A Curious Case: Projections in “The Artists”

Constantly astounded by the talent of my fellow classmates. Subscribe to their YouTube Channel?

What did you just watch? It’s a video projection — one of several — from Cameron Burger ’20 and Alvaro Chavez 21‘s one-act play, The Artists, which premiered at Wesco cafe on December 5. This comic meisterwerk, the tale of two eccentric, New York-based artists/lovers, ran for only two nights, and criminally, no one has reviewed it. So I thought I’d give it a try (see after the break).

There’s lots to talk about here — the outlandish comedy, the tight writing, the well-timed acting. But the element that stood out most to me are the projections. Oddly, and perhaps sarcastically, the play’s poster de-emphasizes them:

There are more than just “a couple” of these beauties, two to three minute clips that light up the wall stage-left between scenes. In practical terms, they exist to keep the audience engaged (read: laughing) while Burger and Chavez prepare for the next leg of their ~theatrical journey~. What do these videos consist of? Well, there’s a great deal of dancing, nonsense, fruit being used in unchristian ways. Basically, each one is a light-hearted skewering of bad performance art. People make broad pronouncements that never go anywhere, always provoking a reaction somewhere along the lines of: “that’s it?” or “what even was that?” This lack of form melded with outrageous content always leads to laughter — sometimes shocked laughter, but laughter nonetheless.

Many plays deploy inter-scene diversions, but what’s so strange and brilliant about Chavez and Burger’s use of this common technique is that their videos are diegetic — fancy-speak for “originating within the story world.” You see, The Artists’ main characters are two performance artists: Quentin (Chavez), a trust fund baby with questionable talent, and Ella, a tenacious visionary with an impeccable British accent (Burger). So naturally, each of the projections represents a different “”””work of art”””” from this creative couple’s o e u v r e. As a result, each video becomes not just a charming interlude, but a storytelling device, giving us important information about character and advancing the plot. The result is a seamless viewing experience with no awkward pauses.

~awkward pause~

It’s innovative.

I: Characterization

Fig. 1: “Acting Class”

The above specimen, for instance, gives us important information about Ella’s and Quentin’s dynamics. It rests early in the play, just after the first or second scene. It features, as you can see…well…it features many things. But the substance of it is that Quentin is more or less subservient to Ella, or at least exists in her shadow. Quentin mentions earlier that he’s “definitely not jealous of Ella at all!”, so this little gem helps drive that point home.

II: Moving the Story Forward

As we approach the midpoint, the projections become less involved with characterization and more with advancing the plot. In Fig. 2, for instance, we see Quentin’s contribution to an exhibit Ella is producing: a music video set to the number “Money, Money,” from the Broadway show Cabaret.

Fig. 2: “Money, Money”

So to reiterate: this is Quentin’s only contribution to the exhibit. It’s the best he can come up with. While it might be funny for us, within the story world, it’s not very good. The video shows us what Quentin’s been up to and communicates his lack of talent. Simultaneously, it prepares us for the next scene, when Ella gets a call from the person who commissioned the exhibit: this…thing…doesn’t fit with the rest of the pieces and will have to be cut. She protests, but ultimately gives in. Ella doesn’t tell Quentin he’s been axed, but he soon finds out. He then breaks up with her, claiming that Ella “refuses to stand up for him.” The poor boy then spends some time working at his dad’s firm, but at the end of the play, the two get back together.

III: Being Sneaky

The moment when Quentin discovers Ella’s secret is also a funny one, worth mentioning briefly: being the ethereal artist he is, Quentin tells Ella he’s going out to do “field auditory research.” The next scene opens, apparently with Ella on the phone, alone in the apartment. Ella has her argument with the gallery owner, gives up, and walks out. After a brief pause, Quentin jumps up from under the kitchen table, tossing aside the tablecloth he’s been hiding behind. Turns out he’s been doing his “field” research in the apartment. I suppose you could even say that video projections also help this scene land, in that the audience is distracted by a strange and outlandish presentation stage left (I believe it involved a melon?) while Chavez takes his position stage right. At the very least, the bright light of the projector draws our eyes away from the half-dark set.

IV: Use Within Scene

When Ella and Quentin reconcile, the moment is punctuated by the only video that plays within a scene, rather than after one. The occasion: the two have met for the first time in a few months at Ella’s exhibition. Ella announces that she has a video set up to play “anytime someone screams.” She instructs Quentin to do just that, and right away the first projection featured in this post begins to play. Awwwww(?) I don’t know what to say about this from a practice/craft standpoint, but I’ll indulge myself by making the very English-majory sounding observation that at this point the projections have broken through the boundaries of the inter-scene and entered into the dramatic action proper.

Conclusion

So IMO/IMHO that’s why these videos are so great. They not only divert the audience, but actually interweave with the story itself. Hence the play’s subtitle: “A Multimedia Experience”; the projections are given equal weight to the theatrical events onstage.

Right: well, that’s that. I look forward to seeing what these guys produce in the future!