Dennis Del Favero, Susanne Thurow, Lawrence Wallen – Digitally Transforming Theatrical Design Practice


Dennis Del Favero, Susanne Thurow, Lawrence Wallen


Digitally Transforming Theatrical Design Practice 

Social practices underpin all creative processes in the performing arts. 

In the production of stage performance, from ideation and rehearsal to delivery, creative processes converge collaboratively, generating a shared framework for a play’s expression, atmosphere and intent. At present, many of these processes are organised through sequestered pipelines, with the creative team independently working on individual components, discussed at intervals, supported by a range of tools such as drawings, software and physical scale models. This approach constrains collective decision making as it relies on multiple communication modes for integrating and manifesting all design streams on stage. The reliance on physical co-presence and isolated desktop interaction produces barriers to unlocking creative and economic efficiencies – especially in times such as Covid19 where gathering in physical space is not possible. 

The paper thinks through ways of transforming approaches in the performance design field, focusing on how new digital technologies can enable collective work in virtual space while at the same time supporting and documenting creative processes. It presents outcomes of the iDesign ARC-Linkage Project that addresses the identified shortcomings of established pipelines by developing a networked 3D cross-platform visualisation system for experimental application at NIDA and Sydney Theatre Company. This system allows comprehensive immersive set design and performance in virtual space, situating creative and technical teams in an infinitely malleable 1:1 scale 3D datascape. It enables real-time creation, development and robust testing of set designs on a digitally twinned stage, supported by an AI system. The latter acts as a virtual dramaturg – recording, monitoring and advising on design activity, based on an industry-attuned accumulative database that features customisable props, set-pieces, lighting settings and OHS protocols. 

iDesign hence charts avenues for reshaping the way design conversations, rehearsal and performance may be staged in the future, projecting new encounters and practices while creating a living archive of design practice – enabling users to virtually learn about the hidden and ephemeral facets of theatrical practice. 

Dennis Del Favero is a world-renowned research artist with a background as set designer for the music and theatre industries. Over the past 20 years, he has directed numerous large-scale interdisciplinary art projects that have explored the relationship between human and non-human systems through experimental reformulation of immersive aesthetics using digital media. His collaborative research has been recognised with eight premier prizes, presented at 121 international first-tier venues, resulting in frontier advances in intelligent visualisation systems. His academic appointments include Chair Professor of Digital Innovation at UNSW and Visiting Professorial Fellow at ZKM (Germany). 

Susanne Thurow is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at UNSW’s iCinema Centre, where her research investigates the capabilities of immersive digital aesthetics for supporting creative processes in the performing arts. Since 2014, she has been co-developing interdisciplinary projects with iCinema’s key collaboration partners, such as Sydney Theatre Company, MAAS and Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (Austria). Her latest book is Performing Indigenous Identities on the Contemporary Australian Stage (NY: Routledge, 2020). Her professional background has been consolidated by work for companies such as Thalia Theater (Germany), Big hART, the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, Goethe Institut, as well as Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel (Germany). 

Lawrence Wallen is currently Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Technology Sydney. From 2009 to 2018, he was Head of School (Design) at UTS and from 2002 to 2012, Professor of Scenography at the Zurich University of the Arts (Switzerland). Lawrence’s most recent monograph entitled The Model as Performance: Staging Space in Theatre and Architecture (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), co-authored with long-term collaborator Thea Brejzek, investigates the history and development of the scale model from the Renaissance to the present. In parallel to his academic writing and art practice, Lawrence has realised stage designs for Opera, Theatre and Dance across Europe and Asia.