Harmonic Laboratory’s most recent experiment investigated the question: Can a creative cooperative based in digital media, dance, and music successfully add a new theatrical element to its existing compound to produce an integrative, immersive multimedia experience? This lab report examines the results.
Over the past decade, Eugene-based Harmonic Laboratory (HL) has racked up an impressive record of multimedia collaborations involving installations, dance, digital media. (Reference: “The Original Tesla,” Oregon ArtsWatch.) Its new production, Tesla: Light, Sound, Color, added a biographical element, a historical subject, and onstage science experiments to the mix.
By adopting a recognizable subject that contains a built-in historical narrative, and adding onstage experiments to its newest performance, Harmonic Laboratory can broaden both its artistic scope and its audience.
- Creative Heights grant from Oregon Community Foundation
- Original music for string quartet and digital media by HL members Jeremy Schropp and John Bellona
- Delgani String Quartet and other musicians from University of Oregon and OrchestraNext
- Choreography, stage movement, costume, lighting & stage design by HL’s Brad Garner
- Animation and projections by HL’s John Park
- Guest animation work by Julia Oldham and Nathan Thomas
- Dancers from Eugene Ballet and University of Oregon
- University of Oregon Senior Physics Instructor Stanley Micklavzina and assistant Yohan Walter
- Biographical facts from the life and work of American inventor Nikola Tesla
- Performances in Eugene, Bend, and Portland.
Tesla opened with a greeting from Garner, a brief overture, and a physics demonstration before actual stage action commenced: a Serbian roots group dance invoking Tesla’s southern European origins through an inward-facing, circular folk-dance like piece.
The next full dance number was inspired by Tesla’s invention of alternating current, followed by another physics demonstration. The first half closed with a bound-flow dance duet symbolically reflecting Tesla’s rivalry with Thomas Edison and a solo spotlighting Tesla’s showmanship, which helped him win support for his visionary ideas.
The second half began with animation inspired by energy field patterns and accompanied by Delgani Quartet’s performance of Schropp’s pulsating score. A pair of full company dances followed, one featuring projected white bird like animations recalling Tesla’s late in life affection for the pigeons who were often his only companions in the New York hotels he called home, and a second suggesting his ideas about wireless communication, some of which fueled the development of radio and later wi fi.
Another physics demonstration ensued before the show ended with a series of group dances accompanied by often dazzling, if sometimes predictable, animations and complementary music inspired by later chapters of Tesla’s life and the great inventor’s legacy.
The experiment yielded useful data related to multimedia performance and context.
- Onstage experiments. If you’re going to put actual science on stage, it’s hard to imagine a better performer than the award winning, engaging “Dr. Stan,” as he’s known at the University of Oregon, who’s won renown for his entertaining Science Circus programs that demystify science and turn experimentation into entertainment.
Yet however effective they might be in the classroom, the demos fell flat onstage. While Dr. Stan and Walter exuded friendliness and approachability — these aren’t stiff white coat drones — on stage, the unscripted, almost impromptu tone felt meandering, as though the audience was too distant for the performers to judge how they were responding. Awkward pauses and time-filling verbiage prolonged the stasis.
The experiments — performed in real “science time” rather than the stage time we’re unconsciously accustomed to in this setting — lacked enough contextual set up to convey their significance, either to Tesla’s career or to history. Most of the demo talk was instead devoted to explaining the procedures — without showing why they mattered. Sometimes undefined terms like “resonance effect” popped up that even those of us who had a couple years of physics in school might well have forgotten, and others might never have known.
- Contextual / expositional material. Slides recounting various phases of Tesla’s career were sometimes too small or dense to read, and seemed to appear at random points, unconnected to a narrative structure or onstage action. (Several Eugene audience members noted they couldn’t see the projections because they were sitting in the front of the house.) Garner’s opening greeting, while friendly and informal, merely repeated information in the program and contributed to the show’s slow start, which continued through the overlong, scarlet-lit traditional-looking dance number.
- Overextended sequences. The production didn’t really complete a circuit until a sequence half an hour in, “Admitting Light,” with full-company movement inspired by Tesla’s groundbreaking notion of alternating current, which became the prevailing means of getting power from stations to homes. That’s also when Park’s sometimes spectacular projections really kicked in. But then came another protracted Dr. Stan experiment, breaking the audience-performance connection.
Park’s high-voltage projected animations also sporadically energized the show’s second half. While some of the dance sequences really sizzled, like a tightly drawn black/white oppositional duet representing polarity, others fizzled, losing energy as they stretched on too long. The music generally supported the scenario and action well, with the electronic passages especially complementing the science-oriented sections, for example incorporating what sounded like a sample of the sound of a sparking Tesla Coil into the score. Lighting and costumes added little.
Tesla did provide many entertaining moments of music, dance, and visual art, and emanated an enthusiastic attitude toward its subject in particular and science in general. But this production failed to support Harmonic Lab’s hypothesis that invoking a historical subject alone would add a compelling performative dimension to their multimedia creations.
The experiment revealed the absence of a number of factors crucial to audience engagement.
- Character. Despite the show’s title, the audience never really learns who Tesla is, what makes him tick, why we should care about him. Some of the most interesting information about Tesla was presented not through music, dance, spoken word or animation, but rather through written text, such as the fact that Tesla may have had an eidetic imagination — capacity to envision great detail and possibility. Where is the balance between that gift, and his scientific contributions? None of that important context really connected to the onstage action. Which leads to….
- Integration. Rather than the cohesive artistic creation its name and publicity materials suggested, Tesla amounted to a framework from which to hang loosely related individual artistic creations, more juxtaposed than truly integrated. While individual dances and animations sparked, they often seemed disconnected; dancers could have interacted much more meaningfully with the animations had the latter been incorporated into the choreography from the outset, instead of merely co-existing. Perhaps they and the musicians could have performed during Dr. Stan’s monologue instead of sitting, off or onstage, for long stretches, doing nothing. The data here suggest that unintegrated onstage experimentation as presented here is dramatically inert.
- Dramatic structure. Tesla lacked a real story, even though the subject’s eventful life provides several compelling storylines. But merely noting important events in a life doesn’t provide the emotional engagement that comes from crucial dramatic elements such as conflict/complication, character/thematic development, climax/insight and resolution. Non narrative approaches can succeed, as did Robert Wilson’s productions using more familiar historical figures such as Gandhi, Einstein and Lincoln who need no background explanation. (Tesla actually set a slow-walking, non talking top hatted figure that was supposed to be Tesla himself occasionally drifting, to no apparent effect, through the action, and his unfortunate resemblance to Lincoln made it seem more a nick than a nod to Wilson and Philip Glass’s pioneering Einstein on the Beach.) But the expository material here seemed instead to reinforce narrative expectations — and then frustrate them.
• Shorn of the onstage experiments, the static first half hour, and the overextended portions of its existing sequences, Tesla would likely be more effective in a one-hour, no intermission format, using most of the remaining current material and maintaining its largely non-narrative approach. Such further experimentation is recommended.
• Whether a narrative or non narrative approach is ultimately used, tie expository material more closely to stage action, and move it faster. While we might hypothesize that a fully scripted educational presentation (assuming that dimension is retained) might come off as stiff, it would have certainly been tighter than the present improvised experiment narration, perhaps providing more cohesion among the seemingly disparate and disconnected art forms.
• If a more fully realized narrative approach is adopted, a few brief scenes involving dialogue between Tesla and other figures at various turning points in his life (his early supporter George Westinghouse for example) dramatizing basic conflicts among Tesla’s erratic genius, prevailing social, technological and financial realities, and his (in)ability to make other people buy into his vision might establish an emotional arc that the dances, projections and the rest could then support.
• To truly fulfill its goal of a richer, time-based performance, and tie its disparate multimedia components together in a cohesive way, Tesla needs actual theater. Future iterations would benefit from least two entirely new contributors: a writer adept at constructing dramatic narrative, and a director who could provide an outside perspective on the overall structure, pacing, flow and resonance of the performance. Given sufficient funding, it could also employ a couple of theatrical roles in the development process: a dramaturg, who keeps an eye out for continuity, logic and zeitgeist, tracking all theatrical intentions and their iterations for the sake of the audience; and a stage manager (or director) who watches the show from every seating section, to ensure that the entire audience can follow the full-breadth of the action onstage. Future experiments should consider adding these crucial theatrical elements.
Harmonic Laboratory’s hugely promising integrative approach to staging integrative multimedia arts offers unique opportunities to explore these and other possible directions. Further research is clearly indicated.
Additional reporting and analysis by Rachael Carnes.