Theatricality, Projections, Originality, and Gertie, or a Director Crisis of Faith: Sam Buntrock

It makes me a bit of a peon in some people’s eyes, I’m sure, but two pieces of theater actually took my breath away and made me want to be a director, and they’re both musicals. The first was the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Nine (ignore the film, it’s an embarrassment.) and the revival of Sunday in the Park with George, directed by Sam Buntrock and produced by the British Menier Chocolate Factory. What sets them apart for me is their effective and nuanced use of theatricality. It’s pretty easy to emotionally affect me, but very difficult to get me to buy theatricality, to be taken in.

It occurs to me I should probably define theatricality if I’m going to keep throwing it around. One of its definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary is “affectedly dramatic.” I think that’s probably the best one. Theatricality refers to phenomena that you can look at or hear and you only feel it belongs on the stage. Theatricality is dramatic lighting, visual or auditory metaphor. Think of it as heightened visual (or auditory) language. (Gotta represent my great sound designers out there.) It is not truth as we know it. It is greater than our reality, but hopefully illuminates something about it we never saw before. The danger is it often seems so gimmicky, both self-conscious and self reverential. At least for me personally, it is very hard to lose yourself in heavily theatrical works because it requires really effective world building. The theatricality has to be necessary and logical in its own strange way.

Over the course of the second act, Nine gradually filled the stage with water, dripping from the back over a mural of the Three Graces.

It was actually this painting by Botticelli, made to look like a mosaic.

This controlled, almost subliminal flood resulted in the main character’s nervous breakdown occurring in about six inches of water. At the point the set, which had only changed in terms of moving a table, suddenly became a flooded movie set. As Guido, an infantile and recently artistically impotent cinematic genius, sent the cast and crew of his film away, he stomped through the water, and when everyone cleared the surface of the pool was suddenly still. He was alone for the first time in his life, abandoned. He quickly climbed atop a table, suddenly adrift as he contemplated suicide. This image has stayed with me since I saw it in 2003. My director friends tease me because I talk about how much I love live water, but it’s one of the few theatrical elements that is often genuinely unexpected, that feels both real and transcendent at once. So that’s why I love the theatricality of Nine.

My more recent obsession, the more critically acclaimed Sunday in the Park with George revival, has an entirely different form of theatricality going on. It is directed by stage director and animator Sam Buntrock, who used both of his professions to give the world a reason to see a revival of Sunday rather than watching the DVD of the original production with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. What did he do, you ask? Well first you should know that the original used cutouts to indicate both certain elements of the Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte painting and, in the second act, George’s multi-tasking.

I'll just leave this dude here to deal with the Princess Bride fangirls.

Buntrock’s revival used animation to really merge the painting with the action, creating a pointillist dog and silent soldier, and a moving background where wind moved the trees and boats floated by as George and Dot argued. If you can manage to tear your eyes away from the actors you can see the background change in this video from the Tony performance.

One of the most compelling thing about the production’s use of projections was how the live characters were able to interact with them. In the second act, George sets up various versions of himself to socialize with possible art patrons, and at one point he poured champagne into an animated version of himself’s glass. This moment would have seemed really gimmicky, but the animation was so much a part of the world that it was a pleasant surprise that pulled the audience in further, rather than taking us out.

The trouble is, I, in my naiveté, thought this whole “interacting with animation” thing was new. Then I got the June issue of Wired.

Before Avatar, before Jurassic Park, before King Kong, there was Gertie. In February 1914, a few months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand touched off World War I, cartoonist Winsor McCay thrilled audiences with the most amazing special effect they had ever seen. MCay climbed onto the at the Palace Theater in Chicago, bullwhip in hand. Projected on a screen behind him was a simple line drawing of a sparse landscape. Then McCay called out to his pet, Gertie, and a towering animated Diplodocus longus peeked out from behind a pile of rocks. She loped toward the camera, pausing to swallow a boulder and uproot a tree. Gertie towered over her creator. […]

But what was truly revolutionary was the way McCay appeared to interact with her. When he commanded her to bow, she bowed; when he later scolded her for not obeying, she burst into tears. Then, at the end, McCay appeared to enter the screen and get hoisted 30 feet into the air by his pet. The barrier between the real and onscreen world had been breached.

The video (which regrettably doesn’t capture McCay’s live performance) is right here:

[You might know McCay from his work on Little Nemo in Slumberland.

(The animation actually starts around minute 7. The preceding is just interesting to me because of the visual vocabulary of early film.)]

So interacting with projections in live theatre is pretty much as old as projections. It’s kind of obvious, but it was still a little disheartening for me. Mr. Buntrock used an almost one hundred year old trick to wow contemporary audiences. If it worked, does it matter if it might not exactly be new or “innovative”?

As Modern Day George says in Sunday in the Park with George‘s “Move On:” “I have nothing to say. Well, nothing that’s not been said.” And Dot replies: “Not by you. […] Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision. They usually do.” I guess that’s the point. No one is original.

“Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see…”

George’s magic words: Order, Design, Tension, Composition, Balance, Light, Harmony. That’s what you need for great art. Notice originality isn’t included. That’s a Staging Principle.

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