Singin' in the Rain
The Playmill Theatre
Sound Designer, Animator (2016, 2017)
Sound & Lighting Designer, Animator (2023)
When Singin’ In The Rain debuted at The Playmill Theatre in 2016, it was the most technologically advanced show the theatre had ever attempted. There were a lot of challenges we had to overcome, including the most obvious: In a theatre so intimate (where audience members in the front row are ON the stage), how do you make it rain?
After months of brainstorming and tests, we had a method that we thought would work. Through a combination of digital projection, mic'd tap shoes, and some convincing sound design, I had created a technique that actually fooled a lot of audience members into thinking we had, in fact, used real water.
My favorite moment each night was seeing Don Lockwood "kick water" into the front row and seeing audience members think they are about to get wet. I'm incredibly proud of the techniques I created and implemented in each new scene.
I've been fortunate enough to design this show three separate times at The Playmill Theatre, and each time the rain was completely redone and made from scratch to accommodate for new projector configurations, stage renovations, and even the varying heights of our actors. In addition to these three productions, I've collaborated with nearly a dozen other schools and professional theaters with spaces with similar constraints and limitations to create original projection sequences for their productions.
Don Lockwood (played by Jacob Squire) singin' in the rain! The Playmill Theatre, 2016.
When we first approached the scene where Don Lockwood would sing and dance in the rain, we planned on using a company that specialized in interactive projections to create the rain effect. There were multiple drawbacks to this technology, so I opted to animate the rain projection myself to match the choreography. This made for a really exciting collaboration between our choreographers Cooper Sutton (2016, 2017) and Eliza Lucero (2022).
Our method of projected rain was a popular topic amongst TripAdvisor reviews and local magazines.
I hung two projectors in the theatre and pointed them to the ground. After lining them up in QLab, I projected a 4x4 colored grid on the ground and recorded our actor portraying Don Lockwood performing his choreography. Then I imported the footage into After Effects and began to map out the animation of raindrops and splashes to match his choreography.
To really sell the effect, I recorded splash sound effects and placed a specific splash for every single step and tap in the choreography in addition to our actors wearing microphones on their ankles to amplify their tap shoes. Most of these splash sound effects were created by jumping in a puddle outside of the theatre. Others were recorded by splashing my hand in a shallow pan of water or my making a smacking sound with my mouth!
These different sources of sound, lights, projections, and microphones created a truly immersive experience that led many to believe we used real water, even when sitting a mere three feet away.
A picture of me splashing in puddles behind the theatre in freezing weather to record sound effects for the rain sequence!
A video of the entire Singin' in the Rain sequence performed by Zac Greenwell as Don Lockwood. Backdrop design by Justin Hemsley. The Playmill Theatre, 2022.
The Royal Rascal Silent Film Sequence
Another scene that had my attention from day one was the silent movie, "The Royal Rascal". Again, thinking about the intimacy of our theatre, we opted to try a different approach to this. We decided to do the silent movie live and in person. There were multiple challenges with this approach. How do I create a believable environment for the actors? Music wasn't provided for this scene, so what do I play? And how do I incorporate the famous title cards used in silent films?
I knew that figuring out an approach to using title cards would help the audience believe they were watching a silent film. I had the idea of using two placards, each angled so a different section of the audience can see them. The next thing I needed was a way to make every technical element work together.
The placard projections are one video, projected onto both placards simultaneously. The timing never changes, yet projection mapping decisions had to be made to compensate for moving set pieces. The time-specific lighting was achieved by a MIDI cable connected to the light board with automatic cues with pre waits running from QLab, giving me one go button to rule them all.
Moments of the Royal Rascal silent film sequence. The left shows a moment of action in the film, and the right shows the title cards being shown to the audience. The Playmill Theatre, 2016.
The entire Royal Rascal film sequence. The Playmill Theatre, 2016.
Film Dubbing Sequence
Continuing with the theme of live performances versus pre-recorded videos, the scene involving Lina Lamont’s voice being dubbed over was performed live. This is an example of one of those times when you just don’t quite know if an effect will work. Thankfully, once we put our actress playing Lina Lamont in front of the effect, it all came together perfectly. Take a look.
A clip of the film dubbing. The Playmill Theatre, 2016.
Opening Sequence Sound Design
The opening sequence of the show called for a large crowd with dozens of unique reactions straight from the red carpet. With such a specific vision, we knew the three actors we were able to place on stage as a “crowd” wasn’t going to cut it. I sat all the actors together in a single section and we went from reaction to reaction in the script. I recorded each reaction in different mic positions to help complete the effect. When compiled together, the opening sequence contained 23 individual cues (with many steps inside each cue) in a seamless two minutes.
A sound sample from the opening scene movie premiere. The Playmill Theatre, 2016.
We were so proud of our approach to this show during a time when projections were still a newer medium in non-Broadway venues that we created an episode of our behind-the-scenes series Behind Stage Doors to talk more about how the effect of the rain was achieved, and the process I went through to create it. Between Facebook and YouTube, this video has garnered nearly 60,000 views at the time of writing this post. We are so excited to see everyone's interest in the design and technical side of theatre!
An episode of Behind Stage Doors focusing on the creation of the projected rain.
I'm a live entertainment designer, composer, computer programmer, and frozen treat enthusiast with lots of stories to tell and a wide variety of ways I like to tell them.