Patrons of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival may have noticed something startlingly different this summer on the Elizabethan Stage. Falling snow, trees echoing the lushness of Lithia Park, the face of a distant father appearing and speaking as a distraught daughter reads his words, an impish fairy spirit flitting from place to place — all of these images are projected onto the venerable Tudor facade.
These evocative video projections, designed and executed by Alexander V. Nichols, are now a part of the theatrical bag of tricks available — along with costumes, props, scenic design, lighting design and sound design — to enhance the action in OSF's "Cymbeline," "The Heart of Robin Hood" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Video projections have become integral to productions in other OSF theaters. In 2010, the video projections for "American Night" in the Thomas Theatre — by designer Shawn Sagady — and for "Throne of Blood" in the Bowmer Theatre — by designer Maya Ciarrocchi — provided key information about each play's time and place and advanced the story lines.
Nichols and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch have considered video projections on the Elizabethan Stage for several years. But projectors were not bright enough to work with the ambient, outdoors light and costs were prohibitive. Only recently, advances in video projection has made the machines much brighter ... and more affordable.
"When Bill made the decision last year to use a 'unit set' by Michael Ganio for all three outdoor productions, we began discussing using video to change the mood and change settings," Nichols says.
Nichols designed the system, utilizing three projectors, each focusing on a part of the facade above the actors. The projectors are located just above the balcony seats, below the roof line, while most of the theater's regular lighting equipment is located on a catwalk above the Allen Pavilion's roof.
The projectors represent a large capital investment: The computer equipment and the three projectors cost a total of $130,000 or about $43,000 each. OSF has applied for grants from two foundations to partially offset the cost.
Nichols uses a computer program to build a "mask," creating a stencil to block the pattern of the Tudor timbering — as well as the silhouettes of the actors — in the projections. The audience sitting in the theater only sees the images on the lighter portion of the facade. With the masking and the powerful light source, no work had to be done on the facade to turn it into a "screen."
"In the future, we'd like to add a fourth projector, to focus on the floor of the stage," Nichols adds.
Nichols collaborated with directors Rauch for "Cymbeline," Joel Sass for "The Heart of Robin Hood" and Christopher Liam Moore for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — as well as lighting designers David Weiner ("Cymbeline" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream") and Mary Louise Geiger ("The Heart of Robin Hood") — to create video projections to enhance the distinct design concepts of each play.
Nichols points out that the texture of the facade abstracts the imagery and gives it a fragmented quality.
"Literal ideas are problematic when you are projecting on to the facade," Nichols says.
With a summer curtain time of 8 p.m. and the shortening of daylight hours from mid-June through the end of September, the ambient light during the early portion of a performance in the Allen Pavilion will gradually diminish. Video projections in the early part of each play will then become visible with the earlier dusk.
With video projections utilized in all three theatres, OSF created a full-time position of video and projections supervisor, hiring Oscar Ramos, who will maintain the equipment and make any midseason adjustments.
"Designing distinct video projections for each director is a challenge," Nichols says. "I feel like the projections become another performer, another cast member."
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.