And The Tony Goes To: Wendall K. Harrington

Venerated projection designer Wendall K. Harrington is a recipient of the 2024 Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre. These awards were established in 1990 to recognize individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary achievement in theater, but are not eligible in any of the established Tony Award categories: an ongoing and often heated discussion for projection/video design on Broadway.

“It is a pleasure to present the 2024 Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre to five unsung heroes doing invaluable work behind the scenes in the theater community,” said Heather Hitchens, president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing, citing “Wendall K. Harrington’s projection design masterpieces." The 2024 Tony Awards will be presented in New York City on June 16, 2024

A self-proclaimed image-junkie, Harrington is head of projection design at Yale School of Drama and has lent her artistry to nearly 40 Broadway productions throughout her career, including the original Broadway production of The Who’s Tommy. Live Design chats with her about her life in projections...

The Who's Tommy, 1993
(The Who's Tommy, 1993)

Live Design: What experience or observation led you to become involved in your discipline?

Wendall K. Harrington: I got a call from Tharron Musser who needed some slides made with perfectly clear gel colors for a test of an idea for Ballroom, I was successful, and she recommended me to Doug Schmidt next thing I know I was making the slides for They're Playing Our Song, which was at that point one of the biggest projection shows on Broadway with 16 slide projectors. I was clueless about Broadway — my knowledge of theatre was based on reading plays, because they were efficient stories I could read in under two hours, and Busby Berkeley musicals... but I landed in the heaven of collaboration with generous geniuses from Manny Azenberg the producer to Bob Curry the SM, and Pete Feller who built the sets..I gave up my plan to make documentary films, and ran off to join the circus.

LD: What do you know now that you wish you'd known at the beginning of your career?

WKH: I wish that I had know that the seduction of generous collaboration that I found at They're Playing Our Song was not always on offer, that theatre also had competition, sexism, and shockingly producers who were not always fair and honest. I was spoiled by my first excellent experience. I didn't understand that all shows are not hits, and that you often lose money gambling many hours of life on a play that will close immediately, that said what I also didn't know was the insatiable need to be in a place where beauty is attempted and often made, its a drug, and I'm still hooked.

LD: What is your proudest professional accomplishment?

WKH: There are so many works I am proud of for various reasons, for adding image as thought to Stoppard's Hapgood, and creating what Arthur Miller called 'images as characters' in the opera, A View From The Bridge, but the real pride is in the mentorship and teaching of so many accomplished artists, like Elaine McCarthy, Hannah Wasileski, Zak Borovay, and Brittany Bland, and even directors and other disciplines at Yale. That is the gift that goes on giving, the pride I have in the accomplishments of Patricia McGregor, Montana Blanco, Dede Ayite, Jiyoun Chang, Adam Rigg, and so many others who have absorbed the passion and joy I have for working in LIVE theatre.

A View From The Bridge
(A View From The Bridge)

LD: What future developments do you see happening in theatre design that you are excited about?

WKH: I am more excited about perhaps going backward a bit. I see shows being drowned in effects and media, performers dwarfed by showy gesture, and a conviction that projection solves every problem, which it does not. I want to see less media, even if its there, Id like it to take its rightful place as support for emotion not a substitute for it. I know interactive and VR AR are coming, but I work with my students to understand the role in live theatre is to support what is breathing, on both sides of the footlights, so I'm excited to see my current students who are so well versed and inventive in these new technologies, finding the way to make it human and emotionally satisfying.

LD: Is there a funny story or anecdote from over the years you'd like to share?

WKH:  When making the premiere production of Into The Woods at The Old Globe, I was sitting in tech the first time the cast attempted the feeding of the cow, the various items that would break the spell. It was 1986, it was papier-mâché, a bit crude, there was consternation and worry  how was this going to work — you know the scene, actors, stage hands, the SM all crowding around, the director tense in his seat, when my then two-year-old daughter Anna was delivered to me and she took one look at the stage and her little voice rang through the house "its a COW." It melted the room and refocused all... the goal was joy, not perfection. Always bring your kids to tech!

Also, when making images for Breakfast at Tiffany's, I needed a shot of Emilia Clarke's bare chest; we were to shoot it during tech. I was very thoughtful about having a female assistant and in general trying to allow for her modesty shooting in  a more hidden place, but as I set up the shot she was in no way uncomfortable and dropped her clothes without a whim. I was trying to be careful, that no one else had visual access, and she said, 'haven't you ever seen Game of Thrones, I gave up modesty a while back.." And the truth was and is, I'd never seen a singe frame of the series.

LD: Why do you think the Tony's keep dragging their feet in terms of adding a projection/video category?

WKH: I think it is likely to happen next year. I have also offered to educate the nominators repeatedly in what to look at, but my offer has never been embraced... they ought know what to look for in lighting, sound, and costumes as well. I think at times glitz can be more impressive than dramaturgy, which requires a greater and often more quiet investment in storytelling.