“The Triumph of Isabella”: A year in review

October 17, 2019

The International Program for Creative Collaboration & Research (IPCCR) completed its inaugural year with The Triumph of Isabella: An Exploration of Performance Through Art and Art Through Performance. This international collaboration digitally reunited paintings depicting a performance event that occurred in Brussels in 1615, which are now dispersed in museums across Europe. The digital versions were displayed and contextualized in a year-long exhibit at the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library and brought to life in three performances at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The performances featured live actors, dancers, and musicians along with augmented-reality demonstrations designed to recreate the energy of the original event. The centerpiece was a multimedia immersive experience featuring multiple synchronized projectors displaying animated images from the paintings, moving in 360° on screens 18 feet tall. This “surround” environment included a soundscape that recreated everything the audience might have heard in 1615. These performances were seen by 700 people from the University of Maryland campus and surrounding communities.

Following the performance, the animation and soundscape were extensively enhanced and converted to a single-screen format. In the spring and summer of 2019, the “Triumph of Isabella Immersive Experience” toured to the Victoria & Albert Museum and Shakespeare’s Globe in London, to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, and to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s annual conference in Orlando, Florida, playing to enthusiastic audiences. In October, the new “Experience” returned to the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for a presentation in the Dance Theatre to show the enhancements made over the year. 

Background

The IPCCR is the ten-year global outreach component of “Defining the Future of the Performing Arts in the 21st Century,” an investigation of best practices in performing arts education funded by the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation. “The Triumph of Isabella” project was created as an experiential learning opportunity for students in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, allowing them to explore ways of integrating their training as performing artist/scholars into the growing field of “art-comes-alive” immersive experiences—a movement so popular that it inspired the creation of a new digital Fine Arts museum in Paris, L’Atelier des Lumières.

In the summer of 2017, IPCCR director Professor Franklin J. Hildy initiated this collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, and the Museo Nacional del Prado. The challenge was to bring audiences inside the world of the “Parade of the Craft Guilds,” called the Ommegang, which occurred in Brussels on May 31, 1615. The parade was dedicated to the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1633), co-sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands and one of the most remarkable women of the age. It was memorialized by her court painter, Denys Van Alsloot (c. 1568 - c. 1626) in eight large paintings, each measuring over 12 by 4 feet (3.66 by 1.22 meters.) These paintings present a uniquely detailed representation of performance culture in Early Modern Europe. Their display of secular power, ecclesiastical authority, military prowess, fantasy and folklore—set against a background of two popular co-rulers who created a golden age for northern European art in the midst of the devastating religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries—make them ideal for interdisciplinary study. The museums provided the high density digital images of the paintings and challenged our students to apply their creativity to make this parade come alive for modern audiences. Over a year was spend on this undertaking.

The project was a good fit for the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies which was already home to “The Measure of Our Lives” project, a collaborative venture with the National Portrait Gallery, spearheaded by Professor Leslie Felbain. Over the course of a year, her advanced acting students select a portrait, research the individual, create a four-minute monologue, and bring these famous people to life at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

Kiara Tinch (B.A. Theatre '12) performs the character of Lena Horne next to her portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. The performance was part of Professor Leslie Felbain's "American Voices" and "The Measure of our Lives" projects at the gallery. Photo courtesy of Leslie Felbain.

Students and faculty artist/scholars from our school’s graduate programs, including our nationally recognized Master of Fine Arts in Design program with a specialization in Multimedia and Projection Design, contributed their skills and experience to the manipulation of digital data for theatrical purposes.

The exhibition

“The Triumph of Isabella: Exploring Performance through Art” exhibition was meticulously curated by Performing Arts librarian, Andrew Barker, who approached it from his perspective as an experienced dramaturg. Ph.D. student Allison Hedges served as associate curator as part of her coursework for the Certificate in Museum Studies. Together, they provided the complex context for this artwork using both static and video displays, drawing on an extensive body of research, assistance from the V&A and various items created by our students.

“The Triumph of Isabella” exhibition at the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library, June 2018 to May 2019. Photo courtesy of Franklin J. Hildy.

The exhibition included the following components:

Augmented reality: Ph.D. students in Professor Franklin J. Hildy’s theater iconography seminar created the augmented reality segments that allowed visitors at the exhibition to hold tablets or smartphones up to the artwork and watch characters move before their eyes and talk to them for 90 seconds about the parade.

Ph.D. student Christen Mandracchia tests augmented reality feature on original painting in the V&A museum. Photo courtesy of Franklin J. Hildy.

Pageant wagon: M.F.A. in Design students led by Professor Daniel Conway analyzed the ten pageant wagons for which the paintings are most well-known. After researching period building techniques, scaling the images, compensating for distorted perspective and color matching paints, the student tested the limits of their own considerable skills and the capability of the school’s 3D printers and laser cutters to create a museum-quality model of the most sophisticated pageant wagon of the ten.

“Sailing through the Pillars of Hercules” pageant wagon originally built in 1558. This is the only wagon in the paintings that was not pulled by horses. Photo courtesy of Franklin J. Hildy.

 

M.F.A. Design candidates Matthew Buttrey ’18, Richard Ouellette ’18 and Grace Guarniere ’20 discuss how they recreated the pageant wagon.

 

Masks and costumes: M.F.A. in Design students in costume design, under the supervision of Professor Helen Huang, used a 15th-century manual (Il Libro dell' Arte by Cennino D’ Andrea Cennini) to recreate the leather and shellac mask worn by one of the many devils used for crowd control in the parade. There was no manual, however, for determining how these apparently one-piece costumes were constructed at a time when, scholars believe, no such construction existed. These items were used in the “Triumph of Isabella” performance and were on display as a part of the exhibition throughout the year.

Alum Radcliffe Adler (B.A. Theatre ’18) performs as “The Devil.” Costume and mask design by Alexa Duimstra (M.F.A. Design ’18). Photo by Olivia Brann.

 

The immersive experience

The three 90-minute performances on September 20-23, 2018 demonstrated the value of live performers in creating a level of excitement and energy that has been missing from the purely digital immersive experiences of fine art in the 21st century.

This liveness was carried into the immersive experience that was the capstone to our production with senior Theatre major and alum of “The Measure of Our Lives” project, Molly Boyle (B.A. Theatre ’19). She welcomed the audience into the immersive space in character as the fictitious Spanish actress, Maria Luisa, the first body double for Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia in the parade. As she performed and provided context for the immersive experience, digital animation showed the Van Alsloot paintings in action. The parade animations entered the space from the right side of the space, encircled the audience and exited back the way it came, with the sounds of the crowd, music, animals, wagons, fireworks and street vendors moving with it. As theater practitioners, we directed this production as we would any piece of street theater, applying a different set of aesthetics than would normally be expected of fine art curators and commercial animators.

The production team explored a wide variety of approaches to the immersive experiences of fine art—everything from 2D cutout animation to CGI-generated 3D animation that can be seen in many computer games. We chose a style that we felt allowed us to remain true to the art and to the style of the artists. This limited the animation to only what was found in the artworks themselves and the soundscape to only what was indicated in the paintings, including music that only could have been heard in Spanish-occupied Brussels in 1615.​

M.F.A. Design candidate Paul Deziel (animations), Ph.D. student Q-Mars Haeri (animations) and Ph.D. student Christen Mandracchia (sound design) discuss how they created the animations and soundscape for the “Triumph of Isabella” immersive experience.

 

The tour

The tours to London, Oxford and Orlando allowed the production team to experience firsthand the differences between mounting such a show in a museum, a library or a conference center, rather than in a traditional theater. Each talkback session with audiences required the students to articulate the goals, challenges and achievements of the project with precision. That said, the touring show lacked the live component that energized the College Park audiences and that, perhaps, is the most valuable takeaway from this exploration of the developing field of immersive experiences of fine arts.

Ph.D. candidate Q-Mars Haeri was one of the students who traveled to London and Orlando and he appreciated the opportunity to share this work with an international audience.

“The project was impressive because it went beyond just animation,” he explained. “We also showed all of the research and educational components that were involved.”

In twice-daily gallery talks at the V&A Museum in London, team members explained how their collaboration brought together the past, present and future through digital technology.

“People comment on how we retained the ‘integrity’ of the original art while still creating something innovative and appealing to modern audiences,” noted Ph.D. candidate Christen Mandracchia.

The Victoria & Albert Museum, Gallery 103. The puppet from the play War Horse, with the” Triumph of Isabella Experience” and its documentaries playing continuously in the background, marks the entrance to the museum’s theater and performance galleries. Photo courtesy of Franklin J. Hildy.