If you’ve dipped into the world of teen Instagram and Twitter feeds, chances are you knew about Dear Evan Hansen well before it wowed at the June 11 Tony Awards, winning six awards including best musical. The impossible-to-get-tickets-for Broadway show tells the story of a high school introvert (Pitch Perfect’s Benjamin Platt, who won a Tony for his performance) unwittingly plunged into an ethical no-man’s-land when he intersects with a family whose son commits suicide. The blockbuster also has the distinction of being the first-ever show on Broadway to represent social media as a character onstage.
Creating a realistic impression of a teen’s online existence required the talents of projection designer Peter Nigrini (Amélie, If/Then), who helped breathe life into a scenic design that blurs the line between theater and film. Through snippets of candid photos and fleeting images projected onto a physical set designed by David Korn, Nigrini translates Evan’s online interactions into a visual landscape that slowly pulls the audience ever deeper into his world of desperate acts and flawed hope.
Nigrini avoided using a representation of a phone or a computer screen — “those are too banal. We wanted to represent our experience with social media, not just the interface itself,” he explains. So the production team began to explore the question of how to elevate a picture into a memory or an impression: “What is it that Evan sees when he closes his eyes and goes to sleep at night? How does he feel — not just what exactly did he see? Our job was to lift up those daily interactions to the level of poetry, to highlight the art of everyday experiences and to do so with emotionally accuracy. What does it feel like when you’re being ignored — or you become suddenly popular?”
The result is a pastiche of projected images that serve as a Greek chorus of sorts, illuminating the complicated moral temptations and pitfalls of the world unfolding onstage. “He might not even remember the exact people in the photo — maybe all he remembers is that they’re smiling,” Nigrini says. Like, for example, in the first number, “Waving Through a Window,” where we’re offered an intimate glimpse of Evan pressing his nose against the glass of a world filled with popular kids and inside jokes that he doesn’t have access to. Or during the thrilling moment when Evan realizes that the online project he created to honor his dead classmate has gone viral, and he’s achieved instant celebrity status.
To create these experiences, Nigrini and his team of editors culled hundreds of real-life images from the internet. In addition, the production team launched a campaign asking friends and fans of the show to post images with themselves holding a sign with the hashtag #YouWillBeFound. “Stock photos would never have worked,” Nigrini explains. “We needed real people. I might have been able to fool the parents, but I need to answer to the teens who see the show — I needed to make sure that I got it right, that they knew that it was authentic.”
Nigrini describes the gradual unfolding of a new concept that can produce something that’s never before been represented onstage, of “slowly transferring weight into a process” that required projection designs to be the character representing an entire chorus of people. “There were some scary leaps, like that day where we decided we didn’t need that cast,” remembers Nigrini of the development of the process. “It’s evolutionary.”
“In a way, the process was really about stripping away words,” he says. “You start with a script, but as it became clear that more and more of the story could be told with images, what was left was beautiful and essential bits of text. Projection allowed us to slowly strip away the extra words that were needed until the visual world was established.”
Nigrini points out that in the same way that the actor’s job is to let us see through them into the character, the job of projection design is to become transparent as well: “Projection design in the theater can move so fleetly; the excitement is capturing the efficiency with which cinema replicates storytelling so succinctly through images. Projection can enable live theater to enrich the world of storytelling — the story can move as quickly as your mind moves.” But projection design is more than adding a movie to a backdrop: It needs to enhance but not compete with what’s happening onstage, taking care not to overwhelm the actors.
“Good projection design seems effortless, obvious,” says Nigrini. “If one person questions its place in the show, it’s a failure.”