Three Projection Projects on Broadway This past season, projections played an unusually prominent supporting role on Broadway, turning up as key players in three major productions that opened this past spring. Most interesting was the very different uses made of projections in each instance; hat follows is a look at three unique approaches to projections in theatre design.
Judgment at Nuremberg, presented at the Longacre Theatre by the National Actors Theatre, was Abby Mann’s adaptation of his own television drama and 1961 film about the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. The action focuses on a case involving several mid-level judges, using the trial as a springboard to examine the idea of the collective guilt of the German people in the implementation of the Final Solution. The action of the play alternates between trial scenes and sequences in which the naïve American Judge Haywood, who presides over the court, encounters a series of German civilians and struggles to understand how the Nazis achieved their rise to power. John Tillinger’s staging avoided naturalism for a series of heightened confrontations on James Noone’s startling set, in which mirrored walls, when lit from the rear, revealed faces of the Nazis’ Jewish victims.
Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections added to the play’s gravity with actual photos and footage showing the devastation of World War II and the ghastly results of the Holocaust. “It was the first time I’ve ever been that physically affected by a project, “ she says, recalling her research. “Day after day, I had to go through hours and hours of footage of Nazi youth rallies, atrocities of war, scenes of the death camps. It gave me nightmares.”
At least, she adds, the material was not difficult to find. “The National Archives [in Washington, DC] had a lot of it,” she says. “When the camps were liberated, the Army Signal Corps filmed them.” In addition, she says, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC was an invaluable resource. “It’s one of the first museums designed and built in the digital age,” she says. “Everything is available online. You can research remotely, and the staff is really responsive. That’s where I found the photos of Hitler’s henchmen, after they were hung. A lot of times, the detective work is the hardest part of the job. Here, there was almost too much material.”
McCarthy’s projections were featured in two different scenes. The opening featured a simulated air raid in the theatre, with sound and lighting effects (by David Van Tieghem and Brian MacDevitt, respectively) that placed the audience right in the action. This was followed by a series of projections: “We had Kristallnacht footage of Jewish ghettos in flames,” she says, “then the first Nuremberg trials, featuring Goering and Hess.” Other shots showed bombed-out, postwar Germany and the bodies of executed Nazi officials. After this brutally effective prologue, the first scenes of the play were staged in front of a street map of Nuremberg, which masked the courtroom setting and provided an appropriate backdrop for the sequence introducing Judge Haywood and his mission. A couple of scenes later, Judge Haywood stood in front of the downstage projection screen and a flashback sequence showed images of the streets of Nuremberg, when Jewish businesses were under boycott, anti-Semitic graffiti proliferated, and Jews were beaten and publicly humiliated in the streets.
Still later, during the trial, Mann’s script calls for the prosecuting attorney to show films of the death camps. “That was the US Signal Corps film,” says McCarthy, who adds that the footage was projected on a scenic element, rather than a screen (unlike the opening sequence). Because of this, she says, the big issue was “what would read, when projected on a three-dimensional surface with texture and paint. I wanted your brain to process what it was seeing, but I didn’t always want a clear image of the content. This is imagery that is already in our collective unconscious—we’ve all seen those bulldozers pushing bodies into the ditch.”
The full stage imagery, which was front-projected, was delivered via two DLP 7GV projectors (one functioned as a backup). “They create a beautiful, full-size stage image,” McCarthy says. The US Signal Corps film, used in the trial sequence was delivered via a Sanyo X20 projector hung from the balcony rail. “The playback system,” she adds, “was a digital deck, an FFV Omega, run by a computer, triggered by the show’s light board, an ETC Obsession console." Video equipment was supplied by Sound Associates, which also supplied the LaserPro control system. Louis Shapiro of Sound Associates designed the projection and control systems. Michael Clark and Randolph S. Briggs were assistant projection designers.
McCarthy’s projections were upsetting in their historical authenticity. Sage Carter provided disturbing images of another sort entirely for the Broadway revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Most of Dale Wasserman’s play, adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel, is a fairly straightforward piece of naturalism, recounting the power struggle in a mental ward, between the feisty non-conformist Randle P. McMurphy and the controlling Nurse Ratched. The play is punctuated, however by a series of nightmarish interior monologues by, another character, the mute, terrified Chief Bromden who, aided by McMurphy, begins to face his demons.
The play is set in day room of a state mental hospital, an institutional space (designed by Robert Brill) with large white walls. During Bromden’s monologues, Kevin Rigdon’s lighting darkens and the Chief’s voice is heard through the sound system (sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen); vast horizontal and vertical images fill the set; the images are generally in motion, often plunging sickeningly in a graphic and visceral representation of the Chief’s disturbed mental state.
Carter, like McCarthy, found the research to be more than she bargained for. “I had nightmares for a long time while doing this research,” she says. “We looked at brain autopsies and experiments on patients, stuff from the last 100 years. Some of it was really horrific.” The images, which were altered to fit the designer’s needs using Adobe Photoshop, were delivered via two PIGI projectors, with double scrollers, from E\T\C Audiovisuel, one of which also has a rotator attached, to create more complex movements. In addition, six Kodak Ektagraphic slide projectors placed on the front rail of the theatre’s mezzanine, projects details that fill out the images.
Carter says that her work changed a great deal between the initial production at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and the Broadway engagement: “We had single-scroller Pani projectors; the images featured more acid colors and the overall effect wasn’t as scary. In New York, Terry [Kinney, the director] and I had a long talk. We chose to go to the next step, to make the images a little more terrifying.” However, she adds, “A lot of the effect comes from the sound designers. We talked a lot throughout the development period, bouncing things off of each other. They’d send me a sound, or I’d ask for a sound to generate a shift in the image. Rob and Michael are just great.
“Once we were in tech,” she adds, “we got half a day to coordinate the sound and projections. One thing I really like about the PIGI projector is that it’s not video and it’s not a slide show. There’s that sense of movement. You can move images slowly, then speed them up. We talked about doing this in video and I’m glad we didn’t.”
The PIGI projectors, she adds, “have their own show control. Because we have slide projectors, too, everything is controlled by a Dataton control system. All the PIGI cues are written in their own computer, and are then run by Dataton, which also controls the 35mm projectors.” Paul Vershbow was projection programmer. Stephen Abbott is projection and pyro operator. Shana Lee Anderson served as Carter's research assistant while Michael Clark was the overall production assistant. Projection equipment for the production was supplied by Fourth Phase and G.A.S.P.
Carter adds that it was a challenge to build her images using such grisly material and she worried about their effect in the theatre. “It was difficult to build a collage with images of cadavers and experimental surgery,” she says. “It was disturbing. But Tim Sampson [who plays the Chief] is such a wonderful actor and, by focusing on what he was doing, we got through it.”
Of course, projections don’t necessarily have to provoke audience jitters. Consider the case of Bells are Ringing, the 1956 Betty Comden-Adolph Green/Jule Styne musical that was revived this spring as a vehicle for Faith Prince. Bells is about an operator at a New York telephone answering service who gets tangled up in the lives of her clients. The opening number, the show’s title tune, is a mock commercial for the answering service Susanserphone. Although previous directors have generally staged the scene with live cast members, it was a perfectly natural concept for director Tina Landau to order up a video presentation, created by the team of Batwin + Robin.
The sequence featured an unctuous announcer detailing the virtues of Susanserphone, with a female chorus singing “Bells are Ringing.” Robin Silvestri says, “We shot the sequence on DVD in our office, using a black backdrop.” In keeping with the show’s 1950s time frame, the sequence was shot in black and white. “Later,” she adds, “we cropped the footage and edited it on our Media 100.” The video featured numerous campy touches; when the announcer pointed out that Susanserphone could facilitate a girl’s love life, the screen was filled with little Valentine hearts.
However, the production also made use of Batwin and Robin’s talents during the overture, which was accompanied by a visual montage of 1950s New York scenes. “The concept was Tina’s,” says Silvestri. “She wanted to bring people back to the time of the show, a time that parallels New York today—a prosperous, consumer-driven, image-conscious society, a place divided into rich and poor. As Tina said, `It’s about a seemingly imperfect woman in a world of seemingly perfect women.’” The montage also helped place audiences in another era, for a show which drops names like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Jose Ferrer, which features an extended cha-cha dance number, and spoofs nightclub acts with goofy chorus girls and throbbing baritones.
Silvestri says that the research for the overture montage “started with stock footage resources that we have. Tina gave us specific directions for each song of the overture. For instance she saw `Bells are Ringing,’ as glamorous, `I Met a Girl’ as energetic and active, and `The Party’s Over’ as bittersweet. From this, we looked through hours of material and assembled the sections accordingly. We also got home movies from Faith Prince and Tina.” The images were seen thanks to NECxt 5000 projectors, supplied by Scharff-Weisberg; the video was played by a digital video recorder.
Interestingly, Silvestri adds, the biggest challenge wasn’t hers or Batwin but, rather, belonged to musical director David Evans. “We didn’t use a click track,” she notes, “so we provided David with a VHS copy of our edit that he could study so he could match the live music with our edited video piece. We provided him with a reference audio track so he could see where we had edited specific material hits with particular video moments. It was amazing that he consistently `hit it’ every night.”
Bells are Ringing also featured scenery by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by David C. Woolard, lighting by Donald Holder, and sound by Acme Sound Partners. After receiving mixed reviews, the show closed early in June, followed by reports in The New York Times that the show’s producers were having trouble paying their debts. Despite mixed to positive reviews, Judgment at Nuremberg closed in May. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival, closes July 29..
Photos: Judgment at Nuremberg: Joan Marcus. Cuckoo's Nest: Tristam Kenton