So with the prospect of one of Sunday’s Tony Awards going to a projection designer for the first time ever (even it is for Best Set Design of a Musical), the design of Sunday in the Park with George deserves another analysis.
Now, most of the time, I’m a designer, and designers always like to snipe and jibe at each other’s work—it’s just something we do, though most of the time it’s in the privacy of our own heads. There is always that little undercurrent that says— given the opportunity and resources—we just might have done a better job. So, I’m going to refrain from talking qualitatively about the design of Sunday (except to say that it was monumental in scale, with incredible senses of space and play).
What is most interesting and relevant about the show is an examination of the state of the art (so to speak) using Sunday as our specimen. It pushes the limits so far in terms of technology and how projections can contribute to a production that it starts to reveal the seams in both.
In terms of technology, few shows have been better-equipped for projections than Sunday. With a front end of 6 Barco CLM R10+ units, there is some serious hardware in play here. Nevertheless, to a trained eye, Sunday does an eloquent job of pointing out the remaining limitations of projectors. The brightness is acceptable most of time, but the contrast palls in many places. It has to—you’ve got actors sharing a white stage with projections. There is also a fair amount of softness and blur caused by a combination of bounce light, multiple focal planes, and extreme angles.
The bottom line is: projections aren’t a surface, just on one. That might seem simple, but it represents something akin to the sound barrier for the technological development of media in live performance. To cross it will require a sea change in display technology. Now, who wants a set made out of flexible OLEDs?
Sunday in the Park with George raises one more question that, believe me, it pains me to ask: how much is too much? Sunday’s design and direction team did an admirable job of making the production seamless with multiple injections of fun and clever moments that accentuated the beauty and creative foundations of Seurat’s work, but does the show represent a trend? If so, how great is the danger that we will begin to cross the line between enriching the imagination of the audience and supplanting it.
In any case, I congratulate Timothy Bird and his team at Knifedge Creative Network, along with the entire creative team of the show, on their Olivier and Drama Desk Awards and wish them the best of luck at the Tonys. They have produced a work that demonstrates how far we have come, shows us where might go next and finally asks us, “How far should we go?”