Musings

What’s in a Name? (Projections, Media, and Storytelling)

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Projections for Dominique Morriseau’s Skeleton Crew at the Detroit Public Theatre, 2017. Media Design and Photo: Jeromy Hopgood

For years, I had a collection of stock answers prepared for people asking “what do you do?” I am a professor. “What do you teach?” I teach scenery and lighting for the theatre. That would typically lead to an array of questions that most of us in the arts are used to fielding (yes, people make money doing that). These days, my work has led me more into the field of Media Design. To be honest, I tend not to throw that word around a lot when asked what I do, because the Q & A can become a bit more convoluted. Why is that? Well, to be honest, I don’t think we have really arrived at a catch-all description for what Media Design is and how it fits into the production process.

If you’re new to this discussion, let me recap a bit for you. What is Media Design? In general terms, when people are talking about Media Design (particularly for theatre, opera, and dance) they mean the use of original video content, live video feed, and motion graphics displayed in some way as a visual component of the performance (projectors, video walls, displays, etc). Sound suitably vague? The designer who receives credit for this work is not only responsible for content creation, but often also designs the system that displays the content. In this way, the designer has a hand on the content and delivery of the media for a live performance.

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The Threepenny Opera at Eastern Michigan University, 2017. Media Design and photo: Jeromy Hopgood. 

While I used the term Media Design for the field, we often find the artists themselves referred to by other titles, such as the Projection Designer, or Video Designer. In fact, The United Scenic Artists Local USA829 represents their designers under the category called Projection Design.  This can become a little confusing, though, if we’re talking about a show that has lots of video and graphic content displayed across video walls. Is it still projection design if there are no projectors involved?

While we are talking about organizations that speak for a wide range of members, this year marks the the creation of the new Digital Media Commission through The United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT). The Mission Statement for the Digital Media Commission provides some insight into how USITT views the field:

The Digital Media Commission provides dialog and the exchange of information about innovation and trends in the field of Projection Design and its related technologies and artistic expressions including, but not limited to, video design, digital media, interactive media, and new media as it relates to theatre and the live entertainment industry…

So, here we have the union that represents our designers referring to the field as one thing, the oldest theatre design and technology organization in the U.S. calling it something else, and a number of producers using completely different terminology. Should we, then, be surprised to find that reviewers often don’t know how to talk about the work of a Media Designer (don’t even get me started on the question of the Tony’s).

Through all of this, you might be wondering how much does a name matter? It brings to mind the old adage “you can call me anything you want, so long as you don’t call me late for dinner.” While it is certainly true that the check will still clear whether the memo line reads Video Designer, Projections Designer, or Media Designer, at the end of the day, we all know that names have power.

Is there a perceived difference between Projection Design and Media Design? I would argue that the term Media Design might be perceived as a bit more inclusive of various technologies and methods than Projection Design. For good or ill, the word projection leads to thoughts of that ubiquitous rectangle of light on a projection screen, created by Keynote or PowerPoint. This oversimplification of the job can lead directors and producers to unrealistic expectations for Media Designers, perpetuating the idea of the Media Designer as a “one man band.” While Scenic, Lighting, and Costume Designers most often have support personnel in the form of Technical Directors, Carpenters, Riggers, Stitchers, Electricians, and Scenic Artists, the Media Designer is often expected to run a small video production company, create original graphic content, generate animations, spec out gear and design the display system, integrate a network system…

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One Man, Two Guvnors at Eastern Michigan University, 2016. Media Design and Photo: Jeromy Hopgood. Content creation: Christine Franzen.

Some people may like the autonomy of this setup. It does, however, lead to the question what is a design fee paying for? Is the designer expected to create all of the content (with all of the expenses connected with that), licensing fees, program the media server, design and install the system, and everything else that comes up along the way? In all likelihood, it depends on your market and how good you are at educating your employers.

All of this revolves around the point that we are a young industry. Even though projections have been around for more than a century in some form or another, we are only now reaching a point of proliferation where Media Design is not an oddity around the production table. Even so, the mystique that surrounds or field remains commonplace. We have only recently hit the ten-year anniversary of projection design being added as a USA829 category, and we’re still a few years out from that benchmark with the first MFA in Projection Design at Yale School of Drama. That places the impetus on the designers and technicians of the field to engage in these important discussions with our peers and colleagues in the industry. We are our own best advocates. Even though these conversations may, at times, prove frustrating and circuitous, this is a wonderful time to be a Media Designer. I am so excited to be working with this next generation of artists just now making their way into the field and look forward to where we arrive, as a group.

Feel free to share your own thoughts and observations related to this post. I’m always interested in a good conversation.

 

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Yes, no, maybe…

Many people have heard of the guiding principle of improvisational acting called “yes, and…” This philosophy goes something like this – when in an improv situation, never say no, negate, or disagree with your partner. Instead, listen to what they offer and then add to it to keep the action moving along.

There has also been a lot of conversation in recent years about the “power of no,” particularly regarding the prevalence of creative people and their tendency to say no with a high frequency. The argument is that highly creative and successful people are, by their very nature, busy folks. As a direct correlation to this, they often are so busy that they have to say no in order to maintain that busy schedule their creativity has generated in their lives. Much of my professional design work is in collaboration with actors, directors, choreographers, and fellow designers who all fall in the the creative and busy camp. In the performing arts, however, it seems like many of us have still not taken the note that it is ok to say no (sometimes necessary, even).

In my design work, I always try to be someone who listens before I speak. I want to hear what the director has to say about the script or the choreographer’s vision for the dance piece. Designers function as therapists of sort for productions. We listen to the director’s ideas –  their hopes and dreams, their fears – and synthesize all of that into an approach to the production. Like a good therapist, a designer often sees patterns or nuances to the director’s ideas that aren’t necessarily articulated in any concept statement. The successful designer learns to connect the dots and find ways to bring the production to life in a way that complements the director’s vision.

For me, that means that sometimes it is my job to say no, even though it goes against what the director might be asking for. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case: budget, access to resources, timeline, or just a philosophical difference of opinions on what works for the design. All of these and many more are justifiable reasons for saying no during the production process. Hopefully, you’re working in a production team that respects one another to the point that this is a given. Yes is good. It enables us to pursue our dreams. No is good, too. It keeps us grounded in the reality of what we can achieve. If you approach collaboration in the right way, you will find that no leads you to a wonderful third option (my personal favorite) called maybe. Maybe is the root of our creative collaboration. Once we reach maybe, it allows us to explore new ground that is often a by-product of more than one person’s ideas. That’s where the magic happens! A little of your thoughts, sprinkled with a spark of an idea from me, and feedback from the group is a recipe for success.

So, whether you’re a student, a professional designer, the director, or an intern, next time you find yourself in a collaborative project take a little time to listen and don’t be afraid to respond with a yes, no, or maybe. Empowering, isn’t it?

 

Someone Else’s Shoes

Old shoes

 

It seems like every year we see more and more public schools cutting funding for arts, eliminating programs, and generally marginalizing the role of the arts in education. Without getting into a nasty political debate that is likely to lead nowhere, I think it is fair to say that politicians of all stripes from the Federal to the local level have been guilty of this, on some level. When looking at a basic cost/benefit analysis, I can even understand why it seems like an investment in arts programs is hard to justify – especially in the midst of the Great Recession.

As an educator, I get so tired of the perennial exercise in justifying the worth of the arts in our educational system. One positive that comes from this is that it affords me a regular opportunity to examine the worth of what I do. Every artist, if you’re being honest with yourself, has had those moments where you stop and really wonder if what you’re doing is impacting the world in any way. I have found that theatre artists are often guilty of this, due in no small part to the pervasive mentality that we are “just putting on a show.” While it is true that we work in the entertainment industry and, therefore, spend the majority of our time doing the whole entertainment thing, I think there is an important aspect to our work that is often overlooked – empathy.

Fundamentally, the role of theatre is to enable the artists and audience members to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To be successful, an actor has to take on the mantle of another human being – to see through their eyes and respond to the world in a way that might not jive with the actor’s own inclinations. Designers and technicians collaborate with dozens of different people in an attempt to tell the story in the most effective manner. Often, they must abandon their own ideas along the way to make room for the end-product. Audience members get a glimpse into the inner workings of  character in a way that is impossible in the real world. At face value, this might not seem as important as scientists creating vaccines for deadly diseases or engineers designing nano machines. I would argue, though, that empathy has become the single most important commodity in the world today and we owe it to ourselves as a society to foster it whenever and wherever we can.

A look at the news on any given day can be an unsettling glimpse into the reality of our polarized world. On any topic it seems that there are two camps, us and them. Moderates and independents seem to be a dwindling thing of the past, replaced with folks on both ends of the spectrum unwilling to see the other side’s perspective and, worse, vilifying anyone with a differing opinion. Compromise is considered weakness. In the United States, we have seen this mentality taken to the horrifying destinations: cyber-bullying, character defamation, and even mass shootings. In this environment, a little empathy can go a long way. Any exercise in seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is a welcome medicine to treat this ailment.

That’s where we come full circle. The change that we want to see in the world must include art. The arts have a magical ability to break down walls and build bridges between camps. It has always been so. When we stop to consider how our education system will shape the world of tomorrow, let’s not forget that the arts aren’t simply electives – they are one of the last great tools we have at our disposal to instill a sense of empathy, bring our society closer together, and see the world through someone else’s eyes. For all of you artists out there, those goosebumps you’re feeling are completely appropriate. In a society where we all too often feel powerless, you are the ones with the ace up your sleeve. Get out there and save the world.

 

Filling The Void

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Photo courtesy Max Wolfe. Creative Commons license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/leeadlaf/

As a teacher, I often get to observe that moment when a student looks at the blank piece of paper or an empty stage and  struggles with that internal debate over “what next?” This is a familiar exercise with artists of all varieties (and, believe it or not, all levels of success). As a writer, there is nothing more exhilarating and, at the same time, taunting than a ream of paper. For the painter, it is a canvas. The dancer alone in the studio feels the need to stake a claim on on that empty space and fill it with movement.

The Void is a magical and terrifying space that the artist must occupy and shape to his or her own will. This need to fill the void speaks to the power of art and our ability to carve out some small corner of existence for ourselves – to put a stamp on this place and time and boldly proclaim, “I was here!” More than that, it means that we took the few fleeting moments given to us and turned them into something that will last longer than the finite scope of our lifetime. Something that will AFFECT someone, or something. Lots of artists over the years have spoken about this:

“You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.'” – Vincent Van Gogh

This is the challenge I want to leave you with today: Break the spell of “you can’t.” Make something! Say something! Think! Create! Resist that voice that says “what if it isn’t good enough?” Good enough for whom? Embrace failure is an important and often necessary component of success. The fear of failure ought not keep you from trying. Quite the opposite. Samuel Beckett said it best in Westward Ho 

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The fear of failure should drive you to create new things – take bigger risks. Feel free to fail. By all means, fail in grand and dramatic gestures. Just don’t fall victim to the most mundane of all failures – the failure to get up off your butt and start something.