The Multi-Media Is the Message

Undoubtedly, when "The Rocky Horror Show" 's Brad and Janet morph from film projections into real live people—they seemingly float off the movie screen and onto the stage—the use of video technology or mixed media, or "projection design" as it's known in the business, has entered a whole new arena.

It's sophisticated stuff and not uncommon; although, admittedly, no other production uses it quite in the same way as "Rocky." Nevertheless, the number of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows that are employing projection design is booming. Film clips, slides, not to mention projected animated imagery of one sort or another, and combinations thereof, are increasingly integral to theatre's aesthetic.

Consider the number of shows that have incorporated mixed media over this past season. There's the aforementioned "Rocky Horror Show," but there's also "Judgment at Nuremberg," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Bells are Ringing," and "The 'It' Girl."

Mixed media on stage is by no means brand new. "The Who's Tommy" (1993) was awash in projection and video design—indeed, "Tommy" is considered to be the benchmark production that set the precedent. And it is a growing subspecialty.

"When I started in the early '90s, there were a handful of us doing it," notes Elaine McCarthy, who designed the projections for "Nuremberg" and "The 'It' Girl." "Now, I'd say there are two hands and a foot."

Linda Batwin of batwin + robin productions—yes, that is the name of their 10-year-old projection design company—accounts for the burgeoning trend this way: "What we're seeing is a celebration of technology in theatre [that mirrors the culture's fascination with high tech]. Its presence also points to the fact that producers feel that given the price of tickets, they should be giving audiences a bang for their buck. And the use of mixed media also reflects an attempt to attract a new—young—audience."

How It Is Used

Check out "The Rocky Horror Show," "a production designed to appeal to a young audience and/or those who don't usually go to the theatre." So asserts its twentysomething producer, Jordan Roth. "We're creating event theatre for those who attend rock concerts, watch television, and go to the movies."

Using mixed media on stage is a natural for "Rocky," especially in light of the show's history, Roth points out. As everyone knows, "The Rocky Horror Show," a campy cult musical, was formerly a campy cult movie. And the musical makes endless reference to that film. For example, at certain points in the show—indeed, in the movie as well—the characters say a familiar line and the audience shouts back with expected ritual responses.

And then there's the show's (and the movie's) send-up sensibility, both alluding to film clichés. (This show is besotted with elbow nudging.) Case in point: Brad and Janet are in a car, driving down a dark, winding, dangerous road. As Brad checks his rear view mirror, the ominous countryside is projected onto a screen, bringing to mind a host of familiar scary movies.

"Rocky" also uses video clips to dramatize the loftier idea that there's interchangeability between film, theatre, and life—and by extension, between that which is imagined and that which is real.

Mixed media functions somewhat differently in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Indeed, it is used rather sparingly to illustrate the tormenting inner visions of one of the asylum inmates, a giant mute Indian who can voice nothing, but feels everything. The surrealist imagery—melding visions of his past with nature and the hospital—evokes a man in turmoil.

With "Judgment at Nuremberg," based on the documented trials of Nazi war criminals in post-World War II Germany, slide projections—featuring Nazis, their atrocities, and their victims—are periodically projected onto the set to remind the audience that what is transpiring on stage is a dramatization of real events. Further, the slides drive home the idea that the trials were in response to actual horrors that claimed millions of lives.

On a lighter note, the film clip stills and/or footage employed in "Bells Are Ringing" and "The 'It' Girl" frame and/or place in context the plays that follow. Both pieces—light and genial comedies—are set in innocent (or ideally imagined) decades, the '50s and '20s, respectively. To conjure an Edenic New York City of the '50s, "Bells Are Ringing" opens with a short film montage of city scenes, stars, sitcoms, and TV ads of the period. Interestingly, it even looks like a short black and white documentary that might have been made in the '50s.

Similarly, "The 'It' Girl," which pays homage to the black and white silent movies of the '20s—specifically "The 'It' Girl," starring Clara Bow—uses film clip stills of the genre to evoke both the movie conventions and the unsullied world from which they emerge.

The Challenges

"The 'It' Girl" 's director, BT McNicholl, admits that selecting the right back wall projections was not as simple as it might seem. "There's always the danger when you start using film clips—they'll compete with the action on stage. So we decided to use the film clip stills only for purposes of setting the scene and transitions. Our larger goal, of course, was to create the world of the silent film."

Elaine McCarthy, who designed both "The 'It' Girl" and "Judgment at Nuremberg" 's back wall projections, notes, "There is a fine line between creating projections that have an impact without interfering with the storytelling."

Nowhere, of course, is that subject more pointed than in "Judgment at Nuremberg," with its retelling of Holocaust atrocities. "Playwright Abby Mann and director John Tillinger wanted the clips to have a documentary-like feel, suggesting the kind of clips that would be used as evidence in a real trial," recalls McCarthy. "At the same time, the clips had to have a certain theatricality.

"But our biggest consideration was how true to life did we want our shots to be," she continues. "We wondered—should we show hangings and desiccated bodies? Clearly, we didn't want to be grotesque for the sake of being grotesque, nor did we want to alienate audiences to the point where they couldn't tolerate looking at the clips."

Choosing where to place film clips can be daunting, too. McCarthy recalls that she used the movie version of "Judgment at Nuremberg" as a loose blueprint—helping her determine the appropriate places for shots.

Projection designer Sage Carter, on the other hand, couldn't refer to the film version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" as a guidepost, because the movie was realistic and devoid of surreal imagery.

The play by Dale Wasserman (inspired by Ken Kesey's novel), however, served as the road map. "In the play [and novel], the mute Indian Chief's feelings are expressed through interior monologues," explains Carter. "These interior monologues told me where to place the film clips that reflected the Chief's state of mind."

Selecting the right pictures required a month of research, which was followed by three months of collaboration with the set, lighting, and sound designers. This project was technologically complex, Carter points out, because so many images had to be layered into one another.

"Throughout, the Chief talks about a society that is turning men into machines, stripping them of their individuality," Carter adds. "Yet these thoughts are speckled with memories from his childhood—his father and scenes from nature. During all his inner monologues, we project pictures of machinery and [unpleasant] hospital scenes with a gushing waterfall he recalls from happier days. As the play progresses and he becomes stronger and freer, the waterfall images take over. And that's when he's ready to break out and escape from the asylum."

Whenever projection design is employed, the director plays a pivotal role. Consider what "Rocky Horror Show" director Christopher Ashley says about how the film clips, their placement, and, equally important, the use of cameras and monitors throughout the theatre, contributed to a larger vision of the contemporary cultural scene.

"Using film in the show is, of course, a nod to the movie," acknowledges Ashley. "But it's also a nod to the play when it was first done [in 1973] in a bombed-out movie house. It was a site-specific event to begin with. But, most important, the film clips bring to mind the movie and the experience of talking back to the screen. That's what we wanted the audiences to do."

Camp, Ashley admits, plays a big part throughout, from the over-the-top subject matter—aliens, sci-fi, and sexuality—to the story's packaging that pays homage to and/or parodies grade B horror movies. But, he points out, there are also plenty of references to contemporary life, most pointedly embodied in the use of cameras as surveillance devices.

Cameras are poised throughout the theatre, filming both the action on stage as well as the audience watching the stage. They also monitor the filming of the action. It makes little difference that the audiences may be spending more time watching the monitors than the stage; although that clearly suggests that, for many theatergoers, videotaped events are far more viable than life. But then, that view too, suggests Ashley, is part of who we are today.

Challenges of The Past

Interestingly, Linda Batwin and Robin Silvestri, who designed "Rocky," found Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight in Los Angeles" and "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" far more challenging projects.

"The scale of the animation in 'How to Succeed' and the technology that was required to make it all work was overwhelming," says Silvestri. "Instead of having scenery go up and down, we used a 26 by 20 foot backdrop to project a 3-D animated video view of what was happening outside a 1960s office: the Empire State Building, the fountain in the lobby, and the elevator moving up and down."

The technology is improving exponentially, all those we talked with stress. What was unwieldy, not to mention wildly expensive a few years ago, is in the ballpark now—in terms of price, accessibility, and sophistication.

Artistic problems, however, don't vanish quite as easily. Case in point: having to come up with 40—yes, 40—projected video panels for each of Anna Deavere Smith's characters in "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," a one-woman show that dramatized, from various points of view, responses to the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles.

Part of the difficulty, recalls Batwin, was finding the right image for each character, keeping each shot discrete—variety is always important—and yet clearly part of a vision that is unified aesthetically and, most important, works in the context of theatre.

"Anna always gave us audio recordings of each character and, sometimes, accompanying photographs as well," Batwin notes. "Yet, I remember having trouble finding the right image for one Hispanic woman who spoke rapidly, and whose coffee table was covered with statuettes. Her whole life was cluttered. My job was to simplify, give the woman clarity. So, instead of showing all stuff, the backdrop featured nothing more than a window. The focus was on the woman."

Wendall K. Harrington, a pioneer in projection design, says the most challenging—and "exciting"—project she ever worked on was Paul Simon's ill-fated and controversial "The Capeman," a musical account of an infamous murder case, set in 1950s Hell's Kitchen, involving Latinos. "Finding archival material wasn't the problem. Placing it was. So was making the selection. It was so hard to hit the right note. We couldn't decide on what we were trying to tell an audience. Was it about sin and redemption? Was it about the immigrant experience or the experience of a battered youth? There were just too many stories."

Its History, Evolution, and Players

The use of multi-media in theatre probably dates back to the late '50s, at least in Central Europe and Germany, with revolutionary Czech scenic designer Josef Svoboda shaping the aesthetic. He was among the earliest theatre artists—if not the first—to bring film and/or slide projections into theatre; although, arguably, the Germans were using multi-media even earlier, employing abstract projections as part of their expressionistic theatre movement in the 1920s.

It was Svoboda, however, who introduced multi-media (on a large scale) to the States during the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing, N.Y., and then again in the Montreal 1967 Expo. Off-Broadway experimental theatres took to multi-media early on and it quickly became part of its aesthetic. (Check out the Wooster Group. No one uses it more consistently). Mainstream theatre was drawn to multi-media as well, although, initially, it was employed sparingly and viewed as part of the lighting designer and/or scenic designer's purview. Still, as early as 1969, the Alan Jay Lerner/André Previn Broadway musical "Coco," starring Katharine Hepburn as famed French couturier Coco Chanel, used extensive film sequences to dramatize its leading character's memories. Not only did Coco's past lovers speak to her on film (with a live Hepburn speaking back to the movie screen), they even sang.

In 1978, Harrington recalls being brought in—subcontracted—by lighting designer Tharon Musser to create projections for the Michael Bennett musical, "Ballroom" (Bennett also did "Coco")—projections that were ultimately cut, "but served as tools to Tharon Musser, helping her with her lighting design.

"A year later," Harrington continues, "set designer Doug Schmidt asked me to create slides for 'They're Playing Our Song.' There were 25 scenes in the show, far too many to create sets for. So a great deal of the scenery was projected onto the back wall with slides."

Nevertheless, it wasn't until 1993, when "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (projection designed by Jerome Sirlin,) and "The Who's Tommy" (projection designed by Harrington) hit Broadway—both with spectacular projection and video designs that were, at once, notable on their own and integral to each show's vision—that multi-media was hot.

"Suddenly, everyone wanted it," recalls Sage Carter, who worked as Harrington's assistant on "Tommy." "It didn't really matter whether or not video projections were called for." (Harrington designed "Tommy" 's slide projections, while batwin + robin created the extensive videos for the show).

Projection designers may be practitioners of a hot subspecialty, but, interestingly, they are still not members of any union. Perhaps down the road that will change, and so may the need for formal and specialized training—e.g., an M.F.A. in multi-media. At the moment, however, the backgrounds of projection designers are eclectic, although most have training and/or work experience in the visual arts.

Harrington, for example, was a photographer before moving into advertising, and finally into directing and designing industrials, where she made her first theatre contacts. Sage Carter worked for a multi-media shop before hooking up with Harrington and, as noted, serving as her assistant on "Tommy."

For Elaine McCarthy, projection design brought all her past interests together. "I had studied photography, worked in film, computers, and architecture," she says. "I thought about lighting design and a friend suggested I contact Harrington." The latter is viewed as a pioneer in the field.

Linda Batwin and Robin Silvestri—of batwin + robin productions—worked in corporate communications, producing industrials (among other activities) for 15 years before launching their own company 10 years ago. "That's when we started working in theatre, in addition to creating installations for museum projects, corporate settings, and theme parks," recalls Silvestri. "While most companies of our kind specialize, we do it all."

They are currently collaborating with director George Wolfe for "Harlem Song," a production he is in the process of creating for the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. "This show is going to rely heavily on projections from the Harlem Renaissance to the present," says Batwin. "The challenge will be selection, and then layering them in."

She adds that the line continues to blur between the genres—science museums, theme parks, and theatre, for example. "They all have an investment in entertainment value, and projection design is part of it."

A Dissenting Voice

Not to belabor the point, but projection designers are virtually all women. Surely, to date, the major players are distaff members. Lighting design has traditionally attracted women as well. So there is historical precedent.

Harrington believes that projection design is a natural for women. "It requires a great deal of patience, not unlike film editing, a profession that is predominantly made up of women, too. In both fields, you are required to keep a number of elements going on in your head at the same time. And women have always had to do that: cook dinner, play with the baby, and attend to the husband."

It should be noted Harrington is the only projection designer we interviewed who voices this theory. The others concede they had never thought about it—why the field is largely feminine.

But then, Harrington is a maverick in another way as well. Despite an illustrious career on Broadway, she is no longer interested in working on the Great White Way. Over a period of time, she has lost her "passion," as she calls it. The final straw was her experience working on Frank Wildhorn's "The Civil War," directed by Jerry Zaks.

"The projections—wonderful archival images—were simply inflated, given the onstage material. The projections were employed to turn what was a revue into a Broadway show, which 'The Civil War' wasn't. It was dishonest," she recalls. "But fakery was only part of the problem. A lot of Civil War history was sacrificed in the process."

Harrington is equally disturbed by what she views as yet another trend: "Being handed a script that has no ideas and told 'fix it.' When writers and directors don't know how to make things take place on stage—when they are unable to come up with theatrical solutions—they revert to big-ism and MTV-ism. They respond to the twitchy remote control finger, insisting that audiences don't have long attention spans anyway and need all kinds of distractions."

Harrington adds, "So I have to wonder, does the use of back wall projections and mixed media on stage reflect a new aesthetic or are we [those who are creating the projections and mixed media] simply enablers?"

Harrington now makes her living doing projection designs for industrials, opera, and an occasional play out of town. She contends that she has far greater freedom in those venues. She cites, as an example, her work on Peter Weiss' "The Investigation," a play that was produced at Center Stage in Baltimore this past February.

"The Investigation" which covers the same ground as "Judgment at Nuremberg," required some back wall projections, Harrington recalls. And like Elaine McCarthy, who designed "Nuremberg" 's projections, Harrington addressed the question, "Will the projections distract from the play—and thus diminish it—with their haunting power?"

But Harrington was also determined to avoid precisely those problems that she found in "Nuremberg" 's projections, e.g., footage that was far too familiar and, as a result, almost devoid of impact to audiences who have grown immune to the imagery.

She suggests that if a play deals with the Holocaust or Nazis, "It's far more powerful to see a projection of a happy Jewish child playing ball, instead of yet another atrocity. The theatregoer has no defense against the image of the child playing with a ball."

Among all the genres, Harrington especially enjoys working in opera because she feels free to be "risky and expressionistic" in her projections. "When I did 'A View From the Bridge' at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, I projected an image onto the back wall of a bridge falling apart, suggesting the disintegrating world depicted in the play. That kind of [non-literal] image would not be allowed on Broadway."

Having said that, she acknowledges an exception: "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest,' where the projections, designed (as noted) by Sage Carter, are not literal or representative. "I want to have the opportunity to be confused when I go to the theatre. I want to think and feel. I don't want material on stage to be pre-digested."

The Future

Precisely how projection design in theatre will evolve is, of course, up for grabs. Almost all of those we talked with think it is here to stay in both mainstream theatre fare and, especially, in the downtown scene where mixed media gains a whole new dimension.

Consider what visual artist Rudi Stern, a light show pioneer, is doing with his "Theatre of Light." The latter enjoyed a successful run last year at the Flea Theatre and (in a newer incarnation) earlier this year at The Flamboyán Theater, two Off-Off-Broadway cultural centers.

Stern projects beams of light through myriad hand-painted images onto multiple revolving screens suspended from the ceiling like round dangling pans. These images work in tandem with a range of musical compositions that are being piped in over loud speakers. Stern stresses that "Theatre of Light" is not a backdrop; indeed, he insists it's a performance with its own narrative arc of visual-musical complements and contrasts. And, equally important, the work requires a formal theatre for its presentation.

The most significant technology to potentially recast theatre is, of course, the ever-evolving computer and Internet. Speeding up communication is part of the equation. International slamming events, as a case in point, have already taken place via a global Internet hookup.

Live, interactive, and/or pre-recorded performance art pieces presented by the Franklin Furnace, a downtown operation, are also frequently net cast, followed by chat sessions online. But that's downright primitive compared to the heady stuff the New York-based Gertrude Stein Repertory Company is exploring.

Committed to the idea of innovation in the performing arts, the company is already experimenting with, among other things, video-conferencing performances from points all over the globe via digital technology. The end result: a merging of performances.

This is how it will work: A live performer in a New York space is playing a character in some play (although "play" may not be the right term). At the same time, elsewhere in the world, a performer from a totally different tradition is playing the same character. Both their performances are video-conferenced onto onstage screens.

The next step is the merging of their creations, explains co-director Cheryl Faver. "Both actors are now watching themselves and each other on the monitor and redefining their moves and gestures and vocal sounds in order to blend with that of the other performer. The technology will demand a new acting technique. It will demand a new language.

"Working with digital technology will also replace the traditional set designer," Faver continues. "Instead, we will be working with installation artists who understand concepts of video sculpting in an environment that's not married to traditional texts or traditional storytelling."

And that just scratches the digital surface.