The World of a Broadway Projection Designer
How projection designers create their increasingly prominent art
Call it the revenge of the A/V club. As theatre becomes more and more expensive, freestanding sets are increasingly giving way to projections, and projection designers are becoming increasingly indispensable artists. From Rock of Ages to Wicked, their work is a constant Broadway presence, and it’s equally prominent in theatres throughout the world.
Theatrical projections—sometimes still photos, sometimes filmed footage—have helped expand the possibility of what can be depicted on stage while reducing the cost. A glimpse at the two Broadway productions of Sunday in the Park With George is instructive: Tony Straiges took components of the Georges Seurat painting at the musical’s center and converted them into an array of painted simulacra for the 1984 premiere, while Timothy Bird and the Knifedge Creative Network used elaborate computer animation to create similar pictures and more in 2008.
Projections, like any traditionally constructed set, can run the risk of overshadowing what goes on in front of them. Take The Woman in White, which gave the 19th-century English countryside the feel of an early-21st-century video game. But when they’re done well, as with Wendall Harrington’s kaleidoscopic work on The Who’s Tommy, they meld the increased technical expectations of modern-day audiences with the immediacy of live theatre.
Since Tommy debuted in 1994, Harrington has become an eminence grise of the field: She teaches projection design at Yale School of Drama, and several of her former employees have moved on to do their own design work. Zachary Borovay— one of the “Wendall disciples,” as he puts it—designed the pyrotechnic projections for Rock of Ages, as well as the whimsical illustrations for Elf, and Elaine McCarthy has worked on everything from one-man shows (Thurgood) to mega-musicals (Wicked, Spamalot).
Borovay and McCarthy both entered the field just as computers were becoming essential to the process, and both have a small number of early credits in which 35-millimeter slide projectors were the norm and new slides would take a day to track down and another day to add in. “I really came into it at the tail end of the analog technology and then grew up along with the digital technology,” McCarthy says.
She recalls working with director Jack O’Brien on the 2009 play Impressionism, which was set in an art gallery. “Jack said at one point during rehearsals that it might be funny if Whistler’s Mother [a projection in the show] could wink,” she says. “Three minutes later, she was winking. Jack literally thought he had imagined it. He couldn’t believe we could make the change so quickly.”
The role of projections can vary widely from show to show. When Borovay designed A Catered Affair, his projections of 1950s Bronx apartment buildings played a huge role in creating the set, whereas his Rock of Ages projections are far flashier but merely a component of Beowulf Boritt’s elaborate set design. “The projections are a character in the show,” he says of his Rock contributions, “even if sometimes they’re hiding behind a piece of scenery.”
Meanwhile, several of McCarthy’s Wicked projections stemmed from household materials she picked up at a Home Depot in San Francisco during the musical’s out-of-town tryout. That imposing cyclone? She created it using wood chips blowing around in a trash can.
Borovay and McCarthy have both seen their line of work grow in status since they started over a decade ago; in fact, it was just three years ago, after considerable lobbying efforts on Borovay’s part, that projection designers received their own category within the United Scenic Artists union. “Tommy put projections on the map, but it wasn’t Wendall who won the Tony for it,” McCarthy says, referring to the award for Best Set Design. She might have pointed out that Eugene Lee—and Eugene Lee alone—won the same award for Wicked.
Both designers stress that their best work comes when they collaborate with the set designer, the director, and the rest of the creative team. But for a medium that essentially didn’t exist 20 years ago—famous projections like Richard Pilbrow’s for Golden Boy in 1964 and Boris Aronson’s for Company in 1970 were the exceptions that proved the rule—it has quickly become an essential storytelling and stage-setting tool for many young directors. “The scenery is still crucial,” Borovay says, “but projections can tell a whole other story on top of that.”
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.