“Is projection the savior of theatre?”
This question was posed to me during an interview with my friend and journalist Erika Thorkelson. It was March 2014, and we were discussing the production of my play Ghosts in Baghdad, which had premiered only days before in Vancouver. The production featured significant use of projection.
In theatre, projection isn’t really a novelty anymore. With technological advances in projectors and projecting software, projection is an accessible, versatile tool that can be used to great effect in any play. It can be used in many ways, from projection of still images suggesting a backdrop, to live-feed images, to abstract images, to blending projection/filmic images with live action. One need look no further than this year’s Helen Lawrence, produced by the Arts Club Theatre, for an example of projection used in this way, and where projection was also an integral part of the storytelling.
For Ghosts in Baghdad, however, projection was not integral to the storytelling. I wasn’t trying to subvert theatrical form: I wanted words and character to lead the way. The idea to use projection came up in an early production meeting between myself and Director John Murphy.
The play is set in Iraq, a country with which most Vancouver audiences are only superficially familiar. Many details in the script, in particular the ancient Iraqi artifacts used by the play’s characters, are likely beyond the common knowledge of an average local theatre goer (unlike, say, the Mona Lisa or the Statue of David). The idea to use projection, then, came from the hope that it could help audiences see these artifacts, not just imagine them. In addition, we hoped that the images would have another important effect: “I want the audience to fall in love with the art, and for the art to become almost a fifth character in the play,” John explained.
The projection design (created by Corwin Ferguson) ended up including many images of Iraqi artifacts, and also expanded to include images from within the Iraq Museum itself (the play’s primary setting), as well as images of the streets of Baghdad. It helped create a sense of scale, a sense of place, and helped explain the passage of time. In one arresting transition between the first and second scene (in which twenty-five years pass), images and video of the American-led invasion of 2003 and the subsequent destruction of Iraq were shown: these events did much to inform the rest of the play and the journey of the characters.
So back to Erika’s question. Is projection the savior of theatre? I argued it was not. I admit, I scoffed. Projection can’t save theatre, I said—I mean, sure, it can draw audiences and add spectacle, but ultimately, I want a good story, well-directed and well-acted. Projection is rarely the deciding factor in this criteria. I have left many theatres very frustrated by the clear amount of effort and resources poured into a projection design, while the story itself made no sense—or was downright boring.
However, the question did get me thinking. Projection is a tool of theatrical spectacle. Corwin’s projection design added a huge dimension to the spectacle of my production: it created, together with the excellent work done by our set, costume, and lighting designers, a rich visual world for the piece. So as much I can pooh-pooh projection as a “savior” for theatre, I cannot dismiss in any way the inestimable signficance of spectacle itself, and what spectacle, in all its forms and variations, can bring to any production.
Typically, the word spectacle implies a exhibition on a grand, epic scale that is meant to entice and dazzle an audience. There are numerous examples of this kind of spectacle from any historical era. Think of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King for a contemporary example, or consider the displays of Medieval Mystery plays, which created enormous spectacles in their depiction of Biblical stories. One such production in 1501 in the city of Mons, Belgium set out to stage Noah’s flood, and stored enough water in barrels on surrounding rooftops to produce five minutes of steady rainfall.[i]
As remarkable as this scale of display can be, when discussing theatre in general, spectacle can simply refer to all visual elements of a play. Grandeur, or lack thereof, doesn’t matter: sets, costumes, lighting, special effects, props, and projection all visually engage the audience and serve to create the world and atmosphere of a play, whether it is something on the imaginative, fantastical scale of The Lion King, or something about everyday, modern life.
The Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire is a contemporary drama which takes place entirely inside a home whose inhabitants are mourning the death of their young son. Special effects, period costumes, pyrotechnics, all the trappings of what one would usually consider spectacle, would be entirely out of place here. And yet, this photo of the Broadway premier reveals a visual world that is both considered and abundant in meaning. The set indicates a domesticity of upper-middle class status, and its pale, neutral colour serves to draw attention to the actors, while also suggesting a certain desolation. The actors themselves are dressed in stark, contrasting colours, suggesting an emotional distance, but the green plant on the table gives a hint of life and hope. The lighting is without ornament or colour, primarily serving to light the actors without adding sentiment to the grief and suffering of the characters. None of this spectacle works on a bigger-than-you-can-imagine sort of scale, and yet it presents a visual world into which we become absorbed.
Aristotle lists spectacle as one of his six elements of Tragedy (the others being Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, and Song). However, almost as soon as he mentions it, he dismisses it:
“Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but…the power of Tragedy…is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet[ii].”
Aristotle, arguing that because the meaning of a story, or what he calls “the power of tragedy,” can be felt without any spectacle, it is therefore superfluous. He does have a point: the power of story can indeed be felt without visual effects. One need go no further than a good book for an example of how stories can impact us, whether we can actually see them or not. However, to lose spectacle would be to lose much of what we love about the theatre as its own artform (as opposed to, say, the novel). I’ve come to believe that spectacle is not just important, but is integral to theatre. It draws us into a world, helps us understand the story and the characters, it entertains. Sometimes, if the spectacle is working well, we might not even notice it as such, but a strong visual environment is a vital element in any production of any play.
Consider for a moment what could happen if the spectacle of a production wasn’t great. Or was simply bad. I saw such a production, one of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The actors were good and it’s a decent script, but it was the ill-conceived and poorly rendered spectacle that, I think, hurt the production overall. Now, before I discuss the gory details, I think it’s important to note that Shakespeare’s works are particular in that the visual emphasis of his plays falls primarily upon the actor[iii], making the costume one of the most important visual elements of his plays.
During the Elizabethan era, costumes were seen up close and primarily in daylight: there was no room for fakery. The costumes had to be good. It was also an era in which the culture was particularly attuned to visual symbolism. Elizabeth I’s ornamented manner of dress was not pure vanity, but rather a visual means of displaying and reinforcing her power:
“Every detail of her elaborate dress was laden with symbolic meaning testifying to her authority…and each item was charged with signficance.”[iv]
Shakespeare’s audiences would have understood to this kind of visual symbolism, and a good costume could go a long way in impressing them. Today, Shakespeare’s plays can be set in almost any era conceivable, and yet the costumes themselves remain a primary visual element for storytelling, character, and entertainment.
An example of how costumes can create spectacle can be seen here:
The costumes above immediately communicate that we are viewing something from a time different than our own, which exoticizes what we see. The red ceremonial silks and the elevated location of the three judges announces both their status and importance; the men that stand on either side of the dais are all clothed in rich cloths of dark brown and black, denoting a high status and also the nature of the state itself: they are armed and dressed for war. In the center stands Desdemona, the only woman, in a flowing beige gown. She is a soft figure that stands in stark contrast to the warlike, imperious men around her. All the characters stand on a dark set with shapes reminiscent of classical architecture, but none of its usual ornament, suggesting a stark, perhaps threatening, world. It is a textured spectacle that communicates much about the story, and impresses: the costumes themselves are compelling, unusual, and beautiful, and draw absolute attention to the actors, especially in this moment in which ambient light illuminates them (and the effects of the lighting design are largely nullified).
Back to the ill-fated production of Henry V. While the set was an attractive, simple thrust stage, its grey tones suggesting Medieval castle walls, no beauty or unity that is visible in the above photograph of Othello was to be found in the costumes of this production. Rather, the play was set in an undefined contemporary era: the female characters wore dresses of pastel green (in chiffon) and bright yellow (in a heavy, quilted material) that had not been fitted well to the actresses. The male characters were dressed in a mixture of mid to late twentieth century clothing, pieces of which included pin-striped suits, Converse sneakers (on some, not all of the actors), khaki military jackets reminiscent of the Vietnam war era, and baseball hats. The actor playing Henry was clothed in a black military uniform trimmed with silver and red. It had the unfortunate effect of making him look a like a Nazi SS officer.
The worst, however, were the costumes for the battle scenes. The climax of H5 is the Battle of Agincourt, when the British defeat the French despite being vastly outnumbered. During this scene, actors playing unnamed parts entered and exited the stage, running and yelling, acting out their fight choreography with relish. However, the costumes here were suddenly from a different era: the battle uniforms were a sort of Les Miserables-esque mix of trousers, vests, and head scarves. The actors playing the French army wore blue scarves here and there but not always; the English army had no such unifying factor, making it difficult to tell who was fighting whom. On top of that, it was visually jarring when considered in context with the rest of the production: you thought the world of the play was one thing, but then these costumes conflicted with that. Watching the battle scenes, then, was kind of like watching mud mixing.
The spectacle of this production was completely hampered by these costumes. They did little to express anything of character, they actively confused the story rather than help tell it, they didn’t work together in a unified way, and they were just plain ugly. The actors did their darndest, but the costumes hindered almost everything they were trying to do. Rather than entice the audience, this spectacle repelled the audience, who voted with their feet and did not attend in the numbers hoped for.
A theatrical experience is an emphemeral one. Each production, and each performance of each production is unique, and when a play closes, no number of photographs or video recordings can truly replicate the experience of watching it live. This, in many ways, is a key underlying attraction to theatre, akin to live music or dance: you just can’t replace being there. We as an audience can see the actors live, we live through their struggles, and a sort of communal experience is created as they do their work and feed off the audience’s reactions. Film has long overtaken theatre as a populist artform, and can create a type and scale of spectacle just not possible in theatre, but it does not have that special element of a live interaction. The number of people who flock to theatre festivals like Bard on the Beach, or who see The Lion King, the highest grossing Broadway production of all time, implies that theatre doesn’t need saving. It needs to create a unique experience. And it needs to be good.
Spectacle plays many key parts in creating such an experience. It can draw us in, help tell the story, entertain, and astonish. Projection is an important tool that directors can now easiy include in their design scheme to help create these effects. To me, the best, most exciting use of projection is when it works cohesively with all other elements of design, and also supports or even adds another layer of impact to the story.
There are many elements of spectacle I have not discussed here. Theatrics are utterly reliant upon lighting, for example, and yet so often people don’t even notice it. Music and sound design, although not visual, could also be considered to be part of spectacle, as they again serve to create a world and an atmosphere, and bring huge entertainment value.
And who are we as theatre artists if don’t wish to entertain? No matter the subject matter or theme of a play, we never, ever want our audiences to become disengaged, or worse: bored. We should want to entice and dazzle them, so that when the lights come up at the end of a performance, they blink their eyes and wonder how it is that they’ve been sitting in the same seat the whole time, and yet were just transported to another world.
by Michelle Deines
[i] Brockett, Oscar G. The History of the Theatre. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.
[ii] Aristotle. The Poetics of Aristotle. Translated by S. H. Butcher. London: MacMillan & Co., 1895.
[iii] Brockett, Oscar G. Ibid.
[iv] Delamoir, Jeannette. “Elizabeth’s Costumes: The Power of Spectacle, or Spectacles of Power?” Metro Magazine 2004: pages 46-54.