Every day I'd show up at her studio in Soho and it would be like, ‘today's assignment is…’ It was like projection school.

Growing up in North Carolina and Virginia, Michael Clark didn't dream of becoming a projection designer. “I didn't know anything about theatre except that I was so enamored of it that I wanted to know more,” he says. “At that point in time, I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I want to be a director’ — not even understanding what a director did.”

A graduate program in stage management at North Carolina School for the Arts helped Clark to understand a lot more, and when he moved to New York in 1993, so did a four-year stint as associate production manager at Playwrights Horizons. “When you have that kind of job in a small Off Broadway theatre,” he explains, “you wind up getting challenged by a complicated sound thing, or figuring it out when video gets put into a show, or when somebody needs to do an effect.” Off hours, he worked with the Ridge Theatre, which specializes in multimedia experimental work. “A friend at the company gave me the Avio slide book, and said, ‘Can you figure this out? We need some help.’ So I read through it and learned how to program the slides for their shows at the Kitchen and La Mama.” Through a Ridge production at American Repertory Theatre, Clark met costume designer Catherine Zuber, who in turn introduced him to Wendall K. Harrington.

“I met her at Starbucks one day, and three months later she called me up and said, ‘When can you start?’” Clark says. He worked with Harrington for two years, on such projects as Freak, Amy's View, Putting It Together, Minnesota Opera's Transatlantic, and the NBA All-Stars. “When you're part of the family, you just do what needs to be done. Every day, I would show up at her studio in Soho, and it would be like, today's challenge is…” he says. “It was like projection school.”

Clark went out on his own in the winter of 2000, “thinking I was never going to work again.” But shortly thereafter, he got a call to do the North American tour of Gumboots, a South African dance show. He also designed projections for Aeros, a production featuring the Romanian gymnastic team, worked on a piece with the David Parsons Dance Company, and assisted on two Broadway shows in Spring 2001: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with Sage Carter, and Judgment at Nuremberg, with Elaine J. McCarthy. In the summer, Clark added Mark Brokaw's Drama Dept. production of Douglas Carter Beane's Music From a Sparkling Planet to his projection design credits, and this fall, his work will be seen in Frank Wildhorn's Dracula: The Musical at La Jolla Playhouse.

Music From a Sparkling Planet, produced by the Drama Dept. at New York's Greenwich House Theatre in August, definitely fits one of Clark's job profiles: “Bringing a beautiful projection idea in on a budget.” It tells the story of a 1970s afternoon-TV-show host (J. Smith-Cameron), recalled through the eyes of three contemporary men who are having trouble growing up. The guys are obsessed with the memory of the lovely Tamara Tomorrow, who would introduce cartoons like Astro Boy and Speed Racer, and make predictions for the future, from whence she purports to visit.

The show's set designer, Allen Moyer, framed the stage with a false proscenium of TV monitors, and flashbacks of Tamara delivering her intros to a stage-left camera were accompanied by a video feed on five of the monitors. “That was a budgetary consideration,” says Clark. “I wanted eight originally. But it became, ‘You get five.’ Fine — five works.”

During the rest of the show, Clark kept the monitors alive with original artwork, Astro Boy cartoon clips, and period stills: research can be as much a part of a projection designer's job as the actual design. The artwork was created in Photoshop, Aftereffects, and Final Cut Pro. “With my work process, I would be having a bad day if my Macintosh didn't turn on,” Clark says. “Even with a film project like Dracula, which is being done with large-format PIGI projectors, it still gets scanned and imported.”

Clark says Dracula, which is being directed by Des McAnuff, will probably use two PIGI projectors from the front and one from the back. “John Arnone has designed a beautiful set, mostly period cutouts in black velour, to take projection,” he says. In between the Beane play in New York and Dracula in California, Clark was planning a jag down to Florida to work with Harrington on a Ragtime tour.

The world of New York-based theatre projection is a clubby one, which Clark says is a good thing. “There's me and Elaine and Sage and Jan Hartley and Linda Batwin and Robin Silvestri and Wendall,” he says. “I've worked with all of them in some capacity or another. Because it's so small, and fortunately, because there's enough work, it remains very friendly, like a community or a network.” Summing up his career path, Clark says, “I went down a dark alley, and here I am.” As for what direction he wants to take in the future, he says, who knows? “It's as simple as a life in the theatre.”

Photo: Andrew French