Colorado State University Theatre Professors Price Johnston, interim director of Theatre and Dance and associate professor of lighting, sound, and projection design, and Roger Hanna, head of design and technology and assistant professor of set design, recently traveled to New York City for the 2015 Drama Desk Award nomination festivities. The pair are nominated in the Outstanding Projection Design category for their work on Donogoo by Jules Romains, which played Off-Broadway at The Mint Theatre in NYC last summer.
The awards honor outstanding achievement by professional theatre artists on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway. The 60th Annual Drama Desk Awards take place on May 31 at The Town Hall in Manhattan, N.Y. Click here for more about the awards.
Hanna was approached by The Mint Theatre, where he’s been the scenic designer on six shows over the past ten years, to conceive the Donogoo set for the 100-seat house. With a low grid and limited wings, a particularly challenging concept was inspired by the video for “Willow” by the band Sweater, where the singer, standing on a small white set with a treadmill built into the floor, “rides” on a boat, “goes down” an escalator, and “jumps” down a hole, all enabled through projections of the various locales. “While the walls and floor can be seen clearly, the viewer is in on the joke,” explains Hanna of his inspiration. “It is a great example of what is thrilling about theatre – that the audience conspires in the story-telling.”
“Fortunately, working repeatedly with the same people at the Mint has built a large amount of trust,” he said. So, along with the music video as proof-of-concept, Hanna worked up scenery sketches which ended up including a bridge, a donkey, four doors, five slip stages, two walls, and a ceiling for the twenty-four, unique-scene show.
This is where theatrical mysticism comes full circle. Hanna asked his CSU colleague, Price Johnston, who had originally shown him the “Willow” video, to collaborate on the project as animation and co-projections designer. In turn, Johnston asked CSU Theatre alum John Erickson (’14) to be associate projections designer. “Once I knew we’d do the projections, I asked John to watch the video,” explained Hanna. “John began to laugh…because he’s the one who showed it to Price, who showed it to me, in the first place!”
Once the team was in place, they rose to the challenge, creating phenomenal, digital depictions, and lighting the actors, without spoiling the projections.
For Hanna and Johnston, the Drama Desk nomination is extremely satisfying. “It’s especially flattering being nominated in this category because the reality is, our show was done with four business projectors and cheap software,” said Hanna. “I have no doubt that some of the other nominated shows, like the Broadway musicals, cost up to fifty times what ours did!”
Early external confirmation of what the team had accomplished came in the form of an invitation to appear on the Leonard Lopate Show on July 15, 2014. “It was a big deal to me personally,” said Hanna, who hails from N.Y. “Of the over 200 Lopate radio shows I’ve listened to – and as a big fan of the public radio rock star – I don’t recall him interviewing any other set designers,” he enthused, while acknowledging that he obviously hasn’t heard every Lopate show ever made! Hanna, alongside Director Gus Kaikkonen, discussed the 1930s comedy, focusing on the attention being received by the projections.
“My conspirator, Price Johnston, solved most of technical problems, did a bunch of animating, as well as (as one reviewer put it) be ‘a miracle worker’ by magically lighting people in a tiny space, without washing out the projections,” explained Hanna at the time. “Additional clever stuff was figured out by our recent CSU graduate ‘Doctor’ John Erickson, who, with gusto and panache, produced such mind-blowing stage firsts as animated vomit,” he went on.
Hanna and Johnston have their fingers crossed for a favorable outcome at the Drama Desk Awards at the end of the month. However, as professors, the two are thrilled to report that Erickson remains gainfully employed in his field in NYC!
Additional acknowledgments: costumes by Sam Fleming; sound by Jane Shaw; video shot by Reel Time Video Production; Jonathan Frank, Alex Pearlman, and Michelle Knight, videographers.