by Chris PIATT | TIMEOUT CHICAGO | MAY 3, 2005


If you call projection specialist Mike Tutaj and ask him to design the multimedia images for your latest production, you’d better hope there’s not a reluctant pause on the other end of the line after you make your pitch. In an age when multimedia theater can’t be breached without the question “Is this really necessary?” looming overhead, Tutaj’s gut reaction is a good barometer. “I prefer it when the script calls for it,” Tutaj (pronounced “two-tie”) says of his video and projection work. “A lot of times, I get calls from people who are three weeks into rehearsal who are trying to save something. They’ll say, ‘Something’s missing. There’s a hole and we need to figure out a way to fill it.’ I usually turn those jobs down.”

Three recent jobs he said yes to include Bailiwick’s Jerry Springer—The Opera, Victory Garden’s stage adaptation of Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed with Magellan, and the Factory’s Siskel and Ebert Save Chicago, for which he designed a hilariously leggy, 007-skewering opening-title sequence. All are running simultaneously, and, in style, spirit and budget, the three shows run the gamut of the Chicago theater scene.

For the 30-year-old Tutaj, the route to his niche market was a circuitous one, and included no formal theatrical training. A multifaceted music student at DePaul whose concentration on sound recording involved quite a few physics classes, Tutaj landed work recording textbooks at Winnetka’s nationally prestigious Hadley School for the Blind. Although his AV schooling was all A and almost no V, he was often required to prepare video presentations for fund-raising events “designed to seduce wealthy Winnetka people” into donating to Hadley, a nonprofit.

Around the same time, a side gig as a Navy Pier pirate had him bumping elbows regularly with members of the city’s storefront theater scene. (Many an unemployed actor has donned an eye patch on the Pier.) A few of them were in a theater company, Barrel of Monkeys, which was in need of a piano player. Tutaj stepped up; his goofball persona was a fine fit for the company that performs plays written by kids.

Once he became a Monkey, Tutaj’s newly acquired video skills were tapped for multiple short play projects. A call from the Hypocrites, who sought a video specialist, followed. As one connection led to another, Tutaj’s work began cropping up everywhere—TimeLine, American Theater Company, Noble Fool—and in fact became so ubiquitous that the Jeff committee took notice. Without a category to honor such contributions, the Citations wing has given him special recognition for his work for two years running.

With no multimedia integration theory on his transcript, Tutaj finds himself working more or less on instinct. “I’m usually the voice who says, ‘Not putting video there would be deadly,’?” he says of production work.

But having his creative voice heard is rarely the problem in the collaborative process. Instead, it’s the storefront world of tight purse strings and DIY work ethic. “The trick is to get people to make an investment in real equipment,” Tutaj says. “To cut corners, a lot of times people say, ‘My buddy has a projector we can borrow,’ or, ‘I have an old DVD player. We can just use that.’ The quality and reliability of the equipment is crucial.”

No two shows require the same process from Tutaj.In Siskel and Ebert, for example, his sleek titles are projected onto a scrim from a DVD, and never reappear. Over at Victory Gardens, images of Dybek’s Chicago are stored in a computer that functions as a highly optimized version of PowerPoint and are projected all over the large proscenium set. Meanwhile, at Bailiwick, Tutaj’s video work runs on an invariable feed, meaning Jerry Springer musical director Gary Powell has to conduct the music against it.

As demands for his work increase, pet projects occasionally fall away. Fans of Tutaj’s old Neil Diamond cover band, Noise Conspiracy, will be crestfallen; The trio broke up when then the bassoonist moved to Denver. “You can’t have a Neil Diamond cover band without a bassoonist,” he says with mock seriousness.

In the meantime, Chicago theater is quickly becoming this designer’s cutting room.