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From Vintage Films to National Awards: Meet the Director Behind Theatre’s New Cutting Edge Technology

Mark Lawyer

If you’re ever in Henry Ford College’s Virtual Theatricality Lab, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a lot of intricate technology that costs much more than the average college education. Above is an aluminum cage-like contraption with attached lighting fixtures. Huge green screens cover the wall and expensive looking projectors are on the racks. I try not to break anything as I look around. My guide through this technological journey is an absolutely intriguing man: the combination of his tall stature and the theatrical, sweeping gestures he makes as he speaks draw me in, and I am not surprised when he tells me he was an actor for many years. In fact, this man won the Mayor’s Artist/Performer award in 1992 and the Mayor’s Arts Educator Award in 2015. His name is George Popovich and he is HFC’s Director of Theatre Arts.

Growing up in Ohio, Popovich says he became obsessed with science fiction films by the young age of five or six. “I was a geek,” he admits easily, “Now it’s cool to like superheroes and monsters. That was not always the case. In the old days, you paid a price for liking horror and science fiction films. Other students thought you were “weird” and teachers thought you were “subversive.” Popovich grins and says…”Ya know, they were right.” He drops names of classics like King Kong, Jason and The Argonauts, and Frankenstein.

Interestingly, it is Popovich’s father, who was a television repairman, who allowed Popovich to watch him work. It is instantly easy to envision a young Popovich surrounded by a mad laboratory of dismantled televisions, oscilloscopes and tools, making his first forays into the film technology that would eventually inspire him to build a theatre program focused on the subtle dance between stage acting and what essentially are effects usually reserved for screen movies.

The inside of Popovich’s office is littered with movie paraphernalia. Posters of The Invisible Man and War of the Worlds adorn the walls. On the shelves are masks and little figurines. Hanging from the ceilings are dinosaur skeleton cutouts originally used as props in the HFC production of Dinosaurus! “I wanted to develop a technology wherein film effects could be used in live stage performances,” he tells me.

The idea was considered absurd not too long ago, and when Popovich first presented it to the Toronto International Film Festival, it didn’t take off like he had hoped. I, myself, am surprised at the idea, but soon learn that the amalgam of the two seemingly old and new forms of entertainment might bring about a performance medium that most play audiences have never experienced.

In one of the VTL’s earlier uses of motion capture technology, the play The Skriker, engineered by Alan Contino, was a success. The play tells a story of a shape shifting faery attempting to steal babies and sabotage the world’s future.

Just this February Popovich was awarded with the prestigious Mayor’s Art Educator’s Award, presented by the Dearborn Community Arts Council, for his work on Dinosaurus!, a production which ran in November of 2014. The work took advantage of a slightly different technology than The Skriker’s motion capture, using keyframe-animated dinosaurs that allowed the audience to see the 3D twenty foot quadrupeds seemingly walking right in front of them. The product was captivating enough to break the theatre’s attendance records, attracting hundreds of elementary and middle school children.

As Popovich gestures grandly to the equipment used, describing the minute details and immense amount of time it takes to set up a play using different technologies, I learn that the Dinosaurus! production alone took five years! Unsurprisingly, the several plays that have used the motion capture and VTL technology, including The Tempest, The Skriker, and Dinosaurus! have garnered plenty of attention for HFC’s theatre department from national press. In fact, The Tempest was a regional winner in 2004 at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival, in competition with other reputable programs like Popovich’s alma mater Ohio State University and The University of Michigan.

As for what’s next, Popovich might have even bigger plans for the theatre. Popovich is drawn to an old science fiction play from the 20’s called R.U.R . He is attracted to the piece because of the fact that it is known for having introduced the word “robot” to the English language, and to sci-fi. The play is a perfect candidate for visual effects with its dark story of robots overthrowing the human race, and Popovich envisions a production where real time actors control hologram-esque robot projections on stage.

“Whether it’s Hollywood, or here, or here, or Broadway, or Dallas or Chicago or Kalamazoo, whatever comes out of [your work], comes out because it’s your passion,” Popovich says.

After spending a mere hour with Popovich, it is easy to get a glimpse into the person behind all the accolades, and see a man who is simply and irrepressibly passionate about theatre. And much like his own father was for him, he is a visionary that has played a key role in introducing dozens of students to love of the stage and production.

“You carry the torch, that’s what you do. You’re trying to find somebody to inspire, and you want them to do something cool because you turned them on to it. That’s all we’re here for,” Popovich reflects “All the other stuff is irrelevant as hell.”