I am a projection designer.
I am not a lighting designer, although I use a specialized lighting instrument to convey my design. I am not a scenic designer, although my imagery can be graphic or scenic in nature. I am not a sound designer, although my media may include an audio element. I do not see my job as a stepping-stone to any other discipline. I do not aspire to be a lighting, scenic, or sound designer. I am perfectly happy being a projection designer.
There are many great scenic, lighting, and sound designers out there. One of the beautiful things about the creative process in live theatre is that it is a collaborative form of communication. It is not design by committee, but a gathering of people whom the director believes will best serve the piece. I do not think theatre is democratic. I have always believed it is a collaborative dictatorship with many micro-dictatorships within it.
First of all, I think, as designers, we need to come up with a title for our vocation and stick with it. Whether I am using a video projector, television monitor, 35mm slide projector, vintage home movie projector, or a candle and shadow, I still choose to call myself a projection designer. If it were up to me, this would become the generic title for the job — similar to how brand names such as Kleenex® or Xerox have become part of our vocabulary. Why? Two reasons: the first is tradition. It is an homage to those who have come before us, since this field was created by people using slide projectors, magic lanterns, shadow puppets, and other projected media. The second is more philosophical, because I am projecting my ideas and concepts as another layer on top of the performance and therefore (hopefully) projecting it into the minds of the audience.
One of the reasons I think we need to simplify the name of what we do is to help better educate audiences (including journalists) about who we are and what we bring to the table. If an orchestra lover's experience is enhanced by learning to single out and appreciate the sound of the oboe, then shouldn't a theatre lover's experience be enhanced by learning to appreciate the subtle but specific differences in the design? Ideally, a show's design would be a perfectly seamless blend of lighting, sound, scenery, and projections. While the best designs can blur the lines enough so the audience can't always perceive where the lighting ends and the scenery begins, I have to believe that it would most certainly improve any audience member's experience to recognize the different components that work together to create that seamless world.
In many ways, this lack of understanding is the fault of the journalists whose job it is to educate the masses about what is or is not worth appreciating in theatre. While trade magazines, such as this one, always make an effort to give credit where credit is due, the general public is probably deciding what show to see by reading the newspaper. Often, I've read a review of a show that failed to properly credit the projection designer for his or her work. It recently happened to me, in fact. When the show's publicist questioned the critic about his error, his response was that he didn't have time to really examine the playbill before he delivered the article to the newspaper, as he had an extremely tight deadline. Will not mentioning the projection designer in an article hurt a show? Certainly not. Will not mentioning the projection designer hurt the projection designer's ability to find more jobs? Quite possibly. Will not properly crediting the projection designer's work to the designer hurt the field of projection design? Absolutely!
If we, as projection designers, cannot get proper credit for our contribution to a show, I believe it causes a chain reaction that ultimately leads to us losing out on getting theatrical work. Many times, a projection designer is called in to work on a show as something of a problem solver, whether it is a stage direction in the script that conventional scenery just cannot pull off, the transitions in a show needing more pizzazz, or the director wanting a film clip directly inserted into the show. Projection designers are often brought in to conjure up solutions that conventional physical scenery cannot realize.
But in many ways, the projection designer gets the short end of the stick. The budget is already set for the show long before the idea of projections is even a twinkle in the creative team's eye. Projections are almost always looked at as an afterthought or an add-in. In some cases, the scenery is probably already designed, maybe even already built. The lighting and sound packages are already ordered, maybe even loaded in.
The producers are enthusiastic about what they hope projections will add to the piece, but since it wasn't originally planned for, and money has already been earmarked for everything else, they often can't pay the projection designer a fee that is comparable to any other member of the creative team. Maybe they try to save money by not offering the projection designer residuals. They most likely don't want to pay the weekly rental for the projectors, especially not the bigger, more expensive ones. They certainly don't want to pay for another programmer or assistant after dealing with the lighting and scenic folks. We are a very new field with no union representation, so there is no established standard. It is a lose-lose situation. By calling us in to work on a show so late in the game, producers aren't prepared to pay for the development, construction, and deployment of the media that they are asking us to design.
However, the simple truth is that not everyone sees every show. However, almost every potential theatregoer reads the newspaper review (especially producers). The old adage that “any publicity is good publicity” may ring true for a hard-working scenic designer. You design some hits and some misses, but as long as they mention your name in the review, you can expect it to get stuck in the public consciousness. The review I cited earlier actually praised my work but accredited it to the lighting designer. Why? Because the lighting designer has been the resident lighting designer for that company the last 10 years, and his name has been in every review. That repetitive, subconscious publicity made it the name the journalist remembered to include.
To be honest, what exactly projection designers do (and please don't call us projectionists: those are the fine men and women who install, set up, and maintain projectors) is a bit murky. I believe it is a part of our job as designers to educate the public on what our contribution to theatre is. Sometimes it is easy to see. Other times, it may be a little more abstract. But in order for projections to be recognized as an individual contribution of the overall design, they must be included whenever discussing the design of a show.
Does every show need projections? No. I've worked on a few that probably didn't need them at all. But if done well, can projections enhance just about any show? I think so. I do believe that there could and should be many more opportunities out there for us. If you believe in the seamless world that I mentioned earlier, then the projection designer's contribution must be considered as important a contribution to the whole as any other member of the creative team! We deserve to be (and should demand to be) considered equal contributors, with all of the equal rights and privileges that come along with that.
There are only a few of us who are full time 100% projection-only designers out there. Hopefully, soon there will be more. The behind-the-scenes work that we are putting in today will hopefully pave the way for future designers so that they don't have to deal with being the “last guy at the party.” It is up to us to set the standard for how we, as designers, are dealt with and how we deal with others. It is our job, as the great Wendall K. Harrington says, “to make the world safe for projections.”