Projecting Elvis

by Randi Minetor

Heartbreak Hotel’s set and projection design at Ogunquit Playhouse 

With first workshop performances in California, writer/director Floyd Mutrux brought his new musical Heartbreak Hotel as a work in progress to Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine for its first fully mounted production. Now in its 85th season, Ogunquit Playhouse has become known as a place to develop new musical works, including Million Dollar Quartet

Heartbreak Hotel, tells the story of Elvis Presley’s start in this prequel to Mutrux’s popular Million Dollar Quartet (which was written by Mutrux and Colin Escott). This new piece follows young Elvis, working with record producer Sam Phillips, through the 18 months that see him rocket from humble beginnings as a truck driver to stardom. To bring this complex biographical tale to life, Mutrux worked with the design team to best find how to move the story seamlessly from one location, time period, and event to the next. Projection was an essential solution to keep the audience oriented while enhancing the work of the players onstage. 

Scenery as setting and screen

To create a surface that doubles as a projection screen and flexible scenery, scenic designer Adam Koch turned to the abstract. “I think the most interesting stage pictures happen when you can’t really quite tell what is what—is it projected or painted?” he said. Form had to follow function in this case, so Koch created a set that could stand on its own as a three-walled room or fade away when the projections took over. The result involved a structure of three 25-foot high walls that wrap around the actors and provide dimension to the sparsely propped stage. 

Koch created a grid pattern reminiscent of 1950s factory windows, giving the background texture and visual interest. As Elvis reaches the pinnacle of his career, the rear wall lights up with his name in letters nearly three stories high—the kind of climax that moves audience members to cheer and yell for encores.

Koch and projections designer Brad Peterson had worked together before, so Koch knew what to expect and how to accommodate the projection design. “Because so much of the raw footage and the photos are black and white, one of the best things we can do is make black and white footage come alive in color,” said Koch. “On this set, the projections can be as colorful or as black-and-white as we want them to be. You have to be sort of a blank canvas in a way—much like the musicians are the centerpieces of the performances, the projections are the centerpiece of the scenery.”

Heartbreak 3 web

Blending history with the live stage performances

“Floyd felt very strongly that the audience needed to perceive our story through documentary photos and video that we could find and use, to reinforce that Elvis was a real person, and that the story has not been sensationalized,” said Peterson. He approached the show the way he might a documentary, collecting all the film footage and photos he could find to create a network of moving and static images behind the performers. He began with what he called the “true history,” the look of photos and film footage in the 1950s, and determined ways to enhance it to create the best possible audience experience. “How do we represent how the people were experiencing Elvis?” he said. “He was the first mega-star that media consumerism made. It’s all black-and-white photos, so it was important to me to bring in color. I love color, I’m not afraid of it—it adds emotion and context.”

Peterson knew better than to simply colorize all the photos, however. “The show starts in muted tones, intentionally black-and-white,” he said. “As the music and Elvis’s life get more manic and excited, it earns the right to be more colorful.” As the story progresses, subdued shades gradually turn into neon-bright lights. “There’s a great image of all the neon signs—the projections are not moving, but the colors and pulsing give it light and energy. We’re reaching that peak Elvis acceleration. So, by the time we get to that encompassing look, it can be very powerful and present.”

Film clips and images from the 1950s all contained the real Elvis, of course, and Mutrux had an idea about how to handle this, explained Peterson. “As a designer, I was skeptical when Floyd said, ‘While they’re performing, I want to see videos of them performing on the walls.’” Mutrux wanted to see the actors in what would appear to be archival footage, projecting these moving images up on the set while the live actors performed the songs in the videos.

Peterson figured out how to solve this. “We shot ‘Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys’ against a green screen, which allowed us to immerse the performers in images of themselves,” he said. “So, while you’re watching them play one song, they’re playing at a bunch of clubs, in a very abstract manner, in different costumes.” This represents the passage of time and the frantic schedule of gigs Elvis and his band maintained at the peak of their stardom. 

Peterson and the Ogunquit staff project the show using a Barco FLM R20+ projector. “I was trying to do the whole show with that, but because of the incredible 25-foot walls, we rented two Panasonic 12K projectors to put closer to the stage and fill the space,” he said. “The software was PRG’s Mbox Media Server, with PRG Mbox Director software.” Peterson noted that his associate, Lisa Renkel, played a role in content creation and editing, paperwork tracking, and tracking notes and changes throughout rehearsals. “She also served as an extra set of eyes—something crucial on a project like this with such a short time frame,” he said. Mutrux, Peterson and Koch certainly harmonized with the narrative by bringing a medley of projection to Heartbreak Hotel.