The recent ETS-LDI show in Orlando (which was a huge success, by the way-more on that next month) confirmed something I've long suspected: projection has officially arrived. Out of all the new lighting gear on the show floor, the focus of much conversation among lighting designers I spoke to was projection related, be it the newest Catalyst software from High End, Element Labs VersaTILE, or the Barco MiPIX modular pixelblocs.
This makes perfect sense, of course. Projection is, essentially, light, albeit light that usually emanates from a static or moving image. Lighting designers are now using it as an integral part of their design; Willie Williams is a notable example of this, as are many other concert and architectural designers.
Now it appears that set designers are getting into the act too. During PLASA, I attended a session on projection design featuring lighting designer Rick Fisher and veteran set and costume designer Bill Dudley. The topic was supposed to be something about the challenges of balancing lighting and projection design on the stage, with Fisher discussing his work on the current West End hit Jerry Springer: The Opera and Dudley talking about his sets and projections for Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia and Terry Johnson's Hitchcock Blonde. But it was Dudley who floored me with his comments on the possibilities of projection for set design and its role in the future of the theatre.
His position was, essentially, this: it is becoming too expensive for most theatres to produce a show with any visual impact, which has resulted in a lack of interest in the theatre among the younger generations, who have been raised on a barrage of imagery. (The current joke on the West End is that the producer's dream equation, he is “3-2-1”: three actors, two acts, one set.) As the cost of video and projection technology continues to drop, these will soon become, by necessity, the prominent tools of the set designer. Through the use of moving and 3D imagery, designers will be able to create vibrant yet inexpensive settings that will appeal to those younger audiences who demand visual stimulation. A video mixing board will become a standard part of every theatre, much as the theatre and sound boards. And in England, at any rate, where the rule of thumb is that there is a lead designer who tends to do sets and costumes, the current role of projection designer may eventually be absorbed as part of the set designer's domain.
Bill Dudley is a charming, unassuming, and very talented designer, yet his provocative comments at the time blew me away. I was so impressed that I immediately asked to interview him for our Centerline Q&A; you can read the first of our two-part discussion this month beginning on page 6.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that not only may he be right, but he may not have gone far enough. Could there eventually be such a convergence of technology that one designer essentially becomes in charge of everything? Lighting design and projection design have already begun traveling down that path; if set design is soon to follow, will all three merge into one discipline? And if you follow the UK model, where the set designer often handles the costumes as well, that could mean one person who designs everything but the sound. But wait; will there one day be a single board that could run lights, projection, and sound for large-scale productions? Could that eventually lead to a time when one uber-designer works one-on-one with the director to create a clear, unified vision? O, Brave New World!
Look, I don't know if any of this will come to pass. Collaboration is the essence of theatre, so I'm not so sure it should come to pass. But as the technology advances, the gear becomes cheaper, and the economic realities of live events force some hard decisions, changes are sure to come. The age of convergence may well be at hand.