With United Scenic Artists and its parent union, IATSE, having polled their memberships in the past couple of months about the inclusion of Projection Design as a category, I would like to take a minute to talk about the challenges this presents in terms of the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements and standard contracts for projection designers.

Let me start off by saying that I am 100% in favor of this new addition to the union. This move protects everyone involved (eg. scenic designers that can right now be asked to do projections under current union contracts for no additional fee) and, hopefully, will help to clarify issues of what belongs to whom. It’s not as if there will suddenly be a flood of projection designers emerging from the woodwork to steal jobs from current union designers. Most of us are out there working already and would simply “enjoy the protection and benefits that go along with being a USA member,” says Zachary Borovay, the projection designer of Broadway’s A Catered Affair who has collaborated closely with USA in this effort.

But projection design might be a tougher nut to crack than is initially apparent, being more fluid than any other area of design. Only 40% of all current productions (this is a total guess—I would love to know the actual number) utilize projections, and probably only 50% of those use the medium as an integral, show-critical part of the overall design. When does a projection designer need to be brought on? If you have one live camera feeding a TV, is that projection design? A couple of projected scenic backdrops? Ten projected backdrops? With USA’s accustomed flexibility for designers moving across disciplines, this will probably be the easiest question to confront. A tougher question is, “What are the responsibilities of the projection designer?” Of the past five shows I have designed for houses that employ USA designers from the other fields, the only similarities between them was that each involved me spending a lot of time in front of a computer and a display technology of some sort. Different playback systems, different displays, different methods—some were animated/illustrated from scratch, others were mostly research, another involved the manipulation of live camera feeds. Sometimes I was the engineer, sometimes the programmer—once I never had to touch anything, which is unusual. When I have to spend several weeks doing a mini film shoot with actors for video to be played back onstage—is that in the contract? If I’ve been brought on just to do a five-minute preshow “movie” do I still get the minimum? I did one show entirely with hand-painted glass slides that were placed in ERS units—is that projection design?

I heartily applaud the move into the union, but I would urge caution and flexibility in the negotiation of what that inclusion means. I haven’t even talked about what an entrance exam for projection design might be like (?!?!?!). With the state of the technology and the art being what they are, it would be easy to go a long way down the wrong road.