Watch or wince - video on stage isn't going away

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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In Clifford Odets’s “Paradise Lost,’’ Ben Gordon is an unsuccessful former Olympic track star who remains, in his own mind, the “champ miler of the world.’’

The idea of getting into his mind intrigued Daniel Fish, who is directing the American Repertory Theater’s production of this drama about a family’s shattered dreams, now playing at the Loeb Drama Center. Fish wanted to find a way to convey what Ben himself envisioned when he reflected on his glory days. But how to depict, in theater, someone’s private ruminations?

His answer: video. The audience would see what Ben saw in his mind’s eye, or at least stylized versions of it, projected onto a screen.

This explains why Hale Appleman, the actor who plays Ben, was at Harvard University’s Gordon indoor track on a recent Friday morning, sprinting, prancing, and throwing his arms over his head in a grand gesture of jubilation, while being captured on video by the production’s vid eo designer, Joshua Thorson.

Manipulated versions of the video will be used at four separate moments in the play. There will be a short montage of the footage with a slow-motion sports effect when Ben turns on a TV. It will show up later as a black-and-white documentary on a gigantic screen, garbled with static and with sentimental horn music, presented as though it had been accidentally taped over Ben’s wedding video.

“At times, the video might be what Ben sees,’’ said Fish. “At others it might be what the family sees. . . . There is not a single intent or one meaning to uncover behind it.’’

His use of video, he said, is “part of the language of the production, which seeks to make the play vivid and spontaneous. So the video works the same way the other elements do: In a sense it is another actor.’’

This actor has been showing up in a lot of local Playbills lately, as directors increasingly make video part of the language of their own productions, both as a “character’’ (to use the vernacular of video projection) and as scenery.

Locally, Opera Boston is featuring extensive video projections for the first time in “Madame White Snake.’’ Director David Esbjornson utilized video images of warplanes in the Huntington Theatre Company’s recent production of “All My Sons,’’ Arthur Miller’s 1947 drama about unethical business practices during wartime. A backdrop of flickering TV sets was featured last fall in Boston Playwrights’ Theatre’s production of “The Salt Girl,’’ meant to suggest the derangement of the character’s psyche.

Video projection has for years been used in experimental theater, notably in companies such as the Wooster Group in New York, and in Europe and in Australia. “But in terms of the mainstream theater scene - Broadway and the regular theaters - it’s really been a last-decade phenomenon,’’ said Pablo Molina, a faculty member in Video Design at California Institute of the Arts.

One way to know something is really a phenomenon is when it turns into a university course, and this is happening now with theater video design, also referred to as projection design. This fall, Molina’s university introduced a scenic-design specialization in video. Next fall Yale School of Drama will offer a projection design concentration, headed by Wendall K. Harrington, who first made her mark on Broadway in 1993 doing projection design for “The Who’s Tommy.’’

“[Projection design] is thought to be the newest theatrical tool, which is really a misnomer, ’’ said Harrington, noting that the use of slide projection was common in Germany in the early 1900s, most famously in an early production of “Spring Awakening.’’

Harrington herself did the projection design for the ART production of “The Juniper Tree’’ back in 1985. And Robert Woodruff certainly used video often during his tenure as the ART’s artistic director, including in his productions of “Britannicus’’ and “Sound of a Voice.’’

Harrington returned to Boston last year, too, for Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Dvorak’s fairy tale, “Rusalka.’’ Her backdrop was floor-to-ceiling digital projections of underwater and woodlands scenes, many of which derived from photographs she took at her home in upstate New York, which she re-created in 3-D animation.

“Projection is very good for the impossible and things that can’t otherwise be done on stage,’’ she said. “Projection is like thought; since it’s not really there, it can be emotional. It can be representative of an idea. It’s less literal. It’s a kind of conversation between the audience and the play. You must participate with the projection. You don’t have to participate with scenery.’’

Influenced by theater in Germany, where he has directed several plays, Fish acknowledges that in the United States “video is a bit of a hot potato in theater.’’

“A lot of people have a negative reaction to it,’’ said Fish. “They say, ‘I’d rather stay at home.’ ’’

Though the Odets play was written in 1935, Fish thought that the story - about the struggling American middle class, set vaguely “in the present’’ in an unidentified “American city’’ - was timeless and universal enough to warrant an abstract video treatment to add dimension to the play. One place he wanted to use it was midway through the first act, in an emotional scene in which a delegation of factory workers approach their bosses for better wages.

One thought was to use YouTube videos of labor protesters at General Motors. Thorson, who had worked with Fish twice before, nixed it: “I didn’t really want to use YouTube talking heads. I’d already done that in another show.’’

So Thorson came up with the idea of approaching people on the street in Troy, N.Y., where he’s a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and asking them to talk about loss in whatever way they wanted to. He’ll project the footage onto a screen behind the actors; their mouths move, silently, while the actors onstage are speaking.

“I think the video lends some kind of currency to the story,’’ said Thorson in an e-mail. “It looks like a documentary (read: verite, truth) and yet the story of the play keeps on going.’’ But it’s also a pragmatic solution to a casting problem. Since Fish didn’t cast actors to play the members of the delegation - the people reading the lines are actors in the play who have other, significant parts - “it also, in a practical sense, brings characters to the play that aren’t onstage.’’

Both he and Fish acknowledge that they’re concerned about video being overused in theater. “I saw a show where a building was burning down and the flames were just video projections above the tops of the sets,’’ Thorson said. “The video doesn’t have an active relationship to the actual vocabulary of the play. It’s just an add-on.’’

Harrington shares their concern. “I love projection, but let’s remember what we have in the theater - human-to-human contact,’’ she said. “Let’s remember what [video is] supporting. It’s not, like, can you get the actor away from my projection? Get him downstage? Sometimes I think that this is what it’s getting to be.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at

PARADISE LOST Play by Clifford Odets

Directed by Daniel Fish

Production by American Repertory Theater at Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge.

Through March 20.

Tickets $25-$75.

617-547-8300, www.american