Back in February, Broadway Media partnered with Jesuit High School (Portland, OR) to pilot the projections for Something Rotten!, the smash-hit Broadway show that is now available to license at Music Theatre International. You can relive the day thanks to their troupe president Catherine Myerson (Troupe 5575): check out the highlights from her instagram takeover, here. We were thrilled to be working with Jeff Hall, an EdTA hall of fame honoree and High School theatre visionary. Shortly after closing, we had the chance to chat with Jeff and reflect on the production, how Scenic Projections can be most effectively utilized, and some excellent tips for teachers considering trying it in their next production!
Lawrence Haynes (Marketing Manager): Thanks for talking to us, Jeff! Can you walk us through your process of integrating projections into your production?
Jeff Hall (Drama Director): Once we made the decision to incorporate projections into the show, we knew we wanted to do more than just have backdrops, though that’s where our thinking began. Our goal from early on, though, was to incorporate architectural elements and movement into the show, so we always planned to incorporate projections on more than one surface, to provide as much dimension as possible.
The majority of the show happens in an exterior street setting. We were excited that projections would allow us to vary that look, rather than just having one “street scene.”
The next most common setting is a theatre interior. This guided us to choose using a false proscenium in creating how our scenery moved and was framed. The frame of the false proscenium allowed us to consider projecting onto the proscenium itself (a choice we later moved away from, primarily due to the expense of sourcing the projectors to do it right). We did, however, settle on the idea of using a rear-screen surface that could fly in and out at the false proscenium, allowing us to create additional movement and dimension, and set selected scenes “in one” to facilitate an upstage scenery shift.
Lawrence: Were there any set elements listed in the script that were solved through utilizing projections?
Jeff: We entertained the idea of using an animated “sign of the Black Dog” when it falls and narrowly misses Nick in Act One. In the end, we opted for a practical version, but that got us thinking about other possibilities. At the end of Act One, the “Coming Soon: Omelette the Musical” banner appearance was very effectively done via projections, which solved that issue.
More than set elements, I found that the projections allowed us to use a fairly conventional light plot and achieve movement and textures which would otherwise only be possible by incorporating intelligent lights (the tracking spotlights in the “Shakespeare In the Park” scene, for instance). We ended up with a very rich lighting look, despite a very simple light plot, thanks to the projections.
Lawrence: Would this experience encourage you to continue using Scenic Projections for shows to come?
Jeff: Most definitely! Particularly when the source of the projections is able to provide a couple of options for specific moments, has a feel for the theatrical movement of the show, and is responsive regarding questions and troubleshooting. BMD is all that.
Lawrence: How did the Something Rotten! Projections influence your vision for the show?
Jeff: The saturated colors and illustration style in the projections allowed us to achieve a consistent look for the show that was heightened reality throughout, and then “extra heightened” during the “fantasy scene” moments (and there are several … “A Musical,” “We See the Light,” “Bottoms Gonna Be On Top.” I think that differentiation in the look really aided the storytelling.
Lawrence: How was this experience different from using physical backdrops?
Jeff: We were able to use images in more than one place (we could project onto our upstage surface or the screen at the false proscenium) which was far more versatile than having physical backdrops (which would be in the same location all the time). I always find that I can greatly affect the look of physical backdrops with lighting … here we were able to affect the look of the lighting with projections.
Of course, any animation is a huge benefit of projections … as are subtle (or obvious) changes in color to match a mood or time shift in a scene. Projections are far more interactive and part of the storytelling.
To achieve anything similar with physical backdrops would require multiple drops and linesets. More than most rigging setups could reasonably support.
Lawrence: Is there any advice you would give to other theatres who have not used Scenic Projections before?
Jeff: Of course, do your homework regarding brightness and image size. Consider scale when selecting how you’ll use specific images. Ask a lot of questions and plan projector, scenery, and lighting placement as one integrated package from the start. Consider the projections to be part of your scenery and part of your lighting, not just something that gets added in or thrown onto the back wall later in the process.
This really is an important distinction. I think the temptation is to consider the projections as something you add in and adjust your scenery and lighting around. The projections ARE your scenery and lighting, as much as any other element.
Don’t worry about the 2-D nature of projected scenery. When the content is done well, the depth and dimension that can be achieved from the audience’s point of view is significant.I guess that’s my main piece of advice: Content is king. No technology or powerful projector will make up for solid, consistent, cohesive design in the content. Yes, you need a good projection source, but more than that you need a good source for the content … the thing being projected in the first place.
Another odd piece of advice, when dealing with a bounded image that will often require some kind of border or framing … think outside the box! Don’t feel constrained to the “projections as backdrop replacement” school of thought. They can be more than that.
And for the student at the controls, it really is a great experience in the importance of timing, fade times, subtlety … the human element in performance that – even though there’s a lot of technology involved – never loses its importance.
Lawrence: Would you recommend Scenic Projections to fellow teachers/directors for their productions?
Jeff: Absolutely! But like any production element, it’s a tool. The storytelling needs to be what remains most important. As is often the case, less can be more … a simple background or texture can add just the right touch to a scene’s look and feel. As a theatrical storytelling tool, though, there is a lot of potential.
Lawrence: What was your experience working with the team at BMD?
Jeff: My concern when working with any theatrical supplier is how whatever element being supplied will integrate with the larger vision and other production elements involved. I’ve learned, in my experience working with the artists and technicians at BMD, that they get that. Of course, piloting a show creates more opportunity for interaction than might be practical on a regular basis, but I have found the BMD team to be an excellent balance of what’s possible and what’s realistic. I’m confident that – as long as requests are reasonable, given the time and expense involved – BMD would provide this same, personal, collaborative, customer-centered approach with all of their projects.
Lawrence: That's true – we love working with our customers to help them achieve something that is perfect for their show. Speaking of "perfect" – What was your favorite moment in the show?
Jeff: I was a big fan of any time something on the projection changed to support a shift in the scene (when “Soothsayer Alley” began to transform to the “A Musical” background, or when the “New World Fort” opened to reveal a new theatrical image for the finale, or when the lights in the street windows began flashing with the music change in “Welcome to the Renaissance”).
My favorite, though, might have been the light change in the “House Interior” projection when Nick sat and contemplated during “God I Hate Shakespeare Reprise.” With our physical house set, and the isolated projection upstage of it, the subtle shift in color and lighting on the image with the music and mood change … it all worked together. A small moment, relatively, but good storytelling. The audience got drawn into a really nice personal moment, even in the midst of this wacky wacky show.
Lawrence: What was it like for your production team to work with projections?
Jeff: A relatively new frontier for educational theatre, projections represent an unknown element for many team members used to doing things in a more analog way. I think there was some hesitation when we first started using projections in our shows, but that has calmed as people have seen how well it can work when integrated properly.
Again, the integration is the key. Getting sample images, colors, etc, to the costume team is important. Matching physical scenery, paint colors, etc, needs to begin happening sooner than later in the design and build process. Our choreography team LOVED how open the stage could be kept for large musical numbers, while still having an interesting and textured set surrounding the cast. Our design team found even the early versions of illustrations to be very helpful in guiding decisions.
I’m a fan, and I think the production team as a whole was won over by the final product. I don’t think that works, though, without early collaboration and integration, and a common focus on good storytelling.
Jeff Hall has been directing the drama program at Portland, Oregon’s Jesuit High School for twenty-five years with his close colleague and co-director Elaine Kloser. Together, the pair has developed the school’s theatre program to one that is nationally recognized for excellence and service to the community. Under their leadership, the program has grown from two annual shows to a season of six-plus productions which – together with classes and co-curricular activities – involves nearly a quarter of the school’s student population on stage or behind the scenes.
In 1991, Mr. Hall and his wife Koleen had moved to Portland to further develop The Young People’s Theatre Project, a nonprofit organization that he had started in 1987 while working as a teaching artist in Denver. Before that, he worked as a touring artist and arts administrator, directing and managing productions and residencies throughout the United States and Canada, and in Guam and Singapore.
Something Rotten! is now available from Broadway Media. Click here for more details.