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Projection technology brings new light to 'Voyage'

{{youtube:medium|QBddGvCqbHc, W&M theatre: Projecting the "Voyage."}}

Modern technology is bringing 19th-century Russia to light -- quite literally -- on the William & Mary stage this weekend as the Department of Theatre presents Tom Stoppard’s “Voyage.”

The production is utilizing projection technology to create a variety of kinetic backdrops for the show, ranging from an opulent salon to a dilapidated hovel. Although the department has used some projections in previous shows, this is the first time that a William & Mary production has used the technology to this degree.

“One of the major ideas in the show is that it spans a great extent of rural and urban Russia in the early 19th century,” said Matthew Allar, assistant professor of theatrical design. “Of course, when you are talking about things of epic proportions, you need to respond with epic ideas. With that in mind, the idea of projecting that imagery, of projecting emotional content in addition to kind of literal ideas seemed like a really exciting idea for us.”

Once the idea was born, the quest began “to find the perfect image,” said Allar.

“We sort of adopted a crowd-sourcing mentality with that, so amongst our production crew, many individuals – the director Richard Palmer, myself as the scenic designer, our projection engineer Megan Hamilton, our technical director David Dudley, my student assistant Bianca Hamp – all of us have spent a number of hours combing through books and slides and digital imagery to find things that would fit what we’re talking about the best.”

Photography was in its infancy in the 1830s, so the team was able to scour black-and-white photos from the era in which the play is set. They also looked through period-appropriate paintings, which became a “fairly wealthy source of information for us,” said Allar.

Once the images they wanted to use were identified, the scenic design team then began the work of digitizing and manipulating the images to “fit our size parameters but also our dramaturgical parameters, so what is that image doing in terms of storytelling, which often means quite a bit of graphic work to make the image fit the nature of our play.”

For instance, in order to show an interior and exterior of a wealthy, country home, the scenic design team blended several images together and manipulated them even further to show the scene in different seasons.

Hamilton ‘09, associate technical director, took the lead on the next step of the process, loading the images into a program called Isadora and working out the timing and transitions for the projections so that in scenes like the aforementioned, the audience almost sees the leaves changing right before their eyes.

“That takes some special attention to graphically build those transitions, and allows our students, too, to think of things not only as they first present themselves as source material but also how they can manipulate that as they continue to evolve as the play evolves,” said Allar.

Creating those kinetic images is one of the benefits of using projections technology over traditional backdrops, said Hamilton.

“You can get that movement in there that you can’t have with painted scenery,” she said. “It also allows you to do things like give subtitles to tell your audience when you are and where you are, which is important in a show like ‘Voyage’ because it takes place over such a broad span of time. That way you don’t have to have a person standing there with a card that says, ‘oh look, now we’re here.’”

Allar also noted the educational benefits of using such technology, which is becoming increasingly common in theatre productions as well as events like the Olympics.

“It’s a chance for all of us -- and when I say all of us I mean students, faculty staff -- to learn about this emerging type of art form,” he said. “I think to some extent it will be a learning experience for our audiences, too, who probably haven’t seen this type of technology used in our space before.”

Hamilton, who majored in theatre at William & Mary and has worked at the university for four academic years now, said that she was excited to see the department using more projection technology.

“The students are also starting to incorporate this, so this is something that I hope we can start using more and more to a greater extent,” she said. “There are a lot of shows out in the professional world now that use it … it’s very much the future of scenery.”

Although the new technology is an exciting element of the show, Allar is quick to point out that it is just part of what makes the ‘Voyage’ story come to life.

“Certainly one of the most exciting things to watch on stage isn’t the scenery,” he said. “It’s the performer, and this features a very, very large cast in incredibly elaborate and exciting garments very specific to the period.

“When you have a backdrop that’s essentially created by the projection world and with moving, articulately clothed individuals in period garb in front of it with certain specific furniture pieces, our hope is that you get a real sense of the atmospheric content.”

“Voyage” runs through Feb. 20-23 in Phi Beta Kappa Hall. Visit the box office website or call 757-221-2674 for more information.