Film and video joining actors in stage works

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Methods and techniques vary, but the trend is widespread and growing fast: More and more, theater directors are using film and video images side-by-side with live performers in stage productions. Some recent examples:

A play called ``Dreamland Burns,'' by the Squat Theatre, begins with a 40-minute film projected on a screen at the front of the stage. When the main character falls asleep and dreams of a fire, real flames become visible through the screen - which then rises out of sight, revealing a stage crowded with props and characters for the second part of the show.

In the first section of ``The Road to Immortality,'' a trilogy by the Wooster Group, two visions of American life are boldly contrasted. On stage, live performers have a nightmarish party in a surreal parody of a suburban house. On video monitors above, the same performers do scenes from a Thornton Wilder play in the style of a soap opera. Later a grainy 8-mm film also flickers obscurely on a broken-down TV set.

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A play called ``Deep Sleep,'' by John Jesurun, has two groups of characters - one played by live performers, the other seen as images on a movie screen. The groups argue, each insisting it's more ``real'' than the other. Eventually some characters try to trade places, with tragicomic results.

Mabou Mines director Ruth Malezceck litters the stage with movie screens of different shapes and sizes in ``Wrong Guys,'' a wry play about gangsters. Live and filmed images overlap and intersect throughout the evening, to dizzying effect

These are just some of the theater groups and directors who have integrated live performances with film, video, or both. Their activities may be seen as a rejection of traditional theater, and an intrusion of high-tech artificiality into an art that should be rooted in the communal feeling of live performance.

The situation may also be seen positively, however, in that many of today's most adventurous young directors are not deserting theater for movie and TV studios.

Instead they are reaffirming their affection for the stage in a new and unexpected way - combining their interest in high-tech communications with a lively enthusiasm for the possibilities still offered by conventional stagecraft.

Although it seems to be on the upswing now, the mixed-media trend has been around for years. Richard Foreman was a pioneer in his late-'60s opera ``Elephant Steps,'' which mingled live and filmed action. Ten years ago, Wooster Group leader Elizabeth LeCompte created astonishing effects with a mere slide projector in the ``Rumstick Road,'' as when she superimposed the features of another woman on an actress's face. In her next production, ``Nayatt School,'' she used filmed versions of certain performances when the actors themselves (some of them children) weren't available.

Some of today's most inventive media-mixers include Meredith Monk, whose opera ``Quarry'' includes an evocative film sequence, and her colleague Ping Chong, whose ``Anna Into Nightlight'' jumped back and forth between live and filmed scenes.

Not everyone sees multimedia theater as a compelling prospect. Robert Wilson, perhaps the most celebrated experimenter on the current theater scene, has done little in this area - preferring to develop his own brand of live stagecraft based on the gradual unfolding of arbitrary, dreamlike images.

Yet even Wilson has been touched by multimedia ideas. One section of his epic ``the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down'' juxtaposes huge movie images with live performers, each claiming one side of the stage area. When not directing theater pieces, moreover, Wilson has made videotapes such as ``Deafman Glance'' and ``Stations,'' which stand with the most visionary ``video art'' yet created. And the radically visual nature of Wilson's theater can itself be seen as closely akin to the eye-oriented aesthetic of cinema and video.

Mainstream theater producers have also stepped into the mixed-media arena, although more tentatively than some of their non-Broadway cousins. One example of such work is a currrently touring show based on the popular He-Man and She-Ra cartoon characters. While it's essentially a live production, its setup includes two enormous video screens, which are used in a way that's surprisingly similar to Jesurun's avant-garde approach - as video characters directly interact with live characters onstage.

With yet another tentacle, mixed-media ideas have reached out to the modern-dance world, where such choreographers as Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham have devised works especially for video. Tharp has also made dramatic use of video in a stage dance set to crashing rock-inspired music: Images of the dancers are taken by an onstage camera operator and projected on the backdrop, making an electronic counterpoint to the live performance. In somewhat similar fashion, a Brooklyn Academy of Music production called ``Dance'' had dance-movies projected on a scrim while the same dancers (from the Lucinda Childs troupe) performed on the stage.

Looking to the future, film and video will probably become increasingly visible on stages that used to hold exclusively live performances.

Live acting and dancing won't likely be replaced by second-hand images, though. A few bold artists, such as Twyla Tharp, have spoken of transferring all their energies to video. But most theater directors and choreographers continue to give their first loyalty to the stage - seeing other media as enhancements, not replacements, of their work.

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