PETER NIGRINI builds whole worlds out of light. His professional title on Broadway productions such as Dear Evan Hansen, An Act of God, and Amélie is “projection designer,” but Nigrini considers himself a storyteller. Projection design “is not about decoration,” Nigrini says. “It’s not about scenery that comes out of projectors. It’s about stories being told in a new way.”

Nigrini’s work has earned him numerous Drama Desk, Obie, Henry Hewes, and Outer Critics Circle awards and nominations. What theatre professionals recognize as his artistic acumen comes out of decades of experimentation. “I spent a fair amount of time very conflicted between the arts and sciences when I was in high school,” Nigrini recalls. “I was very involved in theatre, but then there was the fact that both of my parents are scientific researchers with Ph.D.s. I eventually screwed up the courage to tell them I wasn’t going to be a scientist.”

Nigrini studied theatre design at Dartmouth, where, as one half of their design staff, he found ample opportunities to test out new ideas (he designed about 20 shows as an undergrad). “There was a senior designer, and then there was me,” he says. “In a way it was better than any of the classes I took. I feel strongly that the best way to learn how to be a theatre-maker or an artist of any kind is to get your hands dirty and start making things.”

Nigrini left Dartmouth with a solid understanding of theatre aesthetics, but he was still largely playing by the rules. “I had a lot of avant-garde ideas, but it was still scenery, and it was still lighting,” he says. It wasn’t until he applied to a master’s program at London’s Central St. Martins College of Art that Nigrini began thinking seriously about the power of projection. “Part of getting in was proposing your thesis project,” Nigrini explains. “I developed this idea of using video projection that could be controlled and manipulated in real time. I don’t think I was quite clear on it at the time, but in retrospect, that was the moment I was puzzling out the thing I was passionate about exploring.”

When Nigrini arrived back in New York in the late 1990s, the number of projection designers in the city could almost be counted on one hand. With such high demand for his skillset, directors were willing to take a chance on a new kid with big ideas. “Because I was young and foolish, I ended up being the first person to move a video editing suite into a Broadway theatre,” Nigrini says. “I didn’t know it hadn’t been done before. It just seemed obvious to me. Now that’s a typical thing. We can sit in the theatre and make changes along with the company.”

Though certainly an artist, Nigrini doesn’t maintain a signature style. Instead, he embodies the malleability of his art form. Projection design, he says, must adapt itself to the needs of each production. And sometimes that means knowing when to say no. “My first step when a director or producer calls is to figure out whether I agree that the show needs projection,” he says. “It’s not a big question whether there should be costumes in a show. It’s very different with projection. Because it’s such a young discipline, people want to use it. They think their shows need it for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they aren’t.”

Then there are shows like Dear Evan Hansen, where the intricate, comprehensive, multiscreen projection is utterly indispensable. For the modern-day high school musical, Nigrini projects a cast of three dozen “virtual characters” onstage, creating a social mediascape that conveys not only the omnipresence of the internet but also an individual’s potential isolation within it.

This production clearly took hard work. But according to Nigrini, even a simple design can require a small army of assistants and video editors — and an exhausting amount of effort. “Before we ever get into the theatre, we create moment-to-moment storyboards,” Nigrini explains. “For a small show, maybe you have 30 or 40 storyboard frames. A big show might have a couple hundred of them. Then you get to the theatre, and some of that works and it’s great. And some is completely wrong, and you throw it out and start all over.”

For more than two years, Nigrini painstakingly designed Dear Evan Hansen, preparing the same way an actor might, attempting to embed himself into the world inhabited by the show’s characters. “We’re telling the story of a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds, and we need to do it honestly,” he says. “I know, as a 45-year-old guy, what my internet is, but that’s a completely different thing.”

Nigrini turned to internet company CEOs and twentysomething production interns for help. “It was incredibly helpful to get that vantage point on what it was to be in high school while Facebook existed,” Nigrini says. “It is a different world. I could have portrayed the internet so that other 45-year-olds believe it’s the internet of a teenager. But I needed to make it genuine for a teenager who knows what that experience really is.”

Ironically, Nigrini’s favorite moment in Dear Evan Hansen comes when the projection — ever-present for the rest of the show — stops. “There’s a moment of the projection going away, the moment it ends,” he says. “All the projection slowly deteriorates and disappears and gets sparser, as Evan Hansen ends up increasingly alone. I truly love that. It seems incredibly simple, just these gentle, subtle moves. It’s actually a really complicated, super-slow fade. Every time I think about it, I realize it captures his emotional journey so exquisitely. I love how ultimately subservient to his emotional journey it is. My job is to echo the journey this actor’s on, and it really feels like we’ve achieved that.”

For all the emotional devastation of Dear Evan Hansen, Nigrini appreciates that his multifaceted discipline also lets him pivot to the opposite end of the spectrum. “One of the things I love about the theatre and about my career is that I get to do Dear Evan Hansen and then I get to do The SpongeBob Musical,” he says. “Then I get to do 90-minute experimental jazz concerts, and then I get to run off and do an opera. That range is exciting. It keeps me on my toes, so I can constantly reinvent myself, instead of falling into a style.”

According to Nigrini, SpongeBob, scheduled to premiere on Broadway this year, is a great example of projection’s power to take something familiar and reimagine it completely. “We’re not making a cartoon. We’re making a piece of theatre,” Nigrini says. “Nobody’s in foam rubber outfits, and there are some serious things to consider. There’s social commentary going on — things about environmentalism, stewardship of the environment. There’s some meat on the bone there, and the producers have pulled together incredible artists to do it. It’s taking something beloved and inventing it anew.”

Nigrini expects projection to continue to evolve with technology, and he imagines his field could change the way we think about a theatregoing experience. Already, he says, his designs can make a production almost cinematic. “What’s unique about projection in relation to scenery and lights is that it exists somewhere between those things,” he says. “It’s made of light and used like scenery. It has all of the changeability and ephemeral nature of lights … but it can also have very specific content. Light is always suggestive and evocative, but it doesn’t have information the way a realistic set does. Projection can do all the specificity of scenery and all the fluidity of lights. It’s what we’ve become accustomed to in the way stories are told in movies.

Projection also has the potential, Nigrini says, to infuse an audience with empathy for the characters onstage. “When you and the audience are working together to tell a story, that’s a great way toward success,” he says. “I do think something that projection can do is to get an audience truly invested. There can be enough detail and involvement that it can draw an audience in and get them engaged. There’s a difference between the sitting back, receptive, judgmental audience and one that’s leaning forward and consuming your story. Projection can reach out and grab them.”

Nigrini has mastered the “young discipline” of projection design, but he’s eager to see what innovations come from the next generation of theatre-makers. He counsels them to get out of the classroom and learn how to tell real stories to real people. “My dreams aren’t about projection design, they’re about telling stories,” he says. “So it’s about how do I make this moment in the theatre more exciting, more powerful, more devastating — all of that stuff you don’t learn in a class. Really, our job as artists is to be out in the world. When you can absorb life, knowledge, and experience, that’s how you learn to tell these stories. That breadth of your worldview is the most critical thing.”

What it comes down to, Nigrini is inclined to repeat again and again, is that those who want to create something should just start doing it. “The real way we learn to do these things is to do them,” he says. “The greatest opportunity I had was to make bad things and see what was wrong with them. That was the greatest way of learning. The most important thing a young artist can do is to get in the business of making art. Make something, good or bad, and then find a way to get yourself around somebody else who’s doing it. The theatre profession specifically is very open in that way. Go knock on a stage door and see who answers it.”

This story appeared in the April 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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