How Technology Is Influencing Theater-Making

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Unlike most industries in 2020, phone usage is still frowned upon in theaters, with several Broadway stars making headlines for calling out audience members who use them during performances. But technology is making surprising inroads on and behind the stage.

There has been a notable rise in new apps for iPhones, iPads, and other tablets that are allowing stage managers, designers, technicians, and dance captains to do their jobs more efficiently. “I use an app called GoodNotes, and it feels like I’m writing on paper,” said Justin Keats, a dance captain who cut his teeth in Broadway’s “Paramour” and “Escape to Margaritaville.” “But what’s really nice is I can create shapes quickly that are accurate and then move them around, copy and paste them, and then continually create the stage pattern in real time.”

Apps like GoodNotes have helped theater workers coordinate the many logistical documents needed to prepare a show to run eight times a week. Keats recalled that during a performance of “Escape to Margaritaville” (on which he served as assistant dance captain), all swings were asked to the stage.

A dancer had been injured during a number and had to be replaced while the show was going on. Keats pulled out his iPad and showed the deploying swing the notes for the musical number. “I swiped through, and I was able to tell him, ‘You go to six here, cross to nine on the other side, you do the first dance break. These are the props you take, this is who you walk past’—it’s all there written out.” The swing jumped into the scene, tapped out the injured performer, and danced the number—for the first time.

Another app, ProductionPro, allows designers and stage managers to organize the multilayered components of production by breaking a script down into a digital outline of each scene. Multiple contributors can add concept imagery, notes, graphs, and cues for each moment of a performance. The app has become so popular in recent years that companies like Disney have started piloting the program, and Music Theatre International has begun licensing access to the app alongside rights for popular school musicals.

Audience members are also benefiting from digital advancements. Earlier this year, it was announced that all Broadway theaters would be outfitted to accommodate the GalaPro app, which helps audiences with hearing impairments get the full Broadway experience. Ticketing apps save audience members from long box office lines by issuing digital tickets. Some marketing teams for productions have even embraced phone usage with the creation of “tweet seats” to help boost word of mouth via social media—a decision not without controversy.

Though technology is finding its place in the theater’s creative process, its effectiveness is reliant on a clear code of rules of etiquette. Sometimes cell phones just don’t contribute to the collaborative process of putting on or enjoying a show. “Theater is one of the few places left where we put our phones down and all exist in a room together,” director Danya Taymor told Backstage, “and I like to keep that space sacred.”

“What I think people are worried about with technology in the room is that people are so distracted,” says Keats. “With my Apple Watch, I had to start taking it off because when I’m standing, learning choreography, it vibrates, and your first instinct is to look, and then I’m no longer listening.... I need to stay focused in the room.”

However, as software engineers conjure new ways for artists to innovate their work, perhaps technology’s effectiveness in the industry will move more toward using new apps and devices. 

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