Interview with Marty Karp about Theatre Projections

Marty Karp, A/V specialist, tech guru, director of marketing at Show Sage LLC

I met Marty Karp at the 2017 edTA National Conference in Nashville this past September. Marty was there as an exhibitor talking up his projection playback software called Watchout. After talking to Marty for about an afternoon and also having him provide some incredibly valuable insights at our Theatre Avenue workshop, I knew he would be a great person to interview. Marty is very knowledgable about projections, sees clearly how this technology can change the theatrical landscape big and small—but above all things, Marty is kind, generous with his time and ideas, and the caliber of professional whose musings I’m proud to share. So here you are, a chat with my friend Marty Karp about projections and how you might get started with the supplies and tech that are available to you right now.

MITCH: You have a lot of good insights, Marty. Let’s say a high school teacher came up to you and just wanted to get started with projection, and they were just looking for a simple recommendation. For instance, what kind of projector they should look at purchasing. How would you recommend that they get started?

MARTY: I’m assuming that you’re speaking of a performance venue, right?

MITCH: Yes. So maybe not a middle school auditorium, but more like a high school theatre space. Where they are looking to make a little bit of an investment but they are probably not looking at a 10,000 lumen (lumens=brightness) projector, but maybe somewhere between 5 and 10. They just need something they can use that will last them for a little while. What would your recommendation be there, Marty?

MARTY: As I mentioned, I do recommend finding somebody that knows projectors, like a local dealer. Perhaps they are already dealing with one. Usually if there is any kind of auditorium, they have an audio system and they have lighting system, they work with somebody, probably on an ongoing basis, to support that from an A/V standpoint. And maybe the school district has a contract. One of the things I mentioned, and I’m not trying to plug a particular brand, but Epson has a very very strong presence in the school market and the education market and the secondary and upper education market. Epson probably has the biggest presence and so a lot of school districts have contracts with them.

So call your local Epson dealer and say ‘Hey, take a look at this space…where is the best place to place the projectors for various types of uses and what size projector or projectors do I need to give me the coverage?’ I think that’s a good way of doing it because there’s lots of ‘angles’ so to speak, I’ll use that term, because literally there are lots of angles. And so you want to make sure that you have a projector that is going to meet all of your needs, from any type of, not only just performance or scenic projection. But also when you are in there having any type of gathering and school function in the auditorium, you want to make sure that you have the flexibility, and that a projector will be able to handle all these types of situations based on the size of the venue, based on the size of your backstage space, based where you can place things so that you’re not going to have…interference. Especially if you can use it in multiple locations. That brings in having the right lenses in play as well, because there is such a wide variety of lenses you can get these days for these various environments. I think it is good to get a projector where you can swap out lenses, because then if you decide to take that projector and use it backstage for a rear projection or on a site, you can make those changes by having or renting different lenses.

If anyone is going to make an investment in a projector, I recommend bringing in the local dealer for the school and get some ideas from them.

MITCH: I’ve talked to technical directors too about the actual projection surface. One in particular told me that when you’re thinking about the arsenal of things you need to make projection work, he said that really the surface can be one of the last things because you can use a wall or bed sheets or you can use any kind of white or light gray surface to make it work. If you were a community theatre director or a high school director and somebody was asking you for some recommendations on ‘Where do I get started with a projection surface?’ Where would you recommend they get started and then how would they upgrade from there?

MARTY: I think what you heard is relatively accurate. You don’t need to have a precision projection surface for most scenic projection. Because remember, most people are very far back, so from that standpoint they are not going to notice sort of the resolution of a high tech projection surface. So you have a lot more flexibility if you’re in an auditorium environment when it comes to projection surfaces.

There’s lots of things from your simple flats that are coated. If you want to make it a better projection surface, there’s a fairly inexpensive thing called Screen Goo that can be painted on (a surface like wood) for projection. And then there’s companies like Rose Brand that have lots to offer there.

In addition to Rose Brand making all kinds of great screen material that you can buy in bulk, there is a company called Stretch Shapes with a line called Stretch Screens. They’re inexpensive, lightweight, and very movable. Mount it anywhere you want. Those are kind of nice for portability and relative low cost, just as a projection screen. We’ve done it where we’ve mounted it with a piece of plywood and there are cutouts in the plywood so you have projection surfaces and what’s really nice about that is you’ve got a piece of plywood with cutouts in it and a screen behind it and with Watchout (specialized playback software) you can use the masking so that you’re only projecting on those cutouts. You can have one projector, but you can have it projecting on multiple cutouts on a large surface as if you had multiple projections going.

MITCH: As you’re talking about screens, let’s say a community theatre director or teacher or even semi-professional is looking to fabricate some sort of frame. I’ve seen everything from wooden to PVC piping frames. Is there anything else that you’d recommend?

MARTY: Those would both be good low cost ways of doing it, absolutely. When we are creating our trade show displays we are always looking for simple, easy ways to mount a projection screen. PVC pipe is a great idea. If you’ve got something that’s relatively lightweight, like the Stretch Screens, or any kind of a wood frame, absolutely. There’s no magic or nothing really special there.

MITCH: When you think of the advantages of using digital projections versus some of the more traditional means like fabric drops, what are some of the cool things or advantages to using digitally projected images?

MARTY: I think again the fact that you can customize it to whatever scenic elements you have and make sure you’re taking into account whatever else is out on stage, but the fact that you can combine both static and dynamic imagery makes it a lot more interesting. The fact that there’s no incremental cost for creating this type of scenery. You’re doing it all digitally. And the fact that you aren’t wasting other types of materials that do cost money.

And I think the imagery becomes a lot more interesting when you can do it that way. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the show Chinglish. Projection, believe it or not, started at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago but then wound up going to Broadway. And they had a fairly unique set, and because part of the production is spoken word in Chinese, they would project subtitles in different places on the custom built proscenium and different scenic elements depending on who was talking and where they were on the stage. They would project subtitles as part of the scenic elements for when people are speaking Chinese. So there’s just a lot of interesting things that you can do.

MITCH: I’ve talked to a lot of teachers and directors who, after certain conferences, if there’s a lot of “techy talk” or if they feel like there’s a significant expense to just getting started, it’s just enough of a barrier that it prevents them from even getting started. If you were talking to one of those people who maybe came up to your booth and they’re interested in projections, saying “Gosh, I love this idea, I’m just not sure if I can get started.” What would you say to them or encourage them with? What would be some things you’d say just to help them understand that this is a possibility for them?

MARTY: That’s actually a really good question, Mitch. To me the answer is, this is sort of the natural progression because if you go back a handful of years it was much more costly to do this, and this was that thing that was used in big staging events where they had large budgets. And then over time as both the technology and hardware has come down in cost and has improved more capability. It started finding itself in sort of lower valued types of uses and events. And then it started getting used in Broadway and public theatre applications, and it’s started trickling into the university performing arts. And I think sort of the natural progression at this point is that people in high school that are really interested in stagecraft and theatre design and production design, they are going to need to use the tools that they are using at the next level, which is at the college level, and in professional theatre.

So it’s sort of the natural progression, and over the years the cost of doing this has come down quite a bit and what you can do with it has just gone through the roof.

And yes, today it may look a little intimidating from a cost and getting started standpoint, but I think that as new auditoriums are built, as the auditoriums are getting retrofitted with more equipment, I think this is going to be a significant part of it. So I think, it’s funny because a couple of people that I spoke to at the conference (edTA National Conference) really really got it that they are going to have to start going this way and they already knew walking in there but a lot of people didn’t—they just said “You know I’ve seen it, I’ve heard so much about it, I want to start learning more about it,” but it is very new to a lot of the people. But I think that’s it’s a part of the natural progression.

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