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A Matter of Projection

Broadway shows like The Normal Heart and War Horse are making optimal use of projection design.

A scene from The Normal Heart
(© Joan Marcus)
At the end of the Tony Award-wining Broadway revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's searing play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, hundreds of names of those who died of the disease are projected on the walls of David Rockwell's spare set and on the walls of the John Golden Theatre. The effect is so emotional that members of the audience often stand reverently contemplating them long after the lights have come up. It's just one way that this form of digital technology is opening up new worlds in scenic design.

"George C. Wolfe (who co-directed the production with Joel Grey) felt projections were an interesting way to riff on the original production at the Public Theater, which featured printed names and dates on the wall," says Rockwell, who worked with projection designers Batwin & Robin on the show. "Here, there is a sense of an advancing menace through the projections, and in the final image, you are surrounded," he says.

Few designers work as well with projections as Wendall K. Harrington, who leads the Yale School of Drama's new concentration in projection design as part of its Master of Fine Arts program. "It is an ephemeral pictoral addition, dancing excited electrons," says Harrington, who created the projections for last season's Broadway revival of Driving Miss Daisy, and is the projection designer for the current Off-Broadway production of The Rap Guide to Evolution. "It's not a 'thing,' but more like thought, more poetry than prose."

Asked to name an example of projection design that impressed her, Harrington cites Jeff Sugg's design for the 2009 Broadway production of 33 Variations, in which the video design subtly suggested clouds as the main character, a dying musicologist, becomes obsessed with Beethoven's music. "You felt you were entering her mind. She flies in the music and you could understand her thoughts."

A scene from War Horse
(© Paul Kolnik)
Meanwhile, the history of World War I plays out through the projection design in the Tony-winning play War Horse at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre Set designer Rae Smith, who won a 2011 Tony Award for her efforts, projects line drawings of the bucolic English town where the play is first set, which later morph into the dark skies, trenches, and barbed wire of European killing fields.

Smith says that working with the life-size horse puppets that take up much of the stage inspired her to think in new ways about the set: "It made me want to do something much more fluid and mobile," she told The Independent. "For instance, the backdrop became a giant piece of paper that was meant to be torn from one of the character's sketchbooks on to which we projected hundreds of images that I drew through his eyes."

Rockwell believes that Smith's work was an excellent example of the best way to use projection design on stage. "The artistry of War Horse was that the projections didn't overwhelm the storytelling. Moreover, the projections never got close to the ground and they did things you couldn't do in other ways," he says.

Indeed, Rockwell and Harrington caution that projection design can be used inappropriately, even dangerously. "As with any new tool, you can fall in love with the technology versus the purpose of the technology," says Rockwell. "The first key is to tell the story, to work with the director, and understand the point of view and how that story wants to be told."

"It's important the designer understand both the power and the weakness of projection," says Harrington. "If designers forget that theater is a live, real-time art form, if all we are doing are giving them movies and a constant stream of information, what do we have left? I understand cool and groovy stuff, but when I go to the theater, I want to be penetrated by something."