New Zealand

8 Mar 2023

Award winning production ‘Mountain’ set to light up Aotea Square

by Jenny Barrett

Auckland Arts Festival brings an aerial theatre performance with a technological twist

Auckland Arts Festival opens 9th March and features an out-of-this world interactive production by the team from renowned physical theatre company Stalker Theatre, bringing Artistic Director David Clarkson back to his home turf.

David Clarkson’s fascination with the integration of technology into theatrical performance began by pure chance back in 2011. David’s nephew Sam Clarkson had been working with photogrammetry (creating 3D models from photos) for game development in Dunedin. With a background in mask theatre, David could see the potential. Tracking and projecting a performer’s movements had parallels with the use of traditional masks in theatre, “It brings the same sense of there being another presence, an otherness or, I guess you could say, a ghost or spirit. A lot of technology focuses on the wow factor and you lose the humanity. By marrying technology with the ancient tradition of mask you retain the human touch and don’t detract from the issues you are trying to explore such as the beauty of human nature, as in the case of Mountain.”

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With a Creative NZ grant and support from the Sydney University of Technology’s Creativity and Cognition Studio, David started on a journey investigating the crossover between tracking, fluid simulation, projection and theatre. Initially he explored the use of infrared systems and blob tracking to enable the performer’s movements to trigger a physical response but with a passion for street performance David began to push for 360 and started to investigate immersive environments that were then very much in their infancy, “I recall someone saying that we were wasting our time and 360 would come to nothing but though we didn’t know it at the time, we really had our fingers on the pulse.”

A series of partnerships with coders and technologists have followed, integrating live systems into theatre across the globe, with a shift from infrared to 3D capture, and from C++, to Unity, to Unreal with support from Epic Games. Projects as complex as ‘Layer’ bring together live performers in Netherlands and Australia, with mixing in real time and projection into both live spaces.

Mountain however relies on what David refers to as the old school tech – infrared, “We did an earlier version of Mountain from 2013 to 2017 in South Korea, called Pixel Mountain. We worked with Korean artists to create a dance poem exploring the South Korean experience of moving from essentially a peasant society to one of the most technologically advanced countries in the OEDC in just twenty years. The show explores the impact technology has on a culture and the older more organic ways of living, and ends with a look into the future with the artists transforming into cyborgs.”

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Mountain is an Australasian version of Pixel Mountain that took the five week Adelaide Fringe in 2021 by storm, winning the John Chataway Award for Most Innovative Production, “We integrated Pixel Mountain with ‘Creature’, another show that we had developed using the Australian bush for inspiration. We end the show by reverting to a bush habitat, inviting the audience to interact with our technology and the Australian creatures.”

The interactive projection technology for Mountain is complex, custom made and designed by the Stalker team. The show’s AV needs for Auckland Festival are relatively simple and have been supplied by Auckland Live. “We are using two 21K Full HD projectors, a lighting and a sound system. We can use LED screens and we’d love to use 3D projectors, but festivals rarely have the budget! We use our own infrared tracking cameras and a bunch of Mac Auras.” Three containers form the backdrop and allow the artists to perform their aerials, “The only complication could be rain. With people performing five or six metres off the ground, rain is a major safety issue.”

For David being at the Auckland Arts Festival means a lot, “It is a real nostalgia trip. We started Stalker Theatre in Auckland in 1985. In fact, I can see Grafton Park from my hotel window where we did our first ever show.” David may be back to his roots but over the last four decades he and his highly talented team at Stalker Theatre have taken physical street theatre to a whole new technological level, whilst retaining the essence of mask, humanity.

You can see Mountain for free in Aotea Square from Thursday 9th March to Sunday 12th March. The 25 minute production is followed by 15 minute audience play time. Check the Auckland Arts Festival website for times: https://www.aaf.co.nz/event/mountain

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