Mitch Stark discusses the benefits of projection backdrops and how to start using them and why having professional scenic design helps fill seats.
Mitch is the founder of Theatre Ave and a scenic projection designer for theatrical shows. He shares the insights he’s gained from 15 years as a graphic designer and illustrator and 8 years designing for theatre companies worldwide—for productions such as ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘The Wizard of Oz’, ‘Annie’, ‘Seussical the Musical’, ‘Lion King’, and beyond.
WILLIAM: Today, I talked with Mitch Stark, who is the founder of Theatre Avenue and a scenic projection designer for theatrical shows. He shares his insights he’s gained from 15 years as a graphic designer and illustrator and eight years designing for theatre companies worldwide for productions such as Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Wizard of Oz, Annie, Seussical the Musical, Lion King, and Beyond.
In this episode, we discuss the benefits of projection backdrops and how to start using them, and why having professional scenic design helps fill seats.
So, let’s get into it.
Hey Mitch, thanks for joining us today.
MITCH: Yeah, it’s great to be here.
WILLIAM: To start off, can you give us a little bit of a backstory about yourself and Theatre Avenue?
MITCH: Yeah. You know, I have always loved art. I always loved to draw, even as a little kid who’d drawn anything and everything that I could get my hands on and so I was always drawing. I loved movies and I loved theatre growing up.
And then, when I got out of high school, I did go to art school at Ball State University and studied Art. At Ball State, I really had a great opportunity to study all of the arts, but specifically, really get into some things that I had a big interest in. One, being computer animation, which is actually been something that I’ve been getting back into more recently, but also, a real heavy focus on drawing and painting and some of the traditional things.
But, I just love being there because I really got a chance to dip my hands into a lot of different things and not only that, but really see how art could apply to so many different areas and so many things that I was interested in at the time.
WILLIAM: So, what have you been doing for the past few years after you got out of school?
MITCH: After school, I started right away with a small company. It’s kind of interesting. It was a very little company, just kind of starting up, out of Indianapolis and it was a speaker. He went around and actually traveled the world internationally and he would do kind of like, I mean, the best way to describe it is like motivational talks.
And then, he would do a chalk illustration at the end of his talk and then, at the end of the show, he would actually project a video on that that would sort of bring the drawing to life. I was responsible for editing those videos.
So, what I did was a little bit of design, but actually a lot of video editing, which was so fun because as soon as I got out of school, I got a chance to start moving footage around and creating graphics and things like that.
WILLIAM: Wow! And I know you worked with Theatre Avenue. Can you give us a little bit of information about that?
MITCH: Yeah, so Theatre Avenue– And it’s interesting because we’ve recently shifted a bit to completely focus on creating projection backdrops for theatre, which basically means that a theatre company, and they can be big or small, whatever size, but a theatre company can choose to maybe just use a few set elements.
And then, rather than using a traditional drop, which is either painted or sometimes hung, they can use a projector and they can project an image which can sometimes be animated on to the screen, which then sort of brings a whole another level of excitement and a whole another level of artistry and really, can bring a professional quality to the scenic design work that they’re doing.
WILLIAM: So, if I wanted to start doing projections for my show, what kind of cost differences there between my projections and the more traditional backdrops?
MITCH: Well, traditional backdrops are very expensive and difficult. I mean, a lot of theatre directors or teachers would tell you that it’s often not even in their scope to be able to do something with traditional backdrops. Usually, they cost at least $500 per drop to rent them per week. You have to have a certain amount of fly space to hang them, technicians to run them and often, it’s not even in the budget at all for a small to mid-range theatre company to use them.
And so, projections, there’s almost no comparison. I mean, you can pretty much take a business projector or a school projector and get started with projection. So, you can actually kind of beg, borrow, and steal what you need. You can set up a screen or you can project right on to your cyc or on to your scrim. And you can really create pretty quickly a virtual environment that paints the world of the story that you’re trying to tell with your play.
WILLIAM: And I guess there’s a difference between rear-projected backdrops and then front-projected backdrops? Is there one that’s maybe better than the other or if I were to get started, which one would you recommend that I use?
MITCH: Yeah, you know, I used to waffle on this a lot more, but I think, lately, it’s been pretty clear that if you can project from the rear, it’s the best. Now, the way that you have to do that is you do have to have a little bit of stage depth to play with.
But, the nice thing is technology is getting better and better every day, so they now have short rear projectors, which is, basically, they just put a different lens on the projector, which means the projector does not have to be as far back from the screen. So, for example, you could be about eight feet back behind a screen and you could get a 20 foot wide image, which fills up most theatrical spaces pretty well.
If you have a little bit of that stage depth to work with, it’s so much better because it’s more vibrant. You don’t have to deal at all with the shadows of actors getting in front of the screen. There are just other challenges with front projection and front projection can work great. I’ve seen it work wonderfully, too. But, I think if you have an option to go one way or the other, rear projection is best.
WILLIAM: And is there a specific kind of screen that I can use? Can I just throw up a sheet? Does this need to be a special screen? How does that work?
MITCH: You know that’s a really great question. I get that question a lot and once again, the neat thing about it is you really can start very simply. In fact, we’ve worked with a couple of groups here locally who have built something just using Home Depot supplies, just sort of throwing up a wood frame, stretching a kind of semi-transparent plastic around it and almost stretching it like you would a canvas for a painting.
And they’ve used that to get started and then, those smaller groups, once they have a projector and they have the images, then for their next show, they might look into upping their game a little bit by getting some other materials.
There are materials that they make specifically for rear projection that can hold the image and it keeps the image brighter. But, the nice thing about it is you don’t have to have a huge budget. You don’t have to have a lot of money. And really, you can get volunteers or even students. You can delegate it to students if you’re a teacher to put something together that will work.
And then, some teachers will use their cyc or directors will use their cyc. So, you don’t necessarily have to have a lot of specialized equipment, especially to get started, to really make it work for you.
WILLIAM: So, if I were to get started and kind of as low budget as possible, what kind of range would I be looking at spending?
MITCH: You know that’s a really good question. I don’t know if I ever totaled it in my head. I will tell you this. From a projector point of view, obviously a lot of people have access to a projector, so you could probably get that from next to nothing. Although, we have recommended projectors that are pretty good for this kind of thing that kind of sit around the $600 or $700 range new.
So, you’re looking around $600 or $700 if you want to buy something that we would recommend for a projector that would be bright enough to do what you needed to do and it’s pretty easy to use.
As far as the screen, like I said, it can range from $100 all the way up to as high as you like to go with that or you might have something once again that exists. And once you got a projector and a screen, really, all you need are the images and you just need a laptop.
Some of the newer laptops can be a little better when it comes to animations because they can do cleaner playback if you have something that’s recent. And what I mean by recent is within the last few years. But the beauty of this is that, really, if you have a laptop with PowerPoint or KeyNote, you can bring the images right in there. And it’s something, like I said before, that a student can even do.
So, it’s a very, very minimal cost and really something that anybody could do. They don’t have to have a lot of technical experience to be able to really dip in and start to play with projection.
WILLIAM: Now, if I were doing a production of The Wizard of Oz, how many different backgrounds do I need to make that feel like my audience has gone and seen a show with different scenes? How many would you suggest using?
MITCH: Yeah. Once again, it kind of depends a little bit on how you want to tell the story. And so, we have some groups that just buy one because they have a very specific vision for one scene or they just want to accent a moment. In other cases, I mean, The Wizard of Oz is a good example of a show that really benefits from getting the full range of locations.
A lot of people do The Wizard of Oz very traditionally, so it’s helpful to them to even use the sepia tone type backdrops at the beginning before Dorothy goes to Oz, and then to bring things into full color. I mean, for a show like that, I mean, to get the most out of a show like that, you probably are looking at around five or six projections to make that work.
And that’s one of the reasons, without getting too much into what we do, but that’s one of the reasons that we really keep our projections price so low is because we really feel like it would be best for directors to have the option within their budget to be able to get a whole collection of projections without feeling like their whole budget is being broken just by getting the images.
We’re really trying to keep that cost low because we really feel like by getting a whole collection, you really can give an audience, and that’s really the beauty of projections too, is that you can take them to a variety of locations. You can create really clean black fades in-between your scenes, which is something that’s really hard to do with transitions in a traditional show where you’re just using set pieces.
And I think we’ve all been to shows or may have been a part of shows where you can hear the wheels rolling, you can see how cumbersome it is on stage to move pieces on and off and how heavy they can be, and it really can take something away. So, by using projection, it’s a very quick and clean way to transition your audience from one scene to another.
WILLIAM: Now, another quick question. If I want to use some projections–I’ve seen them. They’re beautiful.–If I wanted to use those and buy them, am I renting those from you? Am I buying them from you? Can I use them in other shows? How does that work?
MITCH: Yeah. In our case, we try to keep it really simple, so we don’t rent them. When you buy them, you have them to use. As long as you’re using them at the same school or a community theatre group that you’re at or professional theatre group that you’re at, then you can use them again.
Let’s say you do Annie one year and you want to do it again in two years, you can use them again for that very easily. So, yeah, we don’t do that. I think that there are some places that would do that, but I think that once you have the projection, it really benefits the teacher or the director to be able to use that again for not only that show but in the other shows that they might want to use it for because some of the projections that we do also have multiple uses. I mean, if you get a jungle for The Jungle Book, I mean, that’s something that you probably could use for the Lion King as well.
WILLIAM: I see. So, a lot of them might cross over.
MITCH: Right. And sometimes we specifically design that way. There are a lot of projections that we really have a story in mind very specifically or certain moments even in the story. Like for example, we just did Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and so, there are only so many different plays you can use a chocolate waterfall for. But then, there’s others where, I mean, for example, for The Lion King, we did an animation that’s very simple of a rising sun and that could work for a number of different productions.
WILLIAM: I see. Now, this podcast is all about marketing. Can you just talk a bit about the importance of having a good quality set, a good quality background, and how that plays into building an audience and selling more tickets?
MITCH: That is a great question, and this is something we didn’t necessarily get into when we were talking about my background, but I spent a lot of years working also in marketing. And one of the best ways I’ve ever heard marketing described is marketing is everything that you do. Marketing is every email that you send. Marketing is every part of your production.
So, from the standpoint of a play, every set piece, every prop, every actor, everything you’re doing is marketing. Everything you’re doing is communicating the quality. It’s communicating the heart. It’s communicating something to your audience.
So, when you take the time to really invest, whether it be in new technologies like projections or just really taking the time to craft your costumes or whatever it would be, I mean, you are in that single play really securing an audience, not only for that play, but possibly for the entire run that your theatre group has.
And I think that something that’s important to remember is that kind of an investment in time has a lot of value in the long-term as far as bringing your audience back to you.
WILLIAM: Are a lot of people using projection backdrops now?
MITCH: They are. And you know, what’s interesting is that I recently heard that, you know, when I was looking back and kind of studying some of the history, and projections in some ways are really one of the oldest things that were tried in a theatre. I mean, even as early as the early 1900’s and even before, as soon as they could flash light through an image, projections were something that were being used.
But, as old as they are in that sense, they really feel very new. And a lot of directors and a lot of teachers are just getting into it because like I was saying before, the cost now to put together a little suite of equipment that will allow you to do them is so much lower. Computers are so easy to use. Software is so easy to use.
And as long as the level of artistry is there, I mean, I’ve had directors and teachers tell me that people have come away from the plays that they’ve done where they use projection saying that it looked better than some Broadway shows that they have been to. And so, it really bridges the gap in that sense.
So, a lot of people are getting interested in them and a lot of people are wanting to use them. I’d say most of the time, when I’m talking to people on the phone, it’s “I really want to do this. I’m excited about doing this. I just want to find a way to make this work in the space that I have.”
WILLIAM: Yeah. And one of the things–I’ll just bring this up from my experience as an audience member. I went to the Denver Theatre Festival here recently and they had one of their shows with a projection backdrop and that’s a show that really stands out for me.
It was in a farm and they had pictures of the field, pictures of the family, pictures of the house, and that was something that was super memorable for me because no one else was doing anything like that. And that’s something that I would love for other people, you know, take other people to see this show just because it’s something that stood out that I haven’t personally seen a lot of people use. And for me, that’s a selling point right there, “Hey, you need to come see this show. They’re doing this really cool thing with technology that I’m sure you probably haven’t seen before.”
MITCH: Exactly. I’ll tell you this, too, and this is becoming a very common thing in the shows. As I talk to directors after the shows that they use projections in, that they tell me, almost in all cases, the audience gasps when the projection comes up. It really has a profound effect right away when they see it and a lot of them will fade the projection up from black and it just sets the scene like nothing else.
And so I think that’s really true about what you’re saying. I think it has a big effect on the overall production and of course, in that way, it’s going to draw a big audience, and it’s going to really circulate word-of-mouth.
WILLIAM: And do you think this will help with repeat patrons?
MITCH: Absolutely. In fact, that’s one of the things I’ve loved is the longer that I do this the more that I get an opportunity to continue to work with the same directors over and over on the different productions that they’re doing and really, to hear the stories from them about how people are responding.
Once again, I’ll lump this in with marketing because I think it affects the overall performances of the kids, but one thing I’ve heard in school theatre, for example, directors will say, “You know, not only is it that audience that feels that on opening night, but the kids that are in my play, when they see that projection go up during tech week go up on the screen, it just elevates their excitement and elevates even the level of intensity in their performance. I mean, they’re just giving so much more because they think, gosh, if somebody took the time to paint something that beautiful for this play, then they feel like it’s really something special.”
And so, then of course, that brings something to them, which then, of course, is something they give back to the audience. If they feel more invested, if they feel more of a team and if they’re enjoying the experience that much more, I mean, it just makes it so much more fun for everyone. And once again, like you’re saying, then that’s going to really travel word-of-mouth because it’s just going to bring something to the performance as a whole.
WILLIAM: Now, a quick aside, talking about painting these, you know I’m not a very good artist myself and I can’t even imagine myself painting these, you do each one of this by hand. They are all original. There’s no copyright issues. And how long does it take you to, for example, do Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and do the animated waterfall and to put that all together in a piece, how long does that take you? And what’s kind of the process that goes into that?
MITCH: Yeah. It’s a good question. It ranges on how long it takes me. Like I mentioned, there are some animations that are cleaner and some blur, and actually, are stronger that way, for example, I’ll mention The Lion King and then I’ve done a couple where I’ll animate stars on a starry night. So, those can range from 6-8 hours to create, all the way up to what’s more common, which is sometimes 20 to 30 hours to paint.
Because, I do, like you’re saying, I start from scratch. I really start with pencils. I start with pens. I start with markers and design compositions, explore lighting, explore color. I mean, I’m really trying to bring something fresh and original to these.
Of course, there are certain things like you mentioned Wizard of Oz before, I mean, there are certain things that an audience will expect to see when they come see The Wizard of Oz. But, at the same time, as an artist, I’m always looking to do something new and do something fresh. And some of that new and fresh can come through the colors or the way that I’m painting or just different things I’ll put in the painting itself.
And then, some of that comes through the different animated touches, whether it’s falling leaves or fog in the air or just adding little touches of birds flying by or smoke coming out of a chimney. I mean, those are the kind of things that really bring this to life and actually make the most use of a projection because, of course, a projection can be video.
And so, you don’t want to take away from what’s happening on stage, but by adding these small animated elements into the projection, it just brings it to a whole another level.
WILLIAM: Right. That makes a lot sense. So, that’s a lot of time that you’re spending on making those. Can you talk a little bit about copyright issues because I know we’ve talked about this previously and can you just talk about what people can use these for and kind of the legal aspects of using backdrops?
MITCH: Yeah. You know, unfortunately, this is one of those things that in the past it’s kind of tricky. I think it’s tough with theatre companies because like I was saying before, they’re working with small budgets or no budgets and they’re trying to make something work. So, it becomes so tempting to just grab anything and everything that you can to use.
Unfortunately, you can get in trouble for some of that. So if you’re just Googling “jungles” and you just grabbed a jungle image and you put it up on the screen, you can get in trouble for that. Some of the licensing companies can be really tough on that and can come in. And I’ve heard some horror stories of theatre companies actually getting shut down over that.
And it makes sense, I mean, that the original creators of the images, I mean, like you’re saying before, they spend a lot of time on that. And that can go for projection artwork, but it can also be poster artwork or any number of different pieces of artistry that you might want to put on your show. So, you do have to be careful about what you use.
WILLIAM: Okay. That’s good to know. So, basically, you’ve got the rights to use your backdrops and they won’t get any legal trouble for using Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory backdrop just because it’s a chocolate fountain, it doesn’t mean that that’s copyrighted necessarily.
MITCH: Yeah. Now, I see what you’re saying, too, as far as using art. The backdrops we create, like I said, they’re all completely original, hand-crafted and really, like I said, they’re not always just designed for one show. For example, the chocolate river one that we might use for Willy Wonka, I think I called it candy factory, and there’s a number of them you could use for different shows.
A lot of times with copyright–and this is probably the best way to explain it–what you have to look at is just they call it “likeness,” which is you don’t want to create something that looks like something else that’s out there. And by pouring in 20 to 30 hours, you eliminate a lot of that right away because we’re really steering it. I mean, I look at other things really just to steer in the other direction because as an artist, I don’t really have the desire to create something that looks just like the movie or looks just like what was created before.
Now, there are certain story points that you want to make sure that you hit, but I’m in this area because I want to create something that’s cool and new and fresh and really bring something that’s maybe unexpected to the show that hasn’t been seen there before.
So, yes, as far as our projections are concerned, once you buy one of our projections, you don’t have to worry at all about that. And like I said then, then you’re free to use them for other shows too.
WILLIAM: Okay, that’s excellent. Thank you for clarifying that.
MITCH: You bet.
WILLIAM: To wrap this up, what’s one technique that you would suggest that event producers do today to start increasing their ticket sales?
MITCH: Yeah. I think that, you know, and this kind of weaves into the idea of using projections pretty well in the sense that I think that you just want to be open to the new tools and the technology of the time. And what I mean by that is you know, of course, like I said, teachers are getting into projections. They’re seeing the advantages.
There are some older school mindsets that would say, “Oh, to project is not something that belongs in the theatre,” but I think that when you see it, you see that, really, anything is gain and anything can bring something to the story and so you don’t want to be close to it.
And so, when it comes to increasing ticket sales or things like that, I know there are a lot of tools out there to make that simpler, not only for the people selling the tickets, but the people who are buying the tickets. You want to be open to using those tools.
Along those lines, too, as far as marketing is concerned, social media is a great way to build an audience now. Being on Facebook, being on Twitter, starting a group, for your theatre company, really allowing– and I think a lot of people are interested in this these days. They’re not just interested in the end product or the finished show, but they’re also excited and interested in the process that takes you and your cast or you and your crew to get there.
So, by giving them a window into your process and I think all of us probably loved the DVD. DVDs are getting a little outdated, but the idea of the DVD behind-the-scenes and you see even movie trailers coming out now where it’s behind-the-scenes and people are super interested in behind-the-scenes.
And by using technology, by using social media or sending out newsletters or things like this, you really can allow your audience to see beyond just that finished veneer that you have of the production itself. You can really allow them to see into the heart of why you’re making things and why you make certain decisions and what makes your theatre company or your group distinguish from other theatre companies, not just in the finished show, but the way that you make things.
I think that those kinds of tools were not really available. You had to send out a very traditional ad in the past and it can cost a lot of money. Now, those avenues have really been opened up a lot of different ways that you can communicate with your audience and, really, have them feel not just like they’re being marketed to or sold to, but they’re really a part of what you’re doing. And I think that that is what creates a life-long customer or a life-long member of your group or of your theatre company.
WILLIAM: So, you would suggest then, if you’ve got some great backdrops or a great set piece or great costumes, to take pictures of that, maybe videos of that, and to share that with the audience of the theatre?
MITCH: Yeah. I think that sharing, and this probably just my way of looking at this, but I really think sharing is a good thing. Sharing is something anybody can do and teaching is something that anybody can do. You can teach. You are a unique expert in your field.
If you’re a school teacher and you’re teaching theatre and you have taught it for 10 years, for example, the experiences that you have are so unique. The kids that you’ve had in the production, it’s so unique. As a community theatre director, I mean, it’s so special what community theatre groups can do at that level. There’s nothing wrong with that and you really want to open that up and not be afraid.
I think a lot of people can be afraid of really showing people behind the curtain. And I think that that’s one of the strengths. I think people are interested. I think that that’s one of the things that we enjoy as audience members is not just the show but all of the different pieces that go into that. So, I think that that’s a real advantage.
The more you can just be open and show that process, I think it really actually endears people to you more, to not feel like you’re perfect, but that you are human with them and you’re making mistakes and you’re trying things and you’re being creative. I think opening up that creative process does a lot for people.
WILLIAM: Hey, thanks so much, Mitch, for coming on the show. This has been super insightful.
MITCH: Great and I’ve loved it and I love to do it again.
WILLIAM: Awesome. How do we keep up with you and Theatre Avenue?
MITCH: Yeah. You can go to TheatreAvenue.com, which is actually just TheatreAve. So, it’s the traditional way, the old-school way of spelling theatre, T-H-E-A-T-R-E-A-V-E.com, TheatreAve.com. If you hop on there, you can see all of our projections. You can kind of keep up with what we’re doing. We have a blog and you can also sign up for our newsletter. Those are the best ways to keep in touch with us.
We send out a monthly newsletter just to, like I was just saying, share about what we’re up to and give people who are following us a little bit of a window into the process and the shows that we’re doing next, the shows that we’re looking at doing. And also, we love to be really interactive with our community, too.
There’s a lot of times I’ll send out or post our newsletter asking what shows people are doing and what they’re interested in or what scenes they’d love to see in the store because we want to stay on top of that. We want to see what’s going to be useful to people and their productions.
WILLIAM: Awesome. Thanks so much, Mitch, for joining us today.
You can read Mitch’s guest post on our blog to learn more about Theatre Avenue and projection backdrops at WellAttended.com/blog.