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Shawn Boyle: Projection and Lighting Designer

Stage Directions • Early CareerFebruary 2021 • February 3, 2021

Shawn Boyle works out of Boston, MA and is a projection and lighting 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.sboyledesign.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 with Wendall, it’s about bringing yourself to the work and about having a personal connection, a point of view. You hear that in the way that she talks about the work and in the function of the projection in the storytelling. That’s always been something that’s been very important to me, and Wendall really helped me hone in on the essence of it. That is something I got from her, really the necessity of reducing the work to the essential so the result is an elegant design. Not that something that is full on and aggressive can’t be elegant, but it’s just a different sort of discipline to get you to the understated. I think that’s the thing I got from my time studying with Wendall, to think about the transition of where things come from and where are they going to.

Talk a little bit about how you see projection supporting the narrative of a theatrical piece.
Well, it can be super literal, which isn’t the most interesting to me, but it can also be this other layer of emotional narrative on top of it. You can use projection to express the inner life of characters, to support what’s happening on stage or to contradict it in some way. So there’s a number of ways you can support the narrative from something as simple as if it’s snowing outside projecting the snow but the work that I’m really interested in is supporting the emotional narrative of a piece. I like when the projection is living in that world; when it is functioning in the same way that the lighting or sound does to underscore the emotions of the moment of the narrative. Projection can really help guide the audience in that same way. So yeah, it can be used quite literally, but I think it can also be used poetically and used to describe the emotional world of the play. I find it more interesting when it’s an expression of the emotional landscape.

Tell us about a production where you were particularly pleased with your projection design?
The projects where I tend to be most pleased are where the lines disappear between the departments and instead of stay in your lane collaboration it just feels like we’re all on the bus together. The lighting and the projection are seamlessly integrating with the scenery. I did a production of The Nutcracker with the Grand Rapids Ballet that was a great experience like that. We were mapping a lot of the scenery back onto itself and adding layering and special effects and pulling different illustrated elements that the scenery was referencing. That Nutcracker, I think, was particularly successful in the way that it brought the scenery to life and then it disappeared with the lighting but at the same time it stood on its own as a design element. That’s a project I’m particularly proud of. 

How are you navigating your career at this point with the pandemic?
I’ve been pretty fortunate because there’s a small amusement park in Utah that I work at and they had some shows that I did for them this summer and in the fall. I also designed scenery for a play at a theater in Florida in October. I’m starting now to feel the pinch of the pandemic with work not happening, but up until this point, I’ve actually been in various stages of production. I’ve lost about 12 projects that I was really looking forward to but at the same time as I said, I’ve been fortunate that I’m not solely a freelance designer at this point. I’m hopeful that things will come back. I found some of the Zoom theater tiresome that was happening, with just talking head stuff. I felt like there wasn’t a conversation about how we engage the audience and how we bring the liveliness of theater; that idea of what it means to be live in a room, in to an online platform. But I think that with time that has gotten better and more interesting. Some great work is starting to happen and that will be interesting to see where it goes.

Before studying with Wendall you worked with another talented projection designer, Elaine McCarthy. What is something you learned from her?
It was working for Elaine when I really started understanding image in a totally different way. Like the second thing I worked on for her was pulling visual research. Looking at so many images I started realizing the differences. Not all pictures are created equal and you don’t want to limit yourself to the first 10 pictures of a parking lot. You find it really is about finding the right image for that world; the one that has the right point of view. Considering point of view, asking ‘How are we seeing an image?’ That was something that I really learned with Elaine. 

Grand Rapids Ballet’s The Nutcracker

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