Projection design may be a relatively new phenomenon in the theatre, but Jan Hartley has quietly become one of the pioneers in the field. From early works with frequent collaborator Ping Chong (The Games, Chinoiserie, Kwaidon) to collaborations with director Tina Landau (Dream True, Space), to more mainstream projects like the Off Broadway play Bunny Bunny and the Roundabout revival of Little Me, Hartley's work has brought increased acceptance of projection design as a legitimate art form. Not bad for someone who started out as a sculptor, and still sculpts in between theatre projects. David Johnson recently caught up with Hartley at Off Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, where she was working on the play Lobster Alice with Neil Patel (sets) and Frances Aronson (lighting).
David Johnson: Why a projection designer? There really wasn't such a thing when you started back in 1983.
Jan Hartley: I moved to New York in 1977, and accidentally got into the industrial/audio-visual business. I met Ping Chong around 1978, and started doing his theatrical projection design in 1983. I don't think I even considered being a projection designer until the end of the 80s. It took me a long time, just sort of helping people out artistically, before I finally realized, 'Oh guess what, this is one of my art forms.'
DJ: Do you remember the first thing you worked on with Ping Chong?
Hartley: It was called A Race.
DJ: What did you do for that?
Hartley: There were two round screens, and it was a lot of historical, engraving-type images. Pretty simple. Over the years, I've done 12 pieces for him. One of the really interesting things for me in terms of how the media has changed is at one point we went from doing optical artwork to computer-generated imagery. I'm still doing similar things, but now everything's scanned into the computer, manipulated in Photoshop, and then output from computer directly onto the film, rather than shot optically on an animation camera stand.
DJ: Did that make a big difference in the way projection designers worked?
Hartley: I can't speak for anybody else, but for me it made a huge difference, because it gave me the freedom to be more artistic with the images. There's only so much you can do if you're taking a picture and reproducing it, and trying to build things on top of it, much like an animator would add cels to something, which was one of the ways to make montages way back when. And now you can do anything with it, which is remarkable.
DJ: Your current project is Lobster Alice. You had to do some research on Salvador Dali for this.
Hartley: Maria Mileaf, the director, had a bunch of Dali books. We went through them together with set designer Neil Patel to look at images that would be suitable for certain scenes, but basically also to determine that we wanted to use images that were dramaturgically correct, from the late 40s to the mid-50s. We weren't necessarily picking specific images then, we were picking the time frame and also the types of images that we wanted to use in one scene where most of the paintings are used.
The most difficult aspect of the research was finding a picture of Burbank, where the play takes place, because it had to track through the entire show, and also be used in different transitions into these weird moments. We had to use a modern photo of Burbank because we didn't want a black-and-white image. So we had to get a color image and manipulate it, taking out the freeways and modern buildings.
DJ: Let's talk about some of your other projects. Tell me a little about Bunny Bunny, and working with set designer David Gallo.
Hartley: I think David's actually told this story before, but when we first met, David and I couldn't stand each other. What David didn't like was the fact that I sat down and said, 'What's my throw distance? Where's my screen? How many projectors do I have?' He said, 'That's not the art! We can't talk about that yet, we have to talk about what we're going to do.' I said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do unless I know what I have to do it with.' I can't design something 'pie in the sky' and not be able to realize it. So once we determined that and got that out of the way, and then went to the art part, it was fun. He's one of my best friends now.
DJ: You got a Drama Desk Award for Bunny Bunny.
Hartley: There's no recognition of projections, except by the Drama Desk, which does recognize projections as part of set design. And that's remarkable, because with any of the other awards, projections would not be mentioned. The other Drama Desk nomination, which I'm very proud of, was for Dream True.
DJ: I didn't see it, sorry.
Hartley: You missed a great show! That was really fun, because the set was a beautiful white box, by [G.W.] Skip Mercier, who's also tons of fun to work with. And what was really fun about it was that the scenes were a combination of realistic landscapes going into very surreal things within the landscape, and then into abstract views of city buildings coming from all directions. It was really fun to do, because I could be creative. I wasn't confined by set limitations, and I was beautifully supported by Scott Zielinski's lighting.
DJ: Tell me about the process of being a projection designer, because I don't know if people are aware of how you do your job. Does it vary from project to project?
Hartley: It does, but it starts with design meetings with the director, set designer, and lighting designer. The director will have ideas as to what kinds of images should accompany a moment, or a song, or a scene, or transition. Then I'll read the script and come up with whatever ideas I have, and work out a storyboard, and from that storyboard, things will change completely, and you make something new. And then from that point you do research, looking for 'copyright-free' images.
DJ: Is that hard?
Hartley: Everything is copyrighted. Even the images I use are copyrighted, I just buy the licensing for them. Over the years, I've built up a huge library of material that I have licensed myself. So I have many photo CDs that I've bought, and from project to project, I'll add a few more CDs to my library based on something.
DJ: Do you also create your own library?
Hartley: I do a lot of photography myself. For an opera I did last summer called Summer, at the Berkshire Opera Company [in Pittsfield, MA], I went up there twice, in the fall of 98, and then the summer of 99, and shot the landscape, because I needed Berkshire landscapes of the two seasons. That took a lot of photography and compositing in Photoshop.
DJ: Are there any technological advances coming up that would affect projection design?
Hartley: I can tell you what's going to happen in the next 10 years that will change things dramatically, and that's video. When we have big plasma screens that we can roll up and fold up into a box, that is going to change everyone's lives. It will happen. The problem right now with video is not just the equipment, but the production expense ahead of time. Much more than slides. Almost anybody in the theatre can afford 35mm slides. The larger-format slides become more problematic, because they take so much longer to produce, and the cost is enormous. I think 35mm film will be around for quite a while, just because it's easy to do and you can get a very dramatic effect for not that much money.
Video will definitely come around, but it often still looks like TV, and that's awful. I have TV at home, I don't want to go to the theatre and see it.
DJ: Lobster Alice, Dream True, and another show you did, Space, sound like projects that were ideal for projection design. I assume there are certain projects you've come across where you say, this is why I'm here.
Hartley: Yes, but it's not just the project, it's the director, and knowing if it's a wonderfully collaborative experience with them, there's going to be real dialogue and a real sense of growth with the process.
DJ: I always hear that sound designers have a tough time integrating on a project with other designers. How is it with projection designers?
Hartley: It's interesting, because what had happened in the past couple of years, but is changing a bit now, is that often the projection designer will be brought in at the end of the design concept development. So I wasn't in on the inception in terms of talking about the sets and the lighting. I'm being brought in earlier now, which is really good, because it's very important to collaborate with both of those designers ahead of time, as to how best to protect the projections. Because if the projections look bad, everybody looks bad.
DJ: Projection designers are a fairly small group.
Hartley: Yeah, we don't even know each other. I've never even met Wendall Harrington! I can't wait to meet Wendall someday. There's Jerome Sirlin, George Tsypin. They both do sets, so they're in a different category. There's John Boesche in Chicago. I don't know of many others, unfortunately. And I kind of wish there were more projection designers, because in fact there's now enough work out there that it would be really great to recommend other people who you feel strongly about in terms of being able to support the work.
DJ: Tell me some of the projects you're working on now.
Hartley: Right now, almost on paper, is a Shostakovich project with Simon McBurney and Theatre de Complicite, which will be at John Jay College in the Lincoln Center Great Performers Series. The Emerson String Quartet is coming out with a boxed set of the 15 string quartets of Shostakovich. They're doing a series of five concerts and three quartets each. And then the sixth performance will be them working with Simon McBurney, who's creating a visual history of Shostakovich, which will also include the 15th String Quartet, which Shostakovich wrote, I believe, when he was dying, so it's very different from the others, very melancholy.
The other thing is the Lincoln Center American Songbook series, Round About: Dawn Upshaw, with Michael Mayer directing. She's also doing a series of performances in the Lincoln Center Series in April and May, ending with the one Mayer is directing.
DJ: These projects have theatrical elements, but it's not necessarily what you would describe as theatre per se. Is that something you'd be interested in doing more of?
Hartley: Well, it's what I'm doing now. Even as a sculptor, I was always open to using all different sorts of media, and this is just another form of my artwork, which I'm really enjoying, because the collaborative aspect is really fun and rewarding.
DJ: But you still sculpt.
Hartley: Yes. Not a lot lately, because I'm too busy doing theatre.
DJ: Are there any similarities between sculpting and projection design?
Hartley: I think there's very much a similarity in the way that I work, because I also typically use found images that I'm manipulating in projection design. It's just a question of whatever stuff my hands are on.