Audience applause begins at the first Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George before a note is sung. As painter George Seurat wields his brush, deft strokes materialize on the walls of the set — an indication of things to come in a revival that takes a show with one foot planted in the 19th century and the other in the 20th directly into our own, via a masterful use of projections.
With projections regularly appearing on, Off, and Off Off Broadway, this is clearly the season the form came into its own in New York theatre. Sunday is the fullest expression to date of the craft, as if Sondheim and book writer (and original director) James Lapine somehow divined the use of projection in 1984, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning show opened at the Booth Theatre. Neo-Impressionist painter George Seurat's difficult dot-by-dot construction of his masterwork A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886) frames the story. The pointillist preparations, as George observes the mini-dramas of the anonymous Parisian strollers and picnickers immortalized by the 10'-wide canvas, are counterpointed by the collapse of his relationship to his mistress, Dot. Act I ends with the completed work magically unveiled before our eyes, as Dot, pregnant with George's child, departs for America (where the painting is now on permanent display at the Art Institute of Chicago). The second act takes place a century later, as George and Dot's great-grandson, also named George, struggles with his art, a color and light machine called the chromolume, and contemplates his family's legacy amid the complicated modern art world with his grandmother Marie. The show returns to La Grande Jatte, now a corporate park, as a fretful George is consoled and inspired by the painting's characters as he prepares to mount a 100th anniversary chromolume show commemorating his great-grandfather's milestone achievement.
Sunday has much to say about life, love, and art, and Sondheim's songs, including “Finishing the Hat,” “Beautiful,” “Move On,” and the standards “Children and Art” and “Putting it Together,” crystallize its themes. In the dual roles of the two Georges, and Dot and Marie, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters were Tony Award nominees that season. The original production is available on DVD, where it is easy to appreciate how much of the show's appeal rests with its realization, a series of delightful pointillist cut-outs by scenic designer Tony Straiges judiciously lit by Richard Nelson. Both won Tonys for their work.
The revival Sunday, a Roundabout Theatre Company production at Studio 54, hails from London and arrives with its Olivier Award winners intact — best actor (Daniel Evans), actress (Jenna Russell), and director (Sam Buntrock) among them. The Olivier-winning combo of video designer Timothy Bird and set and costume designer David Farley have also crossed the pond, along with sound designer Sebastian Frost. New to the team is New York's own Ken Billington, lighting designer. The revival started modestly, at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005. A tumultuous response there moved it to the Wyndhams Theatre on the West End the following year. The designers are pleased to have had two years to fine-tune it for its trip back home to Broadway.
The idea to outfit Sunday with projections came from Buntrock, himself an animator and filmmaker, who is all of 32 years old and began work on the show in 2004. The book and lyrics lend themselves to their use, and the show embraces the concept. The culmination of the painting, with its moving figures snapping into place alongside the actors, is but one highlight, as is its final fadeout to a blank canvas. In “Putting it Together,” the conflicted George interacts with his multiple divided selves in the second act art gallery set, a dazzling tour-de-force for Evans reminiscent of Bob Hoskins interacting with Looney Tunes in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Three hours of projections, which unspool and overlap in tandem with the action of the two-hour and 40-minute show, were created, ranging from the showstoppers (like the spectacle of the chromolume, which fills Studio 54 with colored dots) to the matte painting of the Grande Jatte in its 20th century incarnation, and fetching details, like the tail wagging of the frisky animated dog that finds a home in the painting. [Shaun Freeman, a lead animator on the Oscar-winning Happy Feet, created the dog remotely from Australia.]
Buntrock and Bird are old school chums who intersected once more when the director liked his ghostly projections for a production of A Christmas Carol. “We both saw the show as an appropriate arena for this technique,” Bird says. “Our content is painterly and illustrative, which supports the notion of an artist creating a work. The libretto was our starting point. From there, David and I developed a notion that would hold the piece together, that the first act would always be in George Seurat's studio — allowing the audience to be transported into the park from there — and the second, the 20th century gallery. That helped us pull off a seamless design whole.”
Bird is the creative director of UK-based Knifedge Creative Network, and a 12-person team there was responsible for the show. A key player was production projection engineer and media programmer Sam Hopkins, “who took this new technology and got us to do what we wanted,” Bird says. XL Video UK was another valued team member. “They've been extremely supportive; indeed, when we started, we were short on money, and there was a degree of working for the love of the project, without which this might not have happened. The show runs largely QuickTime movies, created using Macintosh technology. All of it fits on Macintosh G5 media servers, running Catalyst software that allows us to treat the content.”
A Wholehog 3 console from High End Systems guides the projections. An ETC Obsession II triggers the Wholehog 3 and the PRG Virtuosos used for the lighting, via MIDI. The cues are called by the stage manager or triggered by timecode or a footswitch under the conductor's piano via the sound console. The projectors include six Barco CLM R10+units, upgraded from London's package of Sanyo XP56s.
“We totally reprogrammed from scratch, and our librarian, Ciara Fanning, kept track of all the content,” Hopkins says. “The Barcos provide brighter output for the larger room and can compete with the larger lighting rig. We had ESP Vision make us up correct projector fixtures and lenses for pre-visualization; they also implemented aspect ratio as a feature for us so that we could correctly pre-author the content. In New York, we authored content to wrap around the scenic elements, particularly the downstage wall returns, allowing us to get a better horizon line; team leader Nina Wilson and I spent hours getting this sorted in Vision. At Studio 54, we mounted the projectors on the FOH truss instead of the balcony rail. This gave us a much higher angle, meaning we wiped out on the actors less. It also meant it was much harder to get at them, hence the very useful Barco network control where I could adjust the projectors from my laptop wirelessly from the house.”
All of the projections were created far in advance, with the final video for New York locked in last November. “It's a much different schedule than what theatre practitioners are used to, and the language is different,” Bird says. “The creative team spent a long time planning how it would work, with Sam and Christopher Gattelli, who did the musical staging. Everyone had to understand what would be moving and when it would do so. The music was a tremendous help; you can time the movement to the beat. And all the performers threw themselves into the project, particularly Daniel, who has an absolutely metronomic understanding of musical pace, and the prerecorded visuals we're using fits with that. We spent a lot of time filming him for ‘Putting it Together,’ and he knows exactly how to respond to something that might be a little cold and mechanical and make it real and human.”
The larger venue is an asset. “Studio 54 has more scale and height to it, with a bit more breathing space on the stage for the performers,” Bird continues. “This makes it easier not to hit performers with projection, which you don't want the audience to see happening. And with Ken Billington and his team on the job — who were fantastic — there was minimal chance of the actors casting shadows given how their rig was devised. It's a more hurried process technically in the UK, whereas in New York, we were more systematic. We were able to more seamlessly match the projection with the lighting during a one-week projection tech rehearsal before the actors arrived on the set, which was great.”
Farley also worked hand-in-glove with the projections unit. Once “costumes” for the animated characters were decided upon, Farley hand-painted the performers' garbs to reinforce the pointillist patterning. The designer was also able to more fully automate his set design, which was inspired by the work of video artist Tony Oursler, in New York. “It's a very pleasing moment for me when all the doors close together at the button of a number,” he says.
Regarding the bigger picture, Farley comments, “Everything that we project onto comes from George's studio. As the park comes together on stage, it's as if George has set up a still life in his studio and is painting from that, as well as from his sketches. That let us hang the drapery creatively all over the set.” Brent Porter and Isabel Martinez at Rose Brand contributed two trees, made of heavyweight crème marvel velour that are sewn in three pieces that descend to the stage deck in a tree shape, complementing the design.
Putting it together all the more is the LD. “Projections don't scare me. You just have to deal with them,” Billington says. He had seen the Chocolate Factory production, “and was blown away by it, thinking it was the best use of projection I'd ever seen theatrically. When I got involved, I found that Sam knew the piece perfectly but was willing to consider new ideas I brought to the table.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Sunday — ‘day’ being the key word here.’ It can't be dark; it has to be bright,” Billington says. “Lighting a show like this has to be very specific so you don't wash out the projections, which doesn't happen here because the projectors are bright enough. But at many projection shows I've seen, I've said while watching them, ‘Oh, please, can we turn the projectors off and turn the lights on?’ I didn't want to fall into that and have characters running around in half-light saying, ‘What a beautiful Sunday.’”
With little room overhead to place fixtures, Billington chose Vari-Lite VL3500Qs to help situate the show in daylight. “The Q was because I needed quiet and the 3500 because I felt it was a show that had to have shutters. I have to shutter off the walls, not circle off them, and I needed the zoom. There's a lot of moving lights, but no one notices because they don't move — they just do what they have to do.
“Getting the light in the right place and at the right angle is key, something I worked on a lot with Sam Hopkins,” continues Billington. “If the set recedes in the projections, the light has to go with it. I don't turn the balcony rail on a lot. Light does hit the walls, but not that you would notice. Once the show was lit and running in previews, we came back and color-matched the lighting and the projections, especially the second act, so that the walls are exactly the same color in projection as they are in real life. We put a cue on stage, and the projections change color with every light cue. As the walls downstage do a 10-point cue, going from stage left to stage right with the light, the projections adjust as well.”
“Working with Ken Billington and [associate LD] Paul Toben was a joy,” says Hopkins. “It's incredible what colors you have to send the rear projection to match the side walls in say the studio scenes. A tiny change (+/-5%) in the lighting would totally change the color/luminance required.” Hopkins adds that a 2'×3' front surface mirror from the mirror makers behind the Hubble Space Telescope is used to get the throw on the rear projection.
Two followspots are in use throughout the entire show. Adds Billington, “Sam [Buntrock] was worried about big followspot circles, but I said we were going to use them for visibility, which we did by placing them in the center booth and rarely playing them beyond head-and-shoulders. It works, and you don't know there are followspots there. I give a lot of credit to the operators, who are true artists, in that I have them doing pinspots and not hitting the wall for all that performance time.”
Given the enthusiastic reception that has greeted the fruits of this collaboration, Bird's final remark about technology and the theatre is a little unexpected. “On the whole, I think theatre is better off not using projection, as what is most interesting about live theatre is its visceral quality. That said, I'm personally very interested in seeing what can be done with using projected imagery, tempered with a degree of caution as to why it's being done and what is being done with it. What's exciting is that, as projection equipment becomes brighter and more affordable and portable, we're beginning to evolve the medium as a viable theatrical technique.” The evolutionary — and revolutionary — Sunday in the Park with George is on view at Studio 54 through June 15.
Projection Designer: Timothy Bird
Set and Costume Designer: David Farley
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Projection Equipment: XL Video
Scenery Construction, Automation, and Painting: Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Production Projection Engineer/Media Programmer: Sam Hopkins
Projected Visual and Animation Content/Animation and Visual Effects Production: Knifedge Creative Network
Pre-visualization and Projection Strategy: Sam Hopkins and Light Studio
Team Leader/AFX Animator: Nina Wilson
Content Librarian: Ciara Fanning
Character Animator: Shaun Freeman
Animator and Technical Director: John Keates
Matte Artist: Alex Laurent
3D Animator: Andy McNamara
Animator: Stephen Milligen
AFX Animator: Aaron Trinder
Additional Animation: Sam Buntrock
“Putting it Together” Visual Effects Producer: Amy DiPrima
“Putting it Together” Visual Effects Videographer: John Chimples for Image Maintenance
Assistants to the Scenic/Costume Designer, UK: Julie Bowles, Sarah Cant, Machiko Hombu
Associate Lighting Designer: Paul Toben
Production Electrician: Josh Weitzman
Associate Production Electrician: John Wooding
Moving Light Programmer: David Arch
ETC Obsession Programmer: Jessica Morton
Followspot Operators: Dorian Fuchs and John Wooding
1 ETC Obsession II Dual-Processor Console
1 PRG Virtuoso VX Console
1 PRG Virtuoso DX2 Console
1 PRG Virtuoso Tech Console
5 ETC Sensor 96x2.4kW Dimmer Rack
1 ETC Sensor 6x6kW Touring Rack
2 City Theatrical Wireless Dimmers
86 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal 575W
63 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal 575W
20 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal 750W
38 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal 575W
9 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal 750W
12 ETC Source Four 50° Ellipsoidal 575W
3 City Theatrical AutoYoke w/ETC Source Four 10°
Ellipsoidal, Auto Iris, and Wybron
4 Altman Lighting 5kW Tungsten Fresnel
1 Arri 2.5kW HMI Fresnel
14 PAR64 Low Voltage VNSP
10 MR16 Birdies
15 Vari-Lite VL3500Q Spot
4 Vari-Lite VL1000AS 575W
82 Wybron Coloram 4" Scroller
4 Wybron Coloram 5kW Scroller
1 Wybron Eclipse I 2kW Douser
2 Lycian 1290 XLT 2kW Xenon Followspot
8 High End Systems DataFlash AF1000 Strobe
1 Look Solutions Tiny Fogger
1 Bowens Jet Stream Fan
SELECTED PROJECTION EQUIPMENT
6 Barco CLM R10+ Projector
ESP Vision Lighting Pre-visualization Software
High End Systems Wholehog 3 Console
High End Systems Catalyst V.4 Software