How Projection Design Is Changing the Landscape of Theatre
As proven by Dear Evan Hansen, Anastasia and more, projection design is no longer an onstage bonus, it’s an integral part of design.
Ten years ago, projections on Broadway were viewed with trepidation. What role does such a cinematic device have in the theatre? This has been a watershed season for projections, which have been drawn on to achieve a variety of effects in productions as diverse as Dear Evan Hansen, Anastasia, Oslo, Indecent, Amélie, and Sunday in the Park with George.
“Over the past ten years, the panic has gone away,” says Aaron Rhyne, projection designer for Anastasia. “Projection design is an art form that can add to the theatrical experience and not detract from it. What are we trying to get the audience to feel and think?”
In Dear Evan Hansen, projection design functions as an additional set of characters. In Anastasia, they provide literal backdrops. For Oslo, they offer historical and emotional context while Indecent often uses projections as subtitles. Amélie’s atmosphere relied on them and Sunday in the Park with George’s titular inspiration came to life.
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“It’s about harnessing the technology in a way that feels like an organic extension of the emotional tone happening on the stage,” says Peter Nigrini, projection designer for Dear Evan Hansen and Amélie. The Dear Evan Hansen script noted projections, but the form and content came from Nigrini’s interpretation of the words.
Rhyne approaches his work similarly. “You start with the piece itself,” he says. “What’s the intent, what’s the goal for projections? What are we trying to get the audience to feel and think?” For this show, Rhyne visited Paris for inspiration. “I wanted to shoot specific architecture,” he says, “to provide lush environments that would help the audience follow the show’s journey.”
While Rhyne re-created Paris in his designs, Oslo projected archival footage on the walls of Michael Yeargan’s set. “[Director] Bart [Sher] wanted some texture in those transitions to convey the stakes the characters were going through. It evolved from there,” says projection designer Ben Pearcy.
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For Tal Yarden, projection designer for Indecent and Sunday in the Park with George, he starts with the characters. “I want to get into their heads and hearts and I want the projection concepts to reflect the world these characters live in subjectively, realistically, and dramaturgically,” he says. “It was obvious from Paula Vogel’s script and in my first discussions with [director] Rebecca Taichman that the primary role of projections for Indecent would be to represent the words and language of a people all but lost to the atrocity of the Shoah [Holocaust]. It was important to keep the projections simple and true to the intention of the play.”
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“I’ve always regarded projection as painting with light,” says Pearcy. Projection design means providing texture for the world of a show. As it did with Amélie. “What it ultimately did was be more atmospheric, sitting between what scenery and lighting do to create atmosphere and landscape,” says Nigrini. “I’ve really done my job if at least 90 percent of what I do goes unnoticed, but not unexperienced.”
Pearcy agrees that projections can be at their best when they don’t draw attention. For example, molding that defines the meeting room in Oslo is a projection, not a physical set element.
Projection is a new piece of the design puzzle, and collaboration is key. “Set design, lighting design, and projection design work together to blur the lines. We aim for moments where you can’t tell where the set stops and the lighting and projections begin.”
“I wish that there was an award for projection because it’s really becoming such an integral part of what we all do,” says Oslo’s Tony-nominated scenic designer, Michael Yeargan.
“Theatres now have the technology to do what films do, but in real time,” says Nigrini. “The goal is to co-opt that language” in a way that works for the stage story and live audiences. “Then we’re getting the best of both worlds,” he continues. “That’s how to keep theatre relevant, isn’t it?”
Flip through some of the fully realized projection designs of the 2016-2017 Broadway season: