Alumnus Q&A: Peter Nigrini ’93, Broadway projection designer

by Elise Higgins | 10/25/16 12:00am

Peter Nigrini ’93 is a projection designer for productions both on- and off-Broadway. At Dartmouth, Nigrini studied theater and film with a focus on backstage production but did not discover projection design until after college. Nigrini has designed projections for various projects ranging from broadway productions to concerts

Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do after college or did you discover that along the way?

PN: I definitely did [have an idea of what I wanted to do]. I maybe hadn’t fully admitted that that’s what I wanted to do, but in retrospect, it’s so clear to me that that was actually my intention all along — that I was interested in and excited about a career in the theater. I allegedly was considering engineering, but I never actually took an engineering course, so I clearly didn’t think about it too hard.

What does your job as a projection designer entail?PN: I design projection for a wide variety of live performance and theater. It can be plays, operas, dance, musicals or concerts. A projection designer is kind of a new theater design discipline. What we are really doing is figuring out how the moving image and the way the modern world, which is full of media and images, become part of a theatrical tradition as a tool that we can use to tell stories. So that’s the grand version; what it involves in a more practical sense is not dissimilar to what a set designer or a lighting designer might be doing in the theater where you are part of a group of designers — a set designer, a lighting designer, a costume designer — who work with a director and conceive a visual world that a production might live in and then sort of create each of those as visual moments on stage.

Where do you usually get your inspiration from when beginning to design projections?

PN: Everywhere and anywhere if I’m lucky, and nowhere if I’m in trouble. I think it very much depends. One of the things that is interesting about being a theater designer and artist, as opposed to say a visual artist or a writer, is most of the time when I join an artistic endeavor, there’s already a kernel of an idea. There’s a writer who has decided they want to write a play, and then somewhere after the writer decides they want to write a play, I get involved. Sometimes there’s already a director and a set designer and a design and there’s already a world that’s been made, so as a designer, it’s rare that that spark comes from a blank page. Usually there’s some other artist that I’m responding to, so certainly that’s always a jumping off point and a place to begin a collaboration. But then I think what’s unique, what I enjoy, is taking what is often not visual, be it a text or music, something that’s not a visual idea, and finding the visual way to to support that, to tell that story, to expand that, and to build out of an idea to a world. As far as where the inspiration for that comes from, I feel the wider I can throw my net, the better. I certainly look a lot at the work of other artists and photography and a lot of other cultures. The inspiration usually isn’t a direct line, it’s more being open to often what I intuitively feel is exciting and is interesting in relation to a project.

What is the most difficult part of projection design? What is the most rewarding part?

PN: Specifically as a projection designer, I’ve chosen a medium to work in as an artist that involves both a great reliance on a very large number of resources. You need an audience, or it can’t continue to happen. There’s both a great reliance on all of these external forces that allow me to make my work as an artist and also sort of a great distance between the kernel of an idea in my head and its realization on stage. Working in the theater and working projection — which is so technology heavy it’s a little bit like trying to thread a needle in a spacesuit — it’s so far from the picture that’s in my head to getting something to actually happen on stage effortlessly and beautifully. There’s a lot of frustration that comes with that. There’s times when you’re like can I just get up there and get a paintbrush and throw some paint at the thing, but it’s not my medium, it’s not what I do, so there’s a lot of coaxing my way towards realizing what I ultimately want to put on stage. In terms of the most rewarding, it’s really what I think almost every theater artist would say — it’s about being in the same room with other people and affecting them. There isn’t always a story in a traditional sense, but having them take that journey with you — and it’s not a distant group of people like it would be in film. They’re actually sitting right in front of me, sitting in the theater. Those real live human beings that you’re sitting right next sharing that experience — that’s the best part.

What has been your most memorable production?

PN: That’s hard because they’re so different in such wonderful ways. I think the thing that I find most exciting about theater is how different the things I get to do are. Last June I was designing “The SpongeBob Musical” and “Don Giovanni,” and that was my day. My day was “You need to think about [both] at the same time.” That’s such a gift.

How would you say your Dartmouth experience shaped who you are and the path you’ve taken?

PN: While I did theater, projection was not something I did much of while at Dartmouth. Certainly working in the theater was something that I did and very much shaped where my career went. What I find the most interesting about it is the most important theatrical experiences I had at Dartmouth were not in class. The most important things I learned about theater at Dartmouth were from having the opportunity with the professors and the mentors who were there to actually make theater, and I think that’s true about the arts in general. The way you learn to do it is to do it. You do it with smart people around who might be pointing at what you’re doing wrong, but the theoretical aspects are really secondary to the act of doing. I think it’s something that’s often overlooked in the formal world of going to college. There’s a whole informal world of educating yourself that doesn’t work if you want to be a doctor, but in the arts it absolutely 100 percent works, and it’s probably the best way to become an artist.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.