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Set Designers Bring On the New Technology

David Korins, Aaron Rhyne, Donyale Werle and others share their insights on how innovation is transforming Broadway and beyond.

A scene from Bring It On: The Musical
(© Craig Schwartz)
[Editor's note: This is the first of two articles about advances in scenic and projection design technology that will also include a look at how the changes are affecting the way in which stories are being told onstage.]

Whether it's the almost cinematic experience that theatergoers recently saw in Ghost The Musical or the flying panels that bring video-chatting and multi-screen communications between teenagers to life in Bring It On: The Musical at Broadway's St. James Theater, audiences in New York -- and beyond -- can't help but miss the increased presence of technology.

"There has been a huge amount of growth with regard to screen, LED, and small electronic devices," says award-winning designer David Korins of Bring It On, adding that this technology is becoming faster, smaller, more affordable, and more reliable for theater artists. "The thing about the theater is that it's not like a film where something can be done just once, or maybe three or four times to handle a shoot. We have to make something work every single time, eight shows a week."

Among the primary advances that Korins is seeing are the increased use of remote controls. "You know it used to be that scenery could only move left and right, parallel to the proscenium or up and down vertically," he notes. "Now you can literally have a little remote control stuck in the bottom of a piece of scenery and it can move not just in straight lines but also on curves. So it really gives a sense of free-flowing motion on the stage."

Theatergoers' experiences are not only being changed by scenery moving in new ways, but also by a new array of technology for video and still images that's accompanying the shifting scenic design dynamics. For example, projection designer Aaron Rhyne (who was represented on Broadway last season with Bonnie and Clyde) points to growth in "motion tracking," which allows a designer to synchronize a projected image or movie onto a moving set piece (rather than just a stationary screen), so that it moves along seamlessly.

"That's been a big development that you can see on Broadway now in a show like Newsies," he says. "It's a perfect way to unify projections and scenic design so it all becomes one surface. And because musicals have, historically, all been about moving pieces, being able to meld with a set piece with a projection means that audiences aren't looking and separating design elements and going, 'Oh look there's the set that moves in and there's the projection on it.'"

Scenic and projection designer Caite Hevner echoes Rhyne when she talks about a related advance in projection technology: multi-plain focusing. Hevner points to the work that she and Wendall K. Harrington did on the Off-Broadway revival of Angels in America as a perfect example. "We wanted to shoot projections over the entire stage, but because the old Signature Theatre space at the Peter Norton Theatre was so shallow, we had to line up two projectors so that they'd meet in the middle."

Donyale Werle
(© Tristan Fuge)
Beyond having to perfectly align the machines, she and Harrington often had to spend hours creating workarounds in the computers that ran the projectors to bring her vision to life when things shifted. "But now with some of the newer technology "the programming actually understands 3D space. So you can tell it to align the projectors automatically," she says. "And there are computer programs that can animate your set moves and track your projections, so that you basically see how the show is going to play out and move before you go into the theater."

Set designer Donyale Werle, who picked up a Tony Award for her design of Peter and the Starcatcher earlier this year, talks enthusiastically about such rendering programs, as well as the use of found and recycled objects in her work that has helped put her in the forefront in the use of "green" technology for the stage.

Werle, who co-chairs the Broadway Green Alliance's Pre-Production Committee, mentions that work is continuing on creating an organically based product from mushroom spores that eventually could be used to create scenic design models -- and ultimately set pieces themselves.

"I'd compare it to a plastic that could be sculpted and molded," she says, adding that the right formula still is in development. "All of us at the alliance are trying to support the continuing work in this area."

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