When I was six or seven, my father had purchased my annual dance recital video, and we watched it as a family. We had just finished the opening number and I said, “I didn’t know the stage looked so cool!” My mother explained that those were the older girls who competed, thinking I was talking about the routine I had just seen for the first time. I corrected her and said, “No! I didn’t know the lights changed colors and made the stage look pretty! Did my dance do that?” Now, I don’t remember what my own routine looked like that year, but I do know that’s when I first started paying attention to technical elements. When we saw shows, I was aware that if all I saw were actors on a stage—no sets, costumes, or scenery–I would be having a very different experience and reaction to what I saw. My favorite show of the 2016-2017 Broadway season was Anastasia. This holds true for many reasons, but I have yet to stop talking about the choices made by the creative team on this production. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Aaron Rhyne, the Projection Designer for Anastasia, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and Bonnie and Clyde. We talked about what projection design can be, his creative process, and what working on the creative team is like for him.
S: How did you get into theatre?
A: I guess I was sort of enamored with it in high school. I was in plays and I studied it in college. I started at Fordham studying acting, and quickly changed to directing. When I graduated, I ended up doing a lot of video work and that’s how I found myself in projection design.
S: Do you remember what your first show was?
A: My family has all these stories about how I just loved shows as a kid. Even at eight months old, moving around to music. I think I was always just excited by seeing shows. The first show I remember seeing was a community theatre production of Annie.
S: Anastasia’s going to be a lot of people’s first show. Does that change how you approached your part in it?
A: It doesn’t change how I approached designing it. The story and the relationships between the characters guided me in designing the show. I didn’t really think about that until after it was finished and seeing how it’s impacting audiences. But now, I think it’s really cool that that’s going to be someone’s first show, and that my work was a part of it.
S: How would you explain projection design to someone who’s not familiar to it?
A: It can be a lot of different things: it can be projectors, LED walls. It’s graphics and videos and animations and how those are all applied to the theatre in various ways. Maybe it’s something historical and you’re looking for footage. Maybe it’s like Anastasia and it’s based on photographs and it’s based on real events and places. Maybe it’s completely original and it’s all new animation. Basically, it’s video-based set design. You’re creating an environment for something to take place but your tool is video, not something physical.
S: As a part of the creative team, what advice do you have for being a productive member of a collaborative effort?
A: It becomes second nature over time. When you’re learning to do that, there’s a tendency for it to become competitive or someone feels like they’re not being heard, but with time the best collaborators all bring the best ideas to the room. Mine is video, the writer writes the material, and so on. If we all approach it together, the process is just love because we’re all working towards the goal of telling the story. Once everyone realizes that it isn’t competitive and you’re all together, it’s an incredible experience, and that is why I love what I do.
S: I also got to see your work in Bonnie and Clyde. How different was it working on Anastasia versus Bonnie and Clyde? Do you do research?
A: For Bonnie and Clyde, everything was about research and finding material from police records and imagery from real events and that impacted the design and the show overall. While Anastasia is based on real people, it really is a fairytale, so it’s very different. The goals and the rules for every show is determined by the team, and it varies based on what story you’re trying to tell.
S: For Anastasia, was there any pressure on you to replicate what its shown or represented in the animated film in terms of your design?
A: We were inspired by two movies, the animated feature being one of them, and then these are also people that did exist. The animated film made a bigger impact than we realized, and yes, I wanted to have the visuals be as exciting as the animated film, but the animated film is different and iconic in its own right. It’s Don Bluth and it could look silly to see a hand-drawn images onstage surrounding everything else in three dimensions. I wanted to create something stunning and beautiful that would be on par with people’s feelings towards the animated film, but I wanted it to look more real with the actors onstage. It’s fantasy, so the colors are exaggerated, and everything has a more beautiful hue and look to it than you’d find in reality.
S: Can the actors see the projections onstage?
A: You can see it, but it’s designed to look of the best quality from the audience’s perspective. The actors can see the image, but you don’t get the full scope of the visual until you’re looking at it from a seat in the audience.
S: Would you encourage younger kids to pursue technical theatre or projection design?
A: The new generation of kids are growing up in and around so much technology and are well-versed in it from a very young age. I expect that the next generation of theatre creators will find new and exciting ways to create and design shows. I think anyone interested in it should go for it. I think we’ve just cracked the beginning of its potential.
S: Every week I give a challenge to my readers and my students to get outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
A: I encourage people to go and see things that they might not think they’ll like. In television, it’s easy to find what you like, and if you don’t like it, you can change it. You can’t do that with theatre. You go, and you get to experience it in real time and you go on the journey. If you love fairytales, then you’re going to love Anastasia. Find something that looks off or strange—those are the pieces you can fall in love with, and you never would’ve expected that.
To say I was excited for this conversation is an understatement. Aaron’s work has been truly transformative each time I’ve seen it, and it makes you feel like you’re right with the story in its world. If you get the opportunity to go see his work in Anastasia, do yourself a favor and go—bonus points if this isn’t normally the sort of show you go for. I’ve never felt such magic in a theatre as I have while watching what Aaron created for this show. I can’t wait to give his challenge to my students, and even expand on it to fit school—reading books they might not normally pick up or playing with kids they don’t always play with at recess. This challenge is a great way to expand anyone’s world view, and I look forward to see how you and my students approach it.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP