“There’s something deceptive about technology,” says projection designer Peter Nigrini, one half of the duo currently nominated for a Tony Award for Beetlejuice’s lighting design. “There’s actually an incredible amount of technology involved in oil painting: What are all the colors, what are all the pigments, what are all the varnishes? But we don’t think of oil painting as being a technological art form.” And yet, that’s exactly what projection and lighting design are.
And while set designer David Korins deservedly earned a Tony nomination for his work on Beetlejuice, the difference between the set with and without the lighting and projections is startling. That's why Playbill stopped by the Winter Garden recently to watch the full range of Nigrini and Kenneth Posner's work.
As storytellers, Nigrini and lighting designer Posner use their technological art to create and support the narrative of the titular demon caught between the living world and the Netherworld, and the sorrow-filled teen who might be desperate enough to help him.
Responsible for setting the tone and creating the world of Beetlejuice, Posner and Nigrini’s work begins before any characters step onstage. Posner bathes the Winter Garden theatre in a toxic green glow and projection highlights the drop curtain, welcoming audiences to a funhouse. It’s perfect combination of wacky fun and uneasiness that signals to the audience they're in for a wild ride.
When it comes to onstage, “Peter and I start from the black space and we carve into it,” says Posner. “Peter’s tools all come from the front. Peter’s magic is that he can animate. What I can do is really bring out the texture in scenery and really sculpt and give dimension.”
The purple and orange hues beaming from the wings—that’s Posner generating the eerie and ribald world of Beetlejuice; the flashing projections on the sandworm that bobs in and out of the walls—that’s Nigrini devising a crawling effect for the creature.
The design functions only in tandem as the two collaborate in a visual conversation to guide the audience.
“Ninety percent of the time what we’re doing is making sure people know where to look, which is ultimately a cinematic function. In cinema you point the camera in the right direction,” Nigrini explains. “In the theatre, the way we craft gaze is lighting and now also projection—creating those shapes that direct your eye where to look.”
Which is why “we’re constantly aware of where every object is on stage at all times,” says Nigrini. Collectively, the lighting and projection establish the rules of the world and then directs audiences through it.
Once they capture that focus, they mold an ethos tailored to the story and the score. “When you see large shafts of light, it really is about emotion and the power of music and the power of performance,” says Posner. “Beams of light add focus and drama. Height is dramatic, height is energy, so a big shaft of light, back-lighting an actor is a very emotional way to end a number and build musically.”
Then again, sometimes lighting needs to be subtle, like with the homey air of the Maitlands at the top of Beetlejuice. Other times, it’s a smorgasbord of color, texture, and flash to reveal “this house that’s been consumed and taken over by this character Beetlejuice,” says Nigrini.