Elevating audience experiences

T. Paul Lowry • projection designer

By Bob Abelman

The basic formula for a modern staging of a play hasn’t changed very much over time. Lighting, sound, set, costume, direction, stage management and performance are among the required elements. But now the language of live-performance storytelling is evolving rapidly, courtesy of projection design.

What was once an experimental and expensive complement to other design elements has become an accessible and integral part of a production’s manufacturing of atmosphere, landscape, perspective and animated special effects. Now the immediacy of theater and the density of computer-generated imagery have joined forces so that the lines between set design, lighting design and projection design blur and audiences can’t tell where one stops and the others begin.

Ten years ago, projections on Broadway were viewed with trepidation. Not anymore.  

Take as an example the 2012 play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which landed at Playhouse Square while on tour in 2017. Throughout the show, the symptoms of the central character’s Asperger’s syndrome – particularly his sensitivity to stimuli and the heightened state of anxiety it generates – were visually captured and displayed on every surface on stage through high-tech stagecraft requiring 234 sound cues, 373 light cues and hundreds of projection cues.   

Joshua McElroy as Char and Natalie Green as Ella in Dobama Theatre’s production of “Ella Enchanted.” / Steve Wagner Photography

On the local front, T. Paul Lowry, 44, is the projection designer of choice when it comes to solving visual production problems, telling and propelling stories, and making moments on stage look particularly cool.

“Projections have now become a dramaturgical element in many Cleveland productions,” says Lowry, of University Heights.

He first started designing projections while a student at Arizona State University in Tempe and holding a work-study job with the university’s Institute for Studies in the Arts, where theater artists were experimenting with new, cutting-edge technologies to tell their stories. 

“At the time,” he recalls, “it was just a fun thing to do; it wasn’t something I thought I would get into, but the seed was planted.” After moving to New York City, and after a lot of trial and error, he produced his first projection-driven project in 2007.

When he started designing projections professionally, he was usually brought into a project late in the process, after the set was designed and because the creative team was looking for a specific effect. “Now, theater companies bring me into the process at the beginning” and he approaches his work the same way he would building sets and lights.  

Says Lowry, “I see it as a tool to tell the story, support a narrative vision. I usually start with reading the script to find opportunities for projection. And then there are meetings with the director and other designers, where I look to connect the projection design to the other storytelling elements. Then, it’s about creating content.” 

He is particularly proud of the work he did on “Ella Enchanted” during Dobama Theatre’s 2018 season. Based on the romantic fairy tale “Cinderella,” the musical was first a novel that inspired a 2004 live-action film whose $30 million budget offered an abundance of computer-generated imagery. None of that CGI was as enchanting or possessed the same level of bibbidi-bobbidi-boo as Lowry’s animated images of big skies and sweeping landscapes projected on a rear screen and the proscenium arch, as well as the creation of stage magic and character enhancement. 

“I was able to bring my young children to a performance,” he adds, “and show them what I do.” 

What he does, says frequent collaborator Nathan Motta, artistic director at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, “is take what exists and elevate the audience experience. We’re so fortunate to have him working in the Cleveland theater community.” CV

On stage

  • “Stupid F**cking Bird,” Sept. 6–29, and “Wakey Wakey,” from Oct. 18 to Nov. 10, will both be staged at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.
  • “Sherpa Dreams (A Tale of Nepal),” will be staged from Sept. 14 to Oct. 6 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, 5209 Detroit Ave., Cleveland.

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