Special Reports

How Smart Designers Set The Scene

Rob Howell, David Korins, Donyale Werle and other top set designers share their thoughts on the proper use of technology.

David Korins
David Korins
© Tristan Fuge

[Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles about advances in scenic and projection design technology which had previously looked at the sorts of new devices that artists are using onstage.]

From tiny remote controls that enable pieces of scenery to move in free-flowing arcs to new projectors that can focus on such moving objects, theatrical designers have an increasingly advanced arsenal of devices to use when taking a work from the page to the stage.

However, as Obie and Lucille Lortel Award winner David Korins – currently represented on Broadway with the hit musical Bring It On at the St. James Theatre — points out, the key to artistic success is how you approach technology. “It’s not about I saw this cool new thing and I want to use it, but what does this show want to look and feel like based on its subject matter?” he says.

That sentiment is echoed by scenic and projection designer Catie Hevner. “What we all need to remember is that we’re storytellers, and we tell stories with live actors on stage to a live audience, and we must always keep in mind how adding technology to our designs works with a live audience.”

One of the reasons Korins uses video frequently in Bring It On, he says, is because the show focuses on teen characters. “We wanted to make it topical, cool, interesting and cutting-edge, so we actually do have a use for video.”

Conversely, Korins won’t be using much technology in Motown The Musical, which is slated to bow at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in March. “This show tracks from the 25th anniversary of Motown and then, it goes back in time to the company’s beginning,” he notes. “While it would be very tempting to use cool and new technology, we’ve told ourselves we’re not going to use any technology on stage that didn’t exist before 1983 and that 25th anniversary of Motown, so that it really feels period accurate.”

Richard Fleeshman in <I>Ghost</i>
Richard Fleeshman in Ghost
© Joan Marcus

Technology was one of the most-talked about parts of Ghost the Musical, which ran last summer, in which scenic designer Rob Howell and projection designer Jon Driscoll, created a nearly cinematic world on stage. “Because Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard’s guitar-laced score feels very contemporary and like a rock score, we made a conscious decision to introduce very apparent technology into the physical production,” Howell says.

Yet, the show maintained a connection to a non-technological, non-digital world, he adds. “We had the option to run the video walls all the way up to the height of the set, but we made sure they didn’t because we wanted there to be this poetic realism too. We included a lot of “traditional” scenery, such as the fire escapes, to act as a counterpoint and provide warmth in the design.”

Perhaps the biggest change in recent years is the increasing use of projection design, but it’s an issue that many designers think about very carefully. “When I see a stage direction that says “This is projected,” I make the note to myself, but that direction doesn’t decide what we are going to do,” says Donyale Werle, who won a Tony Award for her set design on Broadway’s Peter and the Starcatcher.

Hevner takes a similar approach in her work. “I think a lot of people are attracted to projections because they seem like a fast or affordable way to do something,” she says. “But a projection – which is ephemeral – communicates in a very different way than scenery, and so sometimes trying to help a physical piece with a projection doesn’t always work. And what you generally come to realize is that the play can speak for itself and it doesn’t need the support of a projected image.”

One example of how all of this technology can be integrated to create a vibrant — and organic — theatergoing experience comes from projection designer Aaron Rhyne, who collaborated with Werle
on a production of The Rocky Horror Show at The Old Globe in San Diego.

“At our first meeting she showed me these metal poles and this mesh and asked if we could make a screen out of them. I said I didn’t know. I’d never projected on scrap metal before,” he says. “But I saw where she was going with the design and I thought it was really beautiful and we both committed to making it work. [The result was] a castle that had an alien electricity vibrating through it. I don’t think anybody saw the show and simply thought ‘Oh those projections are cool.’ Instead they saw a whole house lighting up and shaking and moving.”

As Werle points out, this sort of seamless fusion is the goal of all great designers. “I think that no matter how much we are fascinated by technology, we still crave the small and the handmade craft. And when we can weave the two together, I think that is really cool.”