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04.25.18 - Transformative Play


Imagine while waiting to see a new musical theater production of a fairy tale, that you’re able to play a virtual reality game in which you walk through the enchanted forest and enter the cottage of the Magic Mirror. You can turn the pages of a spell book and practice casting a few magic charms.You meet the prince whose true love is locked in a castle, guarded by a dragon (naturally.) Then, put on the cloak and hat of the queen fairy godmother to see the world from her perspective, and learn all about her tragic past and why she wants to foil the prince’s plan to rescue his sweetheart. 

This mixed reality pre-theater experience is being designed by students working in the EVoKE Lab on the second floor of CALIT2. They are taking part in the inaugural session of an AR/VR in Theater class being co-taught by Josh Tanenbaum and Tim Kashani ‘86. Tanenbaum, an assistant professor of informatics in the Bren School of Information and Computer Science, merges art with technology to help students explore the possibilities of transformative play. Kashani is a software executive turned Tony-award-winning Broadway producer.

The musical, titled “The Next Fairy Tale,” is actually in development with Kashani’s studio, and it is no ordinary fable. It’s a love story about two princes. The UCI students’ interactive digital storytelling system is no conventional approach to theater either.
Tanenbaum sees storytelling as a fundamental cognitive tool people use to make sense of the world and to communicate their views with each other. Through his research, he seeks to better understand the pleasures that come from engaging in participatory storytelling and translate those results into creating powerful and moving experiences using digital technologies. He is particularly interested in how people navigate the shifting sense of identity when they inhabit a character in a game. Players can become so captivated; they begin to empathize with the roles they are controlling.

“When we change into a character, we have the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes, challenging our own complacencies and assumptions,” he says. “I believe participatory media’s ability to evoke this type of transformation makes it an invaluable tool for education, persuasion and social justice.”

Tanenbaum’s background in the performing arts inspires his work. Trained in a form of method acting known as the Meisner technique, he approaches game characters from the outside in, rather than the inside out. Instead of actors starting with their own personal experience and emotion to embody a role, Tanenbaum advocates embracing the character’s way of speaking, moving, dressing, physical surroundings, etc., until they become the character.

The students are using Tanenbaum’s research as the premise for their projects in the AR/VR in Theater class. Twenty-two students are enrolled, and they are working in groups to develop three projects. Each one supports an actual production or product supported by Kashani. “The Next Fairy Tale” project is one of them.

“Informatics and computer science students learn a lot of great technologies in school,” says Kashani, a UC Irvine computer science alumnus. “But when you go out into the real world, none of that matters if you can’t create a user-centered design in a way to connect with people on an emotional level.”

Kashani founded IT Mentors, a consulting and training company that contracts with companies like UBS, Microsoft and other fortune 500 organizations. Its success allowed him to pursue his passion of musical theater, and he has produced hits such as “Memphis,” the revival of “Hair,” and most recently the Tony-award-winning “An American in Paris.” With his wife, Pamela Winslow Kashani (a Broadway actress), they co-founded Apples and Oranges Arts, which runs a startup-style incubator for new theater works called THEatre ACCELERATOR. By applying a Silicon Valley approach to developing pieces, the program hopes to meet its mission of “taking the starving out of artist.” The THEatre ACCELERATOR uses insight from data, analytics and audience testing to find the best-suited market fit for a piece. Through a two-phase development approach, they are able to accelerate the creative process and share diverse compelling stories that might otherwise not be developed.

One of the productions in phase one of this incubator program is another focus of the class. “Higher Education” is a new musical about a guardian angel whose mission is to help teenagers navigate the trials and tribulations of senior year in high school. The UCI students are creating an interactive virtual reality experience set in the world of Higher Education, in which the player gets to step into the shoes of a guardian angel and protect a teenager.

“We are conceptualizing it in a way that allows the player to navigate a role, so they can experience the story from the inside,” says Tanenbaum. “We want to give the player a presence in the fictional world not as a passive observer but as a character that exists inside the story.”

The students’ third project is a mixed-reality tool for set design using both smartphones and Windows Mixed Reality headsets. With Broadway shows, scenic designers build physical models of sets for discussion and visualization. “It’s an immensely expensive process, in which everyone has to be in the same place to discuss,” says Tanenbaum.

The Apples and Oranges Arts innovation initiative developed a prototype of the set builder that Kashani gave to the students as a starting point. “We wanted to create a more collaborative, flexible and less costly development environment,” Kashani says. “The team is really running with it. The students are so passionate. Within a couple weeks, they had come up with ideas we had never thought about, even developing a way to use it on a smartphone. It’s pretty exciting.”

Eight undergraduates and 14 graduate students comprise the roster, and they come from informatics, computer game science, information and computer science, drama, and film and media studies.

Melisse Andreana De Castro, a master’s student in informatics, is working on the scenic design tool. She is glad for the chance to use her technical skill as well as creative eye. The class offers her an opportunity to collaborate with students from the School of Arts. “It helps ICS students to collaborate with the very people who may be using their technology in the industry,” she says. “Such chances are rare.”

“This class has been the first time I have experienced absolute freedom to explore the topic of a course in ways that are engaging,” says Ace Lowder, a third-year transfer student in computer game science. “I have learned more about how to function within a team than I have throughout my entire academic career.”

Kashani advocates the real-world project experiential approach as an incredible learning experience for the students that prepares them for careers. “I love the energy in the class, and it’s fun to watch them evolve,” he says. “We are solving problems that are multigenerational. Age does not matter. There are no barriers. We are talking about a variety of things. They don’t have to ask if they can try something. They can. There’s nothing like trying out an idea and having it blow up, and then they come to class and tell us what they’ve learned.”

Like many activities going on in the CALIT2 building, the work being conducted in the Evoke Lab by Tanenbaum brings together multiple disciplines to inspire creative projects that push conventional boundaries.  “We couldn’t do this research if we couldn’t be in a place like CALIT2,” says Tanenbaum. “This space is a luxury that allows us to create large installations and demonstrate our work.”

For a couple of self-proclaimed theater nerds, it’s the perfect space to get into character and spin a tale.  

--  Lori Brandt