UNL Arts leaders advance strategic initiatives in London

L-R: Joseph Holmes, Lisa Gray, Megan Elliott, Andy Belser, Hank Stratton and Felix Olschofka attended ABBA Voyage during their visit to London earlier this month to explore the future of design in live performance. Courtesy photo.
L-R: Joseph Holmes, Lisa Gray, Megan Elliott, Andy Belser, Hank Stratton and Felix Olschofka attended ABBA Voyage during their visit to London earlier this month to explore the future of design in live performance. Courtesy photo.

UNL Arts leaders advance strategic initiatives in London

calendar icon29 Sep 2023    

Lincoln, Neb.--Four members of the administrative team in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts were in London Sept. 10-15 to explore the future of design in live performance and to engage further with The Open String project.

Dean Andy Belser, Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film Director Hank Stratton, Johnny Carson Endowed Director in Emerging Media Arts Megan Elliott and Glenn Korff School of Music Director Felix Olschofka, along with Art Fabrication Space Manager Joseph Holmes, made the trip.

“This trip significantly advanced the Hixson-Lied College’s key strategic priority of innovating our curriculum through meeting with some of the world’s leading live entertainment designers, technologists and thought leaders,” Belser said. “We were also able to move The Open String engagement partnership forward in meaningful ways. The trip could not have been more fruitful, and we look forward to bringing these partnerships back to serve the students and Nebraska in significant ways.”

Stratton said the tour and meetings made it clear how Nebraska needs to train its students.

“It further evidenced that our mission to broaden and expand the Carson Center’s influence across the college is absolutely in line with current industry trends. For instance, it’s unmissable that live performance and productions are moving in an immersive and multi-modality direction. That’s very exciting and how we need to be training our students,” he said. “It was heartening to hear that what we’re doing is unique. We are clearly positioned to be thought leaders in this type of education, keeping pace with the direction of the industry.”

Lisa Gray, the founder and CEO of Black Meteor, research and development specialists and communications consultants, arranged the meetings for the team. Gray is an award-winning executive producer and content creator with experience across television and multiplatform technologies.

“We arranged meetings with London-based global leaders in the various fields of live performance design, from West End producers and Olivier and Tony award-winning set designers, to live AR experience designers and creators, to the team that creates the vast video installations for Beyonce’s tours,” Gray said. “These experts gave their time and insight to the Carson Center leadership team, which will all inform the curriculum of the Carson Center’s courses, resulting in the most employable graduates. Each expert gave insight into the successes of their own careers and gave insight into the trends they see coming up in the industry—on the West End, on Broadway and in Vegas, too.”

They met with a wide range of industry leaders, including Ben Tan, a creative technologist at Google Creative Works; Martyn Ware, the founder of Illustrious Company and a record producer and artist (founder of seminal electronic bands Human League and Heaven 17) featured on recordings totaling 50 million sales worldwide; artist David Hockney’s Lightroom; Alex Jenkins, the executive creative director of Nexus Studios, whose work includes Academy Award-nominated animation; Paul Taylor-Mills, the artistic director of London theatre The Other Palace; Tom Pye, an acclaimed set and costume designer; Paul Kieve, one of the world’s leading theatre illusionists; Alex Wills, the chief experience officer at disguise; Candice Edmunds, the co-artistic director of the award-winning theatre company Vox Motus; among others.

They also saw ABBA Voyage, a virtual concert residency by the Swedish pop group ABBA that features virtual avatars, depicting the group as they appeared in 1979, as well as Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City.

“It was really successful, I think,” Elliott said. “We introduced Andy and Hank to our network in London and expanded the network with not just experts, but industry legends like Tom Pye, Paul Taylor-Mills and Paul Kieve, who is responsible for all of the best magic tricks on the West End and Broadway. We also saw the kinds of new forms of entertainment that is right on the edge, everything from Lighthouse with David Hockney through to ABBA Voyage and immersive theatre like Burnt City. I think being able to see the crossovers between emerging media arts and tools and technologies and live performance was fantastic. And also seeing how those same tools and platforms are used, for example, not just at Beyonce’s concert, but also for virtual production. Seeing where it all collides and comes together was just great.”

The meetings will help inform additional opportunities for students and faculty in the college.

“I think they definitely highlighted the necessity of having a virtual production volume for our storytellers and actors and designers across all platforms,” Elliott said. “And the necessity for us to think about how we design environments and experiences. We’re not just designing them for virtual or black box or proscenium spaces anymore. We have to think about designing immersive experiences and reimagine what the suspension of disbelief means when we are all gathered for a ‘live’ performance.”

They also met with Robert Brewer Young and the W.E. Hill & Sons workshop. Brewer Young is a world-renowned violin maker, who established a non-profit called The Open String (TOS), in which 10-12-year-old youth in underserved areas learn to build and play their own conservatory-quality instruments. The Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts is exploring whether UNL has the capacity to manufacture TOS instruments through the Art Fabrication space in the School of Art, Art History & Design and to refine the process for us to make these instruments throughout Nebraska. String faculty in the Glenn Korff School of Music will then create a structure for graduate and undergraduate students to serve as teachers in engagement programs in partnership with UNL Extension.

“Before I left for London, I met with Joseph Holmes and Francisco Souto in the art fabrication shop, and Joseph showed me the software and the mill and the prefabricated forms,” Olschofka said. “That, of course, piqued my interest. And then seeing it in action in London was very helpful.”

Olschofka had the opportunity to build a violin while he was there, as well as to play on an already completed one.

“It certainly had good sound qualities,” he said.

The concept of the students being involved in making their own instruments is what sets TOS apart from other engagement opportunities, Olschofka said.

“I think it’s such a meaningful way of making this instrument, and not just giving an instrument to a student and say, hey, here’s an instrument you get for free. But let’s say you’re the recipient of the instrument, and someone asks you who made this instrument, and you say me. How cool is that? You don’t find this anywhere else in the world. To say, ‘I made this instrument myself,’ I think that’s really powerful and really meaningful to those younger students.”

Olschofka said there are still some additional logistics they have to figure out about manufacturing the instruments and creating opportunities for music students to provide lessons, but he is hoping to organize a workshop in May 2024 and invite students, possibly from Lincoln Public Schools, to make a violin and pursue playing it.

“This is what we think would be a good start,” he said.

Olschofka also had the opportunity to play four Stradivarius violins and a Guarneri violin at the J & A Beare showroom.

“Holding it was okay, but playing them was even better, of course,” he said. “It was incredible.”

Olschofka spent most of the week in the violin shop, but joined the rest of the group for the visit with Ware in his studio.

“He talked about the three-dimensional sound technology that he invented basically 20 years ago, and how this is still up-to-date,” Olschofka said. “In all the movie theatres, we hear 3D sound, and we’re going to have this in the news music building right in our performance hall, so this was very enlightening to hear Martin speak about the newest technology.”

He also joined in the visit to David Hockney’s Lightroom and Alex Jenkins’ Nexus Studios.

“I enjoyed the conversations, and I was just blown away by all the possibilities you can do with avatars or along those lines,” Olschofka said.

“Nexus was amazing,” Stratton said. “It absolutely blew me away. They’re just thought leaders in terms of animation, in MoCap [motion capture] and in avatars. They were just incredible and talking about the connectivity between the internships that we see possible,”

He was also impressed with the MARS Academy and their disguise platform for visual experiences.

“Disguise is the platform supporting the tours of Beyonce and Adele and Taylor Swift, among others,” Stratton said. “They are working in every single multi-media performance.”

Gray said the industry leaders were eager to meet with UNL arts leaders.

“We got a very enthusiastic response to the forward-thinking this fact-finding mission represented and excitement that there was some rigorous thinking coming from an institution to enable graduates to support the industry, but also to develop the potential of the future of live performance worldwide,” Gray said. “Along with this, the mega-career of Johnny Carson has tremendous respect globally, especially within the industry, even nearly 20 years after his passing.”

Elliott said the industry leaders they met with validated what the Carson Center is already doing.

“It was impressive to people that we have students being hired by Google Creative Labs before they have graduated,” she said. “I think the fact that we’re teaching students virtual production, game engines and real-time physics, but also critical thinking and systems thinking and the ability to problem-solve in real time, how to grasp concepts quickly and not be afraid to try and experiment in new software platforms.”

Stratton agreed.

“To a person, I asked them very specifically what kind of foundations they saw necessary for these students, and every single one of them talked about the fundamentals of storytelling, the fundamentals of design principle, thinking about design in terms of space as opposed to architecture, as well as drafting skills and 3D modeling skills,” he said. “All of the things we are already teaching and then that naturally graduates into these different media modalities that are influencing theatre right now.”

Elliott said the storytelling they infuse in their curriculum sets us apart from what other institutions are doing.

“I think what we’re doing at an undergraduate level is really unique and that is the storytelling piece,” she said. “A lot of people are doing things with creative technology or data and art or robots or A.I. [artificial intelligence], but we’re combining that with storytelling, be it through filmmaking or XR or installation. And I think that’s unusual.”

Elliott plans to continue to build on these types of connections to provide opportunities for both students and faculty.

“We want to continue to build on these connections to provide pathways for student internships and to explore joint research opportunities and faculty and staff development opportunities, and to enhance our London study abroad opportunities for students,” she said. “And we want to scope out building a virtual production studio.”

Stratton said making these connections with industry leaders is fundamental to our mission.

“This is the bridge to the industry as it is being realized today, and training our students to be these types of artists will give them access to these opportunities in their professional careers,” he said. “It’s my privilege and my responsibility to build a professional bridge for our students, and I’m very excited for the possibility of deepening our partnerships with these connections that we made in London.”

Gray was pleased with the outcomes of the trip.

“We’ve put the Carson Center and UNL on the industry’s list when looking for great design talent in live performance,” Gray said. “After such a positive response from these industry experts, the work continues as we foster and develop these connections and realize exciting collaborations that take the student’s vision to the next level—watch this space.”