“Wizard of Oz” — Post-Show Chat with Michael Montgomery

Artistic Director Michael Montgomery talks to projection designer Mitch Stark about Wizard of Oz, and how digital backdrops brought an animated life to several scenes.

Mitch: So Michael, tell me about how The Wizard of Oz went.

Michael: It went great! Overall, big success. I think we blew people away quite frankly.

We are a community theatre at heart. What does community theatre mean? I think people associate community theatre with low budget maybe and that’s true, although I don’t think we are low budget compared to other theatres, so that gives us a bit of a leg up. We are probably one of the more quality-driven theaters in the area, so I think community theatre to us doesn’t mean low quality. A lot of the very same actors and artists who have done this either professionally or regionally professionally or in college are on our stage and they are working our theatre. And people know that. We’ve won several awards for acting, directing, stage and scenic, costuming, and the one thing we strive for is to be able to alter our side of the community which is in Northwest Houston which is a pretty trip to do to downtown Houston to see a show.

So out in the suburb we offer a lower priced, more value-driven, high quality option to our subscriber base—our fans, and the area and community in general. When we go to a larger venue like we did and play to 500 people in the audience and still sell those out, that says something about your production value if a lot of people don’t want to pay $80-90 to go see a show downtown. There are people in our production who work downtown as well, but they like to work at our theatre, they live out this way. So the bottom line is, I think our production was the very high value, high quality, fun surprise to many type of production.

Mitch: How did the projections work out?

Michael: Fantastic. Blew people away. There were a couple moments where with the cast and production team, because they don’t get to see a lot of the work or some of the exchanges [me and Theatre Ave] had, they didn’t get to see anything until that week of tech week. And they didn’t see it until it was on the large screen. And I have to tell you, it was an “Oooooh” and “Ahhhh” moment when the first one, just the black and sepia-looking scene came up, and then the tornado started. And then you add in all the other effects, and it was fantastic.

There were some technical challenges that we had to overcome on our end. There were a couple little things that I would change in the next production, but from a quality-of- production, in terms of the special effects and the projections and the imagery and the video, it was phenomenal. Absolutely fantastic. And I have to tell you, they were better than I’ve seen anywhere in any production, including if you go out there and “Google”, because there are tons of videos out there, and I don’t think anybody has done it this way before.

Mitch: Did you use one or two projectors, or how did you make it work?

Michael: We had to use two. So what we did was we used a software called QLab and in QLab we use that for all of our sound and lighting cues, we automate it. And then when we are doing shows that involve recorded music, we use QLab extensively. And we use it for things like videos, special effects, sound effects – controlling the automation of the show. What we did was, we actually threw all of the projections and the videos into QLab as a cue. Then we created a slave machine because the distance from our sound booth and using the Internet and the cabling that’s needed, we decided to use the Internet. So we decided to use a slave machine that we put back backstage and we put the slave machine into two projectors. And then we fired from rear projection on the split screen. And part of the pre-show checklist was to – because we had those projectors permanently set on a platform, but the reality is things happen in a theatre, they move and adjust, so you’ve got to make micro-adjustments on the pre-show to make sure the split screen fits together uniformly so nobody sees that split between the two images.

Mitch: How big of a space were you trying to fill?

Michael: So that was predetermined. It is predetermined how far back we can go to set the projectors and how wide the stage was. We wanted to get it as big as possible, which would be 45ft across the stage and 17ft high. But because of the distance between the real wall of the theatre and where we were setting the projection screen, the best we could get was about 16ft high and 35 ft wide. So it’s huge. So what we did was we closed upstage, we added some legs that framed the projection screen, and so it gave it an effect where as you walked up stage it got smaller, which worked well when they went to Oz. Basically we tapered it so downstage at the audience it was wider than upstage by about probably 8ft. It slowly tapered in 8ft and got smaller.

Mitch: Were you using short throw projectors, or what projectors were you using?

Michael: I can get the names for you. What we did was, we know someone who does all sorts of multimedia presentations, he is actually a professional runway photographer for fashion shows around the world, and he actually is a multimedia expert. He lent us two huge, very large, 5000 EPI-type projectors. I forget which kind, they weren’t Canons. I’ll find out. You can get the projector pretty readily, you just need to rent it or buy it, or you know somebody. That was one of the challenges quite frankly. For a stage that size you can’t just use… but I’m sure you canjust go to Best Buy and buy one of these projectors. But it’s going to cost you 2K – 3K. We have a few projectors in our home theatre that are great, about $600, we have two of those. But those won’t handle that type of detail on that type of scale.

Mitch: Did you guys build a screen yourselves or did you have a material you were projecting through from the rear?

Michael: That was another one of the technical challenges! What we concluded was that the screen that we really wanted to buy or have so that you don’t have those two little bulbs that show on your stage from the lighting in the back. That’s the screen that we want to actually have made and buy, but once we got into it it was going to cost about $2000.

This is one decision I wish I could go back and fix. What could be considered a good screen… it was an actual cyc (cyclorama). It’s something that should diffuse, it just depends on how far back you are, just depends on a lot of factors. And I said “Ok, I’ll take a chance.” And it was a third of the price. So we had it specially made, we loaded it up, weighted it down so it was a permanent fixture, and turn on the projectors and BAM – you
could see the little lights from the projectors now. This is where the artistic decision was made. There were two ways to fix it. One way is to get a whole other screen made, built and installed. The problem was we just moved into the theatre and by the time that was going to happen it would be a week and a half. So the next decision was we could put the projectors on the floor below the projection line and shoot them upward at the screen, and what you’d probably get because of the way the projections are made, what we figured out, is that you wouldn’t see much of the light because it would diffuse the light since it would be out of the perview of when someone sits in the audience. They would not be looking down at the floor, they’d be looking up.

So we did that for one rehearsal. The challenge with that was logistical. We would have had to build these massive stairways and platforms so that our actors could move from stage left to stage right, because we were up against the wall – there was no room to walk behind it. Because (we) needed the depth because of the stage and the flying. So we could have moved the screen up 10 or 15 ft so you can walk behind, but we would have lost the flying space. So with a combination of it’s a little bit of experimenting because we kind of knew what we were going to do and how to do it, we just weren’t sure what we were going to see, but now I know. So if someone comes and calls me and asks “How do you handle this?” I’d tell them the first thing you need to do is do a heavy walk… We did measurements beforehand. We went through there and figured out if we project we can put it here… and we knew that we were going to have to go against the wall because our expert was telling us that there was no way we could get the bright projection unless you are against the wall because it’s about 20 feet by 20 feet.

We knew we were going to end up there. What I didn’t think about in advance was maybe I should have made some walkways and just assumed they were going to be on the floor. But regardless…during the tornado it looked like maybe the sun was still in the back. I had a few people comment from it like “Oh it was great, I just wished you all would have diffused that thing” but most people didn’t care they just loved it.

It’s pretty awesome to see it up on the screen and once you add the lightning and the sounds, surround sound, it was pretty cool. It felt like a freight train coming down on top of you. And once you went to the swirling of the clouds, those lights actually became interesting because it was kind of in the clouds, so it was interesting. That’s the other thing I would have done differently too if I had time, energy and resources, I would have done a cool affect and went neutral on it. We added light to the stage, so it felt a little like a Willy Wonka moment.

Mitch: If someone was coming to you, like another director or producer, and they just wanted to get started with projections, what would be some of your main tips to help remove the initial barriers or fears?

Michael: Number one, I think working with [Theatre Ave] is a major … having someone who is confident on your end who exudes confidence about what we are doing, that is the most important thing. Because I had faith that what you were doing was going to match exactly the way you were describing it, so I didn’t have any doubts about what you were producing. Make sure you find an advisor who is making these projections or making this visual effect, and make sure that advisor is well-rounded, understands, listens, and knows what you’re getting into. Second thing I would say have an advisor on the end. In other words you may think you’re a
media expert, but you’re not a neutral media expert. So what happens is you have a predisposed position. Bring in somebody, in community theatre you bribe people or pay a little fee, but get somebody who understands large projections. That may sound daunting but it’s not. They are in your community, you just have to reach out and throw the vine out there and somebody will hook on.

Third thing is know what you’re projecting up. Make sure that you are aware of your set, and fully aware of your set design. You can’t MacGyver this, because you’re already going to have to MacGyver when you get in to install, because you’re always going to have problems with the set install in any venue, nothing goes perfect. So you’re already going to be in MacGyver mode. But to MacGyver-mode projections that are such a critical part of your set design, that’s hard. And the Damn Yankees one … my set design team made the screen before you produced the projection, and because of the angle we couldn’t get the exact keystoning, because of the
angling our keystoning was kind of funky. Well had we known the keystoning wasn’t going to be exactly…angle-to-screen, that was already keystoned…so we were trying to keystone on a keystone…It was just a miscommunication. They designed something before we had the projection. The great part about what we did the second time is that I waited for you to give me a firm understanding of the projections, then I designed the screen shot, so we left some of it neutral until we knew exactly what we had. That way we didn’t shoot ahead and end up with a bunch of things that didn’t fit or work. So we were great in that regard, we just thought the screen would diffuse more. And that was the other thing I was saying … when you’re buying a screen for these things or you’re projecting on something again, make sure you know your material you’re projecting on. Whether it’s paint … because you’d be shocked how your projections are diffused or you can see things behind there, that would be the other thing.

And the fourth thing would be cost. Be sure you are aware of everything it’s going to cost you. Because these are actually a great, great thing to use. We are going to do Bonnie and Clyde and we’re going to be doing potentially some projections…we are going to use projections but not sure if we’re going to use animation. I’m working with my set designer and already going to make sure they understand that whatever they design and we’re going to project on if it’s going to get the diffuser distorted. The skills are still not all there in the market and who you have on your team, but if you do have somebody who understands video and building sets around video, it’s a weapon.

To view or even purchase Theatre Avenue’s Wizard of Oz projections for your show, click here.

Michael Montgomery is currently a Senior Talent Advisor for Oracle Corporation by day (the third largest software company in the world), and is Stageworks Theatre’s Artistic Director by night and weekends.

Associated with Stageworks Theatre since 2011 as a Board Member, Director, Producer, Stage Manager and Designer, Michael Montgomery has served in a variety of roles, serving as Artistic Director since 2016.  Prior to this, he served five years on the main stage as Director of Production Services. Director credits include The Three Musketeers, Damn Yankees and Oliver.  Prior Producer, design and production team contribution credits include Footloose, The Odd Couple, Peter Pan, The Little Shop of Horrors, Freud’s Last Session, Amadeus, Lend me a Tenure, The Foreigner, Into The Woods, A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, 1776, Fiddler on the Roof and Annie.  Upcoming Productions in 2017 include the Houston community theatre premiere of Peter and The Starcatcher, as well as The Elephant Man and The Wizard of Oz.  Awards during Michael’s tenure include 2015 Broadwayworld.com’s Director of the Year for The Three Musketeers, Broadwayworld.com’s 2014, 2015, 2016 award for Most Improved Theatre in Houston.  Several other Broadwayworld.com and Houston Press awards for actor of the year, musical of the year, lighting design, sound design, choreography and costumes for Peter Pan, the Musical, Footloose and Fiddler on the Roof.

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