I recently designed projections for a new musical called Nerds: A Musical Software Satire for the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The show is a lighthearted satirical retelling of the history of the personal computer starring mildly truthful, but mostly fictional, characterizations of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak, etc. The show featured a 20'×10' rear-projection screen fed by a two-projector Watchout setup. The RP played several roles within the show. Most of the time, it was an animated backdrop, but occasionally, it became a character in the show.
Like many projects I am called into, the projections came about in this show out of necessity. There is a scene where Tom Watson, the 70s-era president of IBM, is grilling Bill Gates about a need for an operating system (DOS) and shows him a slideshow of his life up until that point. As we started thinking about how to integrate this slideshow into the scenery, it became apparent that the budget for scenery was not big enough to also support projections, so we had to rethink. If we integrated more projections into the show, would it save money on scenery? In this case, the answer was unquestionably “yes.”
Once we got past that decision, the world was my oyster in terms of integrating projections into the show. In another cost-saving effort, I also programmed the show. It was during this experience that I learned something very interesting: When you are both the designer and programmer, there is a kind of singular vision that ends up on screen that is much more unique and personal than anything created by even a two- or three-person team. It was exhausting trying to keep up without any assistance, but I think what ended up on the screen was a much better representation of what was in my mind than anything I had designed prior to this.
One of the curses of a big white screen is that, if there are no projections on it, it is just a big, empty white screen. So I would have to keep it filled at all times with some kind of imagery. Thankfully, our ace lighting designer, Mike Baldassari, had a row of lights at the base of the RP screen so he could also light it up in beautiful, solid, bold colors. So in tech, it was decided that we would share the RP screen. Sometimes, it would be a digitally induced vista putting us in a location, while at other times, it would be a more intimate, homegrown, natural color wash.
In this small theatre, with all of these challenges presented to us, we created something extremely personal and creative. Thankfully, we saw these obstacles as hurdles that were meant to be leapt over. The lighting designer and I found a fluid rhythm for designing on the fly, and we were both able to shift our work toward each other — collaboration at its finest.
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