Projection — if there is one word that sums up the future of theatrical design, it has to be “projection.” It's a brave new world where projections are moving off the screen to add a new layer of interest on the entire stage, and images of actors are being projected from remote locations, mixing live performers with their digital counterparts or replacing live actors altogether. What does this mean for all the designers of today not just in projection, but also set, lighting, and sound, and those of tomorrow? Will we exist in an entirely digital world?

“I think that we've already come close to an all-digital scenic design on Broadway,” says lighting designer Donald Holder, who lists recent productions of The Woman In White and Ring of Fire as examples that relied heavily on digital video to create the impression of three-dimensional “scenery.” Yet Holder thinks the jury is still out on how successful digital scenery can be as a stand-alone idea. “In my opinion, pure video as scenery, despite the huge advances in image quality, still tends to look flat and two-dimensional,” he says. “Only when a video image is broken up onto multiple surfaces arranged in three dimensions and/or integrated as part of a three-dimensional composition does it become interesting.”

A good example of this is the Los Angeles Opera/Lincoln Center Festival production of Grendel, for which Holder designed the lighting and director/designer Julie Taymor conceived digitally generated imagery as one of the many layers in Grendel's visual landscape. “By projecting video onto scrims through which highly kinetic three-dimensional objects were revealed, the video took on a more magical and floating quality and added greatly to the depth and mystery of the stage pictures,” notes Holder.

As for live actors onstage with their projected peers, “When done properly, the results are breathtaking,” says Holder. “I think the juxtaposition of something real and an identical video image in the same stage picture can be incredibly useful in very specific situations. With careful lighting of the video image versus the real actor, it's difficult as an audience member to determine which image is real and which is projected. This technology makes the role of lighting designer more multi-layered since he/she must also be intimately involved with the creation of offline video sequences so that the light onstage matches the recorded event.”

“It appears that theatrical design is continuing to evolve into a medium that's much more abstract and minimalist than ornamental and detailed, operating increasingly on a metaphoric rather than a realistic level,” Holder adds. “Much of this evolution can be attributed to the plays that are being written today and the issues that these works explore. More and more, I see design work that is original and bold enough to become the signature of the production, not in a self-indulgent way, but by providing a unique window into a dramatic world that's exciting and completely unexpected.”

Holder has also been teaching lighting design at CalArts, a process that opened his eyes to the way emerging young artists are thinking and where these future innovators will be leading us. “The juxtaposition of video, LEDs and other new technologies with more conventional scenic elements is causing an exponential expansion of the theatrical vocabulary and, in my opinion, is a reflection of the huge transitions that are taking place in our world today,” he says.

Scenically Speaking

Neil Patel looks at the digital revolution from the viewpoint of a scenic designer. “First of all, I think projection design will never replace scenery but will become more and more integrated with scenery,” he states. “The idea that projection will replace scenery supposes that the only function of scenery is the basic storytelling of ‘location,’ which can be done more seamlessly with projection technology. I do not think the primary function of scenery is to create literal location.”

As Patel sees it, rather than be literal, the function of scenic design is to create a three-dimensional architecture to embrace the performers and the text, and that requires real space, texture, and detail. “That being said,” notes Patel, “the advances in projection technology allow some amazing creative applications of projected images to the scenic space. We will see a lot more of that. It opens up some very exciting possibilities,” he says.

“I think I am always interested in doing onstage what can only be done well on the stage,” Patel continues. “We cannot compete with the seamless quality of film and television, but what we can do onstage is create architectural space that is emotional and metaphorical. I hope we see more of that. I think the interest we are seeing in writers like Sarah Ruhl and the success of musicals like Spring Awakening indicates that audiences are hungry for something less literal in the theatre. That is healthy for the theatre and for design.”

Digital Lighting

“As I see it,” says Holder, “the biggest changes we're continuing to see in the area of theatrical lighting design have to do with fluidity and power of lighting control, development of new lighting sources such as LEDs, and the increased availability and sophistication of automated lighting fixtures. All of these advances will afford the lighting designer even more flexibility and still more choices at his or her disposal. On the plus side, we'll be able to create work even more multilayered, sophisticated, and detailed. But the barrage of nearly infinite available choices can seduce a designer into avoiding the process of developing strong ideas that relate back to the text and the director's vision. As I often preach to my students, all the innovative technology in the world means nothing unless it exists to support and articulate a clear and unique point of view.”

Holder has been involved in the early design phase of Spiderman, The Musical, in which groundbreaking technology will be used. “All of the ideas we're considering, of course, are growing out of a desire to tell the story in a clear and compelling way,” he says. Yet when it comes to lighting, he doesn't see anyone abandoning incandescent sources anytime soon. “The quality of light one achieves via LEDs and digital projectors still tends to be cold and fluorescent-like, despite efforts to color-correct it. Theatre, at its best, reveals the depths of human emotion, and it is populated with living, breathing actors. In his book, Stage Lighting Design, Richard Pilbrow talks about a ‘living light’ that envelops the actors in a theatrical environment, and I feel that this type of light is best achieved via a tungsten-halogen source or even a daylight source. In my opinion, digital lighting can be fantastic for revealing and toning surfaces, but it's not particularly sympathetic when lighting human skin,” says Holder.

“I also feel that any time one works with digital lighting, the simple gesture of placing an actor in a single shaft of glorious golden light, for example, becomes a Byzantine and multilayered process,” Holder continues. “There's something fantastic in the simplicity of turning on a solitary source with a very specific purpose and idea behind it, using a single command. I'd hate to relinquish that level of control in my work. Because of the above, I'm fairly certain I would rarely consider designing a show in the theatre without a backbone of conventional, non-digital, and fixed-focus equipment at my disposal.”

The Design Process

With scenery, lighting, and projection coexisting in a digital world, will the role of the designer change? Will collaboration collapse as an über-designer wins out? “I think that the technology and tools with which we work to create a theatrical universe will always be in a constant state of flux, but I hope that the collaborative process, which is at the core of every great theatrical event, will remain vibrant,” says Holder, who notes that collaboration causes the collision of many ideas from many participants that typically gives birth to the most exciting work. “We all do our best when we're challenged creatively by our collaborators. An über-designer sounds awfully efficient, but does efficiency necessarily give birth to great ideas and great theatre? I don't think so.”

And who provides the content for digital imagery seen on stage? “This all depends on the nature of the design, but in general, although I might give some guidance, I expect the projection designer to provide the content,” says Patel. “The projection designer should be a collaborator like any other designer, so I always hope that their ideas for the projections will be much better than mine. If someone is credited as a projection designer, then I think that implies that he or she creates the content of the projected material. If not, I would be credited and would perhaps work with a technician or an assistant. I have had the good fortune to work with great collaborators like Jan Hartley and Gregory King, and they have plenty of ideas of their own!”

In fact, Patel has designed the scenery and King did the projections for Hotel Cassiopeia, a work written by Charles L. Mee and directed by Anne Bogart for the SITI Company that premiered at the Humana Festival in Louisville, KY, in March 2006 and will be seen in BAM's Next Wave Festival next month. Based on the life of artist Joseph Cornell, the visual content reflects the work of the artist (who created collages of found objects in boxes with picture-frame façades) in a dream-like production where scenery and projection are inescapably entwined onstage.

“Certainly, Cornell is the biggest influence on that design but not in the most straightforward way. Anne Bogart and I specifically did not want to create Cornell boxes onstage,” Patel explains. “We wanted the stage to be a Cornell box. It is more about getting into the mind of the artist. It is about the era he lived in — the New York he loved, and the movies he loved, and even the food he loved. We looked at all of that.”

Projecting Sound

This visual revolution will also necessarily impact the aural space on a stage. This past June, at the Festival Transamérique in Montreal, Denis Marleau's UBU Company presented a series of startling one-acts in which there were no live actors, only projected images. In Dors Mon Petit Enfant, three small doll-like figures are perched on a ledge high on a wall facing the audience; in Comédie, three “talking heads” are projected above large vases; and in Les Aveugles, there were a dozen projected faces representing a group of blind people who have been abandoned in the forest by their guide.

Sound designer Nancy Tobin who worked on this unique project, says: “My ultimate aim was to create an environment that felt extremely credible without representing reality in a naturalistic fashion,” she says. “As for the voices, to achieve credibility, audio-visual convergent localization and transparent frequency reproduction were essentially the basic considerations.”

At The Prague Quadrennial later in June 2007, Tobin discussed this work further. “The aural dimension of it was immense. Not only did I have to create the soundscape of the forest, but there were also a lot of vocal recordings and amplifications to be done,” she says. “The whole play was pre-recorded and then presented via projectors and audio speakers.” Each character had its own projector and speaker, and the effect was the illusion of almost real ghost-like characters. “I remember trying out at least 16 different models of speakers, desperately searching for the one that would help the voices sound the most natural,” says Tobin.

In working with live and projected actors on other projects, Tobin notes, “The virtual actor and the real-time actor must be perceived as interacting within the same space. To achieve this sonically, the voice of the real-time actor is amplified, as is the voice of the virtual actor. The sound sources are precisely adjusted so that they seem to be originating from the body of the characters. The levels are plausible, imitating the intensity of acoustic voices on stage.”

The future of stage design has arrived, and it is projected — visually, as well as aurally.