Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm.

My brain and body experience a fairly negative reaction to the way our world is structured today around media.  It's too easy for me to spend hours in front of a laptop, television, or both at the same time.  It's much easier to choose to do this rather than to spend the hours socializing in real life, listening to music while cooking good food, reading, or engaging in creative pursuits.  The fact that new kitty Ygritte wants to sit on my lap and/or cuddle with me 24/7 doesn't make this any easier, nor does the cold weather that finally hit Austin this week.  As a result of constant television, Facebook, Twitter, other social media, reading blogs, email, playing games online...my brain isn't quiet.  It's always jumping from one thought to another, one idea to another, without spending any time contemplating, meditating, or enjoying.

I don't know how I stumbled upon Wallace Steven's poem "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," but it made me long for this exact feeling:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there. 


I can imagine the times I felt this way, sitting on my back deck and reading a good book, or practicing yoga first thing in the morning as the sun comes up.  Watching the snow fall in a street lamp on Christmas Eve back in New Hampshire.  Traveling out of town with Travis for the weekend.  Getting a really good massage, the kind that's deep and therapeutic but not insanely painful.  I miss it.

Visual representation of not my mind.

Experiencing James Turrell's art is a great cure for this.  In September, I dragged Travis and Will to Houston for a night so that we could see/experience the retrospective at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.  I've been really interested in his work for a long time, unsurprising I guess for a lighting designer, but had never experienced anything of his first hand.  They might have thought I was crazy with how insistent I was that we go to the exhibit before it closed, but once they saw what Turrell was about, they understood.  I think it's nearly impossible to sit in silent awe in the middle of one of his immersive environments and not feel your mind empty and calm while your perception of space is distorted.  The only drawback to the experience was that there were too many people - I really wanted to experience these pieces in solitude, not feeling rushed to let the next person in or distracted by what they were saying.
Also we had Indian food on top of pizza.
Travis and I got to experience some of that in October, when the new Turrell Skyspace at UT Austin opened to the public.  We were among the first to see it, and of our group the first to arrive.  Before anyone else got there I was able to lie on my back in the middle of the floor and look at the sky through the opening.  Once people arrived and the "show" began (basically a sequence of lighting shifts that begin at sunset and play for maybe an hour), we sat on benches surrounding the walls.  For over an hour.  I don't know that anyone who was there got bored and left - conversation and silence alternated among the group, one man slept through part of it, several people took out their phones but only to take pictures of the beautiful colors and sky above us, not to make calls, check email or do anything else that we are so accustomed to doing every five minutes.  It was an hour of meditation, even if we weren't always quiet as a group.  The thing I remember most from the experience was the occasional bird or plane flying overhead - something about viewing only a piece of the sky through a small opening made me so much more aware of those occurrences.  When we left, I felt noise from my brain and tension in my body had faded.

The Turrell skyspace at UT

I need to seek out more experiences like this.  And it doesn't have to be quiet, hour long experiences of installation art - anything that keeps me away from my phone, my laptop, or the television for an hour or more will do.  Sunday I met with local filmmaker/animation artist Jeanne Stern for a one-on-one handmade animation class.  For three hours, I played with basic stop motion animation, taking photos, importing them into Final Cut and watching what I had created with very simple tools and some actual time of concentration and quiet.  The cold weather had made it so that I didn't want to leave the house earlier that day, but once I was there, working and playing, I relaxed.  When I left I could feel how different I was.  I will probably be experimenting a lot with some of these kinds of animation in the next few months, especially while brainstorming and working on projections for "Sila."

I still find that I struggle with my use of media.  I frequently feel the urge to leave Facebook entirely, just because experiencing the daily updates of a couple hundred people creates so much more noise in my head.  I try to be very conscious of my use of my iPhone, I turn it off when in a class, at work, in meetings, in tech, or out with friends or with Travis.  It's not easy to step away from it and not constantly want to check my email or text messages.  But it's worth it.  One afternoon walking on campus to my car I counted the number of people (mostly students) who passed by me while staring at their phones.  I try to remind myself that I don't want to look like that, and also that I would probably just trip and fall if I tried.

Monday, November 4, 2013

How Games Ruined A Biology Career and Created a Lighting Designer.

My experiences in gaming and my love for theater and design are inextricably related.  While I can remember when I first worked as an electrician on a show and first learned that lighting design as a field existed, I think that my interest in it began earlier than that, when I played Riven in my dorm room in college.  Back then I was a marine biology major.  Myst was the game that really got transitioned me away from the various Nintendo games played throughout high school (Super Mario Bros, Zelda, and most especially Star Tropics, which could actually be considered my first experience with intermedia storytelling...) to more story-based games played on my desktop computer (a Hewlett-Packard, if I remember correctly, which lasted me from 1996-2001).  But Riven really sparked something designer-y in me, I think.  There are so many beautiful places to explore and the lighting is key to the feel of all of them.

Yes, I wanted to recreate these lighting fixtures in my dorm room.


I've actually brought images from Riven and from Myst to the table as research for designs.  This probably makes me a huge dork.


(Side note:  I know that a lot of people don't consider me a "gamer" and I hesitate to use that word to describe myself.  I've gotten a lot of flak over the past 18 years for the kinds of games that draw me, and how they aren't "real" games, or they're "girl" games (because anything modified with the adjective "girl" is, of course, lesser than), or something.  Maybe because I'm not into World of Warcraft and the like, or not hugely drawn to first-person shooters.  Or something.  It doesn't matter.  These are games, and I play them.)

In Myst and in Riven, you are (mostly) free to explore and discover whatever you can about the world in which you find yourself.  The story reveals itself slowly over the course of the game as you discover pieces of it.

In the spring of 2001 I had another gaming experience that was a huge influence on my theater career.  I joined a yahoo group called "Cloudmakers," a hive mind that formed around the first Alternate Reality Game, which didn't have a name at the time but is now called "The Beast."  Back then it was the "A.I. game," because it was devised as marketing for the Spielberg film.  A lot has been written about this game, from the points of view of those who played and solved, those who have studied, and from those who created it.  At the time it was groundbreaking and the fact that several thousand people came together online to solve its mysteries was amazing - it's probably my only experience with any kind of game that requires a community of other actual players, aside from Second Life.  When the game ended in July of that year, I remember feeling like I had become involved in a performance, in some sort of interactive piece of theater, and I wanted more.

Limited edition A.I. movie poster - the lines in the figure are the names of all the Cloudmakers.

These two experiences sparked an interest in me to find a way to combine theater and live performance with the interactivity and discovery found in games.

And then ten years later I found "Sleep No More."

A lot of people have compared "Sleep No More" to Bioshock, largely (I think) due to the atmosphere and design and music played throughout.  I think that yes, it resembles Bioshock if all the overbearing audience members are the Splicers and I'm free to shoot them.  In reality to me it's a lot more like Myst or Riven.  As an audience member I'm free to explore as I see fit, and I may, or may not, uncover parts of a story along the way.  I might interact with characters in that story, or I might simply read their letters and files found in desks and rooms.  What I walk away with is very open ended.  There are also a few "tasks" strewn in the show here and there (see: my futile attempts to find the ring) giving a select few audience members the experience of an objective to achieve.  I need to replay Bioshock to see just how much of this freedom to discover exists in it - can you go off a path and explore as you wish?  Can you finish the game without getting the entire story?  I felt very forced along a specific track, which drives me nuts unless everything else about the game is just awesome.

I finally got a chance recently to play a game that a lot of people have been talking about recently - Gone Home.  THIS is, to me, a much more apt comparison to "Sleep No More."  There is still a "track" of sorts, but it's at least a little more subtle, and I know that I missed part of the whole story entirely which says to me that my experience of the game is possibly different from someone else's.  In Gone Home you (the audience) take on a specific role, someone who has come home from studying abroad for a year to find her family's house empty.  The only thing for you to do is discover what happened to your family in the year of your absence.  There are no other characters with which to interact, just letters, hastily scribbled notes, cassette mix tapes that you can play (it's set in the 90's), newspaper articles, etc.  It makes me want to find a house somewhere and "stage" something similar for a small audience to "play" within.  "Sleep No More" adds the layer of performers and interacting with them, which is similar to "The Beast," but the intent of the entire game is exploration and discovery.

Living rooms in the 90's, complete with VHS tapes of all the movies I had.

It looks like I'm heading back soon to NYC and will have another opportunity to visit "Sleep No More," as well as "Then She Fell," if tickets can be procured.  Another similar immersive experience in NYC sounds interesting - "Speakeasy Dollhouse."  That show scares me a little though, and right now might still be outside my personal comfort zone.  There is a reason why I have never played any kind of role-playing game (aside from various entries in the Final Fantasy series, if they count - I'm speaking here of D&D and WoW and MMPORGs).  I am really, really bad at pretending to be someone I'm not, and "Speakeasy Dollhouse" requires its audience members to take on an assigned character for the duration of the performance.  I think that adding that level of gamification to my theater experience is going to take a few more years, or decades, of some kind of self-discovery thing in order to feel comfortable with it.  My first experience interacting with Hecate in "Sleep No More" was terrifying and risk-taking enough for this current version of me.  Nevertheless, I'm really interested to see how much more we can meld the experiences of gaming and theater.

Just please don't ever give me any kind of grenade launcher or crossbow while I'm in the McKittrick.