Every few years I teach a course in show control and networking; this Spring, that time has come around again. One of the assumptions we make in the course is that show control is good, that there are good reasons to automate scenery, lighting, sound, video, pyro, etc., and that there are equally compelling reasons to coordinate the automation of these disciplines electronically. To be sure, there are compelling reasons: precision, repeatability, and safety concerns, among others. But we only brush against a conversation about why we might not want to implement a show control network--because, I mean, why would we want to undercut the rationale for taking the class?
Don't get me wrong; I am passionately excited about the material in this class. To explore building networks of coordinated interfaces and playback devices; to develop methods to let the scenery automation system communicate with the lighting console and vice-versa--come on! That's a sic-if geek's dream! But the writer in me, the young kid inside that feel in love with the idea of people onstage telling a story just to me, right in front of me--that guy has questions about the differences amongst live performance, themed-entertainment rides, and cinema--differences that appear to me to be bounded by the very notion of precision and repeatability.
Isn't that one of the key differences between theatre and cinema? In theatre the unexpected can happen; timing can be felt, the "moment" exploited to connect in new and different ways with the audience. You can attend multiple performances of the same production, and though the broad strokes will be the same each time, the nuances will differ, depending on the audience, the performers, the humidity, whatever. This is the converse of cinema--film is static; once it is edited, it is complete, and repeatable. You can watch the Hobbit in Lafayette, IN one week, then see it again a week later in Saginaw, MI, and see the same show. That's part of the thrill of themed entertainment rides: you know what you're going to get each time you ride it--but you can embrace a state of suspended belief and pretend you don't know that you're going to be shocked and terrified by the monster leaping to at you around the next bend.
I encourage my students to remember that as technical designers, their primary responsibility is to realize the vision of the artists involved in a production to the best of their ability; we have a little mantra: "we are not the art police." But, when considering a show control implementation (for a traditional production, certainly) I can't help but feel an obligation to ask how such an implementation serves the storytelling. Does precision and repeatability take away more from the experience than it adds to it?
I don't think there are any pat answers to this; as my students will tell you, one of my favorite answers to questions in class is, "well, it depends." I think that is true of this question as well. But I do believe its a question we have to ask about any automation of a theatrical production.