Seaghan McKay -- Projecting His Art, and Then Some

Seaghan McKay is a man of many talents. Born and raised on the Cape, he attended both Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Boston College.  For the past decade he has been on staff at Brandeis University, where he designs multimedia content for the performing arts, teaches computer drafting to graduate design students, and serves as Lighting Supervisor in the university's acclaimed theater department. He owns his own company, Seaghan McKay Design, and has lent his talents to the New England Spring Flower Show, the American Repertory Theatre, and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, among others.  In addition to being an accomplished photographer, he's a competitive runner, a longtime member of the Somerville Road Runners, and has competed twice in the Boston Marathon.

At the moment, he's designing projections for SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of the Broadway musical, "[title of show]," opening January 15 at the Calderwood Pavilion.   We spoke recently during a break in his work day.  What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

BIR: We've all heard of Lighting Designers in the theater, but the job of Projection Designer seems to be more cutting edge.  How did you get started

SM: I sort of fell into it . . . People started wanting to put a little bit of video element (into their productions). Like a TV. They'd want this, or that. Or a projector.  (When) we hired a New York designer (for a production at Brandeis) four or five years ago, I really saw what it could be . . . I found that my photography, video experience, and all those things that had been outside of my  theatre work -- computer graphics and all that -- things I'd dabbled in -- I could bring them into my theatre work.  I guess that's how it coalesced.

BIR:  Where it's an evolving art, is there a course of study for Projection Design as a profession

SM: The thing is, there's no place you can go to train specifically for theatrical projection design.  The Yale School of Drama only just announced an actual focus, so they're the first ones who'll be doing any sort of graduate training.   Everybody else is doing it relatively informally.  (I've gone) to these little seminars here or there . . . There were a lot of theatre people there, but there were also people from A.V. companies and people from digital signage and what not.  I go to ones locally and I'm in the room with a  lot of graphic artists and people who do work for the web and advertising.?People don't realize how much work can go into it.  Some people just put up a power-point presentation, and if that works for your show, that's great.  I try to be a little more creative . . . I can bring more to it to enhance the show.

BIR: Videos have been a part of rock concerts for a while.  When did the transition come in legitimate theater

SM:  Folks like (Broadway's) Wendell Harrington have been doing it for 15 years or so, but they're the real pioneers.  Now you're starting to see it trickle down to the regional and local theater level. And educational theater. It's really the next big thing, and the theater community is starting to grasp the [concept]. The union -- United Scenic Artists,  which is the union that most professional designers belong to -- they have an organizing campaign right now specifically for Projection Designers.  A year or so ago, 'Sunday In The Park with George' was the first time you saw a Projection Designer co-nominated with a Scenic Designer [for] Best Scenic Design for the Tony Awards.  It's very interesting.

BIR: You first worked with SpeakEasy last season on the much talked-about "Jerry Springer: The Opera."  Now you're back to do "[title of show],"  which is described as a love letter to musical theater, about two struggling writers writing a new musical about two struggling writers writing a new musical.  ?SM: SpeakEasy is a breath of fresh air to work with. . . [Artistic Director Paul Daigneault] gives me lots and lots of freedom. He contacted me in August,  it was quite early on, and he said, 'I want to do this show and I want projections to be a strong scenic element of it.'

BIR: What's your vision for the design

SM: We're coming up with an alternative surface, like a rear brick wall that's whitewashed.  The type of a thing you see in so many old buildings where they just paint everything white including the radiators and all the conduits and all that -- years of paint build-up.  That will be a surface for lighting because it will have texture, and a surface for projections (with) different areas that projections can be mapped to.  It'll be a painting in and of itself. 

BIR:  I have to ask about your first name.  I know that you and your siblings were all born here, but you all have distinctly Irish names.?SM:  My mother named me and my four sisters, Sean, Mairead, Caitlin, Eilis, and Breda . . . You get to kindergarten and the first person calls you 'Sean, Sean, The Leprechaun' . . . People had heard of Sean, but they spelled it like 'Shaun Cassidy' back then.  But my sisters, my God. People spent years trying to figure out how to pronounce my sisters' names.

When I was 17 I found the book my mother had used, Irish Baby Names, on the shelf. In it I found the alternate spelling -- Seaghan . . . I took that spelling on . . .  When you're 17 or 18 years old, you feel like you need to be an individual . . . When I went to college, that's how I spelled my name.  Anybody that I met from then on, that's how they spelled my name.  I think my mother was the last one to cross over.

BIR:  It stands out in a Playbill.  Clearly, it's not a name anyone's going to skip over.  Or spell easily, I suspect.?SM: When I spell my name for people, I say 'S - E - A.  Stop.  G.' and they look at me funny like, 'What?'    (Laughs) Now most people, I let them get away without the little fada over the first 'E.'

"[title of show]," January 15 - February 13,  SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.  617-933-8600.