Dark Play - Projection on a Budget

Saulius Slezas, Boston Latin School, Massachusetts
March 2009

I'm a senior at Boston Latin School, and my director wanted to make my last show the most technically challenging yet. When she told me last fall about the show she had picked for our 2009 entry to the Massachusett's High School Drama Guild's annual competition I got really excited. But that excitement soon turned to worry and a search for how to pull it off.

Dark Play or Stories for Boys involves a boy who gets a bit too invested in his alternate online persona. The whole show is heavily driven by internet-related themes. We needed a way to show this Internet presence on stage and make it central to the show. We decided on integrating 2 large projection screens and many old CRT computer monitors into the set. One projection screen would be on each side of the stage and the monitors would be all over—fitting into nooks and crannies in the industrial set. I wanted each projector and the monitors as a group to be individually controlled. I also hoped to play videos on all the screens in perfect sync with each other and a soundtrack. At first this seemed like a perfect project for QLab, but we had two large constraints to overcome. First we are an inner-city public school with very little money, and second the rules of the competition stipulate that the entire set must be loaded onto the stage at the venue in under 5 minutes.

When I first learned about QLab it would have been too expensive for our small budget. Luckily, in January 2009 version 2 came around and gave us the opportunity to rent licenses, bringing it into our price range. Looking around the QLab website I was intimidated by all the showcases involving people using brand new Mac Pros and Macbook Pros to run QLab. I asked the cast and crew to find out who had Mac laptops and came up with 2 iBook G4s and 2 Macbooks. Somehow these would have to run 3 video outputs and our sound all in perfect synchronization. We outfitted both iBooks with maxed-out RAM (1.25 GB) and left the Macbooks with their stock 512 MB. Using this setup we found the Macbooks could play video in QLab just fine, but the iBooks weren't fast enough for video. They could just do sound and still images. From this we decided to hook up 1 Macbook to each projector, 1 iBook to the monitors and just simplify the plan to not involve playing video on those and then have the last iBook control the other three computers through MIDI over ethernet while playing the audio out to a DI box. All the computers sat backstage in the stage-right projection screen's stand so that it would be easy to troubleshoot them during the show. Since they were all in a box we could preset most of the cabling and carry it out on stage together, making our set easier. Using this setup our stage manager only had to call two sets of cues during the show: lights and everything else.

GEAR LIST
  • 2 x iBook G4: 1.2 ghz | 1.25 GB RAM
  • 1 x Macbook Core Duo: 1.83 ghz | 512 MB RAM
  • 1 x Macbook Core 2 Duo: 1.83 ghz | 512 MB RAM
  • 1 x Whirlwind IMP 2 DI box
  • 1 x Acer 2300 Lumen projector
  • 1 x Viewsonic 2200 Lumen projector

The final set of cues involved several AV sequences of rapidly flashing words interspersed with video of hands typing and texting on the screens accompanied by music while the ensemble did their thing on stage. We also flashed key words, phrases and sentences on the screens. But since we had individual control over the screens, each screen didn't show the same thing. Instead we had the sentences span the entire stage. For instance with "I want to fall in love." the stage-right screen showed "I want" the monitors said "to" and the stage-left screen showed "fall in love."

Once we got to competition, it was all stress. During the weeks leading up to game day we got a veritable army of techies together, assigned them all jobs and rehearsed the entire set process ad nauseam. We actually got the entire process of loading the set in from the wings, setting up all the technology and testing everything to under 4 minutes. Giving us a whole 60 seconds to troubleshoot if we needed it. At competition we had plenty of problems. First the host venue directed us to a faulty power outlet and one of the Macbooks decided out of the blue it wanted to change its display settings from spanning mode back to mirroring. Our set time was 5 minutes even. Luckily however we ended up winning and moving on to the semi-final round. At semis our technical execution as well as acting was flawless, we just had some really stiff competition. Everyone who ever saw the show was wowed by what QLab had done for us and saw it as adding to show immensely. It was a huge success—I even won an individual award for the projections—and I can't wait to use QLab on another show.