Sven Ortel, who designs projections and video for theater, dance and opera throughout the world, currently has two shows on Broadway: the 2023 Tony-winning Parade for best revival of a musical, and Once Upon a One More Time, a new musical now in previews.
Set in Atlanta and Marietta Georgia from 1913-15, Alfred Uhry’s book for Parade stays true to the history of the 1913 trial, imprisonment and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of rape. The score is by Jason Robert Brown. The current production is directed by Michael Arden with choreography by Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant and music direction by Tom Murray. Scenic design is by Dane Laffrey, lighting by Heather Gilbert, sound by John Weston; costumes by Susan Hilferty and hair & wigs by Tom Watson.
The brick back wall of the Jacobs Theatre is exposed for Parade, becoming a large projection screen that extends beyond the rig, giving Ortel a huge canvas. “It’s important to communicate the scale, to offer a composition that is in keeping with the feel and sound of the show. It’s an epic show in terms of scale and how it sounds, and we didn’t want the imagery to stop and be constrained by conventions,” he says. “The wall was initially dusty and black. It was painted for the show.”
Finding images of the streets, buildings, and people of Georgia in the early 20th century proved challenging. When you blow up a photo to fill a large brick wall, even to go beyond the height of that wall, it would help to find clear high-resolution images. Ortel didn’t.
“The imagery that’s available is very old and often faded,” he says, adding that it wasn’t easy to find a good photo of Jim Conly. “At the time, the people who could afford to have their pictures taken were predominantly rich people, predominately white folks. We wanted to show all the people.” So he went about the complex task of finding images and restoring them so they wouldn’t be fuzzy and that all characters would have equal value.
Ortel used Machine Learning AI Solutions to restore the images. He says this can intensify a problem when working on any history piece: “How do I not distract the audience from the historical story and setting by using contemporary technology?”
So, after the restoring images, Ortel went about degrading them, so they fit the period and the rest of the production. “We set up rules so that when imagery comes up, it’s consistent with the look and the vocabulary that has been established that doesn’t distract introduce early on and stick with it.
Research was exhaustive. When he couldn’t find an authentic image—for instance when he couldn’t find a photograph of a particular house—none was available, and the property had been razed--he used a photo of a real house on the same block of the same period. Although the images had to be crisp, Ortel never considered putting costumes on actors in period dress. Every building and every character had to not only look real—it had to be real.
Ortel’s images not only convinced audiences—emails came in from people in Marietta who wondered how Ortel had found photos of their relatives that were lost to them.
Ortel credits Arden, who “always thinks through the purpose of video thoroughly before he commits to it. He knew it could be used to highlight the history authentically through archival imagery. “ And he says his collaboration with other designers, particularly Gilbert—“We talked about colors and pacing so that the audience is looking at the right place and listening when they should be listening, because the music is astonishingly beautiful.” And, of course, they wanted to audiences to feel the impact of a harrowing and jarring moment in history.
Ortel had to integrate scenery into the projections. “We made a 3D scan of it and mapped it, so we could place scenery deliberately inside the architecture to make it look clean and not distracting. Subtitles that helped audiences know when and where they were also had to be integrated into the scenery.
“The set is simple looking, but it wasn’t,” he says.
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