To reach the stage door of the Belasco one must be buzzed in through a black gate and pass through an alleyway, in which trunks and gear and all other manner of tech equipment command space. It was in this corridor recently that I ambushed Sven Ortel, the projections designer for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, to ask him about his work.
Ortel, who grew up in Cologne, Germany, tends toward the self-effacing: when I ask him how he came to the attention of Bartlett Sher, the show's director, Ortel responded, "Bart says I was recommended by a lot of people." Among those people are some pretty major names: Francesca Zambello, for example, with whom Ortel worked on the Broadway production of "The Little Mermaid."
Ortel's resume includes a lot of other high-profile productions: a re-staging of Wagner's Ring cycle, with Valery Gergiev conducting; a production of A Disappearing Number, which was directed by Simon McBurney and which engrossed me and many others when it was done this past summer at the Lincoln Center Festival.
As for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Ortel - who graduated in lighting design from Rose Bruford College in London in 1999 and then spent many years associated with the National Theatre in the British capital - is quick to point out what Sher wanted for the musical. "Directors are careful of using projections, because they can take over a show so quickly." Sher echoed that feeling, Ortel said: "He was concerned that the technology would overpower the performance." Ortel added: "Much of my work on this show is to make sure that that doesn't happen."
Ortel's projections - which occur on the entire back brick wall of the Belasco stage - consist largely of colorful, whirling images of Madrid, where the musical takes place. Where do the pictures come from? "I spent three days last May in Madrid, taking photographs," Ortel responded. "Pedro [Almodóvar]'s assistant, Barbara, showed me a lot of the locations used in the film." The stage musical's projections are inspired by these places, but are not a literal creation of them.
Ortel says he was also inspired by Juan Gatti, who designed the opening credits for the Almodóvar film, and by the influential movie-titles creator Saul Bass.
Ortel emphasized that his work on the new musical was enormously collaborative.
For example: "I made a color chart for Michael [Yeargan, set designer] and Brian [MacDevitt, lighting designer]. We had to make sure that we weren't going off individually and working against each other. That was an important goal."
Also a crucial objective for Ortel: "I would like it if people in the audience didn't really know what's lighting and what's projection. Everything needs to work in harmony."
(For more information about Ortel's work, go to his website, svenortel.com)
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.