A Gentleman's Guide to Projection Design

The team at Broadway Media sat down with Aaron Rhyne, one of the world’s preeminent theatrical projection designers, to learn more about his A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder designs, and get some tips on what good design is all about.

AARON RHYNE’S designs have been seen on stages around the world in over 100 productions of musicals, plays, operas, and dance performances. He designed the Broadway, touring, and multiple international productions of Anastasia, for which he won a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Projection Design. Other projects include The Sound Inside on Broadway, the Broadway and National Tours of the Tony Award winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Septime Webre’s new touring ballet production of The Wizard of Oz, Disney’s Frozen at Disneyland, The Thirteenth Child at Santa Fe Opera, and The Ghosts of Versailles at LA Opera. Mr. Rhyne currently teaches Projection Design at UCLA in Los Angeles.

Each of your shows has its own unique personality. What makes A Gentleman’s Guide unique and, aside from the script, where did you draw inspiration for your projection design?
AARON RHYNE: In most shows you start with an overall design idea and create the production with that specific inspiration. For example in Anastasia everything is heightened in fantasy and elegance, or with Bonnie and Clyde it was true crime and historical documentation. But with Gentleman’s Guide each of the D’Ysquith characters have their own distinct style and story, and each are uniquely different. So instead of creating an overall design aesthetic, we created different vignettes to tell each of their stories. Each vignette is defined by a specific character’s personality and style, and the projections take their cues from that inspiration. Eziekel is very much an homage to Hitchcock, Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr. is a kind of winter wonderland Norman Rockwell fantasy. Sibella’s worlds are an Elizabethan version of Legally Blond, and the end of act one is all inspired by turn of the century graphics from travel postcards. Every character inhabits their own world, which each has a distinct style that acted as our inspiration for the projection design.

The show features a palette of rich, deep colors. How do you make these choices?
AARON: Every project starts with different inspiration, but with Gentleman’s Guide, the color palate was inspired by Linda Cho’s costume designs. Before I had started designing any of the projections, Linda showed me all her sketches and sent me fabric swatches of most of the costumes, so I was able to specifically tailor my color work to the costumes in each scene. The end result is that the colors aren’t just rich and deep, but they all compliment the costumes, scenic and lighting design color worlds in every scene.

Do you have any tips for budding projection designers for keeping a cohesive show aesthetic?
AARON: Focus on the storytelling first. Make sure anything you create is in service to the story that the entire creative team is trying to tell. Anything that is too much, too bold, too confusing, too anything can harm the production. If your design work distracts or confuses or takes the audience out of the story even just for a moment, you are not in service of the play. Before putting anything on stage, make sure that it first passes that test, then you’ll always have a cohesive design.

One of our customers from Michigan, said, “the projections even get applause and uproarious laughter!” How do the projections contribute to the comedy and absurdity of this show?
AARON: Before our opening on Broadway we had the opportunity to do two different productions out of town which taught us the value of a design element punctuating the joke of each murder. We found that a projection moment often gave us exactly what we needed to find the right tone of humor to indeed let the audience know that in this production it was ok (and encouraged!) to laugh at a murder. The first moment that we experimented with was the blood oozing out at the end of the Lord Ezekial scene. When we first tried out this moment in tech, it was very controversial. Many on the creative team didn’t think it was the right thing to do, or that it was a cheap laugh, or possibly set the wrong tone. The beauty of getting to do the show for preview audiences is that it gives you an opportunity to try things out and gage the audience’s reaction. The blood was an immediate hit the first time we did it and the audience went wild, so I was thrilled that we kept that moment. We slowly tried other gags – the ice cracking, the bees, feathers, as well as some others that didn’t make the cut. Comedy is a very delicate balance in theatre, and we always had to find the right mix of helping the joke land, but not disrupting the narrative of the story. It really was so much fun playing with the comedy moments and getting the opportunity for the projections to help sell the jokes is such a bold visual way.

What is the most satisfying thing about seeing your finished product onstage?
AARON: I think more than the finished product, the best part of my job is seeing how audiences react to a live performance. During previews of my shows I’m notorious for wandering around the back of the theatre listening to audiences, seeing how they react, what they applaud to, and most importantly what they don’t react to at all. I like to toy with moments over and over until they strike just the right reaction for the given moment. Sometimes you want an audience to laugh, sometimes you just want a quiet recognition, and many times you don’t want them to notice at all. But hiding in the back and taking in how an audience reacts to my design choices is certainly what I love most about what I do, and that preview process is what leads to a satisfying finished product on stage.

Did you have any creative challenges designing for this show? How do you face and overcome creative challenges?
AARON: After two very successful runs in Hartford and San Diego, we were very excited to move the show to Broadway. However, when I first got the plans for the Walter Kerr Theatre I nearly had a panic attack when I realized how small the stage of the theatre is. In our out of town productions we had the space to do rear projections for the show, but on Broadway we had about 6 feet from the back wall of the theatre to the rear screen of the set. At the time LED walls were not high enough resolution, so I fought against using LED because the projection content would have looked digital and pixelated, which was not right for an Elizabethan period show.

We had a ton of trial and error on that production during tech, we kept changing the layout of the projectors, the size of the screen, the number of projectors, it was really stressful trying to make it all work in such a tight space. We ultimately got it working, but I was thrilled that when we sent out the first U.S. tour, LED technology had improved to the point that we were able to change from projectors to a LED wall and keep the quality of our high-resolution visuals. It was a much easier process once we changed to LED.

What is your favorite scene? Why?
AARON: I’ve tech-ed Gentleman’s Guide 5 different times, and I’ve probably watched the show close to 100 times over the years, and every single time I watch the Lady Hyacinth I can’t stop laughing. It’s just absolutely ridiculous, and the song is absurdly hilarious, and I really love the postcard moments that I got to create in the projections. Jefferson Mays who originated the role(s) of the D’Ysquiths had such a specific portrayal of this character that even now remembering his take on the role is making me chuckle. I’ve seen a number of actors do this role over the years and the writing is so good that they each are able to make it their own, and in every production this scene remains my favorite.

What would you like schools and theatres producing A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder to understand about using your projections?
AARON: Timing is everything in this production. If you throw a cue at the wrong time you can kill a joke, and killing one laugh in a production where its success replies on communicating cleverly to the audience that it is ok to laugh at a murder…could murder the entire show!

Can you share a guiding principle for good projection design?
AARON: A good projection design works in harmony with all the other elements of design, the script, direction, music, and the performers on stage to all tell the written story cohesively. Everything has to work together in service of the play for it to be a success. Video and Projections are a very “loud” art form, there is a lot of visual power when you put a video image on stage, so you have to use that power in a theatrical context very carefully. Often designers fall in love with a really exciting visual or animation that they have made and try and force it onto a production because they love what they created. But good projection design is also about editing and knowing when to pull back and let something else on stage have the focus.

Explore Aaron’s work available through Broadway Media
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

Anastasia The Musical

Bonnie & Clyde

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