In the world of projection design, all roads lead to Wendall K. Harrington, the godmother of modern projection design: Many top working artisans today got their start as Harrington's assistant. Among this next generation, there's one who over the last five years has been paving her own road: Elaine McCarthy.
McCarthy's résumé encompasses Broadway (Judgment at Nuremberg, Urban Cowboy), Off Broadway (Speaking in Tongues, Boys Don't Wear Lipstick), and opera (War and Peace, Dead Man Walking). In recent years, she has carved something of a niche for herself as a go-to problem solver and collaborator, whether it's providing the giant's shadow in Into the Woods or Don Quixote's horse in Man of La Mancha.
“She brings a real artistry as a collaborator,” says set designer Richard Hoover, who worked with McCarthy on Speaking in Tongues. “For me, it's about being able to bounce ideas off each other and discovering something new. When we worked on Speaking in Tongues she brought projection technology into the discussion right off the bat. I loved working with her.”
It's fitting that McCarthy receive an award that was presented to Harrington herself back in 1993; until she met the veteran designer, McCarthy wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life. A native of Dorchester, MA, she had always wanted to be an architect, and was the token female in drafting classes. She ended up majoring in political science at Catholic University in Washington, DC, but dropped out after a year and found a job at a small architectural firm. After two weeks, she was answering the phones and drafting, and making models soon after.
McCarthy eventually ended up at the MIT Media Lab, where she learned about computers. “I was exposed to the most bleeding-edge technology,” she says, “and everybody in that environment had a point of view to add, whether you were a tenured professor, or, like me, a glorified secretary — it was all part of the mix. That was my first exposure to a barrier-free environment.”
Her first exposure to theatre came with, believe it or not, the MIT Community Players, which led her to a highly experimental, physical-based theatre company, the Pilgrim Theatre Research and Performance Collaborative. It was while stage managing for the troupe at the Edinburgh Festival that it all became clear to McCarthy. “I remember sitting in a pub in Edinburgh — the food was awful, so our sustenance was this really good beer — and thinking, ‘This is what I want to do with my life! This is my calling!’ Not the beer, but the world of theatre.”
Although she studied design at NYU (eventually switching to photography) and was able to find a variety of work in theatre and some film along the way, McCarthy still wasn't satisfied — until she met Harrington, through her friend set designer Lauren Helpern. “I met with Wendall and she talked all about projection, and I said, ‘All right! It has everything I want: It's lighting, it's scenery, it's me in old bookstores.’”
McCarthy quickly received a crash course in projection design, assisting Harrington for a few years and slowly garnering work on her own. “Working with Wendall, I learned a lot about content and how to make things, but I also learned about the methodology and the approach to design in general with regard to projection.”
It's a methodology that has served her well, according to director Leonard Foglia, who's worked with McCarthy on several occasions, most recently the production of Dead Man Walking that has played at New York City Opera and Cincinnati Opera and is currently touring. “What Elaine is able to do,” he says, “is to use my ideas as a departure for her own creativity. She will take my ideas and lift it out to a level I could never have imagined. It's what I pray every designer will do.”
Foglia points to a scene in Dead Man Walking which consists of a 13-minute aria of the main character, Sister Mary Prejean, driving her car to prison to see a death-row inmate in Louisiana for the first time. “It was just stymieing,” the director recalls. “My only thought was, ‘How can I integrate the drive, so we see what she's seeing?’ All I said to Elaine was, ‘I think I want to project the drive.’
“So she went to Louisiana and photographed the actual drive, four times,” he continues. “They were all black and white, and taken from moving cars, so they had movement to them. She gave us a sense of what the character was seeing. And, mixed in with it, which was something I did not expect, and which took it to another level, was religious imagery. It would pop up in between slides of the road, and that really elevated it.”
Currently at work on the upcoming Broadway musical Wicked, McCarthy says that projection designers are slowly earning their place at the design table. “One of the things that's changed in the years I've been doing it, first with Wendall and then with me, is that you used to have to spend a certain portion of every project educating your producers, directors, and crew,” she explains. “And I don't have to do that much anymore. They know they'll need somebody to come in who does this for a living.”