Say It Again: Having Our Say, 15 Year Later

The play, Having Our Say, by Emily Mann is based on the best-selling book by the Delany Sisters, two African American women who lived well beyond their 100th birthdays and whose personal history mirrored the African American experience from the days of slavery to the present. The play originated at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ in 1995, moved to Broadway, played 317 performances, and went on a successful national tour. It was directed by the author and designed by Tom Lynch (sets), Allen Lee Hughes (lights), Judy Dearing (costumes). Sage Carter and I created the slide projections.

That’s right, slides. The design called for 21 Ektagraphic projectors to create a full-image surround on a rear screen just upstage of a painted scrim. The short-throw distance meant we had to combine five images across to fill the width of the portal, and, not wanting any breaks in the image, we used softedge. Softedge was an actual piece of film that was sandwiched in the slide mount with the image. It was a mostly clear film and had a gradient to a dark edge to make overlapping images appear to be a single image. One needed to be totally precise in the setup of the projectors as well as in the shooting of the images. I wonder if those of you born into the digital age can even wrap your heads around the level of manual labor that was involved in producing a show like this.

First, you made photographic prints large enough so they could be re-photographed in smaller, precise overlapping slices. Film came back from the lab, was hand cut, sandwiched with softedge film, placed in immaculately clean glass slide mounts, and placed in sequential order in slide trays. This involved gloved hands and a great deal of Dust-Off. If you changed the order of the images in rehearsal you had to take all the trays off the projectors and reorder all the slides to accommodate the changes. Just writing this makes me want to lie down.

Image research before the Internet included actual visits to archives, photographs via messenger from archive to designer, to slide maker, and back to the archive again. We were able to secure the services of the brilliant Vicki Gold Levi, whose deep knowledge of African American photographic resources and photographers gave us access to images that were buried in closets and files since the 60s. The images we handled were actual prints, not scans, not digital, no pixels, no dots; the resolution was beautiful.

When the McCarter Theatre decided to celebrate Emily Mann’s 20th year as artistic director by remounting Having Our Say, they called and asked if I would be interested in creating projections for a new production. The new creative team included Dan Ostling (sets), Stephen Strawbridge (lights), and Karen Perry (costumes), and the production would be mounted in the 300-seat Berlind Theatre at the McCarter. The first scenic concept called for rear projections again, but a quick look at the space, and the terrifying number of projectors it would take to fill the stage, made front projection the obvious solution.

In 1995, 21 slide projectors, three each on seven screens, seven dissolve units, and an AVL programming computer from Staging Techniques controlled the images; in 2009, one Christie Digital Roadster S+16 16,000-lumen projector and a single channel of Dataton Watchout Version 4 from Scharff Weisberg did the job.

New Gear, Old Friends
I was fortunate to have Paul Vershbow with his sensitivity and skill at the programming keyboard, as well as Sage Carter for a few weeks to help organize. Speaking of organization, every single photo, photocopy, slide, storyboard, and note from the 1995 production was meticulously filed by Sage in the project box after opening. When they contacted me from the McCarter, I had a great start. I was even able to give the new stage manager the cued script from the old production, so you’d think redoing this now in digital video would be a cakewalk—not quite.

Many things are easier; image research on the Internet casts a wide net and leads you to places you could not reach by subway, but the quality of those images is compromised by size and resolution. The good part is that the search seems limitless; the bad part is that the search is limitless, and I can’t stop until I have seen everything and try to find it in highest resolution. No budget for researchers now; anyone can do the research themselves, and so I have to do it myself.

Image processing by scan clearly beats the re-photographing-into-slides process for time and money, but scan the most beautiful image in the highest res, and Watchout will choke on it. In the end, the projector will crush everything into pixels that are further pixilated by the scrim’s texture. Nothing will be crisp; I have to learn to embrace the fuzziness.

Using a video projector creates a possibility of motion that could only be suggested by animating slide sequences. In addition to being able to move the stills around, we can, and do, add some moving pictures especially in the transitions that explore the horror of the Jim Crow laws, Harlem, and the Civil Rights movement. Motion is very seductive and proves useful, as projection always does, to distract the audience in some of the more complicated scene shifts, but historical footage that looks cool on my laptop is vague and uninformative onstage.

Programming is painless—well painless to me, because, after more than 15 years together, Vershbow can read my thoughts and is the closest thing to my dream that images can go from my head to the screen without effort. Being able to reposition and scale—take that picture move it over there, bigger, smaller, put a soft edge around it—all takes minutes, not another trip to the photographer and a 24-hour wait for the film to come back, be remounted, and dropped in the trays. That eliminates having to live with it because you can’t change it.

Being able to make revisions quickly is a gift and a curse. We are able to make more things happen on our laptops during tech so we don’t go back to the studio after midnight and work all night to set up things to be re-photographed in the morning. The downside is that the seeming lack of labor makes one’s efforts seem cheap and easy. Everyone has an opinion: How about this or that, do you have that in an open toe, a sling-back, in another color? Sometimes you need to look at the unsatisfactory thing for a while to understand what its best replacement could be, and constantly trying out things can lead one way off the arc of the piece you designed. Holding off the well-intentioned suggestions requires tact and diplomacy.

Although many of the images remained the same—they are Delany family photos, after all—the difference between front projection and rear projection is ultimately the biggest change. Rear projection to a plastic screen is crisp and bright, even when you were looking through a light-colored painted scrim as you did on Broadway. The images are sharp, bright, and present. Front projection on a light-colored scrim will always be soft, even when backed by a blackout drop as it is here; fully a third of your light will fall through the holes.

Luckily when the director called, she said she was envisioning it more like a memory play, and the soft focus of the images fulfills that vision; sharp, you just can’t have. Front projection, even with equal amounts of lumens, is dimmer than rear; the light has to bounce off a surface back to your retina, and light is lost. With rear projection, you are looking into the light, so it is brighter. Rear-projected images are protected from the bounce of stage light by the plastic and the scrim. Front-projected images are defenseless against the front light that hits the floor, bounces up, and makes the image look dimmer.

I like light on a projection and often ask for it; it mitigates the flatness and can add color in a subtle way, but random bounce eats the bottoms of your frame and forces you to design the stage image top-heavy—that is, all the good stuff is at the top where the light can’t eat it. Top-heavy violates a fundamental rule—don’t look up as long as actors are on the ground—but the overall image is so misty, dreamy, it’s not the distraction it would be if it were sharp.

So what’s it like to revisit a play you did 15 years ago? A comfort and a conundrum: I don’t like to do anything twice, and even having done Merrily We Roll Along three times, the productions were so vastly different that only the dates remained the same. This production has the same director; the text and action require a quite similar set; the difference is the move of the images from back to front and the addition of moving images for good or ill. As I write this, while I am still in tech, it’s hard to know how a play with the line, “I think white people would rather die than have a Negro president,” will be seen now. This new cast is wonderful, and knowing the old production as well as I do, I’ve learned how much generous actresses can change the text and texture of a play with their craft.

One thing that stayed the same, though, is the fee—the same as I got 15 years ago—and the projection budget is slashed. Though much of the manual labor has disappeared, I am doing more of it myself. Granted, I am doing it while sitting at my desk, but the sheer number of hours is huge; I don’t get the fresh air and fresh views of visiting the archives, and I am developing carpel tunnel, but the benefit of doing immediate retouching or making instant image collage by layering and scaling in Watchout is enormous. You can change your mind, move things around, have a better idea, so you do, and in the end, that’s what design is all about.

It’s a greener production, if you don’t count the power my laptop uses; the boxes of prints and paper that were filed away in 1995 along with two sets of 21 slide trays will be replaced by a single DVD holding all the relevant information including the programming. One handles photographic prints as little as possible, so when they arrived at the studio in ’95, they were immediately Xeroxed, then filed in protective sleeves. Those Xeroxes were then used to create a visual storyboard where the relative size and position was put down on paper, so decisions could be made about the scale and position before it went to the slide photographer. This year’s storyboard is all words that refer to the names of the pictures as they are organized on my hard drive. The placement, scale, and density of the images are created as we watch the show and are flexible in the face of changes in staging and story.

Projections got their foothold in theatre because they can change, so flexible is good—less manual labor, less gear, which makes it cheaper for producers; no one will argue with that. I sure don’t miss worrying about a speck of dust on the slide that looks like a football on the screen. Less paper, that’s good, and since I still get to play with Vershbow and Carter, the new production is as thoughtful, if not more so, than the old one. I miss handling the beautiful prints, visiting with Vicki Levi Gold and the librarians, but that seems a small price to pay for being able to deliver an elegant new production of Having Our Say made for the digital generation. If anyone is looking for some old slide trays, they should get in touch; I can make a very good deal on some softedge film too.

Wendall K. Harrington has been designing projections for the theatre, opera, ballet, and concert stage for 30 years. Perhaps best known for the design of The Who's Tommy on Broadway, she lectures widely on design and is on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama.

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