he alien who lives in the blackboard is green, shaped like a slug and sprouts two antennae.
The cast and crew of the production of "The Crystal Egg" at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County have nicknamed this particular alien "Ike." When director Colette Searls climbs up on stage, approaches the blackboard and speaks in a friendly, soothing voice, Ike tentatively inches toward her. Searls reaches out as if to scratch Ike's head, and he rolls over on his back and turns purple with contentment.
Most audience members probably realize that Ike is no more than a pattern of colored light created by a computer and projected onto a screen; his movements are controlled by a student actor manipulating a video game box. But despite what our brains tell us, emotionally we're convinced that Ike breathes, responds to touch, and has his own personality.
Ike and his two alien friends (referred to by the cast as "Jill" and "Sadie") are key figures in an innovative college production that's using a sophisticated and labor-intensive technology rarely, if ever, seen on a stage outside of Broadway.
Computer animation has long been routine in films and video games, but the technique seems startling and fresh when it takes place in real time. Audience members watch as graphics seemingly interact with flesh-and-blood human beings.
"When animation happens live, it's more magical," Searls says. "It adds another level of believability. Anything can be done in a film - anything. Actors in a movie aren't there for you. They were there for the camera, two years ago. But something on stage is there for the audience, right now."
From the very beginning, "The Crystal Egg" was designed to showcase the talents of the nine juniors and seniors selected as fellows in the college's Imaging Research Center. These students are would-be photographers, graphic designers and animators, and while they know their way around a computer, they have little experience in theater.
"We wanted to pull together people from different disciplines, to use their artistic and technical tools to bring into being something that's not there, and to deliver that to an audience," says Timothy Nohe, an associate professor of art at UMBC and this year's director of the fellows program.
Last winter, Nohe approached Searls, who is on the theater department faculty and whose specialty is puppetry, and asked her to come up with a project that both groups of students could work on together for a semester. She found a spooky short story by sci-fi pioneer H.G. Wells called "The Crystal Egg" and used it as a springboard to develop an original piece.
In Wells' story, old Mr. Cave, a curio shop owner, has a mysterious crystal egg that serves as a window into the planet Mars.
"I wondered what would happen if there were creatures from another dimension sealed inside the egg, and they decided to break free," Searls says. "I thought we'd want to see what they looked like."
Because the story she had in mind used so many fantasy elements, she thought it would be best performed by puppets - though not, perhaps, by the Muppet-like creatures beloved of children. Puppet-maker Don Becker's 2-foot-tall, movable sculptures are nearly as detailed and idiosyncratic as their real-life counterparts. Mr. Cave, for example, has defined chest muscles and long tapering fingers that swell out at the knuckles as they curl around the joysticks on his wheelchair.
"Puppetry is almost a distilled form of animation," Searls says. "It's about taking something inanimate and giving it the illusion of life and character."
"The Crystal Egg" runs for about 90 minutes and has no dialogue, forcing the theater students who operate the puppets to communicate their intentions and emotions through the figures' gestures.
But the show is far from silent. Nohe has composed a score that incorporates both traditional musical instruments and such everyday sounds as squeaking toys. Theater students stationed above and behind the audience in the sound booth use their own voices to create the aliens' chirps, squeaks and hums.
These same students are responsible for manipulating Ike and his two computer-generated compadres.
The aliens' images are projected onto two video screens cleverly disguised as artifacts in Cave's Antiques. Ike hides out in an elementary school blackboard, Jill resides in a framed print of Degas' 1874 painting "Ballet Rehearsal on the Stage," and Sadie inhabits an oversize glass sconce.
In a sense, UMBC was striking out into uncharted territory with this production. Though computer animation technology is commonly associated with films and video games, it has appeared occasionally in major Broadway productions since a stage version of The Who's rock musical "Tommy" debuted in 1993.
But creating animated characters takes so much time and is so costly that it only appears in juggernaut commercial productions with budgets in the millions. You won't see this technique in even the biggest and best regional theaters, such as Baltimore's Center Stage.
"The beautiful thing about working in a university is that I have access to all this brainpower for free," Searls says. "Where in the outside world could I get that?"
The fellows weren't deterred by the lack of a blueprint.
"There's something about this generation that's really interesting," Nohe says. "They have a sense they can figure it out on their own. They don't think they have to go through a major studio or gallery to distribute their music or artwork. There's a whole new do-it-yourself world that's opened up that's profoundly liberating."
During the 15 weeks it took to develop and rehearse "The Crystal Egg," there were occasional miscommunications.
"There was a learning curve for all of us," Searls says. "We come from different worlds, and I don't just mean computers and the theater. The fellows are visual artists, and most of them are used to having their own vision. They work by themselves. In the theater, we're very extroverted and collaborative, and we involve many people in the creative process."
Searls acknowledges that she knows as little about computers as the fellows know about directing a play. Sometimes, she didn't realize the difficulty of the task she was setting for the computer artists.
Timothy Bubbe is a 20-year-old junior and aspiring computer animator from Hampstead who was assigned the task of creating Sadie. Even as seemingly simple a decision as what color to make the little alien took hours.
"I had Sadie on a loop that took 45 minutes to run," he says. "Colette had seven or eight different colors she wanted me to try. It took me about six hours to get eight samples for her to look at. Then she decided she wanted a color that was between two of the shades that I'd shown her."
Searls is a stickler for making gestures appear realistic. So the fellows spent countless hours studying videos of animals performing the behaviors they were trying to mimic. The director wanted Sadie to hiss, so Bubb perused video after video of angry felines, meticulously breaking down a two-second hiss into its individual components.
"Colette wanted the creatures to look believable and not computer-generated," Bubb says. "But to hiss, you need a mouth, and you need fangs, and they need to move in a certain way. You have to expand your chest, and you have to make a certain noise. It took hours to get it right."
Before "The Crystal Egg," Bubb's theater experience was limited to attending a few plays in high school. But the longer he worked on this show, the more curious he became.
"It was a lot of fun," he says. "We weren't required to attend practices, and I was already spending a lot of time out of class on this project. But in my spare time, I'd find myself sitting in on rehearsals. This production got me interested in the theater."
In this production of "The Crystal Egg," it seems as if Ike, Jill and Sadie weren't the only sentient beings to become adept at negotiating a strange new world.
If you go
"The Crystal Egg" runs through Dec. 13 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's theater, 1000 Hilltop Circle. Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13. Tickets are $5-$10. Call 410-455-2476 or go to