Projected backdrops on a multipurpose stage

Has anyone found good solutions for reliable, semipermanent setups to light a multipurpose stage with projected backgrounds?

I’m very interested in all answers, but here’s my specific context: I’m an out-of-practice sound designer & engineer who volunteered to help backstage at my kids’ school (long version in my profile bio), and I’m quickly becoming the de facto TD. I don’t intend to move forward with anything without the direct input of a ME and/or LD; I just want to make sure I’m asking the right questions.

The gymnatorium (the only theater space on campus) was built in 2015 and has been set up very practically for easy, broad lighting: about 10 PARs & Lekos at about midcourt in the gym (only 6 of which appear to be aimed at the stage at this point), 2 battens full of incandescent fresnels pointed straight down, and some cyc washes in the back. (Smartbar2’s on the batten, so my understanding is that each light technically has its own address & dimmer. 12 lights each, so 6 extra dimmers per pipe for specials — I assume this isn’t considered overkill in the 21st century? Still learning DMX architecture…) There’s an element 60 board somewhere, but they mostly just use a 10-fader ETC control station in the wall. No complaints about ease of use and effectiveness for lighting most uses — choirs, talent shows, speakers. So far, so good.

However, someone immediately put up a projector on the cyc, and the expectation for the 4-6 theater productions on stage each year has been digital backgrounds ever since. This is not so good.

Some additional context about the stage (see attached picture): Roughly, the proscenium opening is 36’w x 13’h. Stage is 16.5’ deep from proscenium to cyc, with about a foot behind the cyc (the cyc is immediately behind the curtain in the picture). The wings only have about 4’ behind a straight side curtain, the one intermediate curtain & border, and a full black backdrop curtain & border.

The floor is something like a black melamine — not quite as shiny as it looks in my deliberately overexposed picture, but certainly a part of the problem. Is there a cost- & maintenance-effective solution to this? (Paint is what’s obvious to me until I put myself in the position of school administrator, and what that means to readiness for all the important quick & dirty uses of the stage. Maybe I’m overthinking?)

Additional equipment: As far as I can tell, the school does not currently own any additional focused, shuttered lighting (I think I’ve seen some more fresnels and PARs backstage, but no Lekos, follow spots, etc.). There are also (at least) 4 more 6 channel Smartbar2’s, still partially in their packaging, lying around. Because it’s a school, it’s easier to solicit modest one-time “capital improvements” than ongoing rental & staffing budgets, so an efficient one-time purchase/install is our goal.

It’s not a lot of space, and further complicating things, the sound person (hey, that’s me!) has conspired with the department head to put our small audiences (I’m gonna guess 120-150 seats?) on risers on a stage extension. My positive spins for lighting: there’s no hiding the mechanics of the theater at that distance — lighting instruments will just have to be in audience sight lines most of the time — so we just need to be tidy. I assume that, like sound, this more intimate presentation means less “reinforcement” is needed from lighting? Also, in theory, because of the stage extension, I’m guessing we could add some high front lighting positions (but I have no idea how big an ask this is in reality)…

This is my first “official” post to CB. I apologize in advance if any of these topics have been beaten to death elsewhere and will gladly accept your redirection (or any other posting hygiene tips). Thank you for all of your input!


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Great you are getting involved! I too jumped from lighting in the 1970s to helping at my kids’ schools. Technical theater is a hobby my son and I still share now that he has become a teacher.

I'm not a pro as most of the replies you have been getting, but reading your post a few thoughts come to mind. Does the athletic department use the same space? If so, are you also conspiring with the athletic director? At the HS I still help, the athletic dept. has the higher priority and bigger budget. The gym floor may be precious to them. Many are refinished every year for 10-25K and extenders may be a tough sell. Lights over the court pointed down may be used for introductions before basketball and wrestling matches. And fwiw, most of my leverage with the ES and HS administrators comes from helping at the school-wide fundraising events.

Over time if you are selective 360Q’s from facebook marketplace and craigslist can patch your need for more focused lighting. Low cost S4s also show up a few (very few) times each year.
You have a very good and detailed starting post. Well done in understanding your complete situation. One that is similar to my Daughter's wanting to get into the JHS school musical this year - following a now family tradition. Her on stage, but still the same roped in. (As unfortunately, it should be.) Me from the lighting/set fab/design experience have at least friends I can rope in for fixing a sound problem. Even had to take makeup and costume design in college... I just literally artillery blown out ears for sound. I see this problem coming to me this year in not yet seeing her JHS theater, or what I might be roped into.

Putting on my installer cap, I have been to many Gymatoriums... It's too bad given this design concept you don't have the combined Gymatorium/Lunch Room with a stage in between I once helped with a quote on for something. Heck, that old opera house with expansion back stage could do this rear projection. That said, even with throw distance, a even lightweight Cyc or scrim might do something this assuming beam spread sufficient, but neither are really designed to do this graphically as scenery. Assuming they don't have a scrim drape... how much rear projection does the expected cyc have - assuming it would have to be re-hung further down stage in reducing acting area?

I have in the past designed and done Linenbacher projector projector projected rear screen scenery back... say 30 years in my past onto linnen drape. This was very difficult and more of an abstract rear-projected set design (as per normal as design concept) given the drape was not stretched and I was also short on rear-projection space upstage. Will have been more difficult if graphic and stretched given the angles of short stage projected from. There is rear screen projection material able to rent, and I'm sure some gobo producer can calculate angle of fixture to size and distance of drape to give you something.

I now work for a large rock and roll lighting company where such a concept would be done with a video wall and a lot of servers to it. The video wall rented for a production or bought would free up the at very least 6' of upstage room needed for acting space on stage to do rear projection. Would be also expensive and I think cost prohivitive to rent or buy 8x Leko's or other projectors hung at specific positions and lens values the gobo makers could design for you to do rear projected scenery. You change the gobo's each scene... really highly adjusted science = anyone bumps a Leko, the scenery is off. A lamp blows,... adds to the vibrancy of the event. You would also loose that 6' in stage depth needed for projecting on from the rear. And need the actual projection screens for it to look good.

Don't know if of any help, but again back to 30 years ago for a play I designed and got a Chicago newspaper "Elephant in a Shoe Box" award for... Instead of doing scenery on stage, I designed the audienece as per a 19th century train car as best I could for a store front theater. I had a stage left side wing actual set which was used in part revealed for two one act in part plays, but center stage was a double sided painted soft flat set of flats mounted to a pole... The author who started in the train car audience, talked some and turned the pages of the large double sided soft flats painted as if they were book pages. Actual stage was later revealed after the book was closed and an upstage area with special lighting was revealed for it's final scene.

Back than we were working on rear projection scencery, and I think it and the other never to be re-produced clouds I made for that production over the audience which moved and also rotated cannot be reproduced. The soft flat pages on the other play mentioned the night before were by me sketch painted.... Imagination and in this case a book page conveyed for scenery.

No you don't have room for rear screen scenery unless you rent bad LED walls sufficient to video it, but not appropiate in price.

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