San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse (LJP) thinks of itself as a research and development lab for new American plays headed for Broadway. Shows have to be big, high-tech, fast-moving, and done in the theatre's 500-seat house, most of the time on a not-for-profit budget. “It's a trick for us to do the work we do here and serve the project's future,” says Peter J. Davis, the theatre's production manager.
Last season, LJP mounted the world premiere of Carmen, a new adaptation of Mérimée's novella, with Flamenco and original music. Director Franco Dragone came in, making his first foray into musical theatre with designers who knew the terrain: Klara Zieglerova (scenic), Christopher Akerlind (lighting), Suzy Benzinger (costume), and François Bergeron (sound). Shawn Sagady, who had been working at LJP as a video tech for a time, would create a slide of a quote to appear on the downstage scrim at the top of the show.
Dragone, a highly visual director, had an artist create detailed storyboards, rendering every scene in stark, foreboding images. Davis says a large catwalk surrounded a curved cyclorama behind Zieglerova's horseshoe-shaped bullring, which had granite walls extending into the flies and was lit mainly by Vari-Lite fixtures. “It wasn't what Franco envisioned on storyboards, but we all agreed we could stay within budget with standard backlighting,” Davis says.
Locating everything on a unit set was less than ideal. “I looked at the storyboards and wondered why we weren't doing projections. What we were able to do with only lights just couldn't compare,” says Sagady, who had never designed for the Playhouse before. But, hey, they didn't have the budget for video.
“Franco comes from a poor theatre,” Davis says. “He's no stranger to video, but it's usually a peripheral element in his productions.”
Yet, there was something missing — something that they all saw on the atmospheric storyboards. Projection would open all kinds of possibilities, wouldn't it? And so, there were no projections for Carmen until the second day of tech rehearsals. “Suddenly, way late in the game, we were able to bring this back to him,” Davis says. “We were bogged down under deadlines, but this technology solved all these problems.”
However, shooting on a very large stage with scenery in place, actors blocked, and an imminent opening set the stage for a few other problems.
“Video and projections can be a delicate area because it's so easy to go over the top and distract from a show,” Sagady says. “There were moments in Carmen where Franco would want something big and elaborate. The moon rises, turning into a sun, and the whole sky changes. If you have giant clouds flying by on the RP screen, the audience is not paying attention to what's happening on stage. Franco never wanted a still shot, so I had to create moving montages for every moment.” Another solution, Sagady says, was to use many layers of clouds traveling slowly across the screen.
It was also essential to keep the images readable. “As we added, it changed the whole mood of the look, and we really got into high contrast. I worked with Klara to create a balance with what was scenic,” Sagady says. “Because we were shooting from the front of the house, anything and anyone in front of the screen cast a shadow on it. I did a lot of work to feather out the edges of everything so there was never a hard edge. We had to stop using the upstage scrim that matched the curve of the RP screen to soften the stuff being shot from behind, because of a bad moiré effect,” but in scenes with subtle projections, the 20'×;40' scrim came back in. “I don't think we moved much or reblocked anything,” Sagady says, adding that they had to be careful where they put a flying bullhead. “When there was a big ugly shadow, we would make something a little higher or lower.”
The set for Carmen was dark and shiny. Sagady projected shadows of trees, much “like a gobo from a practical instrument. They brought the set out and gave it more depth and width and lightness when we wanted things not quite so dark,” he says.
Throughout the show, projection added a layer to the tapestry. “Projection helped control where we wanted the audience to look and filled the space with volume and texture,” says Davis. It altered locations. The extra cost for this? $2,000. Two PCs running Watchout served the project. “You can edit on the fly, fade up and fade out, decide ‘I want this image to be this dimension,’ and change colors in 16 seconds,” says Davis.
Sagady demonstrated that, without investing much money “using equipment we had, there was a whole other palette we could play with in the show to get the looks Franco imagined.”
Carmen isn't the first or last production at the Playhouse that used projection to solve problems. The Broadway/London-bound workshop of Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, for instance, would have depended entirely on Crystal's energy without projections developed from the actor's home movies. “They added another layer and deepened understanding of the characters and where we were in the story,” says the show's projection designer, Michael Clark. For a production of The Wiz (LD, February 2007), Clark flooded the house with Dorothy's nightmare.
“For a long time, we've known that video was a resource to enhance scenery to create mood, movement, location, and iconic imagery, but only of late do we have access to the tools to do just that,” says Clark, adding that you can't decide to instantly overhaul the scenery during techs, but you can change projected images.
“Since The Wiz, we've really started to embrace technology,” says Sagady. The Playhouse has been investing in equipment in the last year, including five dedicated Watchout systems and a Medialon Manager Show Control System to integrate Watchout with lights, sound, and automation systems. Sagady is currently co-designing projections with David Gallo for LJP's upcoming production of a new musical, Memphis, that will take advantage of the improvements.