Transcript of the George Coates Interview

On that big wide river that is the Web, Silicon Valley Radio is your Huckleberry friend. Silicon Graphics executive John McCrea believes 3-D technology will change the face of the Web. From walking through a virtual home to descending from space onto the doorstep of that home, 3-D may be the story of `96.

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You've always been involved in multimedia entertainment and you've included a lot of multimedia in your productions. Do you have an artist's purpose that guides you in creating your shows, and how does multimedia allow you to see your vision?
George Coates:Mixing up the media is something we've been doing for about 20 years now, I guess. It's the mix that's important, in the sense that, for example, sometimes music will have a new meaning if it's accompanied by a visual or a sculptural moment in a scene. A character and a speech or a dialogue or a filmic event can take on new meaning depending on how it's mixed with the other elements. And being able to make performance out of sculpting a mix of media is a very strange art form.
SVR:Why don't we talk about some of your specific shows such as Desert Music and Box Conspiracy, and talk about the multimedia elements that came together in those particular pieces and how they formed the message and the basic through-line of those productions.
Coates: In Box Conspiracy and in Desert Music and in Invisible Site and now in twisted.pairs, we worked to try to create a mix of characters that would be engaged in a journey of attention of some kind that would take an audience for a ride into a kind of experience that you never have in a live theater usually or in a movie house -- something that's altogether really of its own, very different.
SVR:In each of those shows, can you define a multimedia experience that someone could never get from a film or a conventional theatrical production?
Coates:Well, [in Invisible Site] you have an actor playing the role of Arthur Rimbaud, the French surrealist or symbolist poet, and he is attacking a sculpture of Venus de Milo. While he's doing it a flock of birds begin to attack him, and they're flying out over the audience, and as he tries to get away from the birds, the birds follow him wherever he goes. And he runs way up a hidden ramp behind a screen and we switch to a film version of him, which we do oftentimes -- we'll take a live performer and we'll have him on film and do a switch so that the character that you've seen, right out there in front of the front row, is now diving off a cliff and flying with the birds.

We knew we could do stereographic scenography; we could create that volumetric 3-D. But we didn't know whether it was possible to have animations in stereo 3-D that could follow the performer wherever he or she went. We had to link two SGI/VGX computers together, write some software, and have an operator behind the audience follow the actor with a joystick so that those birds would go wherever the actor went. And it was a real-time stereographic 3-D animation that was in real time with the actor. So the operator was really a performer. The operator of the computer was performing with the actor. It was astonishing. We'd never seen that occur in live theater.

SVR:How about in Desert Music? What was the compelling image?
Coates:In Desert Music, one of the favorite moments for a lot of people was the moment when D.B. Cooper jumped out of the back of a plane with $200,000 in ransom money. What we did was, we put $150 or $200 up in the ceiling of our theater -- which is a 60-foot-high vaulted Gothic church cathedral -- and we had them on solenoid switches, and at the moment that he jumped out of the plane we flipped a switch and we actually were able to drop $200 in bills that floated over the audience and landed in their laps.
SVR:Not surprisingly, you wasted little time getting on the Internet and attacking that medium. What sort of multimedia sensibilities from your past productions have translated to the Internet?
Coates:Bandwidth issues are very limiting right now, and there's a degree to which you can link your theater to an online aspect. I don't think it's a good idea to try to re-create what you do in a theater on the Net, but rather to extend the theatrical experience into the Net in some way. We're trying, with our Web site right now, to have the audience become characters in the show, learn about the character mix and perform in the sense that our actors perform when we are improvising a show and we develop characters. I have six characters in twisted.pairs: three women and three men. Some of the people in twisted.pairs were based on characters we came to know from the newsgroups, the Usenet newsgroups.
SVR:So the production twisted.pairs was made up of characters who were inspired by people you encountered on these newsgroups?
Coates:That's right. The newsgroups that we seemed to find the most interesting and compelling "literature" that could translate to the stage were those groups that had something to do with out-of-body experiences: religion, drugs, alcohol, some of the support groups where people are dealing with multiple-personality disorder or depersonalization disorder. There's one group dedicated to disassociation, people who are disassociated. It's called alt.disassociation. I spent a lot of time there, because I think to some extent an online experience is an out-of-body experience.
SVR:Who were some of the characters that were created from your encounters with these newsgroups?
Coates:Jack Troll is a character who was based on many of the people we found posting on
SVR:What is a troll?
Coates:A troll is a person who tries to get a rise out of people by being obnoxious or inflammatory, a person who will insult someone just for the sake of getting an argument going. Jack Troll also spends a lot of time on alt.pave.the_earth, a very funny group of people who believe that until earth is fully paved it's undeveloped. It's a parody of that kind of thinking, but not everybody there understands that it's a parody. Some people are there because they really think this is the way to go. We found on a lot of the religious sites, like alt.religion, that there were many atheists who would hang out there just to bait the religious fanatics. And conversely, if you go to alt.atheism, who do we find there? Missionaries, trying to bring new converts into the flock. Alt.drugs is very interesting; there are a number of groups dedicated to drugs of various kinds. And what's interesting there is you see a lot of people ministering to each other, helping each other come down from bad experiences or get off a dependency on this or that drug. Also, when people are having trouble with side effects, they're saying, "Well, you know, I've found that zoloft is really not so bad if you do it in combination with..." It's this kind of community ministering to each other. It's kind of interesting. One of the characters we've developed is Derek 2.0; he's a medicated Catholic.
SVR:Now was he also in the production The Bandwidth Addict?
Coates:Yeah. Derek is a character who's gone several shows with us now. He started off in Box Conspiracy as a computer programmer who got fired in a reorg. He had developed a product called the Disorganizer; the Personal Digital Disorganizer was his idea for being able to bring some serendipity back into our lives, which we are rapidly in danger of losing because we are so well organized.
SVR:Now in The Bandwidth Addict he comes up with six great new concepts. Why don't we talk about some of those.
Coates:Derek invented Fish Online. This was an idea using new software and geo-positioning satellites to make the fishing experience something that might be of interest to you. It worked like this: You put sensors on the tails or fins of fish at the fish hatchery. And you stocked the lake with these fish and you issued fishermen Universal Fish Locators. The Universal Fish Locator is a little handheld device -- it could be a newton or any kind of handheld device -- and it had a little map of the lake on it and wherever the fish were you'd see little flashing lights. So you could row your boat to where the fish were, because the fish had those sensors and the satellites had been tracking them. It would bring the fun back into fishing, Derek used to say, misunderstanding, I think to some extent, the whole fishing idea.

What else did he develop? He developed Teleprompters Online. Teleprompters Online is an interesting invention. A lot of these are parodies or satires on technological inventions that might be conceivable really, though their actual use is a perhaps dubious achievement at best. Although I do think that Teleprompters Online is a good idea. This was inspired by Eric Schmidt from Sun Microsystems -- he's their chief technology officer -- and he was telling me about this program, the Internet World's Fair, where people would compete the way you do in world's fairs or county fairs, where you have your cow or your largest tomato or things like that. Well, the Internet World's Fair would have a competition for what kind of devices you could really operate through the World Wide Web or what kind of appliances could be operated online.

One of his examples was a pasture in Holland that has all its dairy cows online. They actually have little sensors on the collars of the cows and there are video cameras that are tracking the cows in a pasture, and from your home you can go over to the Web and go to a pasture in Holland and track your favorite cow (Bessie, or whatever) and send a little beep into her collar that she's been trained to recognize as a signal to move left or right or forward or backwards depending on what tone comes out of that collar. So this is Cow Online; this is really apparently something that is going to occur, or is happening now.

When he was talking about this, he was down at I-World, Internet World in Las Vegas, and I was in the audience and I saw that he reading his script off a teleprompter, his speech, and I thought, "Wow! I wonder if I could control that teleprompter from my Web site, from my computer? I could change the words while the speaker was speaking them. Teleprompters Online. Hmmm." And that led me to develop this idea for the Derek 2.0 character in twisted.pairs who comes up with the idea of hacking into newsroom teleprompters during the evening news and enabling people from their laptops or desktops to rewrite the evening news as it's being read. And I thought that would actually be an interesting newsroom. That would be a way in which an alternative kind of newsroom could be created. It would shift the flow so that the consumers of the information could be generating the news. The professional readers don't always know what they're reading anyway, but they're very good at pretending they know what they're saying, so they may not even know what's happening.

In twisted.pairs we had a thing called Better Bad News, and the newsroom teleprompters were connected to our Web site and on our Web site we had a place where you could enter your news story in 50 words or less: who, what, when, where, why. We asked people to send us news from their home, their office, their workplace. And we only asked that half of it be true, and that they not indicate which half was true. And people sent stories in to our Web site -- you can go to our Web site and see it up now. We would then pick the best ones that we thought would work and put them through our teleprompter during the performance.

In 1994, with the Nowhere Band production [Nowhere NowHere] we did in Tokyo, we worked with Cu-SeeMe, a video-distribution program using the Internet to send still images that are updated every four seconds. We had a guy from Australia who showed up at our theater over the Internet through CU-SeeMe every night at 8:30 -- it was the next afternoon his time, in Australia, because of the international date line. He was a Bulgarian bagpipe player and we had a band on stage. His name was Ralph and he was actually the systems administrator at the university in Adelaide. And he agreed to be at his workstation in Australia every day at the appointed moment [and play with our band via the Internet].

SVR:Is the Web here to stay? Is it going to develop into a vital medium, or is the Web going to go the way of vaudeville?
Coates:Well, if you think of vaudeville as an evolution that grew out of melodrama and -- what do they call them? -- minstrel shows, and then became radio and television, vaudeville was an important step along the way. So many characters from vaudeville bled into the other mediums. I don't think vaudeville was a failure because it's no longer extant. It played its part. Will the Web change and evolve into a different kind of tool or interactive device? Sure it will. It has to. Boy, it better.

You know it's funny because when the first directors of film were experimenting, there was nothing to compare it to. So you could have a pretty rudimentary motion-picture experience with the characters moving too fast and with no sound and terrible lighting. But still, the picture was moving and everybody was astonished. And it could only get better. I don't know if they really called them silent movies until sound came in. You know, they changed. So was the silent movie doomed? Well, of course it was, as soon as sound came in. Was the black-and-white movie doomed? Well, after color came in, it was difficult to go back.

With the Web, on the other hand, we're like that now -- we're like in the early days of filmmaking. We're trying to create a digital-information system that has many mediums. It's in its infancy, but unfortunately, you've got all of these other mediums that are very mature, that you can compare it against. You can see, in CU-SeeMe for instance -- taking that image of the bagpipe player in Australia playing with my band here in real time over the Internet--that that was kind of an astonishing moment for all of us who understand how hard it is to do that. But the general audience is jaded about this kind of thing. They don't care. It was a little black-and-white image. It was jittery.

It's all academic to an audience that is schooled in 35-millimeter motion-picture film. They don't make excuses or equivocate and say, "Oh, well, you know, it's using the Internet and so it's quite an achievement." They don't really care that much.

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