theatre

QLab as an Accessibility Design Tool

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing presented at Eastern Michigan University Theatre, 2019.                    Scenic Design: Jeromy Hopgood, Lighting Design: Becca Bedell, Costume Design: Melanie Schuessler Bond, Projection Design: Rachel Tuba, Sound Design: Brian Scruggs, Accessibility Design: Elena Sanchez Flys

It’s no secret that the arts, and live performance in particular, have long struggled with the notion of providing accessibility for patrons with disabilities. Recently, the Eastern Michigan University Theatre program took steps towards providing a more inclusive theatergoing experience with the help of Elena Sanchez Flys, an assistant professor of Arts Administration with a passion for accessibility design.

This season, two of EMU Theatre’s shows (James and the Giant Peach and Much Ado About Nothing) offered accessibility services such as American Sign Language, audio description, captions, tactile tours and programs in both large print and Braille. In addition, both shows offered sensory friendly performances –  special performances designed to create a safe and welcoming experience for patrons with sensory disabilities such as those on the autism spectrum, as well as people with other sensory sensitivities.

Since EMU is the home of the Entertainment Design & Technology (ED&T) major, a number of productions have student designers and/or technicians working on shows. For the recent production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado, the production team featured students in a number of design roles, such as lighting designer, projection designer, assistant sound designer, and assistant accessibility designer.

Becca Bedell, the lighting designer for the production, was tasked with creating a design that addressed the needs for accessible and sensory-friendly performances. One major component was the use of special “warning lights” for sensory friendly performances. In previous shows, accessibility performers had been positioned onstage and used colored glow sticks to indicate various stimuli (red for loud sounds, yellow for bright lighting / strobes, and blue for actions which might create stimulation). For this performances, Ms. Bedell wanted to replace the glow sticks with lights used to splash color on the side walls of the theatre as indicators. Since the warning light system would not be used for every performance, she decided on creating a separate lighting control system that would be independently controlled by a member of the accessibility design team. To pull this off, I worked with Becca to create a QLab lighting control rig, using QLab running on a MacBook Pro, an ENTTEC OpenDMX Ethernet interface, and a small array of Chauvet Freedom PARs provided by TLS Productions Inc.

QLab proved to be the perfect choice for setting up a lighting control system. QLab 4 added Light Cues to its already formidable array of media and show control options, allowing you to control lighting systems over ArtNET ethernet interfaces or certain varieties of USB/DMX controllers. For our system, we connected an ENTTEC OpenDMX Ethernet interface to the MacBook Pro’s Ethernet port and ran a 5-pin DMX out from the interface into the Freedom PAR’s wireless DMX transmitter. With a quick amount of programming, we were able to add four basic Light Cues to send control signals to the Freedom PAR’s – red, amber, blue, and blackout.

qlab1

The QLab workspace featured four Light Cues, each programmed for a specific function of turning on a specific color of light, or triggering a systemwide blackout.

This lighting system would be operated by a crew member positioned in the theater’s trap room, watching a live audio/video feed of the performance and following along on a marked script (similar to a traditional stage manager). This person had no previous experience in operating a light board, so we decided to create a user-friendly interface custom made for the show that would require minimal training to operate. Once again, QLab offered a great solution to this problem in the form of its Cue Cart function. A Cue Cart allows the user to create a grid-style interface with buttons to trigger cues in the workspace. We programmed three simple color-coded buttons that allowed the operator to click a button and trigger a colored light (red, amber, or blue). The light would stay on until the operator clicked the blackout button, which was programmed to fade out any light in the workspace. Since all of the Freedom PAR’s were addressed to the same control channel, this meant that the operator could easily control all of the lights in the rig at the single touch of a button.

CART

The Cue Cart made for a simple control interface. The fact that each button was labelled and color-coded allowed even a novice operator to quickly feel confident using the system.

We discussed the pros and cons of having a system in which the cue carts would be connected to a MIDI push-button interface that allowed for a pushing a button to turn on the lights and the light turning off when the button was released, but decided on this approach of lights being on until turned off for fear of the operator accidentally creating a strobe effect by bumping the MIDI buttons. The only downside to the method we settled on was a need to turn off the lights by pressing the blackout button each time, but after a quick discussion with the operator we felt this would be the safer approach.

Technology is always changing and giving us new options for problem solving. Luckily, these changes are allowing us to become more creative in the ways that we build inclusive theatergoing experiences. I would love to hear some of the ways that you’ve been able to use tech to bridge these gaps. As always, feel free to share your thoughts!

Someone Else’s Shoes

Old shoes

 

It seems like every year we see more and more public schools cutting funding for arts, eliminating programs, and generally marginalizing the role of the arts in education. Without getting into a nasty political debate that is likely to lead nowhere, I think it is fair to say that politicians of all stripes from the Federal to the local level have been guilty of this, on some level. When looking at a basic cost/benefit analysis, I can even understand why it seems like an investment in arts programs is hard to justify – especially in the midst of the Great Recession.

As an educator, I get so tired of the perennial exercise in justifying the worth of the arts in our educational system. One positive that comes from this is that it affords me a regular opportunity to examine the worth of what I do. Every artist, if you’re being honest with yourself, has had those moments where you stop and really wonder if what you’re doing is impacting the world in any way. I have found that theatre artists are often guilty of this, due in no small part to the pervasive mentality that we are “just putting on a show.” While it is true that we work in the entertainment industry and, therefore, spend the majority of our time doing the whole entertainment thing, I think there is an important aspect to our work that is often overlooked – empathy.

Fundamentally, the role of theatre is to enable the artists and audience members to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To be successful, an actor has to take on the mantle of another human being – to see through their eyes and respond to the world in a way that might not jive with the actor’s own inclinations. Designers and technicians collaborate with dozens of different people in an attempt to tell the story in the most effective manner. Often, they must abandon their own ideas along the way to make room for the end-product. Audience members get a glimpse into the inner workings of  character in a way that is impossible in the real world. At face value, this might not seem as important as scientists creating vaccines for deadly diseases or engineers designing nano machines. I would argue, though, that empathy has become the single most important commodity in the world today and we owe it to ourselves as a society to foster it whenever and wherever we can.

A look at the news on any given day can be an unsettling glimpse into the reality of our polarized world. On any topic it seems that there are two camps, us and them. Moderates and independents seem to be a dwindling thing of the past, replaced with folks on both ends of the spectrum unwilling to see the other side’s perspective and, worse, vilifying anyone with a differing opinion. Compromise is considered weakness. In the United States, we have seen this mentality taken to the horrifying destinations: cyber-bullying, character defamation, and even mass shootings. In this environment, a little empathy can go a long way. Any exercise in seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is a welcome medicine to treat this ailment.

That’s where we come full circle. The change that we want to see in the world must include art. The arts have a magical ability to break down walls and build bridges between camps. It has always been so. When we stop to consider how our education system will shape the world of tomorrow, let’s not forget that the arts aren’t simply electives – they are one of the last great tools we have at our disposal to instill a sense of empathy, bring our society closer together, and see the world through someone else’s eyes. For all of you artists out there, those goosebumps you’re feeling are completely appropriate. In a society where we all too often feel powerless, you are the ones with the ace up your sleeve. Get out there and save the world.

 

Beginnings

Welcome to the first installment of my new blog on topics related to Entertainment Design & Technology. My name is Jeromy Hopgood, a theatrical designer and university professor. For me, the times that we live in are exciting ones. Technology is rapidly evolving to create new opportunities for designers to be better storytellers and, as such, we are constantly challenged to adapt or find ourselves behind the curve.

One of the things I like the most about working in the entertainment industry is the collaborative nature of the job. We all better ourselves by working in groups and interacting with other designers / technicians / directors / actors / managers, etc. My motivation for writing this blog is to extend that collaboration from small groups and out into larger circles of this increasingly interconnected digital world. I like to share my experiences and interests with other folks and assume you will do the same. I hope to get just as much out of this experience (or more) than what I put into it.  My goal is to update on a regular basis about topics related to the entertainment design & technology industry, most often in the areas of scenery, lighting, sound, and integrated media  / projections. I will try to vary the content as much as possible featuring techniques, new products, and as much media as I can manage (since everyone likes pretty pictures).

I hope you enjoy what you find here and, if you do, pass it along to someone else who might be interested. I’m always looking for someone new to bounce ideas off of (and hopefully get some new ones in return).