Stage Business: Sunday in the Park's special effects artist | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Stage Business: Sunday in the Park's special effects artist 

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You should have seen it. It was a sight!

Mama, I mean it--All color and light!

--lyrics from "Putting It Together" by Stephen Sondheim, from Sunday in the Park With George

An ominous electronic note is struck. A screen lights up--light reflecting off water and fields of flowers. Six video monitors blink on. The music becomes more chaotic. The quickening cascade of slide and video images builds toward an explosion of color and light.

"I pulled the imagery out of Seurat's painting (Sunday Afternoon an the Island of La Grande Jatte). . . . I had a very free hand in selecting what the imagery would be and how it would be interpreted," said John Boesche, the special-projection-effects designer of the Goodman Theatre's Sunday in the Park With George.

Boesche, who also worked free-lance on the Goodman's Galileo and Tempest, began his experiments in special lighting effects down the block at the School of the Art Institute. "I was going to take a class in something else and I saw a little hand-scrawled note that said 'Weekend Study in Holography.' The note was taped down in a stairwell and so I thought, hmmmmm. I didn't know much about holography but I knew it was about something to do with lasers and 3-D and that sounded pretty good to me. From then I got real involved in holography for a while and I got particularly interested in large-scale holography. My interest at the time was large-scale holography that you could use as a part of architecture, you know, like a hologram as a facade for a building."

In act two of Sunday in the Park, the great-grandson of Georges Seurat unveils his latest "chromo-lume." The Broadway production bathed the stage in laser light. Boesche explored doing that at the Goodman and rejected it.

"It was clear that they made a decision on Broadway at some point that they would make his work look as high-tech and contemporary as possible and to them that meant lasers. But lasers are phenomenally expensive, and the concern that was expressed by (Goodman director) Michael Maggio was to form a work of art that had some connection with the ideas of the painting. . . . And that was much more natural to do with the projected imagery of the slides than with lasers. I thought the lasers were interesting, but they did not have the kind of historical resonance with the painting that we were looking for," said Boesche.

Art isn't easy. Difficult to evaluate. Art isn't easy . . .

And then when you have to collaborate!

John Boesche brought in Polish-born video artist Miroslaw Rogala. Boesche and Rogala have worked together on a number of projects, a partnership that began when Rogala was a student of Boesche's. "For me," began Rogala, "it is taking two media and finding the strengths of each. The more slide projectors you have the faster you can jump from slide to slide. Also, you can project large, bright shots. That's what slide projection is. Video is a different medium, different speed, different motions. So, putting those together in contrast is something I'm really interested in."

A vision's just a vision if it's only in your head.

If no one gets to see it it's as good as dead!

The Goodman has sold over 50,000 tickets to Sunday in the Park, bringing him an audience far greater than attended any of his gallery exhibits. But that number will soon be dwarfed: Boesche has been commissioned to create two light sculptures for restaurants in the new United Airlines terminal at O'Hare.

"The ones I'm doing are based on projected imagery that is done by printing with mirror finish or sandblasting patterns onto glass, and then colored light illuminates that glass and casts patterns on the wall. . . . So if you look around the room you'll see these glass plates glowing in the room and you'll see the reflections of these different patterns of light.

"We were encouraged to employ themes about Chicago and so one of them is about Chicago architecture and there are elements of architectural ornaments that I've had printed and sandblasted onto this glass and projected on the wall," said Boesche.

What you need's a link with your tradition,

And of course, a prominent commission.

"Almost all of my work involves some sort of art history in it," he said. "For instance, a year and a half ago I was invited to be in a show of holography where I was asked to create an original hologram. So there were people from all over the world bringing in holograms of little sheets of light floating in space and little colored spheres and triangles and stuff floating in very modern looking imagery. And I had a hologram of some Louis Sullivan ornaments and I projected a quote from Louis Sullivan about the relation of art and science. People were looking at it and they couldn't figure out why there was this historical content there."

"There is a past and there is a history and that was something I had been forgetting," added Rogala. "I had been doing work in different media--I was acting; I was in performances; I had an interest in poetry and photography and some kind of other stuff and I didin't see that there was a connection . . . "

There is, and that is among the themes of Sunday in the Park. "This play is clearly oriented around the message that it is important to retain some connection with your historical past," said Boesche. "It doesn't necessarily have to look like classicism with columns for it to have a historical reference."

In a scene called "Putting It Together," George, the young video artist, is beset by museum executives offering commissions, hounded by a critic, and snickered at by a jealous fellow artist. "The thing that is most difficult for me," Boesche reflected, "is that with each new success I get more and more resentment from artists who may not be experiencing that same success. There's one character in the play who's really unhappy because he didn't get one of these commissions and that one is the one I feel most acutely.

"There's one commercial client I'm working with and their basic concern is that this art be cleanable," said Boesche. "That's their primary concern--that their regular maintenance crew will be able to handle this thing and they won't need some art curators to come out and clean this work that's going to be in a public place. That's the reality of it if you want to get a commission that's going to be in a public place and seen by a lot of people."

And that is the state of the art.

Sunday In the Park With George runs through August 16 at the Goodman Theatre, 200 S. Columbus, 443-3800, with performances daily except Monday. $22-$25.

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