In early April, the projection design program at the Yale School of Drama will admit two students to the class of 2015, the third class admitted since the concentration was established in fall 2010. With the three-year program filled for the first time, the 18-month-old concentration is still seeking to define itself.
The youngest Master of Fine Arts program within the school’s design department, the projection design concentration focuses on a field that Drama School Dean James Bundy DRA ’95 said is becoming increasingly important in contemporary theater as more directors choose to incorporate video and still photography into their sets. Bundy added that the school seeks to train a new generation of designers in a growing area of the theater.
“Projection is everywhere,” said Wendall Harrington, a professional projection designer and the professor who devised the program.
Harrington added that 81 percent of the productions that opened on Broadway last year used projections in some way. The Broadway debut of “American Idiot,” the 2010 musical based on the music of the punk rock band Green Day, for instance, incorporated video projections into its backdrop, flashing images such as former President George W. Bush’s iconic “Mission Accomplished” banner to help recreate the mood of the Iraq War in 2003.
“One would be foolish to have any kind of theatrical design program that doesn’t include [projection design classes] in some way or the other,” said Harrington, who had for several years taught isolated courses in the field at the School of Drama prior to the institution of a full-fledged MFA concentration.
Harrington said Ming Cho Lee, the chair of the school’s design department, proposed the idea for a full projection design curriculum to her in 2010 and asked her to plan a course of study.
“It was a little scary because you have to really think up something brand new,” said Harrington.
Projections are more popular now because people watching and acting in productions have grown up watching television and accepting the idea of the ethereal as real, she added. Also, Harrington said, producers use projections because they are “cool and cost-effective.”
“Those are the two worst reasons to use projections, but them’s the facts,” she said.
Michael Bergmann DRA ’14, one of the two students admitted to the program last fall, said he believes the use of projection will continue to increase as it has in recent years. He added that when applying to drama schools, he found that Yale’s program was the only one that would give him the kind of projection training he sought.
“Nobody’s doing this,” said Harrington. “It’s us and CalArts [The California Institute of the Arts].”
Harrington, who has worked in projection design since the early 1970s, said she hopes to give students the kind of training she wishes someone had given her earlier in her career, when the use of projections was much more limited.
But the challenge in constructing a projection program, according to Harrington, is that “nobody knows what [the course] is or should be.” As a result, Harrington and her students have been designing the concentration as they go along.
“I was not nervous entering a young program,” said Hannah Wasileski DRA ’13, one of the pair of students that joined the program in its first year. “On the contrary, [I was] very excited to be a part of the new endeavor, and to be part of the process of discovering how a program teaching something so new can be sculpted.”
In the program’s first two years, students have worked not only on School of Drama productions, but on a range of shows put up by members of the wider Yale community such as the School of Music and an undergraduate dance group. Harrington said that she seeks to give her students exposure to as many projects as possible.
Bergmann said that he believes the program needs to bring in more instructors, preferably from the technical side of the field, to discuss how to deal with actual problems encountered on sets. Paul Lieber DRA ’13, who was admitted to the program with Wasileski, said he would like to do more practical work within the program, particularly involving installation.
“Hannah and I have been pushing for that since last year, and [next fall], with a full contingent of designers, that’s something we could do,” said Lieber.
Wasileski said that the introduction of two new students when she entered her second year had a positive effect on the perceived legitimacy of the projection design program.
“The support network has doubled and will only get better once the program reaches its full capacity,” she added.
Increasing the number of students in the concentration means more work will have to be sought out, Harrington noted. She added that she prioritizes giving each of her students opportunities to work on actual productions and go on trips to New York to see professional designers at work. But restrictions on the school’s teaching hours, which only run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to give students time to work on productions, limit time available for field trips, Harrington said.
Enrolling in the program and working on productions has been eye-opening, Lieber said.
“We’re truly learning the power of the image, and how it can dwarf anything else on stage,” he said. “I could never have known that, working on a small scale.”
Even as a professional in t he field of projection for theater, Harrington said she hopes to train her designers to understand the proper use of projections, given their potentially overwhelming visual impact and directors’ inclination to overuse the tool.
Harrington said that not every show requires a projected component. She added that she is known for walking out of meetings with directors whose shows she felt did not need her work, and that she wants her students to have the confidence to do the same.
“I love teaching designers but I also want to teach the directors … that projections are not the punchlines of shows,” said Harrington.
Since the establishment of the projection design concentration, Harrington has taught a range of courses on projection design that are open to all students at the school.
Liz Diamond, chair of the school’s directing program, said that students in her department who have worked with Harrington have found the experience “terrifically valuable,” helping them as collaborators and challenging them to question why they believe their shows need projections.
The question for the contemporary director, Diamond said in an email, is how to use projection as a vehicle for metaphor, not just illustration. 1.