Industry Update, Part Two: Technology in the Performing Arts

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Tech in TheatreWhat high-tech tools are having the greatest impact?

Over the past few decades, high-tech tools and automation have revolutionized the performing arts. What’s happening behind the scenes can now equal the excitement on center stage.

Welcome to our second in a three-part blog series on technology in performing arts. Our expert panel will name the technology they believe has had the greatest impact. They’ll also give suggestions on how venues can evaluate the ever-growing list of high-tech options. (If you missed the first installment in our series, read “How high-tech is changing audience expectations”.)

Our Panel

This week’s panel includes several members of the Wenger and J.R. Clancy performing arts team, and guest contributor Joshua Grossman. Josh is a principal at Schuler Shook, an internationally renowned theatre planning and architectural lighting design firm. In addition to Josh, our panel members are:

  • Damon Atwood, Performing Arts Specialist
  • Jim Crooks, Lighting Solutions Integrator
  • Jeff Jones, Performing Arts Specialist
  • Edward Kaye, Performing Arts Specialist

Q: In your opinion, over the past decade or two, what technology has had the greatest impact on the performing arts industry?

ED – Technology continues to evolve in all facets of American life, and these newly embraced technologies are finding their way into the theatrical space. I think the three biggest areas of “revolution” are LED lighting, motorized rigging and active acoustics, which some call “electronic architecture.” I’d also add digital visualization and projection technology. Not surprisingly, each of these technologies is built on the backbone of the digital/computer revolution.

JOSH – We’re certainly using much more sophisticated tools to work in a very traditional way. I don’t think anything has affected the industry more than solid-state lighting, stage automation – mostly in rigging – and the use of projection and multi-media. The latter has become ubiquitous and changed how people are telling stories.

JEFF – Automated technology. Rigging hoists and controls have come a long way, and they’re more affordable than in the past. A single technician can safely run an entire production. Venues can also create highly flexible spaces with the touch of a button. They can close off an upper balcony with blackout curtains, reduce main floor seating capacity by moving in the side walls of the auditorium, and change seating configurations with retractable seating. It’s amazing.

DAMON – I believe active acoustics has been the most influential, followed by the overall access to much more sophisticated design software. Also, lighting, rigging, staging, seating, acoustics, etc., aren’t free-standing technologies anymore. These systems are now designed, installed, used and supported together with networks that tie automation together.

JIM – Automated lighting and related controls have been transformative. Once hugely expensive, complex and notoriously unreliable, automated lighting technology has improved and costs have dropped to the point that it’s now accessible to everyone. A second set of technology advances are the sACN (Streaming ACN) and DMX/RDM (Remote Device Management) network protocols. Used together, they greatly simplify the wiring and configuration of lighting and control devices. And lastly, LED lighting technology is a complete game changer. It’s provided new options to control light color, texture, position, shape and quality.

Q: Ed, you mentioned “electronic architecture.” Say more about the impact of active acoustics.

ED – Active acoustic systems have helped theatrical groups, facility owners and their designers maximize increasingly limited capital funding to create truly multi-purpose venues.

For example, with Wenger’s Transcend® Active Acoustic System, smaller, low-volume theatrical venues designed with reverberation times primarily intended to enhance verbal intelligibility and spoken word drama can competently support the longer reverberation times required by choral and orchestral music productions, with just the touch of a button. The efficiency of building smaller, less-expensive facilities that serve the widest array of performance types can, for the first time, ensure that “multi-purpose” can avoid becoming the derisively titled and undesired “multi-useless” rooms.

Q: With so many high-tech choices and new iterations hitting the market, how can venue owners and managers decide what’s best for them?

JOSH – If I were a theatre owner, it would be really difficult to evaluate one technology solution over another. Even as someone who spends a lot of time researching theatre technology, it’s difficult. The decision-making has to do with the priorities of a venue and how the equipment serves those priorities, factoring in equipment cost, features and what it needs to do.

DAMON – It’s critical to partner with suppliers who have the intellectual resources to help buyers make informed decisions. The deluge of information on performing arts solutions overwhelms people, and there’s inaccurate information out there. Specifiers need help sifting through the fog.

JIM – It’s not just about if a certain high-tech tool solves a problem or set of problems. It’s important to ask the right questions to evaluate if a tool is safe, reliable, economical and easy to understand.

JEFF – I always recommend partnering with venerable suppliers who have evolved – and continue to evolve – with technology. Those partners can see the full, historic spectrum of solutions, manual through fully automated. There may still be valid reasons for both.

Q: Josh, as a consultant, you have considerable working knowledge of the multitude of systems that comprise a contemporary performance facility. How has technology changed the consultant’s role?

JOSH – We have to spend a lot more time staying current with new products. When I first started in the industry, I could feel up-to-date on the state of stage automation technology with relatively little effort. Now, the pace of innovation is such that I can’t go more than a few weeks without needing to keep up with the latest stage automation advances. No one can absorb all of it, but you can hone in on what’s most relevant.

Join Us for Part 3

Check back soon for the last in our three-part blog series when our experts share their predictions for where technology in the performing arts is headed.

Until then, visit Wenger to see how one company can provide the broadest array of innovative, high-quality products and services for your performing arts spaces, from high schools to world-class venues.

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