Have We Become Redundant?


I was going to let it go. When Bill Dudley was quoted in these pages as saying “I personally couldn't do a show where there's a separate projection designer, because I don't then see what the role of the designer is,” I thought I should respond, but inertia intervened. When Patrick Dierson joked about the power trip of being able to do projections and lighting all by himself, I failed to see the humor, but I still didn't do anything about it. When I lost a job I thought I had because the set designer decided he wanted to make his own projections, well, that got my attention, so I decided to sit down and write out a few thoughts. That this set designer had no previous experience creating projections didn't seem to be an issue to anyone. After all, the set designer had seen projections, and since Adobe® Photoshop® and Final Cut Pro are bundled with every Mac, how hard can it be?

I make no judgements on the work of either Dudley or Dierson; they are free to work as they prefer, but the questions they raise have less to do with projections (or with my ability to earn a living) and everything to do with the future of collaboration. Bill Dudley wrote, “To me the idea of a fourth person, pulling and pushing another way, would be a problem.” Patrick Dierson wrote, “having control is a great thing.” How did we get to this place?

In the old days, there was a production designer. He — and surely it was a he — did it all: sets, lights, costumes, sometimes directing as well. Eventually, lighting became somebody else's job, and then set designers gave up costume designing here in the US. Later, more new technology demanded a specialist to manage the media and equipment of projections, so that became separate too. I know this because I was there when it happened. Computer-controlled slide projectors suddenly created a world of possibilities; moving pictures were now available and manageable to designers.

Doug Schmidt, no stranger to the use of film and projections in his work, knew that he would require some additional expertise if he was going to make a Broadway musical like They're Playing Our Song as dependent on projections as he wanted it to be. Slide projectors at that time were controlled by paper tape with little holes in it, then reel-to-reel magnetic tape. Every time you made a programming change, you had to re-record the whole darn thing.

The projectors we used were adapted from a “Frankenstein” of a projector with a rotating mirror that liked to fly off when moved too quickly. The technology of slide creation was in transition from top-lit, hand-painted images to vibrant graphics made from layers and layers of carefully registered hand-colored negatives photographed in multiple exposures. One of the musical's scenes required 45 slides: nine sets of five horizontally-aligned images, with each slide needing seven passes under the camera. It was my job to steer all that unwieldy technology and wrest something beautiful out of it. I still remember the look on the cameraman's face when I told him what I expected: like I was asking Orville Wright to fly around the world before the ice cream melted. It was impossible, but we did it anyway, inventing and adapting as we went along.

They're Playing Our Song was the beginning of my career. Over 20 years later, a 10-year-old with a laptop can make a PowerPoint presentation with far more complexity than all the images in Song without leaving his bedroom. As technology continues to simplify artistic tasks, will we get to the point where all the design departments will converge again? Will that be that a good thing?

Theatre is the most collaborative of the arts. I remember the single most compelling thing about my experience with They're Playing Our Song: watching Tharron Musser, Doug Schmidt, the stage manager, the front light guy, and the winch operator working together to make a single moment right. In the end, it was no one person's idea, it was the just right idea. It was that simple. Why does that ideal seem to have fallen by the wayside? Why are we discussing the politics of collaboration? Do we lose something vital when we forgo the triumph of forging consensus? Are we strengthened or weakened by having our ideas considered by a court of experts and fools?

Eliminating collaborators certainly streamlines the process. One less mouth to feed must be better for the bottom line, and, I suppose, there is something to be said for “having it your way.” But at what cost? Each artist has a specific skill set and world view to bring to the work, and while it can be a challenge to find the perfect rhythm with a collaborator — isn't dancing more fun when done with others? — why be satisfied with just your best, when you can have your best plus? It's no secret that I freely share my ideas, about all the aspects of the show that I am working on. That doesn't mean I want to design the scenery. I was asked to once, and it was challenging and exciting, but it's not what I do best. I'm great with pictures, but I'm not good with volumes; I love a designer who is and can't wait for a great one to make me look better by association.

I heard Sir Richard Eyre speak once about his experience directing The Crucible on Broadway. There were something like 17 producers, all of whom had notes of varying astuteness to pass on to the director. When asked bluntly, how do you deal with it, he answered, “Well, the first thing I have to remember is, their intention is to make it better.” That's why he's a genius and a successful one. If you have confidence and the conviction that comes with ability, you absorb, consider, and proceed. It's really not difficult to make the right decision when you honestly consider all the salient facts and choose what is best for the project, not your career, not your resume, not choices made wearily out of resentment, fear, or distracted semi-conviction but for the excitement of enchanting or illuminating an audience.

So what will happen? Will powerful computers and intelligent software ultimately make the functions of various designers seem so simple that a director can do it? Will we see a more illuminating performance when it is expressed by a singular response to the material at hand? Or will it take an expanding legion of specialists weaving their talents into the fabric of the production?

Collaboration can be a vale of tears (I know: I've shed more than a few), but there is a life lesson here. Will we learn to be enriched by the experience and expertise of our peers, or will we insist on the rightness of unilateral action? “Collaboration is an ugly business. No wonder the word fell into disrepute during the Second World War,” joked the songwriter character in They're Playing Our Song. Maybe “Unilateral action” will become the ugly business of this decade. My hope is, that while I still have a career, I will be able to use the best minds of a generation, and anyone else that's in the room, to improve the big picture.

ATTENTION All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:

Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at [email protected].