I recently had the opportunity to chat with Canary Beck and Harvey Crabsticks about their upcoming production of Paradise Lost: The story of Adam and Eve’s original sin, which is set to premiere with the Basilique Performing Arts Company in Spring 2014.
As regulars know, I’ve been following the work of the Company of late, both with their production of Romeo + Juliet (soon to be a part of a special AIR installation with the LEA), and now with Paradise Lost itself, so I was especially pleased when Becky and Harvey pinged me with an invitation to sit down with them.
This is an incredibly ambitious project, setting Milton’s classic poem in blank verse to dance and the music of the Süssmayr completion of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, and one which – as Harvey unsurprisingly told me – has tended to push SL’s capabilities hard, particularly as they approach curtain up for the first time.
After getting ourselves comfortable, Harvey picked-up on the technology headaches they’ve encountered in preparing Paradise Lost. “The last couple of weeks we’ve been pushing things to the absolute limit,” he says wryly. “We’ve had to do a lot of work to overcome those hurdles. One of the toughest challenges over the last few weeks has been dealing with script memory limits, but we’re mostly over that hurdle now.”
Scripting isn’t the only element that has proven challenging for this production. Choreographing up to nine avatars on – and over – the stage at the same time, and in time to the movements of Mozart’s Requiem is no easy matter, as Becky points-out, “I think we really hit a few roadblocks when started introducing nine avatars into one scene together, totalling over 600 independent actions inside 3 and half minutes!”
Traditionally, when working on a theatre production, directors turn to a process known as blocking scenes: arranging where actors appear on stage, how they move around the stage during interactions, etc., and then leave. However, Paradise lost includes battles between angels and demons within the heavenly realms above the stage. “It’s not something you see every day,” Becky confides with a smile. “Sometimes that can get a bit mind bending!” It’s also something not easily handled by conventional scene blocking.
To cope with this – and the 43 credited roles within the production – Becky and Harvey have literally taken the process of blocking back to its original roots as first used by Sir W. S. Gilbert, who employed a model of his stage with actors represented actors with small blocks, hence the term. However, with Paradise Lost, the approach has been given a distinctly digital twist; characters and their movements (both on the ground and in the air) being represented by coloured prims which can be placed within the actual sets themselves, allowing cast and production crew clearly visualise what is going on and when; essential when a single actor may be responsible for more than one character.
It’s a time-consuming task, as Becky confides. “It takes 36 hours to plan the most simple scene.” Harvey nods in agreement, adding, “The biggest scene – the aerial battle, is up over 100 hours of effort so far.” However, it is also one vital to such a complex production.
By using blocking this way, and combining it with the choreography and timing imposed by the music, it is possible to construct what Becky calls a “score”. Like its musical namesake, this score allows the actors, stage manager and director to clearly understand what is going on and who is doing what and when and where they’re doing in, and the correct cues given and followed.
Another element to the production which has presented its own challenges is that of sets. Not only are there multiple sets required – ten in total, some of which extend into the audience space, thus making them a part of the story – but some contain elements common to one another, and scene changes need to be relatively smooth and seamless. The result has been to layer the scenes over one another, using transparency and phantom capabilities together with scripting to enable fast, fluid control of the sets – which is visible, which aren’t, what common parts are there for use, and so on.
Taking all of this approach into account, it seemed to me that Paradise Lost is very much a theatrical production in the fullest sense of the word; a view Harvey agreed with, “One of the things that we’ve been quite pleased with is that we’ve been able to transition from a largely danced based production,” that of Romeo + Juliet, “to one that has dance as a key element, but which is far more theatrical. I think it’s fair to say our ambitions for what we want to say and how we want to say it have elevated as a result.”
Even so, the dance element is obviously apparent; indeed, dance here is very much the narrative, more so than even with Romeo + Juliet. Was this a deliberate choice of direction, rather than opting for something perhaps leaning back towards more use of voice or text?
“We’ve seen lots of SL theatre that is essentially avatars voicing,” Becky observes.”While we appreciate it can be done well, we find that SL as a platform lends itself to so much more than mimicking what might be done on stage by fleshy actors. But we have so much more control over what we can do here.”
“We feel quite strongly that what we do is something different, and new,” Harvey continues, again demonstrating the closeness of their creative minds. “Some elements of RL theatre are present of course, but it’s a new medium.”