The Prevalence of Projections

Projection in the theatre is nearly as old as theatre itself, but recent technological advances have made it easier to use—and misuse

By David Barbour

If you've emerged from the theatre recently wondering what happened to the scenery and where all that imagery came from, you're not alone: Welcome to the age of projections. For years the fifth wheel of theatre-design disciplines, projections have emerged as an increasingly dominant production element. Sets that once remained static now positively pulsate with imagery, moving or otherwise—ranging from discreet surtitles to sweeping, animated vistas.

Once a strictly boutique item for the well-heeled, projections now extend across all sensibilities and budget lines: On Broadway, they range from newsreel footage providing crucial historical context in Billy Elliot to elegant pencil sketches that take us from rural England to the Maginot Line in War Horse. Off Broadway, we've seen historically accurate views of small-town Texas in Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle, haunting photographs of Anne Frank in Rinne Groff's Compulsion and, currently, scenes from New York City, circa 1990, for the revival of Rent. Meanwhile, a host of young artists downtown are using projections in ways that are central to a production's concept—without projections, there's no show.

Projections can be used to make trenchant dramatic points or frothy, frivolous décor. In the recent Broadway revival of The Normal Heart, the intensity of Larry Kramer's AIDS-epidemic jeremiad was compounded by the ever-expanding list of the dead on the upstage wall. In Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the title character is a broken-down van covered with tens of thousands of LEDs that serves as a mobile projection surface for giddily colorful animations that contribute mightily to that production's aura of drag-queen fabulousness.

Projections are hardly new—few people realize how far back they go—but how have they reached their current position of prominence? Are they really a useful design tool or a faddish, must-have accoutrement that threatens to turn live theatre into a theme park? In other words, what does the prevalence of projections tell us about the state of the contemporary theatre?

Projection technology dates back to the 1650s, when the magic lantern was reportedly invented by Christiaan Huygens. In its earliest incarnation, the device was used to project images of the devil. Used as a tool in the 18th century for duping the credulous at séances and for creating ghostly effects at "phantasmagoria" shows, the magic lantern was eventually picked up for more respectable uses, providing instruction and entertainment in the form of illustrated lectures in the 19th century. As a popular art form, it was put out of business in 1895, when the Lumière Brothers began screening their motion pictures. (The use of projection technology as an educational tool persisted well into the 20th century; readers of a certain age will recall sitting through classroom presentations of filmstrips with titles like "Harry S. Truman: Man of Destiny.")

With the invention in the early 1900s of the Linnebach projector, projections became a theatrical tool. Erwin Piscator, the German director and producer, began working with them as early as 1925. Michael Hall, an authority on the history of lighting, cites technical articles dealing with projections that date back to the '20s; he notes that projections were used in West End shows such as Tobias and the Angel and Waltzes from Vienna, both staged in 1931.

In the U.S., the great scenic and lighting designer Jo Mielziner experimented with projections, most notably in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Allegro (1947). Ironically, Mielziner also designed the original 1945 production of The Glass Menagerie, in which projections were not employed, even though Williams had written them into the script.

In the late '50s and early '60s, production designer Tony Walton and lighting designer Richard Pilbrow collaborated on several productions in which projections played a prominent part, including the West End revue One Over the Eight and the Broadway musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Golden Boy. Reviewers praised these designs, but projection technology was still too unwieldy for wide usage.

For example, recalling his experience on One Over the Eight, Walton said in a 2007 interview, "We opened at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. We did our dry tech before the company and it was very exciting. Huge, very clean images. But it hadn't dawned on us that the entire stage at Stratford was trapped. When the company went into the opening number, the towers on which the projectors sat began to shake—and the images were no longer blending. Michael Codron [the show's producer], who didn't have a long temper, said, 'You have two hours to sort this out.' Richard and I went to the Dirty Duck pub for two stiff brandies. The bartender had a cork collection; we asked if we could have some of then, and then we sliced them and shoved them into every available crevice around the traps so that the projection towers became stable, and all was well."

As Pilbrow recalls in his recently published memoir A Theatre Project, the Broadway production of Forum proved even more perilous. The show's projections were made in London and delivered by Pilbrow to the New Haven tryout. Back in London, he got a panicked phone call from Jean Rosenthal, the production's lighting designer.

"There had been an accident," he writes. "A box of slides for the stage-right projector had fallen off the tower and been smashed. Tony was trying to hand-paint substitutes, but how quickly could we replace those with the real thing? The loyal ladies at Coleman's [the studio where the slides were manufactured] worked literally day and night, and, four days later, I flew to New York with a new set."

Pilbrow adds, "Many, many years later, I learned that this near-catastrophe had not been entirely accidental. Under enormous stress, the projector operator had been instructed by his union to 'nudge' the box off the edge—the success of scenic projection might put all of his 'brother' painters out of work."

In many ways, the modern era of projections on Broadway—and, by extension, in the rest of the theatre—began with Wendall K. Harrington, who designed a number of productions that proved to be technological and aesthetic milestones. The first was the 1979 musical They're Playing Our Song. In that show, says Harrington, the combination of technological advances and new approaches resulted in a new and distinctive look—the images were brighter and more vibrant, and featured animation.

"It was very Pop Art—oriented, very reflective of its time," she adds. Still, it wasn't easily achieved: "We had 16 Xenographic projectors in a lead-lined foam case on the balcony rail, connected to an air-conditioning unit in the alley of the theatre. The projectors had glass-coated mirrors that revolved, and we were moving them so quickly that the mirrors flew off. I went to the manufacturer about it, and was told, 'These machines were built for boardrooms.' They finally did learn how to tighten the mirrors."

It was Harrington's work on the 1992 musical The Who's Tommy that arguably set the stage for the modern projection era. Not that it was a simple task: Tommy represents the last gasp of slide projection in the theatre, and the designer's powerful imagery was achieved by 54—that's right, 54—slide projectors, arranged in a matrix against the upstage wall of the theatre, which rear-projected images on John Arnone's set. The production also featured video sequences by the team of Linda Batwin and Robin Silvestri, making The Who's Tommy a preview of coming attractions—the most up-to-date slide imagery combined with even newer video technology.

At the same time, other factors were coming into play. Beginning in the late '70s, young playwrights, influenced by film and television, began turning out scripts that were, in effect, closer to screenplays, calling for dozens of locations. These plays called for new design approaches, and projections provided an appealing design solution. With the rise of digital technology in the late 20th century, a new array of products became available at nearly every price point. Today, vast amounts of content are stored in media servers, allowing one to instantly manipulate and layer images in ways that were unheard of only a few years ago. New digital projectors offer unprecedented levels of brightness and flexibility. LED screens allow for the creation of images at many different levels of resolution, and they require very little power.

But the availability of new technology has raised new questions about where and when projections should be used. Did the short-running 2006 Johnny Cash revue Ring of Fire really need highly pixilated LED images, or did they introduce an intrusive technological note in a show that strove to create a homespun atmosphere? Des McAnuff's 2009 revival of Guys and Dolls was criticized for its animated projection sequences that added little or nothing to the show's charm. ("The fussy video input constantly pulls focus, overwhelming the actors and snuffing out both the human drama and the comedy," wrote David Rooney in Variety.)

For those who dislike projections, there is no more cautionary example than The Woman in White, the Charlotte Jones/Andrew Lloyd Webber/David Zippel musical based on Wilkie Collins's Victorian potboiler. Briefly seen on Broadway in late 2005 and early 2006, the production, staged by Trevor Nunn, placed the action against an enormous curved screen, which featured a nonstop parade of animated, computer-generated imagery. The scale of William Dudley's projections overshadowed the actors to a startling degree, and a show that was promoted as a technical wonder was derided as a study in technology run amok. Variety noted that the "emotion, mystery and romance" of the story was "consistently dwarfed by the mechanical artificiality of the design concept." In the New York Times, Ben Brantley complained of "computer-animated projections that make you feel as if you're trapped inside a floating upscale travel magazine."

No one is more critical of the improper use of projections than Harrington. A woman who has been known to walk into a job interview only to inform producers that their show doesn't need projections, she is concerned that they are being used too easily and lazily. "One of my big issues is the scale of humans to video," she says. "Video, in essence, has a kind of perfection that is dangerous; it makes the people on stage smaller and less interesting. The question needs to be asked: Are we competing with the people on stage? When we negate that, we're killing our future. We can't compete with Hollywood; they have more effects." She adds that video projections can add an overly literal aspect to production design. "The elements that are projected by the audience are far more interesting than anything I can project."

Projections can also affect the way other designers work. Ken Billington, the Tony-winning lighting designer, who has been dealing with the technology since the 1993 musical Ain't Broadway Grand, says, "When projections were too dim—and sometimes they're still that way—it totally affected the lighting, because you ended up working for the projections and not the show. When they are at the right intensity level, you can do some brilliant stuff." He should know, having lit the 2008 Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George, which featured an extraordinarily complex series of animations (by Timothy Bird and the Knifedge Creative Network) that at times covered the stage. However, Billington adds, that production worked "because it was truly collaborative; we had a director [Sam Buntrock] who, when I said, 'Everyone needs to step downstage one step,' he said, 'Okay.'"

When asked if there are too many projections in the theatre today, Billington promptly says yes, then adds, "It's just like when moving lights were first popular on Broadway. Everybody moved them because they could, not because they should. Now that we know how the tool works, we move them when necessary. It's the same with video projection; a lot of it happens because it can. When the star is singing a ballad, do we really need to have the stars twinkling and the moon rising? Is that helping to tell the story?"

Carole Rothman, artistic director of New York's Second Stage Theatre, notes that all of her company's productions last season featured projections for a very good reason: "The playwrights wrote them in." These included Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which used video to spoof the world of WWE-style wrestling extravaganzas, and Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a satire about racism and the movie industry. The latter's centerpiece is a lengthy film sequence showing the Hollywood epic that was a turning point in the title character's career. Later, in Act 2, a group of academics dissects a video from a '70s-era talk show on which an older Vera Stark appears.

"We were lucky on Vera Stark," says Rothman. "A major director of photography came in and shot [the film sequence] in a rehearsal room. He shot it in Panavasion—nobody does that anymore." Projection technology can be expensive, but, she adds, "The cost of it has come down so much that it's now much more affordable and it has become a viable tool for telling stories. It's also cheaper than automating an entire set. We now think of it as a fifth design element. It's the way of the world."

If shows like Chad Deity and Vera Stark made video projection central to their narratives, a small army of avant-garde artists are making the technology central to their aesthetics. The Wooster Group has used video for years. The media artist Reid Farrington puts existing film classics to his own purposes; in Gin & "It," he combined live actors with scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's Rope to evoke the experience of a feature film being shot in 10-minute-long shots. In The Passion Project, he uses multiple screens and a live performer to transform portions of Carl Dreyer's silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc into a three-dimensional experience. (Farrington's new Christmas Carol project is covered separately in the December print edition.)

Farrington is one of many artists allied with the 3LD Art & Technology Center, a downtown New York producing company/technology lab that specializes in experimental projection and sound. Frequency Hopping used Eyeliner, a technique for creating hologram-style projections, for Elyse Singer's play about Hollywood siren Hedy Lamarr and composer Georges Antheil, who improbably invented the technology behind modern cell phones. Chuck Mee's Fire Island blended live actors with wide-screen film sequences in an environmental production. Sheila Schwartz's World War II drama Spy Garbo placed its characters against a Cinemascope-shaped screen filled with period imagery.

Kevin Cunningham, 3LD's executive artistic director, says, "Most of our experiments over the last six or seven years have been about making video into a fully dimensional element. It's not so much about video as about creating a more dynamic scenic design." He notes that when projections don't work, lack of planning is often the reason. "As a freelance designer, I'd get calls from people saying they needed video in their show. They'd be opening next weekend and there was no budget line. This is still going on." In contrast, he adds, "With Fire Island, we took a five-camera crew out and shot enough footage for a bunch of full-length features." He says that new developments, such as the programming tool Isadora, "make the technical process less cumbersome; you can make artistic decisions all the way to opening night without putting a burden on your crew."

Cunningham agrees that many productions employ projections without an organic reason, "as a background element, with no integral cueing. There's a faddish element to it." Indeed, part of 3LD's mission is to educate companies about what can be done with this technology. He says, "We've worked with groups like New Georges, who want to shift to another mode of working." Working with 3LD, New Georges had a success with Sheila Callaghan's Dead City, which employed elaborate projections by William Cusick. "All of the interesting scripts they were getting called for the use of media," says Cunningham, who adds, 'It's not just about projections; it's about an integrated design approach."

If any further proof is needed that projections are here to stay, it's that universities are now taking it up as a design discipline. Yale School of Drama now offers a concentration in projection design, led by Harrington, who also lectures on the subject to directors and playwrights in the Yale program. "I'm hoping to create a group of people who can speak eloquently about projections," she says. Her ideal is a generation of designers who will use images judiciously, working with her fellow artists in a fully collaborative manner.

Also, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh has begun a video and media-design concentration, headed by Larry Shea, an artist and filmmaker. "We are redesigning the entire design/production technology and management curriculum to incorporate media from the freshman level through a three-year graduate degree," he says. In a program called Future Stages, now in its third year, he adds, "Graduate designers and playwrights work with the senior actors to create short-form theatre pieces that incorporate a diverse array of media from large-scale projection, live camera work and interactive sensor systems. This class has about 26 students total divided across the disciplines."

Clearly, projections are not going away, and we can all expect to see them misused as often they're well used in the future. For examples of the latter, think of Harrington's alluring Manhattan nightscapes in Angels in America, revived last year at Signature Theatre Company, or the ingenious juxtaposition of live action and motion pictures in Kneehigh Theatre's Brief Encounter (projections by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll). Sondheim on Sondheim, at Roundabout Theatre Company, depended on a video format, stunningly rendered by set designer Beowulf Boritt and video designer Peter Flaherty, to illuminate the composer/lyricist's career.

And speaking of Sondheim, there was the terrifying moment in the Roundabout's revival of Assassins in which Lee Harvey Oswald stood, still as a stone, while the Zapruder film played across his white T-shirt (design by Elaine J. McCarthy). At times like these, you realize that the power of projections to enhance the theatre experience has barely been tapped.