaking: a digitally-rendered character – Ariel the sprite – performing live on stage without the post-production rendering required for movies and video games.

The RSC teamed up with The Imaginarium Studios – Andy Serkis’s performance capture studio – and Intel to produce a tech-infused performance of The Tempest that would’ve made Shakespeare proud.

Stephen Brimson Lewis and Gregory Doran.
Stephen Brimson Lewis, the RSC’s Director of Design and Artistic Director Gregory Doran.

For more than two years, the teams worked to create a digital avatar of Ariel the sprite in all of his many forms, and to integrate technology into the performance in a way that would enhance the live theater, not overwhelm it.

Ariel the Sprite Comes to Life

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon is a hallowed place, where theater-goers are in the company of greatness.

Rows of red velvet seats hug the stage and the intimacy is palpable. The actors are so close, audience members can see the folds of fabric, a shimmer of sweat on an actor’s brow. This rawness, this vulnerability, is what makes live theater so compelling – it’s also what makes it so challenging.

“There’s nowhere to hide,” said Tawny Schlieski, Intel’s Director of Desktop Research who worked closely with The Imaginarium team on bringing the digital reinvention of Ariel to life.

“I realized that Gregory’s untethered ambitions for The Tempest would test the capabilities of our technologies,” she said. “It would stretch our thinking about the kind of magic artists could create.”

To execute Doran’s vision, Schlieski and her team turned to powerful Intel Core i7 processors, which enable some of the most immersive experiences in live-action e-sports and virtual reality available today.

For this 2016 production of The Tempest, Mark Quartley – the actor playing Ariel – wears a suit laden with motion sensors. The Imaginarium uses Intel Core i7-based computers to run Unreal, the game engine that renders the avatar’s motion by the data captured from Xsens sensors built into Quartley’s suit.

Mark Quartley in motion-capture suit
Mark Quartley gets the hang of Ariel’s sensor-laden suit, in rehearsals.

The avatar itself, painstakingly created by The Imaginarium team, has 336 joints – almost as many as the human body (which has 360).

The character is then rendered in real time by two custom-built workstations powered by Intel Xeon processors nicknamed “Little Beast” and “Big Beast.” The little beast maps all of the sensor data onto Quartley’s avatar. The Big Beast takes that information and pumps it out to 27 projectors, strategically placed throughout the theater.

Mark Quartley in The Tempest
Mark Quartley as the other-worldly Ariel, on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

“We literally hand-built these machines,” said Schlieski, likening the process to souping-up a Ferrari. “We had to put the Big Beasts in separate chassis because that’s the only way they’d fit.” She said they loaded them with two Titan X graphics cards, along with maximum memory and storage. Each Big Beast – two used during the performance, two used for backup – can crunch through up to 15 terabytes of data.

To put that processing power into perspective, Schlieski said, the computer that animates Ariel has more than 50 million times more memory than the one that put the first man on the moon.

digital control board
A tempest of technology at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

The projections allowed Ariel to transform into several characters including the harpy – the mythical female bird with giant claws and a human face.

“At first, I was very self-conscious because the suit doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination,” said Quartley about his skin-tight motion-capture suit. He said after a while he got used to it, and it was fun to see his avatar up on the big screen, to see it react to his movements.

The Tempest
Ariel transforms into a digital avatar of his terrifying harpy.

“It became really liberating,” he said. “I mean there’s a real sense in which this isn’t me now, I’m something else.”

For audiences, who get to see the performance live or via worldwide cinema screenings, the technology is introducing a whole new world of possibility, not only for digital integration into live theater, but for all forms on storytelling and content creation.

“I hope that the great directors and designers out there just keep taking inspiration from stuff like this,” said Quartley. “It’s really thrilling to be a part of, and I hope that the audience finds it thrilling to watch.”

Gregory Doran described it best when he said that his team had been given a new paint box, but not given any limitations on how it can be used.

The Tempest

“I suspect there will be a whole new way of thinking about how to create Shakespeare both through the words but also no longer defined by the parameters of a traditional auditorium,” said Doran.

As for Shakespeare? Doran said he believes the playwright, always one to push boundaries, would be delighted.

“I don’t think Shakespeare would be sitting in the audience going, ‘Why do you need all this extra stuff when I’ve written you such wonderful words?’” said Doran. “I think he would be going, ‘Wait a minute, if you can do this, couldn’t we do this?’ and that’s what will be stimulating the next new idea in theater and life experience terms.”

The Tempest is being performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 21 January 2017 and will transfer to the Barbican Theatre in London to play from 30 June to 18 August 2017. The play will also be broadcast as part of the RSC’s ‘Live From Stratford-upon-Avon’ programme to cinemas in the UK and Europe on 11 January 2017 and in encore screenings worldwide. www.rsc.org.uk

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