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Adolphe Appia at Hellerau: Virtual Reconstructions and Performances

The Appia project at the University of Warwick School of Theatre Studies ran from October 2002 to June 2004. It was funded through a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board for £103 000 under the direction of Professor Richard Beacham and explored the work of Adolphe Appia through the computer modelling of his designs at the Festspielhaus at Hellerau.

Adolphe Appia

In 1909, the Swiss theatre director, theoretician and designer, Adolphe Appia created some twenty unprecedented designs, which he termed "rhythmic spaces". In creating these, he conceived of them not as autonomous pictures, and still less as fictive backdrops or illustrations for the staging of conventional dramas, but rather as "living spaces"; intended to engineer and explore a variety of relationships between music, time, space and movement. Appia perceived that the way to bring these settings to life was by contrasting them with the human body. Their rigidity, sharp lines and angles, and immobility, when confronted by the softness, subtlety and movement of the body, would by opposition take on a kind of borrowed life. Moreover, by applying music and carefully orchestrated lighting to them, they could themselves convey a range of psychological or emotional meanings to become not just static settings, but rather "expressive elements" of theatrical art. This concept, embodying one of the fundamental principles of contemporary stage production, is one of several which has justified Appia's position as a "prophet of the modern theatre".

Settings inspired by these, and "rhythmic space" settings for full-scale production of Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice, were subsequently constructed at the Appia/Dalcroze Hellerau Festspielhaus in 1912-13, where the eurhythmics exercises conducted in them and presented in two annual public festivals astonished contemporaries and fundamentally altered the subsequent development of European theatrical art. Unfortunately, only still images and written accounts of these ground-breaking and vastly influential performances exist.

Theatre-historical research faces the problem of understanding how these settings were originally presented and used at Hellerau, and the challenge of trying to study the dynamic, three-dimensional, performative qualities of these settings, including their changing nature under different lighting conditions, in order to explore their expressive potential as living spaces when the human body is introduced into them.

Professor Beacham is the English language authority on Adolphe Appia, about whom he has published four books and numerous articles. In 1991, he helped to found Die Europäische Werkstatt für Kunst und Kultur, Hellerau, an international organisation devoted to conserving the Hellerau Festspielhaus (which since 1945 had housed a Soviet garrison), and to rededicate it as a site for an innovative programme investigating performance theory and practice. In 1994, Prof. Beacham prepared a successful bid to the Getty Trust for a $250,000 grant for the physical restoration of much of the site.

Computer Modelling of Theatre Spaces

Computer simulation is gradually transforming historical research into the material culture of the past. The qualities that virtual reality and theatrical performance share (three-dimensionality, time, movement, sound, lighting, etc.) enables technology to play a particularly significant and productive role in theatre-historical research. Arguably, no moment in the history of theatre is more worthy of, or appropriate to, a virtual reality-based research approach than that of Appia's work at Hellerau, which itself constitutes a systematic and revolutionary reassessment of the roles and relationships of these elements in performance.

By taking examples of Appia's original designs, and examining them using various lighting and textures, they become a virtual commentary on, and extension of, his own theoretical analysis. Computer models can, for the first time since 1913, present Appia's influential models not as 2D designs, but with their intended solidity, dynamic lighting and three-dimensional quality intact. These qualities displaced what he himself termed the "dead canvases and ridiculous encumbrances" of the 19th century stage and were the elements that he emphasized above all, and which gave his designs their particular value.

By virtue of its 3D quality, 3-dminensional digital resources are far more useful for scholarly research into Appia's work than any other medium, since they allow the original qualities of his designs to be directly evoked, investigated and interrogated. Appia's radical reforms demanded the replacement of 2D flats and painted settings by solid "practicable" structures, and that these in turn be illuminated according to Appia's unprecedented lighting theory. The unique capacity of virtual reality (VR) to evoke these essential qualities is of extraordinary value in seeking to understand both his theory and his practice. Their digital format has the significant advantage in addition, of enabling other scholars to experiment with and modify them in the course of their own investigations. They provide the opportunity for researchers to interrogate and test Appia's ideas and in particular the capacity of his stage settings to embody his detailed theories, as, some years ago, Professor Beacham did through the actual reconstruction of Appia's stage settings, and the presentation upon them of a production informed by his unprecedented and vastly influential staging of Orpheus, at Hellerau in 1913. This work is documented in Professor Beacham's video Revolution and Rebirth.

Appia's decisive role as founder and prophet of the modern theatre is widely acknowledged, but known primarily only through his extensive theory and detailed, but unrealised, scenarios. (Many of these were first published and analysed by Prof. Beacham, in Adolphe Appia: Texts on Theatre, Routledge, 1993). His hugely important practical work - Appia thought of himself primarily as a practitioner - infrequent and ephemeral, has suffered scholarly neglect. Virtual reality technologies, complemented by the survival of both Appia's designs and the physical structure of the Hellerau site, can now be drawn upon to restore Appia's seminal work to scholarly discourse.

Research aims of the project

The aims of the research of the project drew upon this expertise in Appia's work and computer modelling and aimed to develop both in conjunction with the other. Two main areas of Appia's work were of particular interest; Appia's lighting techniques, and the nature of performance in his rhythmic spaces.

Appia's lighting installation

As part of the EC THEATRON Project, which he led, Prof. Beacham created a detailed virtual reality model of the Festspielhaus in its original layout of 1912 when Appia's innovative experimental theatre was there. Hellerau had an extraordinary and unprecedented lighting installation, carefully integrated with the rhythmic space stage sets employed there. Beacham's work at the Hellerau site enabled him to propose how this functioned; a hypothesis that the project set out to test using virtual reality. The project intended to incorporate into the VR architectural model a replication both of the original lighting conditions and 3D reconstructions of Appia's rhythmic spaces. These would include both those actually built at Hellerau but known only through photographs and descriptions, and other designs that, despite their major influence upon the theory and practice of modern stage design, have never been realised.

Exploring real and virtual rhythmic spaces

In 1991, Beacham presented a professional production at Warwick of a reconstruction of Appia's 1913 Hellerau production of Orpheus and Eurydice, working with specialists in historical choreography and teachers and practitioners of eurhythmics. This production was professionally video-recorded. The project also proposed: 1) to integrate this footage into the newly prepared virtual settlings, and 2) to use virtual choreography and human motion capture technology to instantiate both real and virtual performers into a mixed reality production using the 3D computer generated settings. The research challenge of this aspect of the project was to evoke the moving body in a dynamic environment in a manner that allows us to explore Appia's settings as he intended them: as spaces for the synthesis of movements, mass, light, and music. Beyond its relevance to interrogating the nature of Appia's work, such experimental work promised to make an important contribution to research into the entire field of historical performance.

The research questions of the project

Hence, the research questions of the project were specifically:

  • how could the designs be realised as 3-D constructions within the architectural format of the great Hall at Hellerau?
  • what kinds of spatial and visual relationships (sightlines, audience-performer relationships etc.) were produced within the place of this original performance?
  • what were the acoustical qualities of this space?
  • how did the extraordinary lighting apparatus at Hellerau enable these spaces to be illuminated in the course of performance, using the Appian concept of the "lighting plot"?
  • when recreated in virtual reality, how may these designs enable a new generation of research into Appia's theories of lighting, use of space, and the role of the human body, as "expressive elements"?

These questions were explored through the following activities:

  • translating Appia's 2-D designs into dynamic, virtual spaces with mass, light, music and the human body integrated into a computer model of the Hellerau site for which they were originally designed,
  • using virtual rhythmic spaces as sites for mixed-reality performances,
  • comparing video of real performance with motion capture performance in the same virtual spaces,
  • discovering the dynamic qualities of the spaces and their décor (light, sound, movement, scale),
  • realising Appia's designs as space, and thereby analysing their qualities in order to determine, with a precision never before possible, the specific principles of proportion, dimension and repetition that informed Appia's conception of "rhythmic space",
  • using the example of Orpheus to extend this spatial analysis to examine how these Appian principles were, through the duration of particular musical sequences (during which particular actions occurred in identifiable areas of the setting), conditioned by time.

These activities drew on the following resources, created specifically for the project:

  • virtual versions of a selection of Appia's "Rhythmic Spaces", as well as his designs of 1913 for Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice, in the form of both high detail photo realistic models and virtual reality models, models which can be navigated by the user in real time, on an ordinary computer. These models were also lit according to Appia's theories of lighting, specifically as they could be realised under the actual technical conditions at Hellerau.
  • a computer reconstruction of the architectural context of the designs, within the THEATRON Project's Hellerau Festspielhaus.
  • video footage of scenes from the 1991 reconstruction of the Hellerau Orpheus staged at Warwick (and integrated into the virtual settings).
  • a combination of avatars and human motion capture used to animate virtual settings with virtual performance, creating both live and recorded enactment.

Achievements of the project

Developing virtual spaces

Before the project began, the project members had already created a substantial database of source material including extensive photo-documentation. Much of it was previously unpublished and had been prepared during extensive work at Hellerau, the Swiss Theatre Museum, and the Dalcroze Archive, Geneva. The project team then created virtual structures, replicating the often complex scenic and lighting conditions suggested by a selection of both of Appia's designs, and photographic records of those created at Hellerau. This involved transforming the two-dimensional photographic images of the design or photograph into 3-D digital format using architectural modelling software.

A highly detailed computer model of the hall was created. This was rendered for high-resolution images and animations. Following the analysis of the 2D drawings for the settings of a selection of Appia's "Rhythmic Spaces" these were modelled in 3D. In addition, the modelling and lighting of the Orpheus and Eurydice settings as created and deployed at Hellerau was completed.

A computer reconstruction of the architectural context of the designs, within the EC sponsored THEATRON Project's Hellerau Festspielhaus was created. It will now be integrated into the materials comprising the THEATRON online module.

Having created virtual versions of this space, and the settings placed within it, the project team were able to explore and analyse its qualities in very great detail. They were able to investigate the visual characteristics of the space from every possible point of observation within it. As detailed below, we additionally acquired 3D stereoscopic capacity, which added a further degree of realism to the understanding of the spatial qualities of the historic venues.

Although a VRML world of the Hellerau complex was created that allows the user to navigate the building in all six degrees of freedom, the new TurnTool technology, which the team recently acquired, was also used to create a far more detailed (near-photo realistic) model, with the same real-time navigable capacity. This allowed the CAD models to be directly exported from 3D Studio Max into TurnTool so the user can explore the building using Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Re-creating Appia's modular designs

The project team completed the virtual modelling of a large number of Appia's modular settings, derived from very close analysis of the archival photographs of the Hellerau performances in the period 1912/13. The 3D stage designs were constructed from the known modular blocks that had been determined were used there. These were rendered using different colours to denote the different types (dimensions and proportions) of modular stage construction used at Hellerau.

The modular blocks were used to create virtual versions of a selection of Appia's "Rhythmic Spaces", as well as his designs of 1913 for Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice were completed, and included reconstructions of a number of Appia's rhythmic designs (including examples never actually built at Hellerau). These blocks were then configured to imitate the rhythmic designs and were imported into the great hall 3D model, and photographically rendered there. An interactive stage design module was also created. Using Parallel Graphic's Internet Space Builder, primitives for the staging blocks used at Hellerau were produced which allow any user interactively to manipulate and place blocks into a stage configuration. In effect users can both assemble designs as employed at Hellerau, or create their own designs using the same modular blocks.

Creating a virtual lighting rig

After investigating the technical requisites available circa 1910 for the original lighting rig at Hellerau, the virtual lighting apparatus was created and used for photo realistic rendering. The detailed model with full lighting rig is available for high resolution rendered images and video. In addition, the actual modelling process indicated possible patterns of deployment of lighting control. The 3D Studio Max architectural model (for high resolution rendering) was adapted to allow more intuitive control and consequent evaluation of the lighting apparatus by non-modellers. The user files for this are remarkably small, which allows them readily to be used on any computer or accessed and used online as well.

Two interfaces were created to enable the lighting to be manipulated. The first interface mimics a modern lighting board (to make it more accessible to theatre students/professionals), but uses that interface to operate a system that conforms to Appia's theories. It allows researchers or students themselves to experiment with the qualities of Appia's designs as spaces for the creation of lighting plots. A second virtual lighting interface was created which enabled us to create and manipulate the lighting of the virtual Hellerau hall and stage sets in a manner that was based directly upon the technical capacities and quality of the original lighting rig. This was done following close analysis of all the original documentation, including the German patent designs filed for the rig in 1912-1913.

Creating stereoscopic models

The 3D models demonstrated at the Past Masters Conference, 5-7th December 2003, "Appia and Craig- Sculptors of the modern stage - Light/Shadow/Architecture", Aberystwyth (see below) also included stereoscopic models, which enabled viewers to perceive depth through the use of stereoscopic glasses. The image on the monitor flickers between the left and right images, which coincides with the lenses on the glasses alternately blacking out. Hence, the left eye only sees the left image and the right eye the right image. This in itself helped viewers understand more of the performers viewpoint from within Appia's sets. For instance, walking through Orpheus's "Descent into the Underworld", and being able to experience the feeling of height while looking down the steps, reveals some of the psychological distractions the performer would have felt. The capacity also gave a very evocative sense to viewers of what the original ambient qualities for the audience were like in the Festspielhaus.

Creating virtual performances using chromakey

An unanticipated opportunity enabled the project to address its aims in a particularly productive and appropriate manner. Prof. Beacham together with Prof. Christopher Innes, and Prof. Selma Odom (both at the University of York, Ontario) collaborated to re-construct a portion of the original Hellerau Orpheus choreography, record its performance at York, and subsequently integrate this using Chromakey technology into the virtual environments created at Warwick. Prof. Odom, a dance historian whose research is on Dalcroze eurhythmics, is the world authority on the original Hellerau choreography.

The chromakey work created for presentation at the Past Masters Conference, 5-7th December 2003, "Appia and Craig - Sculptors of the modern stage - Light/Shadow/Architecture", Aberystwyth drew together four separate media and required collaboration across four sites. The work (the opening "Mourners" scene of Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice) was based upon Appia's production. From the professional quality video recording of the 1991 production at the University of Warwick a CD soundtrack was digitised - the first time this production of Gluck's music existed in digital form. This CD was posted to York University in Canada to provide a background soundtrack to which the dancers, choreographed by Selma Odom, could dance. This performance was videoed against a blue screen, and the co-ordinates of the camera from the stage noted. This enabled Cat Fergusson, our collaborator at the University of Kent, to identify the correct view of the 3D model required to create a 2D backdrop for the performance - in effect a piece of virtual scenography based upon Appia's original design. Cat then composited the video from York with the 2D backdrop and added a computer-generated image of the altar (a part of the scenery required for the performance). Cat then synchronised the combined image track with the original CD soundtrack.

The performances in front of virtual backdrops and lighting provided a forum for the exploration of the relationship between architecture, décor and light. Then with the addition of performers we reconstituted and investigated Appia's full mise-en-scène "scheme" for selected scenes. The effectiveness of this was then compared with the video footage of the original performance in Warwick, which was overseen by Prof. Beacham and which took place in a completely physical setting.

Creating virtual performances using motion capture

In a development unforeseen at the time of making the AHRB application, the School of Theatre Studies was awarded a grant of some £70 000 under the HEFCE SRIF funding programme to acquire its own mixed reality capacity. The Appia Project figured prominently in the initial stages of the programme of research approved by SRIF and directed by Prof. Beacham and Dr. Hugh Denard. This enabled the immersion into the models of spaces of "virtual actors" (avatars), using motion capture technology and allowed us to create an animated walk-through of the Hellerau Festspielhaus foyer. We also used motion capture to record various poses and movements of people in real-time, which were then applied to 3D characters and positioned within the virtual model to create an animated sequence.

Hence, the following types of performance were created and contrasted:

  • Video footage of a rhythmic spaces performance in a real setting
  • Live footage of a rhythmic spaces performance against a ChromaKey screen for later compositing into virtual environment
  • A semi-immersive performance against a virtual scenography and lighting backdrop
  • Motion capture of a performance for later integration into a virtual space.

Developing and using educational resources

In addition to the research outputs met from the original research goals, the Adolphe Appia at Hellerau project has been of substantial benefit to the research of the department with respect to its understanding of the process of creating and employing educational resources. Three events during the project exemplify this.

1. ChromaKey work presented at the Past Masters Conference

Problems were encountered with setting up the process of creating the chromakey work were due mainly to miscommunication between Cat Fergusson, Mark Childs (the person co-ordinating the activity) and the production team in York. Cat and Mark tended to overestimate the understanding of the team in York with regard to ChromaKey work, since this is frequently the subject of documentaries on film-making and was therefore expected to be common knowledge. This miscommunication was partially resolved through several telephone conversations, and through Cat producing a short animation demonstrating the process. Failures of the communication still resulted in mistakes in the choice of clothing for the dancers (i.e. amethyst - which was too similar to the colour of the blue screen) and in the lighting of the set being too high key, since any shadows on the screen will alter the colour of the background and make filtering out the background more difficult for the compositing process.

For further ChromaKey work, therefore, it is proposed to create a training video for performers, directors and photographers to explain the process and draw attention to the potential areas of error. This could usefully be adopted as good practice for any group conducting ChromaKey work.

2. 3d modelled space

For the 3D walkthrough of the Festspielhaus created by Martin Blazeby and Drew Baker, animated characters were created with which to populate the building. In evaluations of the use of THEATRON by undergraduate students, conducted by Mark Childs of Warwick's Centre for Academic Practice, one aspect perceived as problematic was the lack of activity within the spaces. The users of the system stated that they would get a better sense of how the theatres would have looked and functioned if audiences, performers and any stage devices used could also be integrated into the models. Although no comparison studies have yet been conducted with users as to whether these animated characters have made the difference they anticipated, the Appia research programme has provided us with the source materials with which this development can be tested, and hence incorporated into the THEATRON system.

3. Resources for lodging with AHDS Performing Arts

The resources created for the Appia project which included more than 250 discrete assets, were placed with the AHDS Performing Arts Service in mid-August. With any resource repository, the greatest task is generating the metadata with which to describe the assets. For this we drew on the experience of the JISC X4L programme (directed by Prof. Beacham and Dr. Denard, with the full participation of Mark Childs and the Centre for Academic Practice) CETIS and the subject librarian at Warwick. The metadata schema we used was VRA Core, but to speed up the process of creation, this was reduced down to the mandatory fields, with the addition of a digital rights management field. Our digital rights metadata are based on the Creative Commons initiative, from which we identified "free for non-commercial use" and "identify creator in any subsequent works" as suitable licensing for users of our resources.

To further speed the process of creation of metadata, we formulated a strategy whereby Iryna Kuska, a PhD student, would generate metadata based on existing descriptions, such as filenames, filetypes and directory pathnames, as well as direct observation of the resource, such as front elevation, interior, etc. There is precedence for this in other academic communities, e.g. Ricci (2004). Once Iryna had created the first draft of the metadata, Dr. Denard and Professor Beacham then annotated this with additional information where appropriate.

As a method for creating metadata this proved very effective, and this experience is being disseminated through the JISC community.

Output and Further work

Some of the Projects results are included in Prof. Beacham's recently published book: Adolphe Appia. Künstler und Visionär des Modernen Theaters, Alexander Verlag, Berlin.

Prof. Beacham, Keynote Address: Past Masters Conference at Aberystwyth 5-7th December, 2003: Appia and Craig- Sculptors of the modern stage - Light/Shadow/Architecture Paper Title: "'Anonymity is the essence of my whole existence' In Search of Appia.". This paper will be published

Prof. Beacham, Keynote Address to be given at the Conference: "Mind the Gap": Theatre Spaces / Media Spaces. Researching an Alternative Scenography" Symposium at ZKM Karlsruhe. November, 2004. Paper Title: "'Bearers of the Flame?' Contemporary Experimental Scenography and Performance Considered In the Light of Appia." ("'Hüter der Flamme?' Zeitgenössische experimentelle Szenographie und Performance, und die Wirkung von Adolphe Appia," This paper will be published.

Examples of the Project's work, including the virtual reconstruction of scenes from Hellerau figured as a digital presentation in an exhibition of Appia's original designs in Madrid at the Circulo de Bellas Artes from 5 May 6 June, 2004.

Prof. Beacham wrote and published a 20 page article in the exhibition's catalogue: "Theory into Practice: The Presentation and Reception of Orphée et Eurydice (1912-13); Tristan und Isolde (1923); and the Ring (1924-25)".

Materials on Hellerau and Appia have been incorporated into the THEATRON Project module, and more will follow.

A CD-ROM containing the models, animations, and virtual performances produced by the Project is in preparation will be made available as a teaching resource.

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