5 Questions with Hannah Wasileski

Sam Schanwald shares five questions with Hannah Wasileski, the projections designer for Haruki Murakami’s SLEEP, which is being performed at BAM until December 2nd.

  1. So, we’ve both been working on this production of Murakami’s Sleep for a little while, but neither of us has actually met in person yet. There are some really high caliber artists working on Sleep who are contributing in a satellite way, such as playwright Naomi Iizuka and dramaturg Joy Meads (who both collaborate with the Sleep team from California). How does your collaboration style depend on your geographical distance from a given rehearsal room? 

The collaboration is not affected much by my geographic location, as most of my work is done remotely. I start by creating an extensive pool of visual research, upon which I begin the storyboarding process. The storyboards are a really integral part of the collaborative process as it allows us to visualize and explore the imagery in direct relationship to the architecture of the space. This part of the process happens in dialogue with the director, but is not contingent upon location. Since Sleep was devised from the ground up, however, it was crucial to then be in the room for workshops to sculpt the projections to the world as we continued to develop it. All of the elements in Sleep are so deeply intertwined, and in order to meld them together seamlessly it does take being in the room together with everyone along the way.

  1. Projection design is certainly on the upswing, especially as a financial and logistical alternative to bulky scenic pieces. Though more extensive physical scenic designs certainly have the potential to offer their own sort of visual poetry, an overly intricate or heavy scenic design might prove burdensome for a production like Sleep, which has been and continues to tour. What is the nature of your conversations with scenic designers, and how do you work with other theater designers to embolden stories? 

To me, projections are not an alternative to scenery. They thrive on the physicality of the space they are projected onto. The architecture of the set provides a backbone to the imagery, and allows for the imagery to heighten, transform and be in dialogue with its environment. So my process benefits enormously from having conversations with scenic designers throughout the collaboration, and having the two designs really develop and inspire one another from the beginning. Sound and music are other elements that inform my process to a great extent, as visuals and sound so inextricably elevate one another. The collaboration with lighting designers is of course also a very intimate one — the most successful and cohesive collaborations allow the two to blend in such a way that you can’t quite tell where one ends and the other begins.

  1. The art of projection design is deeply steeped in the tradition of cinema. How has the ongoing dialogue between stage and film influenced your work? 

Film and cinema certainly have a great influence on projection design, but there is much more to the medium than that, and that is precisely why I am attracted to it. Projections often default to a filmic vocabulary as that is the context of moving image that we are most familiar with, but what’s exciting to me are the fertile possibilities of what a moving image can be. Projections are essentially just light, and that light can be sculpted in endless ways — to create moving paintings, to visualize music, to interact with architecture, to engage as a character with performers, to play with spaces and play tricks on our perceptions of them. What makes projections so intriguing is their capacity to utterly transform a physical environment and play with our sensory perceptions on a large scale. My curiosity lies in the potential of the medium, in exploring unconventional ways of thinking about what moving image can be.

  1. I was taught that digital possibilities can be overwhelming if the artist hasn’t manually centered the vision before getting on the computer. What is your relationship to technology, and how do you maintain the integrity of your artistic vision without getting distracted by the manifold possibilities of creating digitally? 

I joke about being the only technophobe who somehow stumbled into the field of projection design. It’s about half true. Of course I use technology and understand the possibilities it presents, but I don’t enjoy the technology much on its own, and really see it as an aid in realizing a vision, rather than being at the center of the vision itself. My background is in the fine arts and I think that’ll always be at the core of my work. I enjoy the design processes most when I get to create content by hand, and then translate it digitally after. Projection design often gets so carried away with this inundation of technical possibilities, that it can neglect to approach things with a more human touch. At the same time, the contribution of technology is invaluable to creating these incredibly immersive uses of projections, so there’s really a delicate balance between the art and the technology.

  1. What elements of visual art and performance are you investigating through your design for Sleep?

The goal for the projections for Sleep was manifold: to heighten the world in an environmental way, to be a character with an arc of its own that interacts and converses with the performers on stage, and to play with the audience’s perception of space and reality. In doing that, the projections also serve a dramaturgical purpose, to underscore and support the storytelling and the psychological landscape of the protagonist as her world shifts more and more off-kilter. The imagery is abstract and atmospheric in nature, and feeds greatly off of the linear architecture of the set. The idea from the start was to create the illusion that the perfect geometry of the space was being gradually distorted and fractured, ultimately culminating in a physical breaking apart of the set at the end of the play.

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