New-generation online stage moves cautiously into 3D

Upstage allows figures to be moved about a screen-based arena, and speak scripted and improvised lines

Cyberformance has gone three-dimensional — well two-and-a-half dimensional.

The UpStage online performance medium celebrated the release of version 2 with a festival earlier this month of dramatic simulations from a multinational group of presenters with a strong New Zealand component.

Upstage allows figures to be moved about a screen-based arena, and speak scripted and improvised lines, which are audible and also appear in print. Though it might appear primitive to players of sophisticated computer games, the Upstage environment provides scope for originality and creativity. The text “chat” format allows members of the audience to comment on the action — an opportunity taken up with enthusiasm at the festival performances. Performers controlled avatars from all around the globe.

The Upstage software was developed in New Zealand in 2003, with funding from the Smash Palace Collaboration Fund, a joint fund established by Creative New Zealand and the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology to encourage collaborations between artists and scientists. Wellington’s MediaLab South Pacific was a project partner in the first year of development.

The original version was based on two-dimensional avatars using fairly basic graphics. Those in the performances on July 7 (the festival was titled 070707) were more photographic in quality, and while they could only glide about the two-dimensional stage, achieved a small measure of solidity through changed viewpoints. The three views of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s head in the satirical piece “Please Stay Alert at All Times” were often presented in rapid alternation, giving him the appearance of looking around in panic. The performance largely took the form of an intimate — sometimes very intimate — conversation between Blair and US President George Bush, who sometimes appeared clothed in a burqa, the traditional garb of some Muslim women.

“Freeze, Fight and Flight” explored human reactions to rejection, as typified by the post-employment interview rejection letter, and depended substantially on contributions audience members drew from their own experiences. At the other extreme, a performance of Samuel Beckett’s play “Come and Go” — revolving around conversations between three identical-looking women seated on a bench — was substantially according to the original script, though “enriched” with additional characters and authorial intrusions as well as contributions from the irrepressible audience.

The characters’ lines were typed and the spoken version generated from the text by a voice synthesiser, causing occasional comic mispronunciation and a less-than-successful attempt to reproduce Bush’s accent through phonetic spelling.

A good many of the pieces were rich with artistic expression, as well as thought-provoking. “Please Stay Alert at All Times” achieved extra resonance by being presented on the second anniversary of the London terrorist bombings.

Canned versions of the performance will be accessible shortly on the website at www.upstage.org.nz.

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