Working from home? Switch to the DIGITAL edition of Stage Directions. CLICK HERE to signup now!
Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in posts
Search in pages

Sharing the Knowledge: Projection Designer/Educator Wendall K. Harrington

Michael S. Eddy • February 2021Master Teacher • February 3, 2021

Harrington in class at Yale School of Drama (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Wendall K. Harrington’s career has embraced diverse disciplines including theater, dance, opera, concert touring, film, and more. Affectionately known by her students as the ‘Queen of Projection’, Harrington has been working in the field of projected media for live events since the mid 1970’s where she’s constantly pushed the boundaries of multi-image/video design and projection. Her work has moved projection forward both in the art and the technology. She is the recipient of the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the American Theatre Wing Award, the TCI Award for Technical Achievement, The Michael Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration, the Obie Award for Sustained Excellence of Projections, and the USITT Distinguished Achievement Awards in Education (2015) and Digital Media (2019).

Harrington has been lecturing on projection design for theater since the early 1990s at various schools, master classes, and conferences. From 2005 to 2009, she lectured on projection for performance at the Yale School of Drama’s design department. In 2009, she was chosen by department co-chairs, Ming Cho Lee and Stephen Strawbridge, to head the department’s new projection concentration. The MFA program began in the fall of 2010 and was one of the first graduate theater training programs of its kind in the U.S. Today, she is an associate professor adjunct of design and head of the projection design concentration at Yale School of Drama. Harrington graciously shared some time to speak with Stage Directions about teaching and mentoring the next generation of designers.

Have you always been interested in teaching?
For me, I think I’m a natural teacher in a sense only because I know I want to share. It’s partly just my nature to be that way. I think that teaching is really a combination of knowledge, but also generosity. You have to want to share. I’ve known a lot of people who are very good at what they do, but who are not good sharers. So I might be a much better sharer than I am a designer but I know that I have that in me. I want to share what I know with my students and I want them to take that and be brilliant. It’s the same thing I want when I work on a show, I want the show to be great. I’m not so interested in whether somebody says, ‘Oh, the projections were great’. In fact, it’s kind of a disappointment to me if somebody says that because then they weren’t paying attention to the show and that I took attention away from it. I’m not interested in that. 

What were some of the ideas you brought to developing the projection design concentration at Yale School of Drama?
As a designer, I’m really interested in abstraction. I fight pretty hard against when it says in the script it’s a parking lot so we should see a parking lot. I want the audience to bring at least half that parking lot with them. If I give them something like the overhead lights or whatever. I want to teach that to students, and that’s a task to really ask them to embrace it, to go further and further into abstraction. But the thing is, it can’t be just abstraction. It’s not obfuscation. It has to have the sense of the thing itself still.

I also did this class called visual storytelling, where I just invited all these speakers to talk about all the subjects that I found the students had gaps. It is because our education system is so crazy. I found there was very little art history background, very little cinema history background, very little history of animation. So, I started this class, visual storytelling just to try to fill in the gaps of various kinds of knowledge that I think is important to have if you’re going to be a theater person. I thought about all the things that I wish somebody told me, and that’s kind of how it grew. These are the things that excite me. 

I’ve never taught the same class twice. It’s always different because I’m always responding to what’s in the air and what’s on the ground. Whatever the last production I saw was, or a conversation I had with somebody, or going to an art exhibit, they all definitely change and influence what I’m bringing next week to class. I mean, of course I have a syllabus, but I try to be fluid because I’m also trying to respond to what the students say. That’s what works for me because it’s alive. 

The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Werther, an opera by Massenet.

You take your curiosity and what’s going on around you and bring it into the class.
That’s basically what it is. And then you respond to what the students are curious about because they teach you also. Any teacher who doesn’t say that is just kidding themselves. I have learned so much from my students and from their curiosities. It is like having kids at home keeps you up to date on music. I would have stopped at the Talking Heads at some point, but no, your kids come home and they bring you all this stuff and your vision opens. And that’s the same thing with the students. When I would do visual storytelling, the first thing I would ask is what did you see last week? What production, what painting, what exhibit? 

That’s being in the world. And the world is delicious and I’m excited by it and I want to share that excitement with my students. I want them to be excited about what they see in the world. There’s so many things in it and I would say that that is my task in this world as a teacher and as an artist; to say, ‘Hey, look at this’, ‘Whoa, look at that.’ ‘Ooh, look at this over here’. As a designer you are always saying ‘Ooh, look at that. Don’t look at this. And if you’re going to look at that, think about it this way’. You’re really a guide.

 When your students graduate what is an essential thing you hope they’ve learned as they go into their careers?
To be a good collaborator, to be a good listener, and to not be afraid of expressing themselves. That for me is fundamental that they feel the confidence of their own ideas at the same time understanding the fluidity to roll as things develop. So knowing that you should be able to have a lot of ideas to draw on. I tell them whenever you walk into tech, you’re going to walk in with three shows—the show that you think you’re doing, the show the director thinks you’re doing, and the show that it’s going to be—because that’s the way it is. You have to be fluid. You have to have worked out every possible idea that you think could happen and you better have it with you so that you can say, ‘how about this?’ And then be able to respond when you hear the director say ‘hmm…’. You have to try to interpret what does that ‘hmm…’ mean. So being very prepared is important, that you’ve done all of your research so that you have the confidence to veer off. You want to know that I’ve thought this through so deeply that I can now jettison that idea and have a completely new idea. Because that happens when the scripts change, talking with the director; everything is different when you’re in the room. It’s like, whatever you thought when you were sitting at your desk, it’s all different in the room. 

Projection design is all about flexibility. It is a tapestry woven out of those two things—your ideas and the other ideas in the room—into some yet unknown thing that is going to occur when you’re in that room. That is why projection design is for me exciting because it is so malleable. That is another thing, as a projection designer I want the space to remain flexible as long as possible because once the actor’s inhabited it, it’s different. And so you want to be able to respond to that, you want the flexibility in some kind of way to feel the heat of the humans on stage, because that’s the only story I’m telling.

What are moments when you think, ‘Yes, this is why I teach’?
I just love the students. I love their potential. I love to see when the penny drops and they say, ‘Oh my God, I never thought of it that way’. That is so exciting to me. I love that my kids go out and are doing beautiful things. I love that I hear from them when it’s good, and that I hear from them when it’s bad. I feel that what I’m creating, I hope, is a kind of family that then creates other families. I try to lead by example with the attention and respect that I believe I am sharing with my students. I hope that they will carry that into the rooms with the directors and other designers. 

I do believe that love and respect is the thing that makes great theater, when it’s seamless and there’s no one designer that beats out another; it works great when it is one eye. You can see that right away on a show. When I see the difference in the color palettes of the projection and the lighting on a production, I know that is a show where two people were not talking with each other. It is not like there isn’t a solution to that problem. The solution is to have a conversation, but that’s what happens when people think they have to stay in their lane. I say all the time to my students, ‘You don’t need to stay in a lane!’ It’s what I’m doing now in my work, it is more of what could be called creative direction, because I don’t stay in my lane and that’s my goal with my students, to make them understand that they don’t need stay in their lane. I think then we get a better overall result for the production and have better collaborations when everyone shares freely as equals and artists.

Not staying in your lane also takes self confidence and knowing how to share in those conversations. My job is to support students in their self-belief and to show them different ways of expressing themselves. My belief in their ability is total, or I wouldn’t bring them in. So I am saying, ‘I see you, I see your potential. And I’m here to tell you, you are that person that you think you might be and you know what? You’re probably more. If you think you can’t, I say you can and in fact, have you thought about also doing this, because you can do that also.’ Telling them that, and getting them to believe in themselves, that’s my job. I really just love my job.

Are there three pieces of advice you would share: one with teachers, one with students, and the third with university administrations.
First piece of advice for teachers is to don’t be afraid to be human, to be your human self. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and to bring all of your humanity into the room. 

My advice for students is to bring all of yourself to the work that you do, your entire being. Not just your scholar self, but your life, your home, everything, because we are humans creating a human art form. And to administrators, I would say they should be supportive of the weirdness. I think there are administrators who feel like they have to keep things under control. And I understand, I’m not looking to allow mayhem. But in our particular discipline, which is a terrible word, I feel that there’s so much discovery that is made, that is found in a mess that can never be found otherwise. 

Part of my job I tell my students is to help you break it because when you break it, you’re going to know something; you’re going to learn something new. That is how you discover things. If you always play by the rules and you keep it tidy, yes, you will get to see a few things, but if you break it and you make a complete mess, sometimes those shards are glistening and it just like eliminates all other things. So, I understand that from the sense of an administrator there is a kind of terror baked in to that but that would be advice. See where the rules should and could be broken. There ought to be a certain amount of mayhem that’s encouraged just because I think that’s where we learn a lot of wonderful things.

How do you see teaching media and projection design going forward?
This has been a year of a lot of discovery and trying new ways of doing things. I have been looking at things from new angles trying to see all that is going on in the world. I’m trying to think of how am I going to keep breaking the norms. What’s the next thing? Because I think that in theater, I look at what’s going on now as a terrific opportunity—if we will only take it. And that is to break the structure, to break the hierarchies of the theater. And I don’t mean just the employment hierarchies which I think are bad enough. But that is a whole other conversation which I think is important to have as well. But with Black Lives Matter, and all the breakdowns that we’re having, I’m hopeful there will be breakthroughs. We know this is not easy to do. That some of the hierarchies are so siloed, but it is valuable to be working to break these. Like I said it won’t be easy, and it is a whole different conversation.

In regard to teaching, I love teaching. I have to say that the thing that’s great about teaching is every day it teaches you what you have to be clear about and look at what you have done as a theatrical professional. We just get up and we do it, and we work on instinct. So the idea that you have to put that into language is extremely valuable to me. Especially in what I have learned when I’m talking about why I did something. That is a reflection you don’t always do if you don’t have to explain and share it with someone else. That new understanding is then helpful for other things that come along. ‘Oh, I did it that way once’, but mostly, usually, we’re working on instinct, and we’re just rolling with it. So I find having to be cogent about the things that I did and the reasoning of why I did that is to me extremely valuable. At the same time, I’m always ready to embrace the mystery. It all helps you get smarter and we are all just trying to get smarter. I always want to know more. Teaching lets you do that everyday, because some student is going to come in with some question that you haven’t yet considered and that’s thrilling, or at least it’s thrilling to me.   

You can see more of her work—and her extensive list of credits at www.wendallharrington.com.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!