In the Moment: Interview with Patrick Lord, Projection Designer

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For regular theater-goers, we have seen that projection design is not a fad or an eye-popping, one-time visual effect. Projection design has become an integral part of many a production’s overall design storytelling elements.

As technology has rapidly evolved, so has the use of projection design to help tell a theatrical story. Projections add their own powerful visual voice.

Projection design of Big Fish at the Keegan Theatre. Photo courtesy of Patrick Lord.
Patrick Lord’s projection design on the set of Big Fish at the Keegan Theatre. Photo courtesy of Patrick Lord.

Wanting to learn more about the trajectory of projection design, I went to Patrick Lord, one of the premiere projection designers in town. At the time this article was researched and written, Lord had two shows running, with his signature design elements: The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Hamlet and The Kennedy Center’s Digging Up Dessa.

Lord noted that projection design can help “create theatrical magic.” Yes, indeed. View examples of some of his theatrical magic on Vimeo here:

So, let’s get on with the interview, shall we?

David Siegel: What does a projection designer do?

Patrick Lord: Just like any other designer- we’re storytellers. What I love about being a projection designer is that our voice and role can change from show to show. From providing an ethereal, “other” character, to being part of a transformative world, to being a more literal digital, media voice. These are just some examples; that’s my point- the possibilities are endless, which makes them exciting. We visually score and develop the world and story of each play and musical we’re a part of. I know there is a tendency to want to see projections through the lens of other, more established fields such as scenery or lighting, but I think that can limit how you understand what we, as projection designers, bring to a show.

How did you train to become a projection designer?

I was very fortunate to have received an excellent education in design and theatre. My undergraduate degree is in scenic design at Emerson College; then I pursued my MFA in projection design at The University of Texas at Austin. I was able to study with several amazing artists as advisors. Charlie Otte brought me into the program, and taught me how to look at projections from a directorial perspective with a good background in film as well. Then, I was fortunate to finish my studies with Sven Ortel, whose understanding of the technology, theory and artistry of projections are second to none.

My first main stage design was a production was Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and I was actually able to discuss the concept for my design with Sarah Ruhl, which was an experience I’ll never forget.

Will you provide examples of how you decide what and how to “project” from your own experiences?

The process of developing a projection design is no different than any other discipline. The best process is a highly collaborative conversation, not a hierarchical decision. I work with the entire team to make sure that the projection design is both integrated and integral, offering another element of storytelling. Collaboration is the core of what we do as designers, and it’s no different for projection designers. Where we project and what is always the result of conversation.

One of my favorite parts of my job is actually that I’m responsible for creating so much original content- from unique animations to hand drawn or painted artwork, or footage shot just for a show.

What are some of the challenges a projection designer faces in developing a design, then bringing the design to the theater audience?

Projection design on set of Where Words Once Were at The Kennedy Center. Photo courtesy of Patrick Lord.
Patrick Lord’s projection design on the set of Where Words Once Were at The Kennedy Center. Photo courtesy of Patrick Lord.

I would say one of the biggest challenges to realizing a design is that every show can be monumentally different, and require completely new sets of skills. Many projection designers create their own content- so we act as our own shops. Shooting video, creating animations, original drawings or paintings, and a million other skills that sometimes you just need to teach yourself as it they come up. So there is a heavy workload before you even get to programming and exploring a show in the theatre with the performers. Projection design is all about understanding your own workflow and process.

The key is to a successful design is knowing to how to prepare smartly, and adapt to change in the room- because that is where it happens, and where the real work is done.

You have recently been the projection designer for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Hamlet and for The Kennedy Center’s Digging Up Dessa. For these two productions, what were you most proud of accomplishing?

Can I just start by saying how much amazing it’s been to work at institutions like STC and The Kennedy Center? The production staffs at both theatres are some of the best people, and they facilitated great processes for both shows. Which were, as you can guess, vastly different.

For Hamlet at STC, the design was what some might think of as more straightforward when it comes to the “digital voice” aspect of projection and video design. It was about images on monitors, and creating tone and content that supported the world we were building as a team. My goal was to enhance the paranoia and tension of the environment. A colleague of mine once said they believed that a successful design was one that went unnoticed because it so perfectly served the story; so I enjoyed the subtle ways I was able to flesh out that world. I was also proud to be a part of a production of a classic that was updated in a way that makes it feel incredibly relevant, especially here in our nation’s capital in the current political climate.

Digging Up Dessa at The Kennedy Center could not have been a more different experience, since we’re comparing classic Shakespeare to a new play for young audiences. The design for Dessa was all about larger than life sketches and exploring the mental and emotional worlds of these characters, shown brighter and bigger on a full rear screen and overhead screen downstage. We actually expanded a concept of “sketching” to have a bigger role than in an earlier draft of the script, which I loved because it became a touchstone for my design. I created all the sketches and artwork for the show by hand with the help of my assistant, Kathryn Callahan. I’m incredibly proud of Digging Up Dessa because I believe that the design, just like the script, tells a story that is simultaneously whimsical and serious, and speaks to the intended young audience respectfully and intelligently.

I have a deep love for the field of TYA [Theater for Youth Audiences], and am even a member of the TYA national organization, which may explain my enthusiasm.

If you could hazard a look into the future, where do you see projection design headed in 2-3 years?

Hopefully, we’re going to start seeing more new stories, plays and musicals developed with an understanding that projection design exists as a tool and a voice. The types of scripts that make you go “you cannot do this without a projection designer.” True integration is what I can’t wait to see, and what I’m always working for.

The technology is always changing, which is extremely exciting, but I think there’s still a lot to develop in terms of understanding of the theory and role of projections, and I believe the next few years we’ll start to see that as it becomes more prevalent.

One last question. Do you think there should be a separate category for projection design for theater awards such as the Helen Hayes Award?

Yes, absolutely. By combining the awards with scenery and lighting, it minimizes a projection designer’s contribution to the entire production. It’s as if we work only with the scenic or lighting designer, instead of the entire team as a collaborator. I understand where this thinking comes from, but I firmly believe the field is in a place now, with enough examples on enough shows in this city and across the nation, where we can see that a projection designer is an equal member of the collaborative, creative team.

I’d also love to see more, younger designers emerge; particularly women, and artists of color. Our field is still young and growing, and I’d love for developing designers to know that this is a specialty they can go into and not only achieve success, but recognition for their works.

For me, being recognized by the Helen Hayes has very little to do with a desire to win awards, but a desire to be seen and respected by our community.