As technology changes the face of theatrical productions, some veterans worry about style over substance

In the theater, technology has been a boon and a bane. Since the introduction of science to the stage three decades ago, it has transformed the way shows are put together. "It pervades everything," says Alys Holden, director of production for Center Theatre Group. "Lighting, video -- which is its own subset -- sound and scenery, where automation is huge."

Progress on the artistic side has been more erratic. There have been plenty of breakthroughs, such as the blending of media and genres to create new art forms or the use of virtual gaming to redefine "audience participation." There have been missteps too, especially when people have become overly enamored of new toys and tools. "I've developed a deep suspicion of those who turn to technology in lieu of good ideas," says David Sefton, executive and artistic director of UCLA Live, which presents adventurous programming from around the world. "Technology works best when it's a means to an end, rather than an end in itself."

This fall we have a chance to see how far tech-performance has come -- and where it may be going -- in productions by three local companies at different spots on the evolutionary scale. California Institute of the Arts, a leader in artistic-scientific R&D;, is pushing the edges with "an interactive opera no-opera" called "AH!" The tradition-steeped Los Angeles Opera is plunging headlong into technology to mount a wildy untraditional version of Wagner's "Siegfried." And the tiny indie multimedia group Cloud Eye Control mixes tech high and low to tell the fanciful tale "Under Polaris."

'AH!'

CalArts

Its title may be the only simple thing about "AH!," an audio-visual exploration of language and music -- inspired by Buddhism's Diamond Sutra -- which opens Wednesday at REDCAT, CalArts' downtown theater.

"I wanted to do something related to the state of the world but didn't want it to be too topical," says David Rosenboom, dean of UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music, which is presenting the piece along with the college's Center for New Performance and Idyllwild Arts. "I hit on the idea of using the sutra's structural impulses, like its malleable narrative, then I realized the text is about cutting through illusion, which is one of the world's biggest problems."

Rosenboom and poet Martine Bellen developed 13 interlinking stories about perception and reality arranged in circular fashion like a mandala, the wheel-like Eastern symbol of the universe. A trove of high-tech devices -- many of which were designed at CalArts -- will help performers and the public transform the stories into new narratives and "sound-word bites."

"We've created what we call an opera generator," Rosenboom says, "an interactive template for producing many possible operas." (The word "opera," he adds, refers to "the work's dimensions" and not anything resembling "Rigoletto.")

"AH!" tries to redefine what a performance is and where it begins and ends -- do you, for instance, need to attend a show to experience it? The staged piece forms the middle of a "bell curve" that includes a webcast and possible video game. A website allows visitors to sample the mandala and add poems and sound files. Those who do go to REDCAT will see and hear some of these responses as they enter the lobby, where a computerized table -- Rosenboom likens it to a giant iPhone -- will display cascading letters that, when touched, morph into words and stories.

For the first time, the black-box theater will be stripped of its seats and risers, creating what "AH!" director Travis Preston calls a "chastened space." Live video will be projected onto the floor. The 13 stories will be told through movement, music and narration that incorporates nearly 20 languages. The cast will include a robotic percussionist as well as Rosenboom and 10 fellow composer-musicians. They will play and sing a score that ranges from rock to "Zen hip-hop" on acoustic and electronic instruments, including laptops, and will use a laser-beaming "diamond tetrahedron" and other devices that let them modulate sound with the wave of a hand.

How to keep all this from seeming too abstract? "The impact of the music and the text is quite visceral," Preston says. "The audience will be challenged to let go of their expectations and go with the flow."

'Siegfried'

Los Angeles Opera

Just down the block but a world away from REDCAT, the Los Angeles Opera is preparing the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the Sept. 26 opening of "Siegfried," the third part of Wagner's "Ring" cycle as interpreted by audacious auteur Achim Freyer.

"Achim painted a picture of what he wants to see onstage and left us to show him how we might achieve this," says Christopher Koelsch, vice president of artistic planning. The German director-designer's otherworldly vision requires what Koelsch calls "enormous amounts of technology, more than in any other production."

Trained as a painter, Freyer loves to play with perspective and light. "The scenery allows us to reinvent the space over and over," says Koelsch, citing as examples the severely raked deck and hinged turntable made famous in last season's "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkure." "It's like a Swiss Army knife."

L.A. Opera has installed a 3-D flying system that moves people and props up, down and all around. "It's one of a kind for a proscenium," Koelsch says. For "Siegfried," the company is introducing its Versa tubes, light-color-video modules more often seen in arena shows. High-definition video projected onto two scrims, one at the rear and one outside the proscenium, gives Freyer the freedom to "paint" the stage with blood or water.

The custom-made LED tubes that reminded many "Ring"-goers of "Star Wars" light-sabers are back, arrayed on the stage in a grid-like pattern representing "the long lines of time." When the hero forges his fabled sword, Koelsch explains, "the world literally shifts as the turntable moves and all the lines of time break up." What results is an iconic image -- and a big headache for technical director Jeff Kleeman, who must figure out how to cut up the tubes while keeping them powered.

L.A. Opera regards much of the equipment designed or acquired for this $32-million "Ring" as a long-term investment. For starters, everything will be used again in "Gotterdammerung" in April and when the entire cycle is presented in May and June.

"It's a tricky balance -- one requiring inventiveness," Koelsch says, describing the difficulties of addressing Freyer's desires while keeping an eye on the budget and "the peculiar needs of an opera singer."

For instance, Freyer wants to fill his world with fog and smoke, but he ran afoul of the singers union's long-standing concerns about health risks. The company finally found an option -- a liquid-nitrogen system -- that met with union approval. "As a result," says Koelsch, "we will be reintroducing fog to the opera stage."

'Under Polaris'

Cloud Eye Control

By its own admission, Cloud Eye Control uses technology "in a backwards way" -- combining animation, video and puppets made of cardboard and llama hair.

"Maybe it's generational," says Chi-wang Yang, a theater director who started the multimedia performance ensemble in 2004 with animator Miwa Matreyek and composer-musician Anna Oxygen. "In our daily lives we see a lot of strange interactions between humans and technology."

"Under Polaris," which will open Oct. 14 at REDCAT, grew out of a proposal by Oregon arts patron Leslie B. Durst, who offered to commission a piece about one of her favorite subjects: the North Pole. REDCAT and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art signed on as co-commissioners.

In "Polaris," a scientist (played by Oxygen) invents a process that distills the essence of humanity into a seed and sets off to deposit her creation in a vault modeled on a real-life Arctic doomsday chamber designed to preserve the world's plant species. Along the way, she seeks shelter from the cold in a musk ox's stomach and imagines herself becoming the Arctic Queen.

"It's a pretty epic story," says Yang, who like his colleagues is a former CalArts grad student. "To tell it we use very high-tech tools" (collaging projected images to form an ice cave), "old-school theatrical techniques" (Oxygen in a dance-off with a polar bear -- well, Matreyek in a bear costume) and "a mix of cinema, theater and rock concert." In fact, "Polaris" will open with a fantasy metal overture performed by the disbanded indie-rock duo the Need.

While some artists hide the smoke and mirrors, Cloud Eye Control wants everything -- projectors, puppeteers -- in the open. "We like you to see how we create the illusions we do," Yang says. "That way the audience really can participate."

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Productions

What: 'AH!'

Where: California Institute of the Arts at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday

Price: $25

Contact: (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org

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What: 'Siegfried'

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 1 p.m. Sept. 26; 2 p.m. Oct. 4; 5:30 p.m. Oct. 7; 2 p.m. Oct. 11; 5:30 p.m. Oct. 17.

Price: $20 to $260

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com

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What: 'Under Polaris'

Where: Cloud Eye Control at REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: 8:30 p.m. Oct. 14-17

Price: $20

Contact: (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org

For The Record Los Angeles Times Monday, September 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction Herb Alpert School of Music: A story in Sunday's Arts & Books section about California Institute of the Arts' presentation of "Ah!" at REDCAT identified David Rosenboom as dean of UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music. He is dean of the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 20, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction Herb Alpert School of Music: An article in last Sunday's Arts & Books section about CalArts' presentation of "AH!" at REDCAT identified David Rosenboom as dean of UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music. He is dean of the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts.
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