The Prevalence of Projections: Projection in the Theatre Is Nearly as Old as Theatre Itself, but Recent Technological Advances Have Made It Easier to Use-And Misuse

By Barbour, David | American Theatre, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Prevalence of Projections: Projection in the Theatre Is Nearly as Old as Theatre Itself, but Recent Technological Advances Have Made It Easier to Use-And Misuse


Barbour, David, American Theatre


IF YOU'VE EMERGED FROM THE THEATRE recently wondering what happened to the scenery and where all that imagery came from, you're not alone: Welcome to the age of projections. For years the fifth wheel of theatre-design disciplines, projections have emerged as an increasingly dominant production element. Sets that once remained static now positively pulsate with imagery, moving or otherwise--ranging from discreet surtitles to sweeping, animated vistas.

Once a strictly boutique item for the well-heeled, projections now extend across all sensibilities and budget lines: On Broadway, they range from newsreel footage providing crucial historical context in Billy Elliot to elegant pencil sketches that take us from rural England to the Maginot Line in War Horse. Off Broadway, we've seen historically accurate views of small-town Texas in Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle, haunting photographs of Anne Frank in Rinne Groff's Compulsion and, currently, scenes from New York City, circa 1990, for the revival of Rent. Meanwhile, a host of young artists downtown are using projections in ways that are central to a production's concept--without projections, there's no show.

Projections can be used to make trenchant dramatic points or frothy, frivolous decor. In the recent Broadway revival of The Normal Heart, the intensity of Larry Krarner's AIDS-epidemic jeremiad was compounded by the ever-expanding list of the dead on the upstage wall. In Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the title character is a broken-down van covered with tens of thousands of LEDs that serves as a mobile projection surface for giddily colorful animations that contribute mightily to that production's aura of drag-queen fabulousness.

Projections are hardly new--few people realize how far back they go--but how have they reached their current position of prominence? Are they really a useful design tool or a faddish, must-have accoutrement that threatens to turn live theatre into a theme park? In other words, what does the prevalence of projections tell us about the state of the contemporary theatre?

PROJECTION TECHNOLOGY DATES BACK TO THE 1650S, when the magic lantern was reportedly invented by Christian Huygens. In its earliest incarnation, the device was used to project images of the devil. Used as a tool in the 18th century for duping the credulous at seances and for creating ghostly effects at "phantasmagoria" shows, the magic lantern was eventually picked up for more respectable uses, providing instruction and entertainment in the form of illustrated lectures in the 19th century. As a popular art form, it was put out of business in 1895, when the Lumiere Brothers began screening their motion pictures. (The use of projection technology as an educational tool persisted well into the 20th century; readers of a certain age will recall sitting through classroom presentations of filmstrips with titles like "Harry S. Truman: Man of Destiny")

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

With the invention in the early 1900s of the Linnebach projector, projections became a theatrical tool. Erwin Piscator, the German director and producer, began working with them as early as 1925. Michael Hall, an authority on the history of lighting, cites technical articles dealing with projections that date back to the '20s; he notes that projections were used in West End shows such as Tobias and the Angel and Waltzes from Vienna, both staged in 1931.

In the U.S., the great scenic and lighting designer Jo Mielziner experimented with projections, most notably in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Allegro (1947). Ironically, Mielziner also designed the original 1945 production of The Glass Menagerie, in which projections were not employed, even though Williams had written them into the script.

In the late '50s and early '60s, production designer Tony Walton and lighting designer Richard Pilbrow collaborated on several productions in which projections played a prominent part, including the West End revue One Over the Eight and the Broadway musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Golden Bay. …

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