Drawn together

For 'The Crystal Egg' — an innovative animated tale — UMBC drama students and techies join forces on stage

  • "The Crystal Egg" director Colette Searls
"The Crystal Egg" director Colette Searls (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
December 06, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

The alien who lives in the blackboard is green, shaped like a slug and sprouts two antennae.

The cast and crew of the production of "The Crystal Egg" at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County have nicknamed this particular alien "Ike." When director Colette Searls climbs up on stage, approaches the blackboard and speaks in a friendly, soothing voice, Ike tentatively inches toward her. Searls reaches out as if to scratch Ike's head, and he rolls over on his back and turns purple with contentment.

Most audience members probably realize that Ike is no more than a pattern of colored light created by a computer and projected onto a screen; his movements are controlled by a student actor manipulating a video game box. But despite what our brains tell us, emotionally we're convinced that Ike breathes, responds to touch, and has his own personality.

Ike and his two alien friends (referred to by the cast as "Jill" and "Sadie") are key figures in an innovative college production that's using a sophisticated and labor-intensive technology rarely, if ever, seen on a stage outside of Broadway.

Computer animation has long been routine in films and video games, but the technique seems startling and fresh when it takes place in real time. Audience members watch as graphics seemingly interact with flesh-and-blood human beings.

"When animation happens live, it's more magical," Searls says. "It adds another level of believability. Anything can be done in a film - anything. Actors in a movie aren't there for you. They were there for the camera, two years ago. But something on stage is there for the audience, right now."

From the very beginning, "The Crystal Egg" was designed to showcase the talents of the nine juniors and seniors selected as fellows in the college's Imaging Research Center. These students are would-be photographers, graphic designers and animators, and while they know their way around a computer, they have little experience in theater.

"We wanted to pull together people from different disciplines, to use their artistic and technical tools to bring into being something that's not there, and to deliver that to an audience," says Timothy Nohe, an associate professor of art at UMBC and this year's director of the fellows program.

Last winter, Nohe approached Searls, who is on the theater department faculty and whose specialty is puppetry, and asked her to come up with a project that both groups of students could work on together for a semester. She found a spooky short story by sci-fi pioneer H.G. Wells called "The Crystal Egg" and used it as a springboard to develop an original piece.

In Wells' story, old Mr. Cave, a curio shop owner, has a mysterious crystal egg that serves as a window into the planet Mars.

"I wondered what would happen if there were creatures from another dimension sealed inside the egg, and they decided to break free," Searls says. "I thought we'd want to see what they looked like."

Because the story she had in mind used so many fantasy elements, she thought it would be best performed by puppets - though not, perhaps, by the Muppet-like creatures beloved of children. Puppet-maker Don Becker's 2-foot-tall, movable sculptures are nearly as detailed and idiosyncratic as their real-life counterparts. Mr. Cave, for example, has defined chest muscles and long tapering fingers that swell out at the knuckles as they curl around the joysticks on his wheelchair.

"Puppetry is almost a distilled form of animation," Searls says. "It's about taking something inanimate and giving it the illusion of life and character."

"The Crystal Egg" runs for about 90 minutes and has no dialogue, forcing the theater students who operate the puppets to communicate their intentions and emotions through the figures' gestures.

But the show is far from silent. Nohe has composed a score that incorporates both traditional musical instruments and such everyday sounds as squeaking toys. Theater students stationed above and behind the audience in the sound booth use their own voices to create the aliens' chirps, squeaks and hums.

These same students are responsible for manipulating Ike and his two computer-generated compadres.

The aliens' images are projected onto two video screens cleverly disguised as artifacts in Cave's Antiques. Ike hides out in an elementary school blackboard, Jill resides in a framed print of Degas' 1874 painting "Ballet Rehearsal on the Stage," and Sadie inhabits an oversize glass sconce.

In a sense, UMBC was striking out into uncharted territory with this production. Though computer animation technology is commonly associated with films and video games, it has appeared occasionally in major Broadway productions since a stage version of The Who's rock musical "Tommy" debuted in 1993.

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