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Kristen Ferguson: Maker and Projection Designer

Stage Directions • Early CareerFebruary 2021 • February 3, 2021

Maker and Projection Designer, Kristen Ferguson is based in Toronto, Canada. Studying with Wendall K Harrington, she earned an MFA in projection design from the Yale School of Drama. See more of her work at www.projectedfeelings.com. 

Is there something specific in terms of approach to the work that you learned from Wendall which you will take through your career?
I came to this with not so much of a design background but an art background, so most of the world of design I’ve learned from her and they are things that also transfer to life skills. The concept of always looking; always keeping your eyes open and also listening. Using all your senses to design. And using them to have empathy, to understand what other people are feeling and thinking. Being able to empathize with them and sort of pulling that through your design makes it not about you, it makes it about that person; about that story, their story. I think that’s what makes Wendall a master storyteller; that ability to empathize.

Another thing I think about is this quote of Martha Graham’s that Wendall has posted up in her studio. [‘No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others’.] I think that it’s important to look at our own personal standards and realize that sometimes the goal is not to have it make you feel pleased but rather the goal is to have it done; to do the project to some version of finished that you’ll move on from as a designer.

Talk a little bit about how you work to support the narrative of a piece.
Well, I think it’s critical to speak with the director about how they’re seeing the piece, how they see the narrative. You can both read something and get a total different story out of it. If you don’t see eye to eye with their narrative and through a couple of rounds of speaking, you don’t come to the same story you’re going to struggle the whole time because you’re not trying to tell the same story. That’s the struggle at times, how to come together on the narrative.

What do you think is an important trait for a projection designer?
Flexibility and being able to listen. Also you need to know that there are moments where you’ll be the only one that understands what you’re trying to do. You need to trust yourself while at the same time, listening to others and being willing to change. Change your opinion, change your mind and move on. You have to see the whole picture and you need to see what makes sense together. You need to be flexible because things change from your pre-visualization; there are going to be changes from seeing things on your little laptop version to a 30’, in a room full of people, version.

Is there an aspect of projection design that you’re interested in exploring in theater as you go forward in your career?
During the pandemic, quarantine, and the closure of all the theaters I’ve had the great privilege of being able to look at myself and look at what I’ve been doing. I’ve learned some about how our brains work and the idea that our brains make sense of the world through coherent narratives. So, theater in itself is a really powerful tool to tell the stories of marginalized people and underrepresented people; to help them and others make sense of their lives. So right now, I am thinking about theater in terms of being a tool to help people and to make sense of the things that have happened to them so that they can continue to write their stories.

How are you navigating your career at this point with the pandemic?
I am getting out of my lane, if you will, not doing just purely projection design projects. The last thing I was working on before theaters closed because of the pandemic, was A Sign of the Times. It was my first personal design on an Off-Broadway show and it was big deal for me; very exciting. So to have it close early was very sad. As a projection designer, I feel privileged right now in terms of work because I have skills that are transferable immediately towards doing animation and manipulating imagery. I got involved with a production that was presented over a streaming service and it was actually fantastic. It was called Meet the Voyagers, it was about the Voyager mission. So, the question was how to do projections online? In this case we gave the projections their own little square within our world of squares. So instead of putting the imagery only behind the actors the idea was that this square in and of itself could be seen at the same time as the other squares which had our actors. I liked it and I thought it was interesting. Now, does it qualify as projection design? So, I think that’s it; that moving forward maybe we all don’t need to fit into slots the same way that we thought we had to; I think there’s something freeing about that idea.

A Sign of the Times at Theater 511 in New York City. (photo: Russ Rowland)

 

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