Alice’s Trip: Projections On a Budget 1

My colleague Jennifer Nostrala is  demonstrating her playwriting and directing chops this fall, staging a new adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s Alice stories.   Entitled Alice’s Trip: A Movement Adventure,  it is a movement-heavy treatment of the subject in 19 scenes.  Jennifer’s script contains much of the most iconic of Carrol’s dialogue but relies heavily on movement and music that she  describes throughout the text. She has also specified the use of projected imagery integral to the treatment.  Over the course of the past month, I have been developing the environment for the production.  Within the next few weeks we will be refining ideas for  the lighting, which I am also doing,  and for the projections, which are being designed and implemented by a pair of our students.

The play begins with Alice onstage and with the cast sitting on chairs, watching the beginning of a play on a puppet stage.  When a puppet version of herself appears, Alice begins to interact  with  it.   I conceived the panels stage left and right as abstractions of playing cards.  They will be an off-white creme color in order to most effectively serve as surfaces upon which colored and textured light can shine and upon which certain digital images and video can be projected.

In the following scene, the puppet stage “disappears” and is replaced with an oversized cut-out version of the proscenium drapery  from the puppet stage which files in just as the puppet stage rolls upstage beneath it.  This larger  proscenium will remain onstage for the following 17 scenes serving as a projection surface for additional imagery throughout and as a screen for some shadow work as actors walk between it and rear-lighting sources.  The side screens remain throughout continuing to take projections and shadow work

Many of the intervening scenes rely upon additional scenic elements represented by a series of simple frame “doorways” which stand in as doors, train cars and other elements and support interesting and intriguing choreography.  Four  16″ x 16″ x 16″ framed cubes , a box and a small door are also used by  the cast of 12 in showing us the events of the play.  The chairs are also recurring elements. Through innovative staging and directing choices, these simple elements help the cast represent iconic scenes from the story including the Garden of locked Doors, Conversation With a Caterpillar, the Tea Party, the  Lobster-Quadrille, the Tart Trial,  Through the Looking Glass, the Battle With the Jabberwocky, The Train Ride, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, and Humpty Dumpty and His Wall.  The final scene of the play is a redux of the first, with the return of the puppet stage and of Alice’s puppet alter self .

Though this setting appears simple, this appearance is deceptive.  A lot of work and calculation has gone into (and will continue to go into) the process of designing the onstage elements and particularly into the screens.    Auteur Jennifer Nostrala initially requested that  projections on all screens be done from the back.  This is so that we can combine video with shadow projections (with cast members and objects being placed upstage of the screens to cast interesting and sometimes surprising shadows in the running video upon the screens)  This complicates the design of the screens in several ways.

The first challenge of rear projecting onto these screens is that to do so, they  must be made of a material that will transmit rear projection.  I usually use RP screens from manufacturers such as Rosco Laboratories.  Unfortunately, all of the previous projects that we have done with rear screen projection material have been smaller projects (meaning that any remaining material is cut into too-small pieces) and used black screen.  Since we need white (or ideally off-white) for this setting, nothing in stock is suitable.  Nor is our budget sufficient to buy this pricy product which currently runs $18.30 per yard (for 55″ widths) from Rose Brand (one of the premiere suppliers of theatrical fabrics and supplies).  Since each screen requires approximately 12 yards of material, the cost of rear projection screen for the pair of side screens approaches $450.00.  Even though each of the side screens are designed as 3 smaller screens (this for both aesthetic and touring purposes) each of them would require a tricky seam where the width of the largest of each trio of screens exceeds the 55″ width of the screen material.  With the inclusion of the 14′-6′ x 18′ central proscenium screen adding another $366 worth of  screen material (20 yards @ $18.30) and three long tricky seams, the cost of rear projection screen material would account for nearly 2/3 of our set budget.  Rose Brand will custom-fabricate screens to larger dimensions, welding the narrow strips together thus eliminating the never-quite-successful on-site taping of the seams. This process requires significant lead time and carries a premium price tag.  At $4.96 per square foot, a custom-welded 14′-6″ x 18′ prices out to almost $1,300.00!

Having attended a workshop at the United States Institute of Theatre Technology’s 2012 Convention in Long Beach during March of this year, on non-traditional projection surfaces. I knew from the demonstration that simple theatrical muslin (of the variety used widely by theatres for any number of purposes) makes a decent rear-projection surface.  While not as superior a product for the purpose, it was eminently more affordable.  Buying 14′-6″ wide heavy weight muslin @  $24.80 per yard, I only spent about $35o on the necessary 14 yards.

A second challenge of rear projection is on of supporting the screen securely, while also keeping the entire back of the screen surface free of obstruction.  The center screen surface is an easy one to accomplish since the screen can be suspended from overhead battens of the fly system common to many stages.  However, the side screens sit at an angle to the overhead battens.  The solution that I came up with was to support the screens from the back with custom-designed stage braces on each side, leaving the center free for projection.  Since these braces will be in full view of the audience, and since the cast needs to have free access from onstage to immediately behind the screens for some of the shadow work, these jacks are designed of square steel tube to resemble some of the framing  seen by the audience elsewhere on the setting and to echo the line of the screens they support while also allowing the cast to pass through  them unimpeded.

As challenging as creating the screens are, probably the greatest challenge of these projections rests in the projectors, the media content and the technology and software necessary to deliver the content to the screens.  These will be subjects for this blog in upcoming weeks.

Meanwhile, that’s enough for now! Have fun!  But be safe!

SJM

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