Imagine 20-foot-tall shadows — animated by live performers — that pop out right next to you. TED Fellow Christine Marie creates an immersive, experimental theater of shadows that layers textured, colored light into wordless storytelling. But while her productions involve 3D stereoscopic effects and feel amazingly cinematic, it’s all done without the aid of computers or projectors.
As her most recent production, 4 TRAINS/Signaling Arcana, opens this weekend at Z-Space in San Francisco, California, the TED Blog reached out to Marie to talk about how she’s reinvented old stereoscopic technology and merged it with her knowledge of filmmaking and traditional Indonesian puppetry to create something utterly unique.
Describe how your shadow theatre productions work.
This will be my fourth original production where I take multiple large screens and create a concave, visually immersive experience for the audience. One description I’ve been using is “primordial 3D IMAX,” because there’s 3D, it’s high spectacle, it’s cinematic — but it’s all created non-digitally. No computers, and no projectors.
I hand-make all of the lights myself — small halogen lights — and in this production we use up to 10. There’s a really intricate choreography of people behind the screens casting shadows of their bodies and objects they hold. We cross-dissolve between the different lights. So we’re setting up one shot on one, and then going to light two, and then light three, and so on. The performers are behind the screen, and the audience is on the other side, we’re both front projecting and rear projecting. I like the audience to see a bit of the mechanism in plain view so they know it’s not another projected experience, like television or film or a billboard — screens that emit light at us. The theory is that the shadow is what’s drawing us in. I feel it’s much more physiologically interactive when our own eyes have to complete the information that’s not there.
The storytelling is like that as well. It’s all done with no dialogue, no language — it is set to beautiful live music. This show has piano and cello. Composer Dan Cantrell played with Tom Waits, Joanna Newsome and the San Francisco symphony. Also playing live is cellist Alex Kelley and a sound designer who’s creating a surround sound design that moves throughout the theater.
How do you generate 3D shadows?
Halfway through the play, there’s a dream sequence, and many of the images that we’ve seen come back, but this time the audience puts on 3D viewers, and 20-foot giant shadow images pop out at them! We do this with an age-old technology called the stereograph, created in the 1900s. I’m basically using the same technology, but I’m the first person to create the shadows up to 40-feet tall. My 3D shadow light is a small light that you can put any object in front of, and the cast shadow of it pops out into cubic space, into the Z axis.
I’ve seen people reaching out and ducking from the 3D shadow. I’ve never seen anyone do that while watching a 3D film. I feel that the homemade 3D is much more impactful. There is built in motion tracking. While you have the glasses on, anywhere you’re sitting in the audience, the shadow is going to come right at you.
It’s also very intimate. The image is so close to you, it’s an individual experience you don’t get in other performance based work. I’m still sort of mining for meaning in the 3D shadow, and the ways in which I can keep expanding on it throughout my work.
Tell us about how you got started in shadow puppetry.
I studied film and video and was working as a video editor in San Francisco, spending way too much time editing alone. One night, after editing for 14 hours, I thought, “Is this what I want to do? Is this what I’m going to be when I grow up? You know, by myself, at a computer?”
So I made a wish: I wished I could find a way to create cinematically, with people, without a computer. That night I literally had a dream about a shadow, and then I began studying shadows and shadow theater. Later I wound up joining a shadow theater company. For a decade, I apprenticed with Larry Reed, from ShadowLight Productions, a pioneer in modern cinematic shadow theater in the US. My apprenticeship took me to Indonesia, to study Wayang Kulit — traditional Indonesian shadow puppetry. I’ve been assisting Larry in Wayang Kulit for years. Wayang Kulit is performed in Java and Bali, and I studied the Balinese form. When I went to Indonesia I made puppets and studied music and dance. Currently, I lecture on traditional shadow theater, but I’ve never wanted to be a Balinese dalang (shadow master).
What became of your film training?
I found a way to fuse the two together. I look at my form with the eye of a film director, not a theater director. I went to grad school at CalArts, and while I was in the theater department, I didn’t really connect with the style and methodology of directing actors for theater. I have found a way to incorporate aspects of live performance with animation and cinema. I’m front-projecting, using multiple screens, using shadows within shadows, colored shadows, mirrors, water. I have taken everything that I learned from multiple mediums and experimented and expanded upon it in so many different ways.
I think the thing that I’m most interested in now is telling stories visually that are conceptual, emotional, archetypal and relevant. 4TRAINS/ Signaling Arcana occurs in the 19th century, at the advent of the train. It asks, how can we live with dignity in this rapidly changing world that we may feel that we have no control over? It’s a timeless idea, with modern relevance. I’m interested in the generation that was born building their own home and stewarding their own land. With the advent of the train, everything changed their notions of time, commodity, industrialization and globalization. I can relate. I was born before the PC, the internet and the smartphone, and I sometimes feel like the world and our place in it is out of our control. 4 TRAINS/ Signaling Arcana is my way of using storytelling to bridge time and space. My images take us back to the rail lines that fueled an expansive transformation of the collective imagination.
What do you look for in performers? Do you use dancers or actors, or both?
For the upcoming show, I have a dancer and actors playing characters. The puppeteers come from all different places. Mainly visual artists with experience in tai chi are great at the moving the objects, and creating the images within the frame. My ensemble is composed of a patient and amazing group of artists. We don’t think about them as actors or dancers in the traditional way. They perform a transference of energy: the performance is not about looking at their actual bodies. They are working to animate themselves, thinking about the cast shadow only. It usually takes them awhile before they get it. If they’re not watching their silhouette, and animating what’s out there on the screen, it doesn’t connect to the audience. It’s a subtle, but a very profound difference.
What’s next for this production?
I consider this week the soft opening. We’re running for a short period, four days in San Francisco. We have a date to perform at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2014 and are in a process with producers in New York and Los Angeles. I hope to tour to at least five cities in the next year. I would love to tour internationally as well. Being a play without words, we can easily relate to audiences from Japan to Germany. It is extremely accessible in that way. It’s universal.
What else are you up to?
In the autumn, I’ll launch a consumer version of the 3D light. I have a patent pending on it. It’s incredibly small and it creates a 15-foot shadow. The shadows pop out of the ceiling, the floors — all around you. I’m also creating mobiles that spin around the light. The cast shadows from the mobiles pop out all over the place. I think it’ll be a beautiful, incredibly unique art piece to have in your home. It’s like a product design as well as performance.
How did you get the idea for that?
After I’d invented the 3D shadow light for theater — which is a hot, very cumbersome, crazy device — I thought, “This would be the best toy ever!” I know I’m happy to have one, and other people would love to play with this. So I thought of a way that it could be done on a smaller, safer scale and worked to create it.
How has the TED Fellowship been for you?
Awesome! I think the first and best thing are the friendships. In the Fellows program, I find so many similarities amongst us across disciplines. Asha De Vos runs a boat while on research expeditions. She knows about building a team, and having to get people to do the things she needs, without much of a budget, but by having faith in yourself and your mission. We share many of the same personal and professional issues in regards to team building although she’s working with scientists and I’m working with actors. Collaborating with other Fellows has been very rewarding. Last year Meklit Hadero and I created a music video, and in the upcoming year I have a few Fellows collaborations in the works. I am so grateful to the Fellows Team — it’s hard to ever doubt yourself when an amazing team is pulling for you!