Wendall K. Harrington, Projectionist Extraordinaire, Faces a Third Dimension in Feathers

Wendall K. Harrington, Projectionist Extraordinaire, Faces a Third Dimension in Feathers Wendall K. Harrington, known informally in design circles as "The Queen of Projections," is incorporating a new dimension into her work: the third.
A scene from Hope Is the Thing With Feathers.
A scene from Hope Is the Thing With Feathers. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

Wendall K. Harrington, known informally in design circles as "The Queen of Projections," is incorporating a new dimension into her work: the third.

Best known for her dazzling film projections in The Who's Tommy , the Brooklyn-born Harrington this year alone has contributed slides and film sequences to Ragtime , The Capeman , Freak , The Civil War (at Houston's Alley Theatre) and As Thousands Cheer. In the last, her projections of 1930s headlines and pictures of the Automat set the scenes for the 1933 Irving Berlin-Moss Hart revue produced by the Drama Dept.

It is for that company's world premiere of Frank Pugliese's play, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers , that she has left two dimensions behind- at least temporarily.

"People have asked me for years to design scenery, and I always felt it was none of my business to do it," says Harrington, relaxing in a Capeman jacket during a rehearsal break at the Greenwich Theatre on Barrow Street. "I'm a very two-dimensional person. I don't think well in three dimensions, or at least I don't perceive myself that way." But after reading Pugliese's play, she says, "I actually got a picture in my head of what it could be."

Hope concerns three generations: an old man and his wife; a younger, interracial couple; and a very Gen-X couple. The main character, known as Boy, has jumped from an airplane; the play's action occurs as he descends. His girlfriend and the two older couples occupy three distinct playing areas on the lower stage, which Harrington furnished simply, with table, chairs and bed. The Boy stands upstage on a raised platform painted with sky and rolling hills. Behind him on the wall is a projection of more sky, which Harrington used reluctantly, for budgetary reasons. "It's cheaper than a drop in the way that we're using it," she says. "Everyone thinks projections are cheaper than scenery, and in most instances that's actually not true. By the time you bring in the projector and this complicated technology, you can buy a drop for less."

Taking on the creation of a whole set spawned some schizoid moments for Harrington. "In a way, every set design that I work on is a turf war about `How much space can I have?' and `How much space do you need to move on that wagon to bring that dancer down?' In this turf war it was the same conversation," she says, laughing, "but I was having it with myself. `Damn set designer!' `Damn projectionist!' "

An essential element of Harrington's success is her husband Bo Eriksson, "who uses the computers and makes the things actually happen," she says. "He's a brilliant photoshop artist, because so many things are combined.... Making something original out of all this other stuff takes a good hand, and that's what he does." They have two daughters and a home in Orange County, N.Y., as well as an apartment in the city.

Harrington says she's not eager to pursue set design: "There are far too many really brilliant set designers out there." Her next theatre project is Amy's View , the David Hare play due in the spring, starring Judi Dench. Her contribution, which was in the London production, is "about six slides, sort of statements of place that take you between scenes." She says that the director, Richard Eyre, whom she met working on Hare's Racing Demon at Lincoln Center, is her favorite. "He understands that you know the right thing to do. There's never a question.... He so trusts your instincts that he just makes you reach down to someplace that you don't otherwise get to."

About her continued involvement in Frank Wildhorn's musical The Civil War , she is less sure. "The Civil War is insane, because there's so many directors now, and now Jerry Zaks is in town, so I have no idea what's going to happen," she says. "It's not really a musical, and it's not really a concert; it's some kind of crazy hybrid in between, so it's difficult to know what to do with it."

The great Matthew Brady photographs enticed her into the Alley production: "The thing that appealed to me was to be able to listen to the music and to look at the pictures." Now all she knows is that "it seems to be going in a different direction."

Harrington's reputation is extending beyond theatre. Lately she's been hard at work to create projections for the introductions at New York Knicks games at the behest of "Ernie whatever-his-name-is. A very tall man in a very good suit." As soon as the basketball lockout ends she's going to be ready.

"When I'm in that room with Patrick Ewing," she says with a laugh, "I'm going to be so happy!"

--Edward Karam