When I was asked a few years ago to create something for a program called School House Roxx at New York City's Performance Space 122 (PS 122), the possibilities felt limitless. I had been experimenting with live ambient body projections on different performers for a while, often with the actress and singer, Theo Kogan, who enjoyed doing it as much as I did. So the “something” that I ultimately created was Screen Test, a combination rock show and video installation piece featuring Kogan and her band, the Skyscrapers, who wrote original music specifically for the show. The underlying story, told through music and monologue, is a tale of modern paranoia and the schizophrenic reality it creates. Through the implied shooting of an epic Hollywood movie called Before the World Was Made, the performance asks the questions, “What is artificial? What is real? What role does fantasy play in survival?” We had no expectations about how it would be received, but as it turned out, it's been a huge success.
Since those first two nights at PS 122 in 2005, Screen Test has continued to evolve through additions I've made to the original, such as choreography by Vangeline Theatre, new video sections, and added monologues. Recently, we staged it again at the Abrons Art Center in the Harry De Jur Playhouse on Grand Street on New York's Lower East Side. A beautiful, old Georgian Revival style theatre built in 1918, its interior helped to enhance the production, which is a spectacle of beauty and devastation.
The first thing I did was to remove all the legs used for masking around the stage and the back cyc to reveal the raw space — including the fly system, exposed brick walls, and the metal gate to the set shop — to create the feel of a Hollywood soundstage and a post-apocalyptic look. The show opens and closes with two “live body projection” monologues.
I shot the subject, Kogan, with a Panasonic DVX100 24p camera and then brought the footage into Adobe After Effects and Final Cut Pro to be enhanced and edited. The monologues she delivers, written by Romy Ashby and me, were affected by sound designer Sean Pierce using ProTools, and then the whole piece was pressed to DVD. I project the imagery onto Kogan live, using a Casio XJ-360 DLP projector. The projecting of an image of Kogan onto the live Kogan creates a ghostly double exposure effect, confusing to the audience, but producing a distinctive, rather hypnotic beauty.
The entire show is run from my MacBook Pro using TroikaTronix Isadora. Caden Manson from Big Art Group designed the system to control three Pioneer DVD-V7400 players. The DVD players deliver all the media, including backing tracks, video projections, and the drummer's click track. Isadora syncs the three DVD players to start at the same frame. Because Kogan is set on stage as the audience enters the theatre, we use two additional DVD players to project a “looping” image that is then cross-faded with a simple switcher when the show starts. In all, five DVD players run the show.
Many people comment on the beautiful lighting, designed by Ben Kato. His solution for keeping the integrity of the video projections, while creating a lush, full stage look, was to use sidelight and backlight angles as the primary lighting. Maintaining the control of the incident and reflected light, he was able to find a perfect balance between the stage picture and projected image. He also took advantage of the fly system by lowering all the lights and using several as scenic elements. The 1kW Scoops, 10" 2kW Fresnels, and the massive far-cyc units are used as functional scenic fixtures. They act as soft light for the “studio” transitions, while the other conventionals (ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs) and various fixtures from ARRI and Mole-Richardson light the “movie shoot” itself. We added a purely scenic electric upstage that flies in during a transition, to be “refocused” by a character playing a stagehand in the show. A Look Solutions Unique Hazer adds atmospheric effects, as well. All lighting is controlled from an ETC Express 48/96 console, with dimming via 2.4kW ETC Sensor dimmers, 3kW Kliegl dimmers, and 500W Leprecon dimmers.
Screen Test uses two different types of body projections, both front-projection. One is projected onto fabric, the other onto bare skin. My approach to both was similar, yet different. Kogan's body projections, at the beginning and end of the show, are static, singular tableaux, so Kato could use a single high backlight to halo her head and shoulders. The second body projection, onto the nude soldier, was more challenging because of the movement of the projection itself and of the live dancer portraying the soldier. For this, a combination of center backlight specials are used, with a slow looping pulse sequence that can “breathe” with the video. The tone of this section, which is harsh, raw, and electronic, lends itself to this type of super-slow pulsing light, and again, the angle of the backlight is critical to maintain the projected effect.
I have always found my inspiration in disparate places, much of it on the street. The set for Screen Test, for example, was created by Ready Set Inc., who re-welded an actual hospital gurney that I found one day in a dumpster not far from Bellevue Hospital. I'm sure I will keep adding new touches and other elements for the next mounting of Screen Test, and there are movie scenes I have yet to shoot for the show, as well as other ideas to implement. Whatever the case may be, it will continue to evolve and grow, making each performance truly new.
Rob Roth is a director and visual artist based in New York. He was a founding member of Click + Drag, the Saturday night at nightclub Mother. He is also currently directing Michael Caviadias's Claywoman to be performed at Deitch Gallery this spring. Visit www.rob-roth.com.