Dana Winslow Atchley III; Pioneered Digital Storytelling


Dana Winslow Atchley III, a performance artist and video producer who pioneered an art form called digital storytelling, has died.

Atchley died Dec. 13 of complications from a bone-marrow transplant at Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto. He was 59.

A self-described old hippie who once toured the country as a performance artist named Ace, Atchley combined a love of family history with his skills in new media to create an autobiographical show called “Next Exit,” which he performed at film and video festivals around the world.

In a reinterpretation of the age-old experience of telling stories around a campfire, he would sit on a tree stump on stage and blow on a television encased in logs to bring forth video flames. Then Atchley, in his role as electronic bard, would lean back, click on a wireless mouse and begin to narrate an assortment of personal stories told through images projected on a large screen.


The end result was a show that won praise from new media critics, one of whom called it “a remarkable blend of performance art, memoir, stand-up comedy and documentary film.”

Atchley went on to found with his wife, Denise, the Digital Storytelling Festival, held annually in Crested Butte, Colo., since 1995. He also co-founded the nonprofit Center for Digital Storytelling in San Francisco.

His mode of storytelling has been embraced by cutting-edge artists as well as corporate image-makers seeking a new way to communicate with their employees and customers.

Atchley had a rich background to draw on for his autobiographical show. His father was a ham radio buff and inventor who helped develop the 100-watt fluorescent light and microwave antennas. His grandfather was a prominent New York medical researcher and physician whose patients included Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and the widow of Chiang Kai-shek.


Born in Boston in 1941, Atchley earned art degrees at Dartmouth and Yale and by the early 1960s was teaching printmaking and calligraphy at Marlboro College in Vermont.

He tired of academia after several years, and spent the 1970s wandering North America in a Dodge van as a performance artist. Calling himself Ace the Colorado Spaceman, Atchley collected bizarre images from his travels across the country, producing a live multimedia performance called “Roadshow” that he gave before audiences in farm towns, on college campuses and in Hollywood.

He became a countercultural sensation so popular that Lorimar Productions bought the rights to his story, although it was never produced.

In the early 1980s he became an independent video producer. During this time he also acquired a Macintosh computer, which became the central tool in crafting his first digital story. “Next Exit,” first performed in 1991, drew on family archives dating from the late 1800s as well as thousands of images taken by Atchley since he got his first camera at age 7. Reviewers and fans compared him to a digital-age version of Garrison Keillor--or “somewhere on the road between Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac,” said Peter Bergman of Firesign Theater.

“What Dana did that no one has done but Dana is involve media in an all-encompassing way, but in a way that is extraordinarily transparent--meaning you did not watch the media,” said Joe Lambert, a former San Francisco theater producer who founded the Center for Digital Storytelling with Atchley and Nina Mullen. “Lots of artists did wild technical theater, but in almost all the cases that was the point. In Dana’s case the point remained the human being narrating to you as the backdrop changes.”

Atchley performed “Next Exit” around the world, including the Rotterdam Film Festival, Exit Festival in Sweden and the Australian Interactive Media Awards in Adelaide, as well as at the American Film Institute’s National Video Festival and the American Music Theater Festival in this country.

Every performance was different, like an improvisation, in that Atchley invited his audience to help choose which 12 or so of the 70 vignettes in his digital library to screen. “The nature of this medium,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in 1994, “is recombinant, it’s not cast in stone, it’s not a tomb, and it will change as long as I have my voice.”

One of the stories in his show--about his first romantic crush as a 7-year-old--so moved the president of Coca-Cola that he hired him to tell the history of the famous soft drink as a digital story. Atchley went on to create the Digital Storytelling Theater inside the World of Coca-Cola museum in Las Vegas.


In addition to his wife, Atchley is survived by two daughters, Gillian and Megan; his mother, Barbara Welch French, of Portsmouth, R.I.; six sisters and a granddaughter.