“In the simultaneous use of the living actor and the moving picture in the theatre there lies a wholly new theatrical art, whose possibilities are as infinite as those of speech itself”

This is one of my favorite quotes regarding theatrical design. Astonishingly, Robert Edmonds Jones wrote this in 1919, in his book The Dramatic Imagination. Even more astonishing is that it took almost 60 years for this prescient statement to really take root.

Bob Bonniol

My first experience in witnessing multimedia in a theatrical application came in 1985 when I saw Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave. I'd attended concerts with projection before, but never had I seen narrative, theme, and music so interwoven with projected image. It was as if that show opened an eye I didn't know I had. Of course Anderson (and others) had been doing this for years, but I was blithely unaware. I was just beginning a career in theatre at the time, working at Trinity Repertory as an electrician. I knew at that point that I wanted to be a designer, probably a lighting designer, but Home of the Brave had planted a seed that wouldn't bloom until much later.

Later was 1993, when I sat down to see The Who's Tommy on Broadway. I was profoundly affected by the show at all levels, but what stood out for me was the incredible use of projection and multimedia. Wendall Harrington, Linda Batwin, and Robin Silvestri had masterfully provided conscious and unconscious visual reinforcement. Tommy represented a sea change in the use of multimedia. For the first time an enormous hit Broadway musical had relied on these technologies to transport the audience. The show was an almost perfect representation of Jones' quote. It had defined a wholly new theatrical art.

Tommy coincided with the proliferation of MTV and the Internet. Our culture had shifted to a sensory position where we were inundated with graphic input. Television, film, billboards, the web, all made their impression on our ability to process this stream, and on our expectations as an audience. Again, Jones had been perceptive when he said, “Moving images are our thoughts made visible…They flow in a swift succession, precisely as our thoughts do, and their speed, with their flashbacks — like sudden uprushes of memory — approximates very closely the speed of our thinking. Unhampered by the rationalizations of the conscious mind, they project pure thought, pure dream, pure inner life.”

Functionally, the projection designer in live production represents an amalgam of disciplines — part scenic, part lighting, part filmmaker. Each design discipline in the theatre has developed from needs brought on by progress. As lighting technology grew in variety and abundance, Jean Rosenthal transformed from “a stage manager with ideas” (Boris Aronson) to a real LD. As sound technologies advanced in the 70s and 80s, sound designers became recognized. With the proliferation and application of multimedia in live production, so too has the projection designer come into his or her own. The complexity of methods for creation and delivery of this form have demanded full-time practitioners.

The scenic power of projection comes from our innate ability to make a leap into the “truth” of what we see projected. For better or worse, our society has embraced the escapism of motion pictures and television because it presents us with a realistic point of view that reflects our own sense of sight, something we tend to inherently believe. Audiences seem to assign an authenticity to images painted with light. Used judiciously, it elevates the emotional and empathic impact of the play.

Personally, it was not a hard leap from the lighting team to the world of projection. My naïve view was that projection and multimedia were akin to complex, kinetic gobo work. This analogy isn't without merit, but the process of projection creation and implementation can't be so carelessly treated. With the power of these images has come a formidable responsibility. Film and video are so visually overpowering as a form that they must be treated with respect when used as a setting for performers. The two must complement, they must cooperate, if a show is to be successful as a coherent whole. So, the projection designer has to think first and foremost of the needs of the script and the vision of the director for the show as a whole.

Creation of the media is a specific and complicated process. Recent advances in tools and mediums have made it more accessible, but planning and defining the outcome is the key. Projection and multimedia are best launched from careful consideration, storyboards, and in-depth discussion with the rest of the creative team. Because the process of producing images is so time-consuming, it's my opinion that a producer can't hire the projection designer early enough. Collaboration is the next key. Like any other design discipline, projection's value to a production is multiplied when it works coherently and seamlessly with the other creative departments. The marriage of projection with scenic composition, color in lighting and costume, timing and atmosphere of sound, and overall directorial vision make a show greater than the sum of its parts. Once the creative team has determined the use and aesthetic of projection, then creation begins. This process can involve photography, digital imaging, painting, animation, video shoots, editing, color correction, keystone correction, compositing…it can take months for all of this to percolate down to the final media.

The means of media delivery have multiplied. Video projectors become smaller, brighter, and more cost-effective with each passing month. Large-format film projectors offer a powerful alternative for full-stage, high-resolution images. Videowalls and large-scale LED video backdrops are becoming economical and accessible as well. The near future will likely see the introduction of “video cloth,” soft goods with the capabilities of a laptop LCD screen. My personal preference is to mix these mediums, using the strengths of each to achieve varied and more cohesive production as a whole.

One of projection's greatest values is its changeability. When we tech, my team arrives at the venue with an entire production studio packed away in anvil crates. When a director turns to the projection designer, it is reasonable to expect that change can be effected in hours if not minutes. Full-stage images can be completely reconceived and resequenced. This offers a distinct advantage over having multitudes of painted drops that can't be changed without hours (if not days) of repainting. With one good projector and a video editing system, I can make that change almost as fast as the director can ask for it. This capability is akin to the lighting designer's process of live interaction with the director, and I sentimentally believe it's pure theatre magic. Our business is never as creative as when we are in the same room together with the show and capable of acting on our collective muse!

Is projection or multimedia a solution for every show? The short answer is no. But I truly believe that we are all witnessing the real proliferation of what Jones predicted 80 years ago. The power of image combined with live performance brings an evocative power to live production that won't be ignored. As more shows are written to specifically include this form, and as older works are re-explored in new and exciting ways, it is my prediction that the position of the projection designer will become more common. I can't wait to see what happens next!