Welcome to my post-show projection chat with Shannon Khatcheressian!
Shannon is an amazing director and person and I’ve had the joy of working with her 3 times now—creating projection backdrops for Annie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and now, Pride and Prejudice. Shannon is incredibly creative and one of those movers and shakers that is always looking to innovate and find cool ways to not only improve the quality of her productions, but also give her high school students lasting memories, skills and experiences. For Pride and Prejudice, she and her team had the idea to build 10’x12′ tall Victorian windows on stage as a part of her set, and then rear project imagery that would give an artful sense of location, time period and mood. She also worked with our Theatre Avenue team to incorporate subtle animation into the projections, giving the show a ‘wow-factor’ not often seen in your standard period drama. So, without further ado, my chat with Shannon.
Mitch: Tell me how the show went and the highlights?
Shannon: It was fantastic! So we have a lot of female talent this year and decided to go with ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ which worked out great. I think our biggest challenge was trying to ensure that it was accessible and entertaining to high school students. Anytime you’re doing a period piece you take that risk but we really played up the comedic elements and the dynamics between the characters worked out really well. So we had a lot of fun. It was really well received. We had a LOT of fun with costumes in this show. Our student techs had a great opportunity to work with a great costume designer who came in and showed them how to cut patterns. So, the show offered a much bigger opportunity to both the actors and the creative and tech kids than I actually originally thought.
Mitch: Where did the idea first come from to use projections as the windows (looking outside)?
I was trying to figure out a way, since we had to change to four different locations. And we don’t have a fly system within our space. So if we utilize that box set, did small changes with the walls and changed the exterior view from the window, I thought that that would be a nice subtle change. A way to help with the change of location. And then also during the transitions when we moved from the Bennet House to Lady Catherine’s House, utilizing that (the projections) during the blackouts so the audience would have something to look at visually.
At one scene change we had 35 cast and crew members moving furniture on and off and trying to ensure we had 12 second transitions. I think that’s one of the biggest hiccups in high school theatre is you’ll have these great directorial choices and everyone focuses on the acting and you’ll have a 30 or 60 second transition and it takes people out of it. We didn’t want to lose them within the context of the show. We had to keep things moving.
Mitch: And how was the reaction (of the projections) from the audience?
The audience loved it! I think the fact that you were so subtle in your use of small movement, so when the clouds were moving across, that was one of those things that you would hear people in the audience go, “Oh!” It was just enough for them to acknowledge it and appreciate it without it distracting from the show itself. We had teachers and family members ask to go backstage to see how it worked.
It was so simple but beautifully effective. Which I think is great. I don’t think you need to overdo theatre. I think that’s happening a lot now. We’re sort of losing the essence of the storytelling. But this is a perfect blend of utilizing technology to help tell the story without it becoming a big light show.
Mitch: Yeah, without it upstaging what you should be looking at, which is the actors…
Shannon: Right, and especially in a show like ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ If you don’t get your audience to buy in on the text and to listen to every word, you’re going to be struggling when they’re trying to catch up. And follow the storyline and who’s in love with who and who’s breaking up with who. So, the blend ended up being perfect.
Mitch: You mentioned that you borrowed some projectors for this?
Shannon: We did. So within our school county, you can reach out and utilize projectors and screens. We have an amazing IT guy at our school. When we told him what we were doing, he had a short throw projector. And so we did rear projection, but we only really had about 8 ft. (behind the screens/set) to work with. And so we tried the short throw projector and it worked perfectly! It was like the theatre gods were in our favor.
So we had one projector [laughs]. And then we started looking online and purchase was just astronomical. But then our IT guy reached out to our county and they were able to track one down for us. They even dropped it off at our school. We were really blessed in that team effort from school and county to make it happen.
Mitch: I love that. So you were just able to reach out within your network and find a second projector. Were those projectors bright enough?
Shannon: Yes. This is the first time that we’ve done rear projection. We normally would do the throw from the back of the house and we found that we lost so much in the distance and the lighting. So the nice thing about the windows (screens) is that they were so far upstage. I intentionally didn’t put a lot of action by the windows. So we tried to utilize a lot of down light and make sure we didn’t have any of our (ambient) light hitting those projections. So we finally did it (rear projection). And I’ve been working with you on a couple of shows. I was so thrilled with the intensity. That I didn’t have to sacrifice the actor space.
For the transitions, the projections are so beautiful that you want to give them their stage time. And this worked! I’m telling you, that rear projection and especially with the short throw (lens), 8 feet away—that worked out beautifully. We had two kids on each projector and they were actually on a headset. And they used Google Hangout because we have wired Tel-X. We needed to ensure that they both hit the spacebar (to transition from one slide to the next) at the same time. So they came up with Google Hangout on their own, tucked in their earbuds and had a microphone. That’s how they communicated.
Mitch: That’s so cool! So you had two separate laptops and you just coordinated between the two of them?
Shannon: Yep, that’s exactly what they did. And even orchestrating that. We took a good two hours to ensure those transitions (worked). I was like “Guys, there’s no way either one of you can come up even a half second earlier than the other one.” It’s just like if you do choreography. You say, “Okay, run it again.” Those transitions with your crew, 20 times in a row, ensure that they’re just as polished as every other aspect of the the show.
Mitch: Wow! And so were you guys using Keynote software on a Mac?
Shannon: They used QLab on a Mac. I have another theatre teacher that I work with and he’s very familiar with QLab. He was really instrumental in making sure this ran smoothly. And then his lovely wife let us borrow her Mac as well. So they were out some laptops for about a week and a half (laughing). But yes, we did two separate Macs.
Mitch: Now as far as the screens go, did you guys build those yourself?
Shannon: You know, we actually purchased those. They were projections screens. I know the color options (for the screen) were between a white, a light gray and a light blue. The white one was substantially more expensive. So we decided to go with that light gray because our screens would never be without a projection on it. So to save that money we went with the gray. But the projections were beautiful and crystal clear on it so we didn’t lose anything.
Mitch: And so do you have those screens now?
Shannon: We did, we purchased them. And we literally cut them to fit the frame of our windows and then we just stapled them in. So we kept them because they weren’t exactly ‘insane expensive’ but enough that you rolled them up and stored them very nicely in case you want to use them again.
Mitch: Totally! Now, I know you’ve done projections a few times. If you were to do them again, how would you make it even better?
Shannon: You know, they worked perfectly. They really did. I think the biggest part of it is your flexibility and communication in ensuring that it comes out.
I’m sure every high school director has a different vision and us just talking about, ‘Okay, this color was a little different than I intended, or the clouds moved a little too fast.’ I think that’s such a huge tribute to you. The fact that you can create something that I can describe but would never in a million years be able to make on my own. And the fact that it’s affordable for high school theatre programs.
I think if we had added any more it would have been too much and I think that would have pulled (taken away) from it.
It’s funny to have the ‘wow-factor’ in a show like ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ It was just simple and it was tasteful and it really just helped set the mood and the tone.
Especially when they jumped from the countryside and went into London. It’s a period piece. A lot of our teenagers right now probably aren’t quite sure what London looked like in 1810. Is it similar to DC or Chicago? It’s all so different. The setting of it really just worked out great.