The “Projection Designer's Toolbox” is back! Sorry for the long sabbatical. As some readers may know, I have been lucky enough to have been inundated with many interesting projects over the last year or so. I can't complain, but it has prevented me from being able to contribute on a monthly basis.
This fall, I started teaching a Masters degree course called “Projections for Stage Design” at Long Island University in New York. I have been giving a lot of thought to that often discussed crossroads of technology and storytelling. It has been a struggle for me to find equilibrium between talking up new technology, while trying to find a real-world use for all these new gadgets and gizmos. More new stuff is coming out every day, but I keep using the same tools. Why?
People often ask me what the future holds regarding entertainment technology. My stock response is this: “If you don't know how to design for the theatre, 100% of the technology of tomorrow will be useless to you. If you do know how to design for the theatre, the percentage lowers to about 70%.”
There is an age-old adage that a great guitarist can pick up just about any brand of guitar, plug it into any brand of amp, and within a few minutes, make it sound great. This is because he has his own technique, his own style of playing. And most importantly, he has a clear and precise mental image of what he wants the end result to sound like. Some call this the mind-body connection.
Basketball great Magic Johnson called this the will to win — how, when the game was on the line, and the clock was running down, there was no time to think, but if you wanted to win that badly, your body would just take over and put the ball in the basket any which way. W. Timothy Gallwey's book The Inner Game of Tennis also talks about this. There is a trust game we play with our minds. Great athletes and musicians have learned that their bodies have executed the patterns needed to excel enough times that they can remove their minds from the equation. Trust your body to do what it needs without over-thinking it.
I think this adage can be applied to theatrical design, as well. If we bring our own emotions, experience, and knowledge to a project, and we understand how to serve the text and support the actors, we can use design to build an emotional connection with an audience. And it won't sell ads in this magazine for me to say this, but if you have a strong mental picture of what you want to achieve, you'll often find you can make just about any piece of gear “sound like you.”
The same principles can, and should, be applied to great design. Just because some piece of hardware can do the latest and greatest tricks, are tricks really what you want? In a way, being a slave to the latest technology is really letting the gear design for you. In the old days, you really had to think about the changes you wanted to make, because they cost a lot of money and took a day or two to execute, so it was important to have a mental picture of what the result would be in your head before you spent the money. Sure, there are some things that you have to see to “feel.” Radio City Music Hall is a perfect example of that. There is really no way to comprehend what things will look like when they are that huge. You can prepare all you want in advance, but you really need to see it live and in person to understand the relationship the visuals have with the audience. But having a good understanding of what relationship you want to create will certainly help you to be more efficient and much more effective.
So, I have decided to refocus my column and really get into the nitty gritty of what it takes to create a successful design — not the computers, projectors, media servers, lasers, or whatever, but the real fundamentals of projection design itself. What does it take to support a script, to serve the actors on stage, to be seen without being noticed, to play nicely with those who just don't understand projections?
I really hope this can turn into a positive educational discussion between you and me. So please, send in your questions. Send in your answers. Let's talk!