The Palace Theatre is submerged in an ocean of darkness. From the blackout, dozens of screens shine bright, dotting the darkness with their blue-white glow. In the shadows, technicians huddle over monitors, designers whisper into headset microphones, and the pitter patter of typing on keyboards crackles through the room.
The scene looks like a NASA control room, but we’re not at mission control for a space flight — we’re in tech rehearsal for SpongeBob SquarePants, The Broadway Musical, the new theatrical adaptation of the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon, directed by Tina Landau.
The theatre buzzes as the show’s creative team sets the final light and projection cues of the musical’s climactic scene, building each moment light by light, animation by animation during a process called cue-to-cue. Suddenly, with a stage manager’s call, light bursts onto the stage, plunging everyone into the technicolor sea that is Bikini Bottom.
Drama Desk-winning projection designer Peter Nigrini (Dear Evan Hansen, Amélie), greets me and motions to his team’s tech table, spanning an entire row of the auditorium. The table is covered in computer screens, scripts, and notepads. He reclaims his seat and loses himself in his work. Nigrini is busy bringing SpongeBob to life with the one of the few tools capable of matching the show’s bold energy, iconic characters and surreal presentation: projection design.
Projection design is the art-meets-tech medium gaining more and more prevalence in theatre, revolutionizing how the industry creates some of its most visually demanding shows. Depending on the demands of a particular story and production, projection design can add backdrops of specific locales to a scene, play archival video clips to add historical context, project lyric translations onto a set piece, add detail and texture to an onstage set, and more. Projection designers like Nigrini work most closely with the scenic and lighting designer on a show to enhance the atmosphere in the live art form.
“I think what [projection design] is really doing is allowing us to tell stories in new ways,” Nigrini says. “It’s really bringing the possibility of a cinematic form of storytelling to the theatre.”
For a musical like SpongeBob, Nigrini’s task is more than creating a video display of Bikini Bottom—he must also communicate the spirit and playfulness of SpongeBob visually, immersing the audience in the undersea world that made the original cartoon so captivating.
Then, of course, there is the daunting task of translating the two-dimensional elements of the TV series into a three-dimensional theatrical experience. For the design team, that meant starting from scratch and honing in on the essence of beloved character without simply reproducing the television show.
To create the projections necessary to make Bikini Bottom a reality, Nigrini uses all the tools at his disposal. He uses programs like Adobe After Effects and Cinema 4D to build content. Then, to display them, Nigrini uses a tool called D3, a projection design software and hardware system originally built for rock concerts and arena performances for acts like U2.
“The amount of technology in this room is mind-numbing,” he says with a laugh. “Hopefully, when you come to the theatre, you’ll have no idea [of the number of machines working]. If we can get the computers to behave, it’s magic.”
As I glance at his monitor, a three-dimensional animation of scenic designer David Zinn’s stage model reflects on his screen. It’s a D3 feature that has been invaluable for Nigrini in creating his projections prior to being in the theatre. Despite his early preparation, the three-week tech period is Nigrini’s only opportunity to make his vision come to fruition.
“By the time we get to this stage, we certainly know what the plan is for every moment of the show. But you have to put that plan into motion, and you learn what works and what doesn’t work,” Nigrini explains. “We very specifically step through every single moment. We may sit and look at and refine and polish a five-second long moment for an hour if that is what it takes.”
Slowly but surely, those five-second moments stitch together to form a scene until finally the cast is ready to run a section of the show. As if pressing play on a movie, the actors portraying the show’s iconic trio—SpongeBob SquarePants, Patrick Star, and Sandy Cheeks— spring to life and the seriousness of the afternoon gives way to infectious joy.
But Nigrini doesn’t sit back in awe of the scene in front of him—he stares at the stage with laser focus, noting how his projections play out. With a well-known world like that of SpongeBob, he wants to make sure he gets his design just right.
“There is the balance of the very sophisticated game we’re playing about getting the audience’s imagination working with us,” he says. “The challenge is to not do the obvious, to not illustrate.”
The scene ends as a stage manager calls “hold,” stopping the actors in their place. They await their next instruction. The production team evaluates their work. After a few minutes of tweaking, they run it again.
After about an hour-and-a-half of starting and stopping, it’s time for a break. The house lights in the theatre turn on, the designers remove their headsets, and the room exhales.
“It’s wonderful to be in a room with this many talented people,” says Nigrini, noting the creativity and generosity of his collaborators. The show’s design brims with whimsy, belaying the fun SpongeBob’s creators had while imbuing humor into the musical’s design. “The thing all of us are trying to grab onto is how completely nuts it is!” he says, noting the freedom in the team’s creative process. “It seems like there are no rules. It’s liberating. Everyday is like, ‘Can I have another completely off-the-wall idea?’”
After ten minutes, the creative team settles back in to finish building the show. When the production officially opens on December 4, it will offer fans a new SpongeBob story set to an eclectic score composed by some of pop music’s brightest stars—from Steven Tyler and Aerosmith to Sara Bareilles to Cyndi Lauper.
As the house lights fade back to black, Nigrini returns to his computer and the tides of Bikini Bottom shimmer and flow as he paints with light to create the underwater world SpongeBob fans will never forget.
Flip through photos of tech below: