The DuSable Project: Concepts of Design for a Digital Stage

Sam Ball
Department of Theatre
Northwestern University

Kathryn Farley
Department of Performance Studies
Northwestern University

Abstract. The emerging presence of computerized technologies in live performance has altered traditional approaches to theatrical design in a number of important ways. In this paper, the authors present a case study of The DuSable Project, a collaborative live theatre event, as a means of charting the development of effective set design strategies for a media-rich stage environment. The paper offers practical solutions to problems arising from an interactive and nonlinear presentational format and is meant to be of value to artists, teachers and scholars alike.

Figure 1: <em>The Dusable Project</em>, April 28, 2004 at Northwestern University
Figure 1: The Dusable Project, April 28, 2004 at Northwestern University

Project Description, History and Goals

The DuSable Project tells the story of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable (1745? -1818), Chicago's first non-native settler. Although DuSable remains a pivotal figure in Chicago's past, many details of his life experiences were not formally recorded. Historical speculation pertaining to his origins, family background and travels are numerous and varied. In fact, the definitive history of DuSable's life has yet to be written. Legend holds he was an articulate, cultured, prosperous and diplomatic man who effectively forged alliances between native and immigrant populations. He interacted with and became a member of many early Chicago communities, including Native American, Catholic, European and African peoples.

The DuSable Project celebrates DuSable's life as well as Chicago's rich cultural heritage. The play, which is intended for young audiences (specifically seventh- to ninth-grade students – the age group that would be exposed to the subject of DuSable in history classes at school), is designed to complement classroom studies by bringing history lessons to life on stage. It tells DuSable's story using non-linear storytelling techniques and interactive imagery to weave the many scholarly accounts of his life into the skeleton of a historical record that is incomplete at best. By introducing multiple perspectives on past events, and attempting to bridge the gaps in the recordation of DuSable's life, the performance invites the audience to appreciate history's complexity and nuance. In addition, each performance presents a unique opportunity for audience members to make DuSable's story their own. In this way, the past is revived on stage in a very personalized manner.

In the project, the adventures of Chicago's first settler are presented in classic improv comedy style. An ensemble of six actors assumes multiple roles in the story, including DuSable, his wife Kittihawa, various family members and the friends and associates he meets along his travels. Live music (an important feature of improv) helps to define the mood of each scene. In drawing on comedic improvisational forms, The DuSable Project approaches the subject of Chicago's origins in a humorous, forthright and revealing manner, allowing the story to be accessible to young audiences, yet containing more sophisticated references for all ages. The comedy techniques employed in the production represent an art form indigenous to Chicago (the improv tradition was born in the city and perfected by members of such pioneering theatre companies as The Compass Players, Second City and ImprovOlympic). In terms of its significance as a theatrical genre, improvisational comedy is notable for promoting a high level of audience/performer responsiveness.

The text of the play is based on DuSable, a script devised and developed by Dan Zellner in collaboration with Red Path Theater Company (Illinois' only Native American theatre company). Readings of the play have taken place at the Chicago Historical Society, Truman College and as part of the first annual Juneteenth Festival of African-American theatre at the University of Louisville.

The work was subsequently adjusted from traditional proscenium presentation to a virtual reality format (one in which the audience would be required to wear polarized glasses in order to perceive 3-D scenographic imagery). Members of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois assisted in preparing a version of the text in a VR medium. Due to cost and scheduling restrictions, though, only a few scenes of the play could be realized using 3-D technologies. Such a format required a lengthy and arduous pre-production period, involving storyboard, modeling and graphic design phases. Ultimately, such an endeavor proved to be too labor intensive and expensive to pursue further.

In late spring of 2003 a multidisciplinary group of theatre artists composed of students, staff and faculty members received a grant of $10,333 from Northwestern University's Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts to reconfigure the play to a more mobile, adaptable and cost efficient model of production – one better suited for campus use. The project brought together practitioners from the disciplines of theatre, performance studies and digital media to experiment actively with concepts of design for a digital stage, and to blend their individual approaches to the creation of digital art works for a live audience.*

Most importantly, though, The DuSable Project provided Northwestern undergraduate and graduate students the unique opportunity to conceive, design and present an original multimedia work of historical content, and to receive hands-on training in improvisational comedy techniques and digital media design in the process.

When the collaborative group met in the autumn of 2003, we decided immediately to make contact with the various Chicago cultural groups working to preserve DuSable's legacy, in order to invite them to participate in the creation of a new version of the play's text. These groups included: Friends of DuSable and The DuSable League, as well as members of the Haitian, Catholic and Native American communities. We met with representatives from these organizations throughout the autumn to discuss the script and review details concerning the numerous historical and scholarly accounts of DuSable's life. Zellner began to revise his text based largely upon feedback obtained from the cultural groups.

Originally we intended to perform the completed play during the month of February 2004 in conjunction with Black History Month celebrations on the Northwestern campus. However, given our commitment to working with the cultural groups to revise the script, such a plan was not feasible. We decided, instead, to present a staged reading of one scene that had undergone extensive modification to members of the university community in the spring. Working on the scene would enable Zellner to experience the text in performance – a crucial step in the play's developmental process.

On April 28, 2004 we hosted The DuSable Project Community Colloquium in the Clarence L. Ver Steeg Faculty Lounge of the University Library. The night's events consisted of the presentation of one scene from the play, followed by a roundtable exchange of ideas led by the collaborative team members and cultural group participants. The audience consisted of scholars, artists, teachers, community activists, students of all ages and City of Chicago representatives.

To realize the scene, we assembled a group of four student performers (three undergraduates and one graduate student) to begin working on the text in late March, allowing one month of rehearsal time before the presentation. The performers possessed varying levels of acting experience and represented departments as diverse as Radio/Television/Film, Performance Studies and Mechanical Engineering.

Digital Stage Configuration: The Challenge of Physical Placement

The stage design for The DuSable Project, like any theatrical production, is predicated on the demands imposed by a specific physical location. The challenge for a set designer working within a digital stage environment is to utilize the given space to accommodate technological instrumentation, while simultaneously providing the performers and director with the largest possible playing area. Also, equipment must be placed near enough to the projection surfaces to be effective, and in close enough range of the technical personnel to be manageable. Thus technology must be placed unobtrusively yet accessibly throughout the stage area, in order to ensure freedom of movement on one hand and ease of operation on the other.

Besides dealing with issues of equipment placement, the collaborative team confronted two major obstacles relating to the set: mobility and cost. First, because the show was designed to be performed in various campus venues, it was mandatory that the set be mobile and easily transportable. Second, set-related costs could not exceed the $1,500 alloted in the budget. To answer both requirements, we decided to use a pre-configured, portable stage apparatus, as devised by Zellner and members of his theatre company Studio Z theatre company in consultation with members of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This platform included the following equipment:

Studio Z's stage apparatus took two people approximately forty-five minutes to assemble and could be easily broken down for transport, permitting us to travel from one location to another quickly and efficiently.

For the purposes of the staged reading, though, mobility was less of a concern. The library lounge could be easily transformed into a stage environment, with the added benefits of being able to accommodate an intimate audience of approximately forty spectators and having a central campus location. In many ways the room functioned as a black-box theatre or malleable performance space that could be adapted to the specific requirements of our production.

Figure 2: Stage design concept: scene one of <em>The DuSable Project</em>
Figure 2: Stage design concept: scene one of The DuSable Project

Figure 2 shows the stage configuration of The DuSable Project. In the design, an object defines the playing area (in this case an oval, lightly-colored piece of carpeting). Two video projectors mounted to the left- and right-hand stage walls light the actors from above. A large rear-projection screen occupies the center-stage position. In addition to providing necessary lighting, these three projectors also display computer-generated imagery simultaneously on the floor of the playing area and the center-stage screen, and, in some instances, directly on the players' costuming, depending on their movements on stage.

For the reading at the Colloquium, the set design had to be adjusted slightly to accommodate the space. For example, a piece of carpeting was not required to define the playing area, as the Ver Steeg Lounge had light-colored flooring that would allow imagery to be projected onto it. In this setting, we opted to place the two computer operators who ran the show just outside the playing area, very near the actors on stage. These operators (situated in the far downstage right area of the platform, as depicted in Figures 3 and 4 below), sat at small tables containing audio, lighting and computer equipment to manipulate the graphic imagery, lights and sound during the performance. A live guitarist playing blues (another Chicago-based artistic tradition) was positioned on the other side of the stage, directly across from the two computer operators.

Figure 3: ? Figure 4: ?
Figures 3 and 4: Digital stage configuration with computer operator just outside the playing area on stage. Unlike this model, however, our project utilized a single rear-projection screen set up with two wall-mounted video projectors

This arrangement of equipment and personnel achieved the desired goal of allowing the actors to move unencumbered throughout the playing area and behind the screen. Also, equipment was easily accessible to the technical personnel running the show. More importantly, this configuration served to integrate the technical and artistic aspects of the production within a single visual framework. The performers, computer operators and musician (the complete cast of live players) balanced the stage picture evenly, providing a visual reminder of their symmetrical (equally significant) artistic contributions.

Nonlinear and Participatory Dimensions of the Narrative

Thematically, The DuSable Project encourages audience members to recognize historical accounts for what they are: namely, human explanations (complete with inaccuracies and imperfections) of recorded actions that shape our understandings of the world. By performing pivotal events in the history of Chicago and DuSable's own life, the work attempts to bridge absences in the ‘official’ record of the city's founding. In addition, through the dramatization of multiple accounts of DuSable's life, young audience members are challenged to make up their own mind about who he was, and, in doing so, to actively question the validity of historical methods in presenting ‘truths’ about the past.

The text of The DuSable Project is composed in such a way as to help audience members understand how to challenge historical authority. The story contains a branched structure, meaning there are numerous directions in which the plotline can travel. During performance, the audience assumes the position of pilot of the text, having the ability to select and navigate through various plot options to advance the story forward. These options correspond to absences in the ‘official’ record of DuSable's life and the founding of Chicago – events that historians have attempted to explain and contextualize. Often, though, these accounts are contradictory. In the play, Zellner has opened up scholarly speculation concerning DuSable's origins, motivations and character traits for audience consideration. By presenting the moments of DuSable's life that have been the subject of historical study as narrative options in the text, the script cleverly allows for the articulation and examination of many contradictory theories.

The play's storyline is configured according to audience suggestion during the live performance – the defining characteristic of improv comedy. The scene dramatized for the Colloquium, for instance, focuses on DuSable's background and route to Chicago. In this sequence, the text offers the audience the ability to choose among three versions of his birth and journey to the Midwest region. The play's narrators present alternative historical explanations that locate DuSable's origin in Haiti, Canada or the Southern U.S. and allow the audience to choose one version to be performed. The options are contextualized with historical artifacts and documents illustrated in the projected imagery detailed in the next part of this paper. The final selection of a plotline option, in keeping with the democratic nature of improv comedy, is determined by a majority vote (either by hand or vocally). It is important to note, however, that after a selection is dramatized, the story returns to a central point in the text so that information arising from the options not selected can be conveyed to the group.

Developing a Unified Aesthetic: The Challenge of Technological and Narrative Coherence

To carry out the goal of empowering audiences to question historical methods and influences, themes relating to ‘playing with time’ and ‘combining the old with the new’ form the basis of the production's unifying aesthetic framework: dynamic collages of images that can be added to, subtracted from or reassembled during a scene or sequence of scenes. These collages mix historical materials (maps, charts, illustrations, snippets from historical texts and other scholarly papers) together with digital photographs, video and computerized renderings of locations and physical settings. The aim of designing such a multifaceted collage motif was to create an immersive, tactile and multilayered stage environment – one that complicated rather than complemented what was happening on stage.

In keeping with the play's thematic content, collages visually emphasize the complexity of history and the overlapping nature of memory. The mixing, blending and entwining of collage imagery mirror the complex processes required not only to recall past events, but through the act of performance, to relive them anew on stage. Similar to the storymaking methods presented, collages are multi-voiced and aesthetically autonomous. Comprised of numerous sources, styles and types of visual data, collages uphold collective and multicentered points of view (as opposed to a historical text which is dominated by a single voice or perspective). Further, the fluctuation of movement from one collage to another reinforces the notion that history is an evolving course of action, rather than a linear chain of events.

As conceived, each collage would be infinitely rearrangeable. During the show, imagery is accessible via a MIDI keyboard on which each separate image is assigned its own key. The order of appearance of the images, however, would not be predetermined. Rather, the computer operator would be able to select and compile images for a specific collage spontaneously in live performance. Thus, every collage would be unique and impossible to replicate. Like the performance event itself, collages would take on the status of a living, evolving being, rather than a static collection of objects.

For example, the opening collage (depicted in part in Figure 5 below), if spontaneously delivered, would depict both the forward and backward progression of time simultaneously. Within the same visual canvas, a patchwork of imagery interweaves artifacts from the past with present-day cultural reference points and orders them randomly (giving them equal weight). Such a random arrangement of visual information permits audience members to recognize how vestiges of the past manifest themselves in present day life. Such a flexible presentational format gives rise to a form of historical analysis that is more accessible, familiar and immediate to young people.

Figure 5: Opening sequence collage: present-day Chicago
Figure 5: Opening sequence collage: present-day Chicago

In practice, however, such flexibility was not possible. Two operators were required to run the show for the reading, not one. The first operator controlled the images projected from the two wall-mounted side projectors onto the playing area surface while the other managed the flow of imagery onto the center screen. To require these two separate operators, not to mention their individual computers, to act as one would have been impossible. An uncoordinated (unsynchronized) effort would have been obvious to the audience, as images would have appeared in a scattered fashion on the projection surfaces, possibly disorienting the actors. Also, in the lead-up to the performance, the imagery was constantly being adjusted to modify artistic and dramaturgical content, to better adjust to actors' movements on stage and to maximize the theatrical potential of the space. The computer operators did not have enough time to familiarize themselves with the finalized imagery, nor was the imagery itself in a state of preparedness to allow for spontaneous retrieval. For the purposes of the reading, the show's imagery was pre-made and pre-ordered.

The pre-configured ordering of the images, though, did not detract from their visual appeal and dramatic impact. Aesthetically, multiple layers of images added texture to a given scene. Further, the action of constructing, deconstructing and reassembling collages built momentum for a succession of events, while focusing attention on a specific image or moment in time.

Figure 6: Collage introducing DuSable: various depictions of his person and homestead with contemporary Chicago in the background
Figure 6: Collage introducing DuSable: various depictions of his person and homestead with contemporary Chicago in the background

Figure 6 illustrates various interpretations of what DuSable may have looked like. This collage has, as its backdrop, scenes from contemporary Chicago life – again forging a connection between the past and the present in one visual landscape. At this moment in the play, the main character appears on stage for the first time. The collage, though, instead of placing DuSable in a fixed location or period of time, introduces the idea that he is viewed differently by different people, and, subsequently there are numerous ways to describe and understand him. No single explanation is better (or more legitimate) than another. Further, although his story is relevant to all time periods, he is also distinctly human, his corporeality represented on stage by the live actor who may or may not resemble one of the three illustrations offered regarding his physicality.

Figures 5 and 6 point to the ways in which the projected imagery in this production moved beyond the traditional functions of scenography. Instead of merely providing a backdrop for performers' activities, the projected visual text of The DuSable Project played an integral role in maintaining the interactive character of the stage environment by encouraging audience members to make up their own minds regarding the validity of the historical material presented.

The Challenge of Usage

Figure 7: Interactive imagery: Northwestern performers in rehearsal responding to collages
Figure 7: Interactive imagery: Northwestern performers rehearsing staged reading respond to collages

In theory, the stage apparatus, narrative devices and projected imagery would work cooperatively to empower the audience to act in a participatory capacity. In practice, however, some of the production's interactive features operated more effectively than others.

The portable stage platform was intended to optimize the participatory nature of the storytelling form by establishing a user-friendly setting. In performance, though, the apparatus did not work as efficiently as expected. For example, during the opening sequence (the collage of Chicago's past and present), one computer lagged a few seconds behind the other machine, leading to a jagged presentation of images. Mysteriously, the computer corrected itself a few minutes into the show, and the imagery was synchronized thereafter. When the computer malfunctioned, the audience's attention was immediately drawn to the equipment running the show. The audience may not have been comfortable participating in the plotline options because they may have perceived that their input was perfunctory; computer technology was driving the action on stage, not the performers. In this type of endeavor, there is a balance to be achieved between integrating technology and technical personnel with live actors on stage and somehow calling attention to equipment as a dominant force in the production. In other words, it is important not to set audiences up for man vs. machine competition, in which the themes of the play (which may have nothing to do with technology) are either subsumed or misdirected. In The DuSable Project technology was a means to an end – to tell a story more imaginatively and collaboratively – not an end to itself. The glitch reinforced the need to establish a well-conceived back-up plan that could address technical breakdowns when (not if) they occur, an eventuality we had considered but not sufficiently developed for implementation in a real-world setting.

The unique storytelling strategies employed in the work (described above) were intended to promote heightened levels of performer-audience responsiveness. By selecting various narrative options, audience members would help to determine the path of DuSable's journey and, in so doing they would become fully-fledged collaborators in real-time story making processes.

In the staged reading, the narrative selections were greeted with a wide range of reactions from the audience, everything from awe to indifference. The student performers were prepared for many responses, yet they appeared to be quite frazzled by audience members who were unwilling to voice any preference relating to options for the plot. In short, they were not prepared for an uncertain response, or no response at all. After the event, one of the collaborative team members remarked that a lengthier rehearsal period would have allowed the actors to become more comfortable with the operational format so as to react more spontaneously to audience suggestion (or lack thereof). Working within a multimedia environment is tough enough on trained improv actors; neophyte performers require additional time to adjust not only to the equipment but also to each other and the presence of live audience members. We learned from this experience that an interactive media-intensive format necessitates a great deal of rehearsal time with actors.

The selection of this particular scene from the play might have also contributed to the actors' feelings of unease. The scene dramatized in the reading set up the semiotic codes of the performance, laying down the foundation for the ways in which the audience were asked to participate in the play. In this scene, a plotline option is presented to the audience for the first time. Separating the events of the scene from the larger context of the story might have confused audience members about what the production (specifically the text and actors) were requiring them to do. Clearly, the audience's bewilderment caused the actors to become anxious (and to project their own discomfort back onto the audience). The truly reciprocal exchange of energies communicated between the audience and performers during the staged reading suggest that a heightened level of interactivity was achieved. On the other hand, though, it also reveals the fact that the collaborative team had proceeded with faulty, or at the very least naïve, assumptions regarding a theatre audience's enthusiasm for and engagement with interactive formats. Were audience members unwilling to participate in the ways in which we had prescribed, or was the interactive format itself a cause of anxiety? A full length production of the play will help to determine the answer, though at this point the collaborative team continues to focus on the initial stage of development.

While exhibiting apathy towards the narrative options presented, the audience was much more enthusiastically engaged with the projected imagery. In particular, younger spectators greeted each collage with enthusiastic audible responses. Many audience members approached collaborative team participants after the reading to relay their favorable impressions of the imagery. Adults remarked on the complex and nuanced dimensions of the projected text. They thanked us for encouraging them to work hard at making meaning of each collage. Young viewers commented that the images were ‘cool’ and ‘fun.’ One university student stated that the imagery reminded him of playing a video game, except that in the play the imagery felt more immediate and immersive. Thus, the projected text successfully fulfilled the goal of helping to create a visceral and aesthetically engaging stage environment for the audience to experience.


The DuSable Project represents an integrated approach to digital stage design – one that effectively weighs the needs of the live participants and the demands of technology against the physical limitations of a given location. The project's set design is notable for its constructive allocation of space, its dynamic aesthetic framework and its ability to carry out some of the work's interactive objectives. The design also promotes innovative approaches to using a single technology for multiple purposes, for example, a video projector providing both lighting and scenery. In this production, lighting design and set design became the same thing. Also, The DuSable Project underscored the practicality of adopting a pre-configured stage apparatus for the purposes of producing multimedia theatre works in university settings where cost, flexibility and mobility are primary considerations.

When implemented in a real-time performance situation, some set design initiatives intended to increase performer/audience responsiveness worked better than others. Most importantly, though, because of the staged reading, the collaborative team is now in a much better position to alter the play in order to more effectively encourage the audience to interrogate historical methods of study. Is there room for improvement on this point? Yes, absolutely. We should begin by considering how to help frame the plotline options differently. This is not just an issue relating to the text, as any procedural adjustment will affect how the piece is staged.

In presenting an overview of the scene design of The DuSable Project, the authors' aim is to draw attention to some of the options available to meet challenges arising from working with digital technologies in live performance. In our enthusiasm to document our discoveries and share our insights, though, we do not mean to gloss over the difficulties inherent in working within a media-rich theatrical environment: the need to work hard, concentrate intently, maintain a cooperative and patient attitude and, most significantly, to embrace experimental methods of study. Technological integration also requires teamwork, shared responsibility and collaborative decision-making processes. In short, participants must work efficiently on both individual and collective levels.

The upside of such labor is the potential of discovering new ways to configure a theatrical environment, the ability to experiment with alternative storytelling strategies on stage and the possibility of creatively engaging audience members with the tools of twenty-first-century life. To this end, it is our hope that this paper will contribute to scholarship concerning the integration of digital media into live theatre that is comprehensible, useful and realizable. Ultimately, the set designs described in this work may help to create a new vision of what practitioners can accomplish with interactive media technologies in theatre production.


The collaborative team for The DuSable Project includes Professor Sandra Richards from the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University, Professor David Saltz from the Department of Drama and Theatre at the University of Georgia, independent playwright Dan Zellner of the Northwestern University Library and the authors of this paper.


The authors wish to thank the three anonymous reviewers of Crossings: Electronic Journal of Art and Technology who carefully scrutinized this paper. They offered valuable comments, suggestions and annotations intended to help improve its original content.

About the Authors

Sam Ball (Lead Designer of The DuSable Project) is an emeritus professor of Theatre at Northwestern University where he devised and implemented the curriculum in design and technical theatre. He has been a moving force in theatrical performance since 1960. His design credits include more than one hundred productions, ranging from One Foot in America at Northwestern to Before My Eyes at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater. Other credits include the Lyric Opera, Chicago, local television stations WMAQ, WLS, and WGN, the Seattle Repertory Theater, and the Orlando Shakespeare Festival. He recently completed a two-year stint as the theatre consultant for the Northwestern Settlement House Vittum Theater, Chicago.

Kathryn Farley (Stage Director of The DuSable Project) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern where she is completing a dissertation titled, ‘Teaching Theatre in the Digital Age: Interactive Technologies, Improvised Spaces and Transformations in Techno/Human Relations.’ Combining theatre history with performative research, the project examines how digital technologies have enhanced traditional instructional methods. At Northwestern, Kathryn has taught undergraduate courses which explored the performance of contemporary drama and the adaptation of fiction. Her most recent class, ‘Multimedia Improvisation’ blended improv training with hands-on exposure to digital media design and application.

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