High school theatre director and teacher Steward Savage

Digital Projections in High School Theatre | Interview with Steward Savage

Interview with Steward Savage about theatre projection backdrops and more

Steward how did you get into theatre in the first place?

Actually, I’ve done theater ever since I was a small child. My first role was the baby Jesus in a Christmas Pageant so I feel like from that point on it was all kind of downhill. I was never going to peak as an actor after playing the role of Jesus. I did theatre all through school. I was one of those little performers, so I was in choir, I was in orchestra. I did violin and piano and then I was always doing theatre. I was weirdly sort of timid and shy, so I never really enjoyed the curtain call or the performance aspect of a show.

I always liked the process and the rehearsal part of the show. It wasn’t until college, but I was made aware that there were other parts of theatre. You could do positions other than acting and still make a living and be successful. So naturally, in college, I started to lean toward the technical side. I still acted through college because with a theatre degree, you didn’t really have a choice. So, I’ve done theatre pretty much my entire life. It was something I was good at.

What did you discover from the very beginning that you loved about theatre?

I think for me theatre was always, I don’t want to say an escape, but I was really excited about the communal aspect of it. How people who felt like they were vastly different were all put into the same room, but all had a shared experience. So, in a weird way, I was always sort of fascinated by the psychology. The artistry of that. And what makes people tick. How you can control the sort of emotional aspects as a director or as a theater artist but, how sometimes you can’t based on the energy of the audience.

I was fascinated by the artistry of creativity. If I could bottle creativity and sell it, I’d probably be a very wealthy person but you really can’t say, ‘this is how you create.’ So I was always amazed by the process of theatre and how things develop. How you can create, how imaginative you can get. I was always awe inspired by it. You realized it was the one place I never felt like I had to overtly think. I kind of enjoyed that the theater was always this box of misfit toys—all getting together to create. So I enjoyed that.

Are there any shows that you have felt a close personal connection with through the years?

A play I worked on myself in 2014 called When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell. And for me as a director it was the first time I picked up a play to work on that just terrified me. It terrified me because it’s episodic and nonlinear and it jumps around in location. You’re in Australia one second, and in London the next—30 years later. I was just really used to living room dramas and working on basic unit one location. And so this play was the first one I worked on that I felt like a month into it I made a huge mistake. I felt like I had so many ideas and I felt like I had so many ways to solve the problems of it.

And then, something just sort of clicked. I remember talking to my grandma about it and she said ‘it sounds like you just need to make a decision.’ And the next day, I made a decision. It reminded me how we really are a sort of small. There’s a bigger picture and if we do want to control it, it controls us. I can’t remember who says it, but there’s this quote that says (and it’s about theatre) you’re not supposed to control the process, you’re supposed to allow the hand of the process to be on you. Or something like that.

So, I’ve always thought that working on that show alone reminded me how humane different stories can be. And how you really don’t know someone’s story. Because the play shocks you and surprises you and you meet all these people and you realize how they’re actually tied together. (You find out) towards the end and so it’s an interesting type of show. It was the first time I realized that I was a part of something that was much bigger than I was.

And the play is just brilliant. I feel like everybody should read this man’s words. I think he’s honestly the greatest living playwright that we have in the world right now. Seriously.

Digital projections being used in Texas UIL production

So you’ve been a go-to person in Texas when it comes to projection design. How did that come about? And how has your use of projections put you in a position to guide others as they’re getting started?

To be quite honest, my training in the world of design doesn’t really lend itself to the world of projections. At Yale, at this point in time, I do believe projection design is a major. Students can go into projection design. Whereas when I was there, that wasn’t an option. So it’s interesting to me that in the state of Texas, my name is brought up often in regard to projection design. Originally, it was when the play When the Rain Stops Falling won state in 2014. We used projections in that show. That put our name in the conversation.

We were definitely not the first ones to do projection in the show in UIL, but we were probably the first to do it at the scale in the way we were doing it. And by that, I mean we had three 12 ft tall (by 3 foot wide) monolithic walls that we were projecting onto. So I think the scale, and that we filled the entire surface area is the thing that surprised people the most. I always call it in my set designs ‘the sexy factor.’ ‘What is the sexy factor or the thing that people would remember walking away from the show? In a design world? Was there an element of surprise?’ Everyone saw these big gray walls and then all of a sudden they lit up into a completely different world.

So, I ultimately used them in that show because because I needed to solve a problem. The problem in our design world was location. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time setting up a scene and taking it down and having to worry about transitions so really what it was was my aesthetic. I would project onto the wall and if I liked it we would tweak it and if I didn’t like it we got rid of it. A lot of it dealt with the imagery. Did I actually like it? Did I like the color palette? Do I want to saturate colors more? So it was just tweaking what the output was versus saying that I ‘have to have projections’. I think that’s the really hard part now. At this point, we have a lot of directors that are saying ‘I need to have projections this year’. But in actuality, you might not.

But because we’ve done it and at the scale by which we’ve done it, we’ve proved you just learn a lot by trial and error. Learning not to light right in front of the projection. Or if you can stack a projector to get it a little brighter. For When the Rain Stops Falling, I had an 8 year old classroom projector that I found in the back of a closet. We used it all the way up through state. It was a 3200 Lumen projector. It was not bright but we just supersaturated all the images and we made sure there was no lighting in front of it. The lighting was always behind it or down stage of it. So we just tricked people, basically.

We’re a small school but we compete at the largest level. So we became this ‘little engine that could’. We won state that year and show cost me $280. I know people who are throwing thousands of dollars at their programs to get costumes and projections involved. So ultimately, the projector has always been a really good resource for us to solve a problem. It’s why we use it. It’s a very quick way to paint a set without having to wrap things in fabric. And with a projection, you can play more with shading—with silhouettes and with shape. You can actually have curves and depth and mass (to your set design). To me, projections solve a very hard problem, very quickly.

As people approach you with different obstacles concerning projections, what are some of the consistent questions that you’re getting? On the storytelling and the technical end. How have you advised teachers to solve some of those problems?

I would say the biggest question is probably ‘What kind of projector should I get?’ That is such a large question given the vast amount of projectors that are out there. Again, people don’t really know what they want to do with it, meaning how they want to shoot. Whether they want to do rear or front projection. Whether the projector is just going to stay in a dead hang or if they’re going to travel with it. A lot of times they don’t yet have those answers.

I think directors’ brains think a projector has sort of a magical land inside of it. With all of the things you’d want to project inside (laughing). They think once they buy it their job should be done. So they’re not taking into consideration the next part. For example, if you’re using two projectors to blend two images, what kind of software are you going to use for that?

So after the ‘what kind of a projector should I get’ you start to get the questions like ‘What can I get for this dollar amount? Or how bright a projector do I actually need? I would say maybe four or five years ago If you said the word lumens (which refers to brightness) to someone they would look at you crazy. And they would have no idea what you were saying. Now, at this point, the conversation has a little bit more information behind it. People will talk about lumens and know what that means.

Another question I get is what kind of software should I use ? When we did When the Rain Stops Falling we used PowerPoint. We mapped it out with black squares and triangles. And tried a lot of things. Whereas now we use things like Arkaos Video Mapper or Mad Mapper. Some of those options. I would ultimately say that the biggest questions are ‘what kind of projector should I get’ and ‘what kind of software are you using to run it?’ Lately teachers have been asking me where to get images from? I think some directors are curious about that.

Last year at State we did a play called Speaking in Tongues. We started the show with a projection of a beach and waves So the perspective of the audience was like they were standing on the beach. And then we had a character jump through the wall, which made it look like he was jumping into the ocean. People ask me where we got that footage from. A lot of the footage we will make ourselves or will go film ourselves. That one we were able to purchase from an artist who had an installation that I saw. We paid for the use of it. She (the artist) stood on a beach and filmed the material. My kids have GoPro cameras and film things and we are cataloging a library of skies and trees and running water.

I think it’s just about playing with things. The biggest concern for people once they have a projector, is where do you get the material to project or what kind of software are you using. I feel like those are the three biggest things at this point that directors are trying to figure out.

Digital projections playing an important role in high school play

Do you still point teachers and directors toward basic tools like PowerPoint or Keynote or do you recommend others things?

To be honest, I’ll ask them what they feel like they want to utilize within their projections. For instance, if they’re trying to shoot just still images, then PowerPoint is amazing. And Keynote. And you really don’t have to spend money on anything. If you’re going to get into high def, 4K moving video, then sometimes you want a software program that’s not going to run on your computer. That will actually run the projection presentation on its own hard drive. So that it’s not slowing down certain things. So it doesn’t have a glitch.

So ultimately, I tell people that I’ve had a lot of success with just PowerPoint in Keynote. Before we started to project on surfaces that were not just basic shapes. And they were a little bit more abstract in shape and that’s why I moved to software like Arkaos—because it was easier to map the images quickly. For something like UIL, where you have to travel, and you have seven minutes to set up, you have to make sure everything is just right. So with Arkaos we save the (projection) map and we’re just tweaking corners before the performance. To make sure it’s good to go instead of having to remap anything out.

I feel like I’ve been open to the idea of projections because you can make them look good, and it’s really just a taste level. Looking at it with lighting and costumes. If you’re working on a scene, as a director, and you see the acting isn’t strong—you adjust it. So if you’re previewing an image that feels like it would take the audience out of the world, follow your instinct and change it. That’s really all it is. It’s just a taste level.

If you have a teacher come to you asking how to seam together two projected images to make a very large image, how do you advise them to go about it in a simple way?

If they are specifically asking for that kind of advice in terms of the UIL competition, I don’t really recommend doing the two projectors. Because one could go out. If stuff is in a dead hang and you’re not fidgeting with it, it’s a little easier to control. Versus trying to get something set up quickly in 7 minutes. And making sure kids aren’t rushed with what they’re doing. If somebody on the crew accidentally bumps a cord, it’s over. And in some of our locations, a cord will just fall out of an electrical outlet because the buildings are so old. So I feel like the more technology you start to put into it, the more a chance of error can happen. So I don’t really push people to do it (use multiple projectors to produce one image). Also, you also can get an ultra short-throw lens projector with 4,000 lumens for $1,000 on eBay or Amazon now.

I’ve only ever used two projectors one time myself. In terms of having an image that we tried to splice with LeapFrog software as a blender. I felt like sure that the learning curve was insane. From my experience, I feel like you can outsmart what people are expecting. A few years ago when we projected at the large scale, that was a shock to people. Now all directors can shoot at large-scale, so what are you going to do that’s slightly more designed or different than that? So, to be honest, I don’t really try to push people to use two projectors. It just feels, especially with students, like there’s just too much error that can happen.

About Steward Savage

Coming to us from Yale School of Drama, Mr. Savage teaches Theatre Arts classes I-IV, Technical Theatre (Costume Design and Mask Making), Productions I and a SHAKESPEARE IN THE SCHOOLS course.

Through his professional and regional work on Broadway and Off, in Connecticut and in Pittsburgh, Mr. Savage shares his wealth of talent with our students and encourages growth with his high expectations and the arts. Through partnerships with The Alley Theatre, Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS), Stages Theatre, Mainstreet Theatre, TechLand and Southern Lighting and Sound; students are exposed to a vast array of information and opportunities to succeed in community and professional theatre. Along with local theatre’s, Mr. Savage also travels internationally with students giving many opportunities at theatres like The Globe, The National Theatre of England, The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, The Sydney Theatre Company and theatres in and around Greece, Italy and Spain.

In the Spring of 2014, Mr. Savage led the Rhinos to win the UIL 5A State Championship Title in One-Act Play. In Spring of 2016, Mr. Savage led the Rhinos to win their SECOND UIL 6A Championship Title in One-Act Play.

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