Creating fantastic theatre moments on stage is always an exciting challenge for theatre teachers and directors. Consider the play A Wrinkle in Time with its moments of traveling through space and time, also known as tessering. Or the scenes that happen on far off planets? There are so many exciting ways these imaginative moments have been created on stage. Projection design company, Theatre Ave, has offered another way of enhancing these magnificent moments of storytelling. Theatre Ave is a projection design company that handcrafts each projection design in their Atlanta studio. Stage Partners got to speak with Theatre Ave Founding Creative Director, Mitch Stark, about what drew him and his team to design projections for the play A Wrinkle in Time.
MARIA MCCONVILLE: How do theatrical projections, in your opinion, enhance a production?
MITCH STARK: Wow, there are so many ways projections can enhance a show! To put it simply, they are an incredible way to transport the audience into the world of your story. They are vibrant and colorful. They provide smooth transitions from one locale to another, from one season to another, and from night into day. Projections can be both detailed and impressionistic, like a painting. They take an audience by the hand and lead them into the story on stage. They can generate great depth, which makes the stage seem many times larger than it is. And they are a great vehicle for animation or special effects, which can be challenging to create on stage. Technical effects like fire, weather, explosions, etc, suddenly become possible.
SP: We are thrilled you chose to add A Wrinkle In Time to your catalogue of projection designs! How do projections help tell the story of A Wrinkle in Time?
MS: A Wrinkle in Time is such an iconic story. Many of us read it when we were children. I definitely did! The worlds that Madeleine L'Engle created were specific and detailed, while somehow painting unique and different pictures in the mind of each reader. I wanted to capture some of that magic and the way it set my imagination on fire. I also wanted to make the magic readily available to any stage production, which may otherwise have to settle for a black curtain behind their actors. And don’t get me wrong—sometimes a black curtain is great, and appropriate. But when it comes to A Wrinkle in Time, I want to see those epic vistas come to life! I also want the audience to experience the wonder and scope of the story as the characters tesser from one planet to another. A Wrinkle in Time is one of those stories that moves quickly, changing not only in location but in tone. I wanted these projections to highlight the contrasts—from the rich, colorful landscape of Uriel, to the dismal, stifling environment of Camazotz.
SP: Do you have a favorite projection design in the collection for A Wrinkle in Time?
MS: This is a tough one! I've heard writers and directors compare their plays to their children, and I feel that way about each of these projections. Each one was thrilling to make and had its own set of unique challenges. That being said, I really enjoyed designing the planets that Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin journey to. Uriel, Ixchel, Camazotz—when you look at both the book and the Stage Partners adaptation, there is so much room to imagine and interpret! As a projection designer, this is heaven. It allows me to draw from many different sources for inspiration. I looked at nature, science fiction, space photography, and classic book illustrations. I even had a group of school kids draw their favorite scenes, just to get a sense of how they saw these worlds. Then all of these ingredients simmered together like a big stew while I prepared to design. So yes, I believe it would be a tie—each of the planets are my favorite.
SP: It must be so fun to get a special design request! What is your favorite part about customizing projection designs for a show? Where do you begin?MS: I LOVE special design requests. The first place I start is a one-on-one conversation with the director. I try to get to know them, their storytelling style and vision for the show, and ask open-ended questions to draw the story out. To me, that’s equally as important as knowing the script. I want to hear why they are telling the story, what gets them excited about it, and how they see projections supporting the larger vision of their production. Then I move to research. I love research. It’s my chance to gather and collect things. I go on long walks and take photos. I look at old renaissance paintings and costume color palettes—really anything that feels like it has a relationship to the world we are trying to build through projection art. And still within the initial first step, I make a lot of drawings. Not big, beautifully rendered drawings—messy ink and gray marker storyboards. I find that sketching fast and still using real paper opens me up to explore. And then I notice these little happy accidents (shout out to Bob Ross) that may start with stray marks on a drawing, but become a mountain range or new perspective I never would have seen if I started with digital art. Those beginning stages are incredibly fun and inspiring for me! It’s a chance to break away from all the other projects that have come before and try something completely new.
SP: What is it about a Theatre Ave design that makes it stand out and help tell the story?MS: Great question! It’s a little like asking about an artist’s personal style. Most artists don’t recognize themselves as having a "style,'' even while they’re creating one. However, I feel that what makes Theatre Avenue's art stand out is its believability. The worlds we create are not always photorealistic, as they often exhibit artistic color and lighting, but they are believable within the works of each show. This means they don’t feel ‘computery’, like a video game, as so much of the projection design I see out there does. We definitely use digital techniques, but we work hard to create original and authentic artwork for each moment of a production. We want our designs to inhabit real space with real actors in real costumes, and show depth, shadow and true color while being lit with stage lights. It’s something that fabric backdrops can even struggle to capture. And it’s entirely necessary so that projection doesn’t just become cinema slapped into a theatrical environment - but like everything else, it becomes a beautifully considered part of the storytelling that enhances the experience for audiences and cast members alike.
SP: We loved all of the tips you shared with us about using projections on the stage. Any other helpful hints you’d care to share?MS: The best tip I can leave with you (aside from my standby “get a BRIGHT projector I mean REALLY BRIGHT”) is this: start working live with your projections early in the rehearsal process. Unlike regular lighting, it can be really beneficial to add in your projections early on. Projections are such a large visual part of your show, and this will allow you (and your cast) to see the big picture sooner. When are the big moments? When does the magic transition happen, and is it stage left or right? This will help you make staging, set, and lighting decisions before you get to tech week, which gives your team a chance to use the projections seamlessly. You want everything to gel. For instance, when you are viewing your costume parade, or running a full scene for the first time, try it with your projections live in the background. You’ll notice little things that will help you make lighting, color, even blocking adjustments. Now I have one last tip—one tiny but powerful instruction to leave you with: When bringing up light cues at the start of a scene, always fade up your projection FIRST. Then bring up the light cue after. This gives the audience a chance to see the new projection and story location in full, vibrant color, and creates loads of lovely anticipation for the scene. I promise you—at times you will hear literal gasps from the crowd.
Mitch Stark is the Founding Creative Director of Theatre Avenue, where he designs digital projections for the performing arts. For the last 14 years, Mitch has produced digital content for theatre and ballet companies, universities, and schools internationally. His work ranges from original illustration, animation, and motion design for productions such as Willy Wonka, Swan Lake, Nutcracker, The Wizard of Oz, Annie, Lion King and beyond. Mitch travels the country teaching projection design workshops, conducts virtual learning sessions, publishes media content, and writes for theatre magazines and blogs. Before his dive into the theatrical world, Mitch was an art director and designer creating nationwide campaigns for corporate and non-profit organizations like NBC News, Global Down Syndrome Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and the Alzheimer’s Association. He worked for 10 years with hundreds of clients as a graphic and web designer, illustrator, and motion graphics artist. Mitch earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at Ball State University, where he studied art and design, the humanities, and computer animation.