He’s on the cutting edge of avant-garde projection and video design. He’s William Cusick, who will be making his debut at the Live Design Broadway Projection Master Classes on Monday, May 24 at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Live Design speaks to him about his work:
Live Design: How do you approach video design for a new production? Storytelling, technology…what drives you?
William Cusick: My approach differs for each production. Every production has a source, and when I start work on a project, I look for what that source is and for the impetus driving the production. Knowing the conceptual foundation of a production helps me determine where it's going, or where I think it should go, both literally and figuratively. In all cases, I try to serve each individual production as specifically and uniquely as possible. I try not to come into a project with a ham-fisted rulebook for the video design.
In my experience, the role of a projections designer is still being defined, and the position can take on a variety of meanings to the rest of the creative team on a project. In an ideal situation, a projections designer would be the first or second designer brought on to collaborate early with the director and scenic designer. However, the projections designer is often the last member of the creative team to be hired, and it is a struggle to make a meaningful contribution, because so many of the production details have already been determined. In those latter cases, projection is generally relegated to a technological effect and it's a herculean effort to keep the projection design element from failing the production in one way or another.
When I'm brought on early in a process, I prefer to work from as many angles as possible, approaching the design as a director would approach a script. My research extends beyond the standard boundaries of image and technical references, and often I source literature, music, and even video games to find inspiration for a project. A free association approach is the most effective, in my experience, because we are already dealing with such a literal medium with projected imagery. Matching image sequences and visual moods to concepts works more effectively and more subtly within a production than aiming for a head-on literal design of matching images to words.
A large part of what inspires me to work in projection design is the actual innovation happening in the art form. There are now dozens of productions at any given time working with projections in NYC, and all of us are approaching it differently, developing a vocabulary for ourselves—and our collaborators, for the audiences and even for critics. It's an exciting time for theater, and finding ways to move forward with the new temporal and spacial tools we're being afforded is genuinely exciting.
LD: Why do you think projection has become so ubiquitous on stage?
WC: Projections in theater have been a foregone conclusion for decades now. If you read Robert Edmond Jones' The Dramatic Imagination from 1941 or Antonin Artuad's The Theatre and Its Double from 1958, you see great theatrical minds speculating on the future of theater and the necessity of integrating new technologies. In just the last ten years projection technology has become much more affordable, camera technology has become much more affordable, and High Definition has finally come to fruition in a way that allows designers to create projections with a certain degree of elegance previously not possible. Now that the projection design field is becoming more established, the theater is experiencing a greater crossover from other disciplines like graphic design, video art, and filmmaking. And most of all, I think it's because our post-industrial society is reliant upon image-based communication. It makes sense that theater should be able to incorporate and commodify the broadcast imagery we live with day-in and day-out on our televisions, computers, and phones, and to make this visual language theatrical.
LD: How can projection be best integrated into a production?
WC: Projection design needs to have a purpose in order to integrate properly into any event, theatrical or otherwise. Only once this purpose has been established can the projections play a pivotal role and integrate fully into the design and narrative of a show. Furthermore, the design needs to have a degree of elegance to achieve any level of integration. The concept of elegant design extends to the management of both large conceptual concerns and also the precise production details. Paying close attention to technical elements like the projection surface texture, douser timing, and raster masking add greatly to the effect projections can have in a production. Without elegance, projections tend to become a distracting blemish on the stage.
LD: What does the future hold? Where is it all going?
WC: Without a doubt, we can expect further integration of video onstage in the coming years, as the technology becomes more affordable and flexible. I do not portend to see the future of theater and design, but I hope that the future holds younger artists and audiences getting excited about the nature of the live theatrical event and exploring what that means. I think that the love of theater is alive and well all across America, and with every generation new and exciting groups of artists emerge to re-enliven the art form. I genuinely hope that those young artists will still come to New York City to keep this city thriving with new ideas. The city is a funny mixed-up place, where young people come to escape the suburbs and to interact with diversity and the highest cultural experience that America has to offer, and the theater experience in NYC is profoundly unique. The cycle from downtown to uptown and then back downtown again is really amazing, and the sort of extreme experimentation within the art form that is happening in the outer boroughs is especially invigorating.
I'm firmly convinced that the future of any art form lies in its past—in reinvestigating the past, integrating it, synthesizing it, at times ignoring it, reacting to it, but most importantly being profoundly aware of the history of the art form. We are living with such unmitigated access to information—to surprising and rousing thought and inquiry—thanks to the expanding modes of communication at our disposal. I am somewhat concerned about the nature of our consuming post-industrial social networking apparatus that seems determined to turn everything into an endless feedback cycle of likes, dislikes, and comments, but I am very interested to see how and where that filters into theater. As ever, new theater is on a collision course with new media and this amalgamation, this meeting of zeitgeists actually makes things more engaging.
LD: What do you consider avant-garde as of today...
WC: We're in such an outrageously accessible cultural space right now that the concept of avant-garde is strangely ubiquitous. What used to take weeks, months, or years to distinguish as cutting edge, now takes mere days via our extended communication pathways; integrating new ideas into old ones happens so quickly that the majority can hardly conceive of an artistic movement before it has already passed. One of the unique troubles with the avant-garde is that it so quickly devours itself and becomes stale within a context of constantly shifting paradigms. There seems to be more critical outlets in NYC theatre than ever, and now when a new work arrives it's consumed by this socio-critical complex that processes and rates it immediately, rendering it seemingly expired before any public gets access to discover it on their own terms. Of course, there are still many companies working outside the defined systems of disciplines and I think the most exciting work is happening on these boundaries between forms.