The Historic Asolo Theater is a point of special pride for the staff of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. An authentic reconstruction of a 1798 playhouse originally built in Asolo, Italy, and transported to Sarasota piece by piece for a painstaking restoration, it is considered a genuine historic artifact and a work of art in its own right.
But what makes the theater unique can also make it problematic: What do you do when presenting a performance with 21st-century technology more suited to a modern design?
That's the dilemma for Aaron Muhl, the theater's technical director, in prepping for "Leo," the latest in the "New Stages: Narrative in Motion" contemporary performance series that is a part of the museum's "Art of Our Time" initiative.
"More and more, projections are becoming the fifth design element in shows," says Muhl, who has led the theater's production staff for the past seven years. "This show is definitely one of the more challenging ones, especially in the video area."
The one-man presentation features a live performer on one side of a stage split down the middle and a real-time video of that artist projected on the other side at a 90-degree angle, making it appear the physical laws of nature have been turned on end. The issue lies in the necessity of having pinpoint placement of the necessary high definition camera, projector and computer in order to create the desired visual illusion.
"The biggest challenge we face with this show is being able to provide the exact projection and camera placement so the two perspectives play against each other and play with the audience's perception," says Muhl.
The difficulty lies in the horseshoe shape of the Historic Asolo and of its catwalk (a narrow walkway overhead) which provides the only possible rigging point. Nothing can hang from the middle of the house and no additional rigging can be added that might cause physical damage or alteration to the theater.
"This being a museum and an historical artifact, there are certain things that are taboo," says Muhl. "We can't drill into anything."
So for "Leo" Muhl took a drawing of the camera's distance requirements (provided by the show's producers) and overlaid it with a design of the Historic Asolo's proportions. Then, factoring in the projection angles necessary to avoid distortion, he "tweaked it to make it fit."
This dictated the camera be placed on the theater's second tier and the projector on the third, forcing the removal of a number of seats on each level. If by chance this setup doesn't work after the "Leo" touring staff arrives with the equipment just a day before the first performance, Muhl has created a contingency: a platform for the camera that could be cantilevered from the balcony.
If this seems like overkill, it's better than last-minute scrambling, says Muhl, who has only three employees to help him meet each show's set, lighting, sound and visual requirements.
"I believe it's poor planning if you know there could be an issue and you haven't considered what your next step would be," he adds.
Jim Weiner, the general manager and U.S. booking agent for "Leo," says while the technological demands of the show can be challenging, they are essential to its success.
"The technology is almost, well, not another character, but certainly critical to the overall experience," Weiner says. "For the most part, everything you see is happening live, even on the video. The challenge is how best to communicate the narrative without having the technology get in the way of the story, but rather to further it."
The precision of the setup is critical, Weiner explains. For example, in one section of the show, Leo — in Sarasota, that will be William Bonnet, a Frenchman living in Montreal — must appear to be swimming. If the positioning of both the camera and the performer isn't just right, he could appear to be hovering above the water or flailing beneath it.
The concept for the show was developed by Tobias Wegner (the first Leo and one of three artists currently performing in North American and Europe) over an 18-month period, and touring was not in the original plan. Nevertheless, "Leo" has since been presented in a variety of spaces, from tiny black box theaters with flexible seating to standard concert halls accommodating up to 1,000 audience members.
"It doesn't work in every theater and it's now going to places we didn't foresee at the beginning," Weiner says. "The Historic Asolo being a virtually untouchable museum artifact presents an unusual challenge. But the good thing is that it's a personal and intimate show that is best seen in an intimate space, so audiences there will get to see it the way it's meant to be seen."
Muhl smiles when asked if the "New Stages" series, curated by Dwight Currie, the museum's director of programming, has provided him with welcome challenges or nightmarish obstacles.
"Both," Muhl says, recalling some 12-hour-plus days. "We have five shows in this series and they take up 80 percent of my time, though they represent only about 20 percent of the programming we do here.
"'Leo' is one of the most exciting challenges we've had, but they are all new and different. So far, we've never had to say no. There's never just one way to do things and I can't think of anything that would be impossible."
"LEO," part of the New Stages: Narrative in Motion series at the Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Rd., Sarasota. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21-23. $15-$25. 360-7399; www.ringling.org