Projected Photography as a Means for Creating An Off-Broadway Set

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When director Rick Mowat needed a quick and inexpensive solution for staging a play that involved multiple street locations and a hospital room, he turned to New York City photographer Stephen Andrus and a Panasonic projector. The nearly carpentry- and paint-free production of the new drama, Coda (For Freddie Blue) by Fred Crecca, can be seen June 10 - 13 at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, 340 W. 47 St.

The play, mainly in English, is about a rising Latino jazz musician who is accidentally shot by the police while arguing with his boyhood pal, Freddie Blue, an ex-con. To get the look and feel of places like Tompkins Square Park or the hood, Mowat asked Andrus to supply a selection of street art he's captured at night during the last three years. Andrus, a longtime B&H customer, uses a Nikon D700 Full Frame camera body with three lenses: a Nikon f/2.8 70-200mm, Sigma f/2.8 24-70mm, and Tamron f/3.5-4.5 19-35mm. He works strictly with ambient light, often using a tripod.

With a limited budget and the reality of accommodating five different settings in a 160-seat theater for a play due to run only five performances, Mowat said, "it would be ludicrous to build a set around it." So, he decided to go with a mostly virtual set. Also, the savings would help pay for an on-stage jazz trio.

This is the fifth PRTT production that Andrus has been associated with, though the first in which his photos are being incorporated in the play itself rather than being used to promote the play (as above for Coda) or its cast. According to Mowat, choosing a few backdrops from the many graffiti-infused wall murals submitted by Andrus was tough, but in the end he went with the most colorful and high-contrast images including the one below:

In addition to drawing on the Andrus archive, Mowat required new photography showing a Bronx apartment and a hospital room where the protagonist lies in a coma. Though a real bed would be placed on stage, Mowat dispatched Andrus to Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, NJ, to shoot a hospital room to fill out the rest of the set.

Mowat chose a ceiling-hanging Panasonic PT-AX200U front projector to create the set's backdrops. Attached by a 50-foot-long HDMI cable to a MacBook in the control booth, the PT-AX200U forms an approximately 20-foot image on a scrim-type screen. (B&H offers a wide variety of scrim sizes, textures, frames, and kits.) Though the image is hitting at an angle, keystone control in the projector keeps the image rectangular. The screen's cheesecloth-like material helps to grunge-up images, an artistic decision by Mowat. Besides being able to show silhouettes of the actors when light is projected from behind the scrim, which he calls "a more ethereal look," he says that "the screen is not super reflective. It distorts light, which for me is kind of enticing."

Tickets are available at the theater, (212) 354-1293. The photographer's portfolio can be viewed on Flickriver at Stephen Andrus Photographs Sets.

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A virtual set? How cool!