"Dark", with Caleb Sponheim and Ben Doehr (L to R). Photo by John Brady

During the spring 2014 semester, Caleb Sponheim '15 and myself created a series of installations as part of a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) at Grinnell College. Our broad goal with these projects was to use technology to blur the line between performer and audience member; to do so, we created three interactive spaces throughout the semester titled Light, Dark, and Illuminate.

We throw around words like immersive, emotive, intuitive — but really, we wanted to make magic.
— Caleb Sponheim - S&B Interview

Each space was designed with three levels of performance in mind. On the surface, audience members could sit in the house of Roberts Theatre and watch what others were creating. The next level of interaction was to go on stage and play around with the installation - to figure out how the space reacted to your presence. On a deeper level, audience members could themselves create a performance using the tools that we had provided.

Part of the code for the recording aspect of Light

On a technical level, we used Isadora, a modular graphical programming software, to run the hardware behind our three installations. Program files are available for download for LightDark, and Illuminate, and User Actors. Note: each piece required running multiple copies of Isadora on multiple computers, so these files are provided for instructional purposes only; no guarantee is made that they can be implemented outside of the original setup.


Photos 1-7 by Frank Zhu, Photos 8-16 by John Brady

Photos 1-7 by Frank Zhu, Photos 8-16 by John Brady

Light, the first project, consisted of hanging approximately 60 incandescent light bulbs over the stage and house of our traditional proscenium space. Eight of the light bulbs were hung at approximately head height over the stage, and were programmed to respond to the proximity of an audience member's hand. Whenever a light bulb 'sensed' that a hand was near, it would set off a tone and a series of flickers of the other light bulbs over the house. As an advanced option, audience members could record a series of flitters and pentatonic tones to create a piece of their own. The piece was underscored by chirping crickets, running water, and other sounds of nature, creating a calm, peaceful, serene environment. Click on any of the images below to bring up the gallery, or watch the video to see Caleb record a piece on the installation. (Watching in high quality is recommended.)

Video by Frank Zhu


Dark, the next project, aimed to be the complete opposite of Light. We completely changed everything about from Roberts Theatre, from the light temperature to the performance location, creating a harsh, industrial atmosphere. We lowered in one of the lighting trusses on stage, and lined fluorescent tubes across the stage to create a bar of pale, eerie light (see the picture at the top of this page).

“Emotionally, we wanted [Dark] to be the opposite experience of ‘Light.’ We wanted it to be a harsh, violent environment.”
— Ben Doehr, S&B Interview
Photos 1-9 by Caleb Sponheim, Photos 10-17 by John Brady

Photos 1-9 by Caleb Sponheim, Photos 10-17 by John Brady

Whereas Light responded to people's presence with harmonious, pentatonic notes and peaceful flitters of light, Dark responded with industrial, warped screeches and rumbles. The aim was to create a space that could also be used to create an artistic performance, but one on an entirely different level from what we would consider "pretty" performance. Lighting fixtures were used to highlight the structure of the space, ranging from the inside of the truss to the catwalks over the house.

The aural ambiance was a loud roar, punctuated by metallic clashes and rumbles. Additionally, this installation added a collaborative aspect; some transformations of the space could only be completed when multiple people interacted with the installation in a certain way. Watch the videos below for a glimpse of how this space worked, and click on any of the images below to bring up the gallery. (Watching in high quality is recommended.)

A performance on "Dark" by Caleb Sponheim

A walkthrough by Ben Doehr of what each part of Dark does. Filmed by Caleb Sponheim.


Photographs by Justin Hayworth

The final installation in this series was titled "Illuminate", and it was completely different from the other two. We created a space with no physical installation, only projectors. The aim of this installation was to create a space where trained dancers and audience members could work together to create a magical performance. We worked with Ana Novak '14 to create a number of scenes based on choreographed responses to different lighting qualities, including fire, candles, chemoluminescence, and fireworks. We created a five-minute performance based on these movements to be performed approximately every half hour in the space; during the rest of the time, we slowly cycled through the different looks and invited audience members to create their own movement piece. The videos below feature both the choreographed performance and so-called "free movement" by audience members, and click on any of the photos in the gallery to expand them. (Watching in high quality is recommended.)

A compilation of some of the scenes involved in Illuminate

The choreographed portion of Illuminate

Additional reading / acknowledgements:

Article in the Scarlet & Black, the student newspaper at Grinnell College.

Article on the Grinnell College website.

Justin Thomas, Associate Professor of Theatre & Dance, Grinnell College. Faculty advisor to our MAP.

John Brady. Photographer.

Frank Zhu. Photographer.