by Sam Buntrock, director
When Michael Mitnick first handed me his “multimedia play” Ed, Downloaded, I turned its pages with significant trepidation. Don’t get me wrong. Michael is a brilliant writer and I was thrilled to be reading his latest work. It was just that the title page stated that the play required the use of projection… and that is what made my palms sweat.
Let me explain.
British projection designer Tim Bird and I share a mantra: “Never do projection in the theatre.” As glib as that is, it speaks to an unavoidable truth. Yoking the disciplines of film and theatre together in a coherent and satisfying way is not an endeavor to be embarked on lightly.
Tim and I worked together on a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George, a production that started life small, off-West End in London, and ended up crossing the pond to Broadway with great success. It used projection, a lot of it, and the effort it took to accomplish what we set out to achieve almost did us in.
You see, film and theatre production share similar concepts, but their processes and workflow have almost opposite needs. Theatre is about developing a performance that can fully exist in the moment. Film is about capturing fragments of performance so that they can be skillfully arranged and aligned to create a whole.
In theatre you edit as you go; in film it comes at the end. Attempt the two at once and it’s like trying to solve which comes first, the filmic chicken or the theatrical egg. And it’s never a shortcut or a budget saver. Projection designers have to constantly push back against the idea that projection is cheap. Projection done well is expensive. I’m not just talking technology; I’m talking content—that which is projected. Thanks to the financial heft of TV, film and video games, a contemporary audience is very sophisticated when it comes to content.
But the thing about projection in theatre is not just the challenge of can it be done, it’s the question of should it be done…. Developments in technology through the last decade have seen projection become more and more common as an element in theatrical production. Projection designers, once a rare and peculiar breed, are now commonly spotted in a playbill. Projection in theatre has become ubiquitous, and as a tool used sparingly to enhance and subtly augment more traditional stagecraft, it’s often a beautiful thing. But it’s merely a tool, one of many, and leaning on it excessively and in unwarranted ways is like a carpenter crafting a table with only a hammer.
It’s when projection takes a front seat that the trouble often starts. I am talking about the explicit use of the moving or photographic image within the theatre— the use of photo/film/video as a significant element scenically and/or narratively.
The scenic question is easier to answer. If you project a large bustling New York street behind two actors engaged in a delicate romantic scene there’s going to be a conflict of interest: the audience’s. Most people will struggle to keep their eyes on the actors. There’s something hypnotic about the moving (or even photographic) image that pulls us in and seeks to conquer our attention. It can dominate and dwarf everything else. If you’ve ever sat in a bar with a sports game on a large flat screen you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Theatre is not a literal form. We sit together in the dark and watch actors perform in abstracted spaces— fragments (some more than others) of what they are designed to represent. Theatre engages our imagination; it asks us to complete the picture. Film works differently (though it too is best experienced together in the dark). Film, through a lens, presents us with fragments of the complete truth, shuffled together to create a string of progressive events, our imagination engaged in creating the illusion of consecutive time.
Time, I suppose, is the central issue, because it’s not just a question of what we are seeing, but of when we are seeing it. Film is inherently past tense; it has already happened. Theatre by its very nature is live. Whether Shakespeare or Mitnick, it is happening now—the audience is experiencing it in the moment, and its very nowness is essential to its power. Film says “this happened, this is something that happened,” while live performance says “this is happening, this is this.”
So that bustling street scene and those two actors are the combination of then and now. Just because we experience them both in dark rooms doesn’t mean that what we are experiencing is the same thing. They are different kinds of magic, and different kinds of magic don’t necessarily mix. I mean you’d hardly expect Dumbledore and Gandalf to share the same spell book. To let these two kinds of magic work together on stage one has to allow film to be part of the theatrical vocabulary—not an adjunct or an annex, but integral to the needs of the narrative. Projected imagery, for the most part, is too strong a force to be integrated surreptitiously or go unnoticed. It has to be there for a reason.
In the light of these concerns, I guess you’re wondering how my first reading of Ed, Downloaded went? Well, the fact that I’m directing its world premiere at The Denver Center should give you the short answer. The long one would go something like this…
What Michael has written demands the use of video, of recorded performance. There is no other way of doing it. It is integral to the language of the play; it’s vital to its theatrical vocabulary. Ed, Downloaded deals with memory, and in Michael’s writing, filmic imagery is vital to the vocabulary with which memory is portrayed.
Not only is film past tense, its relationship to how we remember is potent. People talk of “photographic memories” (and one can only wonder what people called an impressive ability to recall before photographic permanence arrived in 1822). Film critic Mark Kermode describes how film replicates “the peculiar card-shuffling experience of memory,” and how maybe that’s what allows our brains to so readily decipher the often complex code of edited film. In its sequential imagery, live action film is the simulation of how we remember, of how we dream. With Ed, Downloaded Michael has written a play that brilliantly exploits this relationship.
That’s not to say that in 20 years someone won’t successfully revive it without projection, unpick the needs of the play and triumphantly present it with finger puppets or some-such. That’s because the play is not about projection. It’s about the unexpectedly profound effect of one human being on another, and how love can radically change how we view ourselves. It’s about what we choose to remember and what we need to forget. It’s about how little we can ever really know. It’s about love. It’s about loss. It’s about iced cream.
Sam Buntrock, who staged this production of Ed, Downloaded, is a Tony-nominated British theatre director and former animator. He lives in New York. This article first appeared in Applause program magazine.