Associate Director of Education Beatrice Bosco met with projection designer Mike Tutaj to discuss his creative contribution to Barbara Gaines’ 2009 production of Macbeth.
Mike Tutaj directing video for Macbeth
CST: Can you describe what you do as a projection designer?
Mike Tutaj: I think of the job as having three elements—the design, the layout and the choreography. Like any other designer, I work with the director to find the vision of the piece, the soul of the piece. I contribute the images, a visual element that’s a supplement to the lighting design and the set design. Video falls between the scenic and lighting design. It’s an interesting bridge that relies on the scenery, cooperates with the lights and is in focus when it needs to be.
Technically, every show has problems that have to be solved in the layout. We may want to have an image appear some place, and the problem is how to get it there, how to wire it or make it fit. I usually dictate the wiring, but when it gets trickier, like Macbeth where we have multiple live cameras, we get somebody who is expert at wiring or programming. In this case, it’s a good thing that Jim Savage, CST’s sound master, is special effects designer for Macbeth.
The third element is the choreography, the performance of the show. I have to make sure that the operator can run the video, that it’s sequenced in a performable way. This usually happens during the technical rehearsals. You have to make a magical moment happen and it has to happen the same way each time. Integrating recorded media with live performance, which is going to be different every time, is always a challenge.
CST: In Macbeth, you also have to incorporate the movement of the actors.
MT: Yes—there is live video, and the actors handle the cameras. In other plays, I have worked with actors interacting with the projections. Maybe they’re the screen and we project on them, or they hold up an element, such as signs on a picket line that snap together to form a screen.
CST: In theater, we assume we need a set designer, a costume designer, a lighting designer and a sound designer—those are standard. With projections and video, are you brought in once the need is established?
MT: Not always. More and more pieces are written with projections in mind. For instance, I’ve worked on three plays written by Emily Mann, who writes documentary dramas that call for projections. Ideally, projections are involved because a director has a specific desire for an effect that they want from the beginning; it is part of the director’s vision, so they need a video designer from the beginning. Sometimes, however, directors are trying to solve a problem. Something is not working and they think, “Maybe we should add video.” It comes later in the process and they’re trying to find a way out of something. I often try to solve their problem without video, offer them other suggestions to help them achieve the effect they want.
CST: What contribution does video bring to a live theater performance?
MT: Titling—making titles—is a big part of what I do. For example, I’ve done The Glass Menagerie twice. Tennessee Williams initially called for slide projections. Some of it was images, like blue roses, but most of what he called for was text—a line projected before the actor says it in the scene.
Sometimes I work on a play because they need a movie element, where they want to relate something that happened in another time—getting into a character’s mind, or into a character’s emotions, or a memory. Video is a good way of creating a dream sequence. Sometimes I do video that is transitional, that fills in between scenes. There are productions that make a movie of a scene instead of staging it, but most of the time, I find it doesn’t make sense. For all my work, I look for a context where video makes sense.
CST: How would you define what video is bringing to Macbeth?
MT: This production is set in 2009, in the media age, in a 24-hour news cycle age. There is an infusion of media. Video becomes a logical way of connecting the witches as storytellers, making them the media. They know what to look at, they can direct us toward what to look at. They can zoom in and show how a character is reacting, or frame what’s important. With the slaughter of the Macduff family, the idea is that it’s going to be quick, with images that linger in your mind, like after you watch a news story. So much of what we see on TV and on the news—the gore, the blood and the anguish—you watch it and keep thinking about it, even if you don’t want to. That quick visualization is going to go through Lady Macbeth’s mind, and it will be appear projected on her body.
CST: What about the Apparitions and Banquo’s ghost?
MT: Yes, video is used in some of the special effects. Video can create magic. We have a solution, a clever way of allowing Macbeth, but nobody else, to see Banquo’s ghost. The audience knows why Macbeth is freaking out, because we, too, can see it.
CST: New technology offers alternatives to past choices. We’re so saturated with media, bringing that sensibility into the theater seems almost essential. But live performance and video do seem incongruent in some ways.
MT: Audiences have options. You can go to a movie; you can sit at home and watch TV. There’s a reason that you came to the theater, a different aspect. Live performance brings the element of the variable, things that are newly discovered with each performance; the performance changes because the audience changes. So, if you start adding elements that are pre-recorded, you don’t want to take away the reason people go to the theater. Communication in theater is not a one-way street, like television or a movie. So, how do you make these bits of one-way media blend into a two-way conversation? It’s challenging, but all of it has to contribute to the play, to the purpose, to the reason people want to see a live performance.