June 22nd, 2021
Congratulations to Daria Tsoupikova in collaboration with award winning theater director Jo Cattell and their team, including application developers - EVL PhD candidates Arthur Nishimoto and Sai Priya, Computer Science professor / EVL interim director Andrew Johnson, and project network engineering lead Lance Long! The theater team and actors include Denise Savas (stage manager), Devonte Washington (actor/assistant stage manager), Stephanie Shum (lead actor), Liviu Passare (videographer).
The following story appears in the Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2021.
Erratum: The article lists funding sources but incorrectly identifies the amounts of funding received. Hummingbird received the UI Presidential Award for Art and Humanities in 2019 for $150,000, the UIC Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research Creative Activity award in in 2020 for $10,000, and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2021 for $20,000.
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UIC debuts ’Hummingbird,’ allowing audience to participate in the story
BY DARCEL ROCKETT CHICAGO TRIBUNE
June 22, 2021
Live theaters have yet to reopen as much of the state has, but when they do, take comfort in the fact that there are people working on taking the traditional theater-going experience to the next level.
A group of designers and developers from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory in collaboration with award-winning theater director Jo Cattell, are making theater more participatory with virtual reality. The goal was realized this past weekend, June 18-20, when a variety of people ranging from preteen to retirement age were invited to partake in the immersive play “Hummingbird.”
“The whole idea here is moving in space and doing things together,” said Daria Tsoupikova, a professor in the School of Design at UIC. “You’re not just passive observer, you’re actively participating.”
The approximately half-hour event took place in the Engineering Research building with a group of willing participants, including this Chicago Tribune reporter. Upon entering, each guest dons a lab coat and fills out a questionnaire about their soul: How old is it? When’s the last time it was fed/replenished? After name tags are given, the group is introduced to a main character in the play, Aya, the teenage daughter of Demi, a Gerard Corp. employee. Aya is a bit antsy, but speaks her own mind; she is our guide along the experience.
Participants follow Aya into a room where everyone is outfitted with their own Oculus Quest, an untethered virtual-reality headset with embedded tracking and touch controllers that enable multi-user interaction. At this time, the group is introduced to Gerard, a more contemporary version of Max Headroom, with better makeup, blond wig and more sass. Gerard is a floating head that talks back to Aya in real time. Gerard built Gerard Corp. to create Hummingbird technology, and he captured Demi, the talented scientist and mom of Aya.
What follows is a collaborative team effort to escape Gerard’s world of Zen gardens, flashlight-esque stalactites, moving statues, talking fauna and rocks by finding clues to lead us out and save Aya’s mom. There’s underground work, underwater work and even aerial work. As avatars, we all have different colors and stick-figure faces. The only thing that doesn’t change is the participants’ voices. We all can talk to one another to communicate, do tasks together and problem solve. The colors, the sound design and camaraderie with strangers keeps everyone engaged with the play and one another.
The project was designed for Goodman Theater New Stages 2020, showcasing experimental and groundbreaking theater works. The goal: to have participants attend tele-immersive, real-time performances running concurrently at the Goodman Theatre’s Alice Rapport Center and at UIC, allowing for untethered social interaction and collaborative exploration of the plot lines through avatars.
“It’s supposed to be totally immersive, it’s supposed to be in real time, and the group at the Goodman and the group in here, they meet with each other and collaboratively explore the virtual space in co-located events, but inside virtual reality,” Tsoupikova said.
It’s a meeting of art, science and live theater, where professional actors from the Goodman join with UIC faculty and students from the Department of Computer Science, School of Design and the Electronic Visualization Laboratory. The lab is known around the world for having introduced CAVE VR theater to the world In 1992 and in 2012, the CAVE2 VR theater.
Tsoupikova says “Hummingbird” is to be conducted in more than one location simultaneously. The production targets youth, ages 11 and older, in under-served Chicago communities who lack access to the performing arts within their schools.
“We want to engage underrepresented Chicago youth - a tech-savvy younger audience through the use of technology to engage them in the theater, because the theater attendance rates among youth are dropping,” Tsoupikova said. “We really want to show them that this is the future of storytelling, this is how it can be, and the theaters that productions through collaborative design like this is possible.”
According to Tsoupikova, the multi-user theatrical performance was conceptualized in 2018 and supported by a UI Presidential Award for Art and Humanities and an Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research Creative Activity award. A 2019 six-figure grant from the National Endowment of the Arts also helped with the development of the technology, creation of virtual scenes, scripted audience tracks, stage sets and professional actors. With the Goodman being the first major nonprofit Chicago theater to return to live performances on July 30, Tsoupikova hopes “Hummingbird” will open at Goodman Theatre this fall.
“My son hasn’t been able to play with anyone, given the pandemic for 15 months, and for him to be so excited to be in a room with four other kids and suddenly to be interacting with people was like a dream come true,” said “Hummingbird” director and writer Cattell. “That was something nice to see, and (to) be able to give him a controlled environment where he can play with people again. I hope that continues - kids being really excited to be in a situation where it’s a different type of playground, it’s a technical playground, because that’s what we’re really trying to create: a playground for everyone to play in.”