In the basement of Marquette University’s engineering building, surprising partners are building a 21st-century “Macbeth.”
Centuries ago, Shakespeare supplied the magic words for this story of murder and ambition. In Marquette’s Visualization Lab (MARVL),Chris Larkee conjures up the ghosts who will prod and frighten real human actors, using the same kind of virtual-world technology that video games use.
Through April 21, audiences will wear 3D glasses to watch Umbrella Group Theatre’s “Macbeth,” the latest in a series of theater productions staged in the lab.
As theaters go, the MARVL is small, with seating for 30 people. The stage measures just 20 feet across; performers do not touch the projection screens at either end. But for a “cave” (a generic name for this kind of immersive virtual reality environment), it's large. Most spaces like this are six to eight feet wide, better suited for a single person, such as the one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Local theater companies have discovered the power of MARVL to bring alive, or virtually alive, almost anything they imagine. When human actors take their marks on stage, projectors illuminate screens from behind so the audience, wearing 3D glasses, sees it all.
Larkee, a Marquette visualization technology specialist, cues commands from a computer station in the corner. Using Blender, a free 3D creation software program, he creates sets through a process similar to the way virtual worlds are constructed for video games. Following a script, Larkee changes the stage environment from scene to scene.
His background is in computer animation. Larkee studied film at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and previously worked as a video studio coordinator for Discovery World.
Visual technology specialist Chris Larkee adjusts the lighting for viewing 3D during a "Macbeth" rehearsal. (Photo: Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
He always wanted to design video games, so creating theater sets is a favorite part of his job. It takes Larkee about a month to design the sets for a production. He based his "Macbeth" sets on photographs of past productions.
Umbrella’s human cast recorded some scenes in advance in front of a green screen, including the famous three witches. So during live performances, some characters will appear out of nowhere, slightly transparent and glowing.
"What's better to do a show where you need a ghost to show up than this place?" said director Bo Johnson.
Johnson, who has built physical sets himself for many past productions, sees the virtual reality possibilities of MARVL as a visit to the future.
“I’m a dinosaur when it comes to most technological things,” said the director, who recently discarded his flip phone for an iPhone.
Virtual sets mean producers can spend less time and money on those physical elements and don’t have to trash or find storage for them when shows end.
Director Bo Johnson watches a "Macbeth" rehearsal wearing 3D glasses to see the effects. (Photo: Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
To accommodate the small stage, Todd Denning, who plays Macbeth himself, adapted the script to be performed by just four actors.
Wearing special glasses, audience members see the immersive technology tricks. But the costumed actors don’t.
"The actors can never see the 3D correctly," Larkee said. "It’s made to be viewed from this angle. They’re always seeing this double image that’s misaligned from their point of view, so they have to trust the director's calls a little more than usual."
Theater in MARVL began modestly in 2014 with a production of "Zoo Story" that used two-dimensional projections of New York City's Central Park.
When Kelly Coffey and Don Russell approached Marquette in 2016 about using a campus space to stage the Cooperative Performance Milwaukeeshow “Fruition of a Delusion,” the visualization cave was suggested to them as an option.
"We weren’t looking for high tech," Russell said. "We weren’t looking for computers. We weren’t looking for any of these visual theatrics. We were looking for very traditional."
But after seeing what the lab could do, Coffey and Russell signed on for the high-tech option two months before opening night. The cast rehearsed in a different space, with the cave's dimensions taped onto the floor. Less than a week before the first performance, CPM started rehearsing at MARVL. Then Coffey and Russell grasped what the technology offered.
"We put on the glasses and suddenly it's like the whole world lit up," Russell said. Six of the seven performances of "Fruition of a Delusion" in February sold out.
Coffey is brainstorming a play about the illusion of reality and thinking Marquette’s virtual stage might be the right place for that show.
“Macbeth” continues through April 21 in the MARVL lab within Marquette University’s Engineering Hall, 1637 W. Wisconsin Ave. The cast and crew will hold talkbacks after Sunday matinee performances. For tickets, visit www.umbrellagroupmilwaukee.com.