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Release: April 15, 2002

Gertrude Stein meets video-game technology in UI world premiere

University Theatres and New York's Gertrude Stein Repertory Theater will present the world premiere of "The Making of Americans, Part I: The Silent Scream of Martha Hersland," April 25 to May 5 in the David Thayer Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. Performances will be at 8 p.m. April 25-27 and May 1-4, and at 3 p.m. Sundays, April 28 and May 5.

The project, this season's Partnership in the Arts collaboration in the UI Department of Theatre Arts, is part of the Gertrude Stein Repertory Theater's (GSRT) ongoing research in "digitally-enabled theater."

Adapted from the "Martha Hersland" chapter in Stein's trailblazing "The Making of Americans," which exploded traditional concepts of the novel, the production includes live performers in Iowa City and New York linked through videoconferencing, live and pre-recorded video, projections on a variety of mobile screens and on the actors, digital "puppeteering," and 3D computerized events both pre-programmed and triggered by the performers. Often, human and digital characters are technologically merged, making the "actors" a combination of physical and virtual elements.

In other words, "The Making of Americans, Part I: The Silent Scream of Martha Hersland" is a play that re-imagines and re-defines "theater," about a writer re-imagining and re-defining literature.

With this production the UI joins with a variety of commercial, engineering and academic partners of GSRT, including digital technology companies (IBM, Lucent, NTT, Macromedia, PictureTel) and academic research institutions (Yale, Virginia Tech, University of Georgia), as well as other theaters in the United States and internationally. GSRT also has an affiliate for-profit organization (Learning Worlds), which develops software and networked multimedia platforms.

"The Making of Americans" is the culmination of five years of work developing new software, exploring the application of TV-production techniques to live theater, and using the 3D virtual worlds of computer games to create virtual environments and objects that can be manipulated in real time for the stage.

The UI production will lead to a final workshop in New York in the spring of 2003, when "The Silent Scream of Martha Hersland" will become one of four parts in a multi-evening theater/internet production.

In summarizing their vision, artistic director Cheryl Faver and tech consultant John Reaves wrote, "All research is a statement of faith in the possible, a leap into the dark. . . . Live digital theater might include performers and audiences interacting simultaneously in multiple locations around the world. Digitally enhanced production processes (rehearsal, training, and artistic collaboration) would make true global, multicultural performances possible.

"We can create sets and characters with computer-generated modeling and live animation tools. Audiences can participate via the Internet or advanced broadband networks, as well as by attending public performances in specially equipped spaces. Audience members can be completely wrapped in digital media, immersed in the world of the play, or the media can be integrated with physical set components in complex and surprising ways. Participation might include a range of obvious or subtle interactions between audience members, actors, narrative, and environment."

Their goal for the UI production is to "experiment with projectors in motorized, digitally controlled yokes, in tandem with special costumes designed to provide larger display surfaces for projection, making it easier to integrate projected images with the choreography."

Stein, as an American expatriate living in Paris, was an important presence on the French arts scene, and her residence became a gathering place for artists who were challenging traditional concepts of art -- including Picasso and other cubists. Stein became fascinated by the possibilities of applying the fragmentation, displacement, stylization and distortion of cubism to the process of creating literature.

She was also experimenting with a new system to depict characters through a series of categories of personality and traits, based on minute observations of more than 600 of her friends, relatives and acquaintances. The system became integrated into the novel's narrative, and Martha Hersland was the primary character in "The Making of Americans" that was generated by the system.

In the play, with script by Leon Katz, this creative process is viewed from the perspective of this character-in-the-making, depicting her not only as a character being created by Stein, but also as a character struggling to be created and made whole.

Other characters in the play include Katz, who discovered Stein's notebooks for "The Making of Americans," and Stein's lifelong companion, Alice Toklas, who was a primary subject and collaborator for Stein's character-making system.

GSRT was founded in 1990 to promote innovation in theater, and its productions resist using traditional theater techniques, much in the spirit of Gertrude Stein. They focus particularly on the literature of Stein and other visionaries of the late-19th and 20th centuries whose work is often considered "difficult." In many cases, these works were written in anticipation of production techniques that had not yet been invented -- exemplified by the new computer and cyberspace technologies that the GSRT employs.

Their innovative work has resulted in OBIE and American Theatre Wing Awards.

The artistic team for "The Making of Americans, Part I" -- a combination of GSRT professionals and UI students, faculty and staff -- includes director Cheryl Faver, assistant director Liza Williams, tech director Hal Eager, art director Bryon Winn, production designer Michael Oberle, 3D animator and designers Steven Beck and Chris Murphy, associate costume designer Jenny Nuttig, video director/designer Amber Miller, sound designers Ethan Bade and Tim Fischer, New York site production manager Liz Dreyer, technology stage manager Sarah Smirnoff, stage managers Sarah Stone and Erin Huisman, and dramaturg Eric Forsythe.

Partnership in the Arts annually invites prominent theater professionals to the UI, where they develop new works for the stage in collaboration with UI theater students, faculty and staff. Partnership in the Arts has taken on primarily projects whose scope or complexity made them difficult for traditional theaters to develop. Past collaborators have included Migdalia Cruz, Maria Irene Fornes, Rinde Eckert, Anne Bogart, Theodora Skipitares, Karin Coonrod, Erik Ehn and the Dah Theater of Belgrade. Six of the Partnership in the Arts projects have gone on to professional presentation in New York or San Francisco.

Tickets for "The Making of Americans, Part I" -- $16 ($8 for UI students, senior citizens and youth) -- are available in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be on sale one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

Tickets may be ordered on-line 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Hancher's website:< http://www.uiowa.edu/hancher >.

Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction. Information and brochures may be requested by e-mail: <hancherboxoffice@uiowa.edu>.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit <www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa>. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, contact <deborah-thumma@uiowa.edu>.

The UI Department of Theatre Arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.