Creating a virtual world onstage

January 11, 2013
The Ghost in “Hamlet” was once a simple creation: a white sheet or some smoke was enough to depict a dead king. The audience, of course, cooperated with these primitive displays, since imagination was required of theatergoers.But if 20th-century technology — aviation, space travel, doomsday bombs — conquered the extremes of our own universe, modern science is more concerned with the virtual world, weaving in and out of daily life without drawing attention to itself. That is the challenge that Jared Mezzocchi, a video projection designer, confronts every time he looks at a stage. How does one infuse elements of this virtual world into the age-old art form that we call “live” theater?

“I’m always trying to find ways that video can become more alive in the space and breathe with the storytelling,” Mezzocchi, 27, says of his prerecorded videos and projected graphics that are popping up in theaters around Washington.

Decades ago, when projections were used sparingly in theater, they were largely static backdrops. Now, a skilled technician with a laptop and some software can manipulate graphics to interact with the actors on stage. Projected reels can transport audiences into a wrestling arena, as they did in Woolly Mammoth’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” Actors can climb mountains, speed through outer space, all while never leaving the ground in “A Trip to the Moon” at Synetic Theater. The projections are not static settings but moving elements of the stage, managed by a man or woman in a sound booth. And as community and professional theater budgets drop and smartphones become de rigueur, projection design is becoming more common in theaters.

“In the past, you had groups or theaters that were known for their technological accessibility. Now it’s everywhere,” Mezzocchi said. “That is an important point: The technologists and the dramaturges need to come together and decide when and how to use it.”

This emerging field of stagecraft is getting Mezzocchi much attention. In September, he moved to Washington from New York City to begin teaching projection design at the University of Maryland, one of the few schools that offers coursework in the emerging art form. He has just finished teaching his first semester. In October, Mezzocchi won a Princess Grace Award for theater from the Princess Grace Foundation; he was the first theater artist to win for video projection.

Students at the University of Maryland are clamoring to learn this behind-the-scenes art form. Mezzocchi is teaching undergraduate and graduate students to incorporate video projection into their own theatrical productions. He’s also demonstrating his know-how on campuses across the region. On Jan. 18, Mezzocchi and writer-director Christine Evans will do a reading of her play “You Are Dead. You Are Here,” a work that features interactive graphics from “Virtual Iraq,” a virtual reality program used by the Department of Defense to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The play underscores one reason video projections are on the rise: New plays set in modern times incorporate technologies that didn’t exist five years ago. Now, for the sake of realism, directors and actors are bringing the virtual to the stage.

Growing demand to learn the craft

A little over five years ago, before iPhones took over college campuses, traditional performance curriculums at universities serviced the creator, performer and technician, not the entrepreneur. That’s changing at the University of Maryland, which teaches theater artists technical skills to help them produce, market and stage their own works. Students are interested in an interdisciplinary curriculum that includes technological know-how.

Mezzocchi says he is proof that tech novices can learn the craft to enhance their own works. “I come from an acting background, not a technical one, so I talk about media as a character,” Mezzocchi said, who studied both theater and film at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., where he learned to integrate the two.

“The interesting thing that sets Jared apart from most projection designers is his keen interest in integration of actor and projection idea,” said Dan Conway, head of MFA Theatre Design at U-Md., who helped recruit Mezzocchi. “He’s not a decorative artist. He’s not interested in using projections as wallpaper.”

While projections can enhance live performance when used well by directors, Mezzocchi also warns his students against using projections as a gimmick.

“In conversations with directors, I always say, ‘Let’s put aside the need for it, let’s talk about the story,’ ” Mezzocchi said. “I’ll say, ‘This is what media wants in this scene. How does media get it?’ I use the vocabulary of the actor.”

And that’s why so many students — whether dancers, actors or writers — have signed up to learn the craft. Leigh Smiley, director of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies School at U-Md. says the demand has been high, with undergraduate classes fully subscribed and graduate students requesting independent study.

“In terms of stage work, students find it exciting that digitally created props and sets can engage with the actors onstage,” said Smiley. “This is what Xbox has done for years — it’s taking what’s happening in their brains, in terms of imagination, and making it concrete onstage.”

Since the software is a costly investment, many schools do not yet have the capacity to offer courses in video projection. Yale School of Drama is the only university to have an MFA concentration in projection design. It will graduate its first class in the field this year.

Projection design is a skill that is in demand in professional theater — Broadway is teeming with musicals such as “Rock of Ages” and “Newsies” that rely heavily on the skill and artistry. Even there, however, projection designers were unsung technicians (rarely called artists) of the theater until recently, lumped in with the broader category of scenic designers. In 2008, they received their own Drama Desk award category, the same year that the United Scenic Artists, the union that represents designers, gave projection designers their own category of representation. Projection designers do not yet have their own Tony Award category.

But with demand for projections changing and young theater professionals becoming more versed in the usage of video projections, the team at Maryland sees Mezzocchi’s courses as an investment that will broaden students’ opportunities in professional theater.

“Resources are sometimes small in the theater, but imaginations are big,” Smiley said. Although projection “will never replace the set or scenic designer, it enhances the work they do, and makes it possible for students to take their shows wherever they’d like to.”

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