Creating Amazing Theatre: Why Collaboration Is Key To A Successful Production.
Projection Design is not here to replace traditional scenic design – it's there to enhance it, and help playwrights tell stories of greater breadth. But no discipline is an island. Amazing theatre is created when collaboration is put first.
Theatre is a unique experience. From the performers showcasing their chops, the team of directors and designers creating an immersive space, to the energy and feedback from the audience – it’s this collaboration that creates a powerful and emotional storytelling experience. But often the role of set, lighting, sound and projection design in theatre is overlooked. These technical disciplines play a critical role in the success of a production equal to the writing, directing, and performances. I’m going to touch on how projection design should interact with other technical theatre disciplines to ensure your production is a smash hit!
It’s a common misconception that projections are here to replace traditional scenic designs (and the designers!). That is not the case. Projection design is a separate artistic discipline that helps eliminate spatial limitations of any stage when used alongside scenic design. For example, Let’s take a look at the train sequence in projection designer’s Aaron Rhyne’s work for Anastasia The Musical. Check out the sequence:
Here’s a brief promotional video from the Broadway production, demonstrating how set design and projection design integrate together. (Starts at :53)
In traditional theater, the impression of motion is often conveyed by the movement of actors, like bobbing and swaying. In this instance, Rhyne (projections) and Alexander Dodge (set) have collaborated to take us on the train ride with the actors, following all the curves of the landscape as the train appears to whizz through the countryside, creating an immersive travel sequence from Russia to Paris. Rhyne’s groundbreaking projections have made geographical restrictions a thing of the past and have opened new doors for playwrights.
Projections are not just for Musicals. You can really elevate the production value of a straight play to a whole new level by integrating projections with the commonly-used unit set (a single physical set that doesn’t change through the duration of a play). There’s typically only one or two settings, centralized around a single set. Using short throw projectors mounted behind an interior set in built in windows of the walls, gives us the ability to control the weather and the time of day, adding a new emotional layer to complete the story according to the author’s intent.
I saw a great example of collaboration between Scenic and Projection design at Good Company Players (a community theater in Fresno, CA) production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Using a unit set for the town in which the characters interact during the kidnapping scene, the avalanche was projected onto a lowered translucent material. The effect was an impactful, fresh element to a very traditional show, without having to rely on the audience to fill in the blanks.
Your production does not need a Broadway budget to create a unique, buzz-worthy experience for your audience.
Danielle Miller, Theatre Director at Hoboken High School (NJ), took her custom projection design beyond the 4th wall. We helped create projections for the theatre’s proscenium and auditorium walls for her production of The Addams Family. Trees were projected onto the walls as the audience entered the theatre, instantly transporting them to Central Park. It set the tone and I was immediately engaged. She opened my eyes to the endless possibilities that can really help set a production apart.
As a result of the yearlong pandemic, many theaters have lost their performance space and set storage and, as a result, many theatre-makers are performing in shared spaces. Scenic Projections used as backdrop replacement give you the ability to strike the set by turning your projector on and off. Yes, you read that right. No more shipping, hanging and folding countless drops. To make performing shows easier, we’ve partnered with Music Theatre International and Theatrical Rights Worldwide to provide pre-programmed, script accurate Scenic Projections show packages to insure you have every setting mentioned in the script without having to break the piggy bank for shows with massive numbers of scenes.
Projections do not have to be limited to scenic elements. A really cool idea I picked up is using projections on costumes. Take the transformation in Cinderella, for example: Constructing Cinderella's "rags" costume in a light gray or white fabric provides a surface for a projected transformation gown during "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo." By blocking the actor to stand stationary and implementing projection mapping you can achieve real, tangible, on-stage magic. Imagine the actor removes a colored apron to reveal a solid gown, and then cue projected spiraled sparkles dancing around the dress while interacting with the movements of the Fairy Godmother. Talk about a WOW factor!
We can now cue everything that happens within a production, often with one software, but we should be wary not to sacrifice the ability to adapt on-the-fly and ensure a smooth-running production. In a perfect world, where there are no dropped lines, no actors in the wings on their phones missing entrances, or nerves getting the better of the tempo in a dance number, cueing audio and visuals would be ideal. There are so many "human" elements that we do not have control over that can derail the production. We often get asked about cueing sound and Scenic Projections together, but while it cuts down on operators, it can be a risky move. Take for example "Let It Go" in the Disney's Frozen JR. Scenic Projections Show Package. While the projections are timed to match the music, they are not meant to be filtered together with audio in a single program. By doing this, you've officially removed any room for error. Imagine the setting crossfading before Elsa has finished the number, simply because the cues were combined and started too early. The sound engineer and projectionist follow a cue sheet, along with the direction of the Stage Manager to ensure teamwork. This allows for each individual to focus on the specific needs of their discipline. Changing sound levels and transitioning scenes are big roles, and should be treated as such. Imagine a crew member attempting to mix levels and run a fly system at the same time. Let’s avoid those tech week nightmares!
The most important collaborative relationship for projections is lighting design. When planning your stage lighting, stick to cool tones (blues, purples, and greens) as red and amber light tend to grey-out projections. Have the actors stand downstage of the projection surface with a space of a minimum of 3 feet between. If your actors use the space right up to the projection surface, it can be tough to light the actors without also washing-out the image. Angle all stage lights down and away from the projection surface. It’s important to also note the finish on the floor of your stage. The more reflective a surface is, the more bounce and light scatter will occur, diminishing the brightness of your projected image. This is the same with the color of a floor. White floors are highly reflective, so darker finishes are better. Keep in mind that with the use of follow spots, you will lose the projected image within that circle of light, so positioning your follow spot from up high and pointing toward the deck will prevent unnecessary image pollution. In addition, using a light lilac or light teal gel gives off the same impression as a white spot, while limiting the amount of wash-out of the projections. There are a lot of tweaks to be made to stage lighting to help get the most from your projector. Be sure to meet prior to tech week to plan lighting cues and positions.
Planning, practice, and communication amongst designers is key. The goal of a director is to tell the audience where to look. It's the production staff's job to provide visual context and interest to reinforce the storytelling. Each of these art forms used in collaboration and harmony together will truly captivate an audience and complete the story. There's no better feeling than standing in the lobby and listening to the audience sharing the personal impact and stand-out moments from the show as they make their exit. It's what we strive for as theatre-makers.
Projections offer staging solutions for theaters regardless of size and budget. A common misconception is that equipping your theater with the proper hardware to run projections will cost an arm and a leg. We’re going to explore ways to successfully integrate scenic elements to increase production value without draining your production budget.