Progress during the pandemic: Celebrating Broadway Training Center of Westchester.

It’s no secret that we love Broadway Training Center of Westchester. For nearly three decades, they have enriched and educated countless students, equipping them with lifelong skills and qualities for a professional life inside and outside the theater. We caught up with Jason Brantman and Fiona Santos, the Artistic Directors at BTC, to learn about their remote work during the pandemic, celebrate their love of digital scenery and share some tried-and-true tips for integration!

Lawrence: Hi, Jason and Fiona! Thanks for chatting with me today. Broadway Training Center of Westchester, is dedicated to nurturing artists and empowering audiences through professional and personal development (not to mention your fantastic productions). Can you give us some insight into the history of the organization?

Jason & Fiona: Broadway Training Center was founded in 1992, and we became the artistic directors in 2004. We were excited to join the BTC team because it was an opportunity to help shape the next generation of theater artists and audiences. We wanted a place where classes and training were prized, in addition to the high quality productions. The students are mentored by professionals in the theatre & entertainment industry - not only the instructors, but everyone on the production team. And we all have a similar philosophy - of supporting and building each other up at all times. Students are welcomed with love and acceptance. And the older students pass their knowledge and leadership on to the younger ones. It is a joy to get to work with many of the students continuously all the way from kindergarten through adulthood. Our alumni return and take part in our gala shows. And we have even hired several of our alumni to work with us - both at BTC and on our professional productions around the world.

Lawrence: I would love to take a moment and celebrate the educational work you have done online since the pandemic. Continuing to run all of your acting, singing and dance classes online during this challenging time is a remarkable achievement! How did you do it? What would you say the process of moving online was like?

Jason & Fiona: It required a lot of creativity! We took about a week to experiment with Zoom, do some research on remote teaching, and create new lesson plans. We had some test classes during that week with some of our advanced classes, to help us learn what worked and what didn’t on this platform. We shared our findings with the rest of the faculty so we all felt prepared to at least get started. Luckily, we all are improv practitioners at BTC, so pivoting and making a strong offer without a script is second nature for us!

There are more challenges for voice classes than dance classes; there are more challenges for dance classes than acting classes; but each section really faced a series of challenges that we had to create workarounds for. Luckily we found a groove for every discipline.

Lawrence: I think your success with virtual teaching will be of great encouragement to a lot of organizations! How has the response to online classes been?

Jason & Fiona: It’s been great! We had almost no loss of engagement. Who knows what will happen in the long run, but for the moment, our student base has continued to show up and actively participate. Ordinarily we do a school-wide live performance for Recital every year, but this year we produced a Virtual Recital, with a combination of Zoom recordings and self-tapes the students sent us, beautifully edited by our faculty and staff into a creative and moving show. We were so excited that it came out well, since of course our goal until three months ago had been a traditional recital. BTC families were thrilled with it, too. Getting to have Virtual Recital was really a way of celebrating getting through quarantine, apart but still united.

Lawrence: The team at Broadway Media have been working with you for many years. Did you use digital scenery before you started working with us? What inspired you to start?

Jason & Fiona: Our first foray into digital scenery was a production of Bugsy Malone ten years ago, for which our scenic designer researched vintage photographs of the Jazz Age time period. Using those black and white photos as backdrops really made the production pop! And it allowed us to streamline the rest of the scenic elements. We were intrigued to see how we could expand on that idea and use it in further productions.

Lawrence: What was the transition to digital scenery like? What did you learn?

Jason & Fiona: We’ve been very lucky that many of our productions with Broadway Media have been the inaugural productions for the digital scenery! We used your projections for small sections of Spamalot, and then our next collaboration was BMD’s premiere for Big Fish. Because the digital scenery was being created in conjunction with our production, we learned a lot about the development process, and we got to be a part of the decision tree for what works and what doesn’t. We learned how to direct and design a show in conjunction with the projections, so the technology can work hand in hand with the storytelling. As theatre professionals, we are energized by great collaboration. And the team at BMD are excellent collaborators.

Lawrence: Now that you’re veterans of the technology, what is your process for integrating projections? Can you give some advice to our readers who are considering projections for the first time?

Jason & Fiona: The first and most important thing for people to know is that digital scenery requires its own tech time! We love working with projections. It is a great resource, and it saves having to build large elaborate sets. But to ignore that you will need to spend tech time on it is doing your production a disservice.

We try to make the decision as early as possible if we are going to use projections for a particular show. Then, we immediately share the projections with the production team, so they can design and direct and choreograph with the projections in mind. We start running the projections in the rehearsal room, before we get into the theater for tech, so we can start to learn how the rhythms of the show impact it, and vice versa. We make decisions about how to accomplish location changes, we time out animated sequences with orchestral moments. In the theater, lighting and digital scenery have to work together. We use front projection at our theater, so we also have to contend with the exact placement of our projection surface, and how costumes and lights interact with the projection. We have discovered that we like to use a riser against our upstage wall, and the projection surface starts at the height of the riser. We find this makes front projection work better for our purposes, as there is a larger area downstage where the actors don’t get caught in the image. Giving enough time to work out all these elements is of paramount importance.

We also highly recommend at least one technician/operator who is entirely dedicated to the projections. This can absolutely be a mature student stage manager or stage crew member. (All of our operators have been students.) If they can be there through much of the rehearsal process before tech, even better. It's important that they have ample time to get to know the show, the projections, and the equipment - just like audio and lighting technicians - so they will feel completely comfortable when it comes to the performance.

Lawrence: From your previous shows, do you have a favorite “projection” moment that helped support your storytelling?

Jason & Fiona: We have always loved the Big Fish title animation that we used with the overture! Because it sprang to life with the music and perfectly timed out with different themes as they were exposed, it was a real magical moment for the audience. It promised the night ahead would be filled with all kinds of magic and whimsy and emotion. That opening element has continued to inspire and inform our collaborations with BMD - exemplified by our latest collaboration together - on the opening sequence for the brand new musical Imaginary. The moment everything starts moving, and the image turns from black and white to color, exemplifies the magical emotion that projections can elicit in an audience. You could hear the murmur of excitement and anticipation in the house.

There are so many great projection moments we have had in our collaborations with BMD. There's another that stands out when it comes to storytelling. When developing Big Fish, there is a sequence at the very end where a fish jumps out of the lake and makes an arc in the air before landing back in the water. Given the heightened nature of Edward Bloom's storytelling throughout the show, we thought it was only right that this fish also be larger than life. We asked the BMD team if they could make the fish bigger and a bit otherworldly, and of course they came through with flying colors.

Lawrence: Was there a particularly challenging scenic moment that was solved through projections?

Jason & Fiona: The flying animation sequence in Peter Pan came out so great, and really sold the notion that the children were flying from the nursery window to Neverland! It’s a minute and a half long sequence that is beautifully scored by the orchestra, and having the amazing digital scenery of the London skyline whizzing by while we watched the children’s faces as they flew was an incredibly elegant and exhilarating way to solve the issue of flight, with no flying harnesses.

We also loved the projections for Imaginary, where we had to establish two unique worlds and make them look and feel very distinct from each other. The regular world and Imaginaryland looked completely different, and the fact that we were able to accomplish this without having to build an elaborate set was a great boon. Additionally, projections helped solve some very challenging sequences in that show - including the laboratory at the end - with shelves and shelves of colorful glass vials that had to tremble and then shatter everywhere. I really don't know how we would have accomplished that logistically, and as effectively, without projections.

Lawrence: Would you recommend digital scenery to other theatremakers?

Jason & Fiona: Absolutely! Projections can truly allow the stage picture to come alive, and are such a magical and economical way of overcoming scenic challenges. Make sure you take the time to get to know your digital scenery, and you’ll start discovering whole new ways of storytelling!

Jason Brantman and Fiona Santos are the artistic directors of Broadway Training Center of Westchester. A not-for-profit organization that whose mission is to inspire, nurture, challenge, amaze, educate and empower artists and audiences. They offer classes six days a week during term-time, and summer programming.