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Rasean Davonte Johnson: Video Artist and Projection Designer

Stage Directions • Early CareerFebruary 2021 • February 3, 2021

Based in Chicago, Rasean Davonte Johnson is a video artist and projection designer. He has an MFA from the Yale School of Drama where he studied projection design with Wendall K Harrington. See more of his work at www.raseandavontejohnson.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 think the biggest thing is looking. That sense of observing the beauty in things and understanding how, whatever the subject matter, there is something there that’s attracted you. That attraction is something every person has an individual take on based on their life. So you have a certain duty as a designer to research a show and understand the background to find some look, feeling, or style to the show. But that being said it’s still your perspective on everything. As you work on components to enhance a show you have to understand that your perspective is going to inform all those things. That mentality is something that I took away and something that I strive for as I continue on in my design practice; having a perspective on things. 

Tell us about a production where you were particularly pleased with your projection design?
There was a production of Cymbeline that I did at Yale Repertory Theatre where we got a chance to explore a lot of really interesting concepts. Because there’s all these different locations in the play we wanted to look at how do we create a space that feels like it can be transformative? Within the entire design process, we explored those ideas with conversations among all the different disciplines. We ended up figuring out that we wanted to create this kind of haunted castle and that the ways in which those hauntings occurred were through various means, through different design disciplines. My role in it was the idea of projecting these kind of apparitions in the space. That was very interesting for me as there was a huge research component to it that I really enjoyed, but also technically we had an opportunity to project on a fog curtain. It was a chance to really do some fun stuff with it.

Talk a little bit about how you see projection supporting the narrative of a theatrical piece.
I think ever since I started out, one of the things that really excited me about using projections was the idea that in a lot of ways it is a character in the play. Not necessarily written, but in the way it is able to be seen and create some commentary on the actions of the other characters. It is something that has a life to it. In that sense, I think that one of the biggest things that projections can do is enhance or give perspective to the story at hand. 

Also you have to remember that the biggest thing people say about an image is that it’s worth a thousand words. So you have to think about the idea of interpretation. That an image can, instead of being literal, have a certain amount of abstraction which allows the audience to fill in the blanks in terms of the meaning of that image. It’s about how the audience’s perception of the images can enhance the story. It takes the audience to a place where it allows them to analyze the play in a way that maybe isn’t necessarily easily digestible by just watching it. It lets you enhance the dimensions of the space of the play. You create a world that feels a lot more complete in terms of how people think about the world, how people view the world of the play, and what they take away when they leave.

What is an important trait to be a projection designer?
Well, I think the biggest thing is that you have to have a wider view of what’s going on. You have to have your hands in everything. You have to have some spatial awareness, such as a scenic designer. There is a light component where you have to understand the physics of the light and how that interacts with the space. You have to have a sense of timing and a lot of times you’re collaborating with the sound designer or composer on the show. And you also have to have a certain sense of how colors compliment each other. Sometimes that puts you in conversations with the costume designer in terms of how what you are doing works with their palette. It’s a wide range of skills and interests that I think a projection designer needs; it’s not necessarily about just having a given skill set but it’s about understanding how that skill set meshes with the play and the world of the play.

How are you navigating your career with the pandemic?
I’ve been fairly fortunate. I’ve had the opportunity to do about nine productions, in different capacities, over Zoom during this past year. And what I have enjoyed is not only the exploration doing the work, but also the consulting nature. Discussing with people that if they are going to do a Zoom production, how do they want to do it. I think a lot of people may not have understood all the opportunities and it’s really been fun to see how that’s evolved; even over this short period of time. 

Forest projected on set of Cymbeline at Yale Repertory Theatre

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