by Chris Jones | Chicago Tribune | November 15, 2007


It’s long been my contention that video in the theater almost never works.  There’s something about the on-stage appearance of two-dimensional screens that invariably undermines the depth of the theatrical experience. It feels like an unwelcome world has suddenly intruded into a sacred human caldron. Nothing kills the theatrical rush of human expression like a poorly cued clip from a DVD.

I hate, for example, the attention-sucking big screen currently operating at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where no filmed antic can compete with the real-life daring of clown Bello Nock. And I hated Robin Wagner’s video backdrop to the famous hay-ride sequence in "Young Frankenstein." You might as well have been in a movie theater paying $10 a ticket, rather than ten times that much on Broadway. But I saw two shows last weekend in different cities where the use of video was both exciting and thoroughly complementary to the theatrical experience. And it was only when I looked down at my program at the TimeLine Theatre on Sunday afternoon that I realized I was watching the work of the same videographer. His name is Mike Tutaj.

So what does the Chicago-based Tutaj do with video and projections that's so different?  For a start, he specializes in the use of unconventional projection surfaces. In "Tesla’s Letters" at TimeLine, he creates snatches of a dangerous journey through Croatia in different panels of a window, using footage snagged from a friend in Sarajevo. Secondly and more importantly, Tutaj’s work has uncommon theatrical texture. In the Madison Repertory Theatre’s production of "Lombardi," a theatrical biography of Vince Lombardi by Eric Simonson on stage in Wisconsin, Tutaj dramatizes how the compulsive Green Bay Packers coach would lie awake at night reliving plays gone wrong. We see endless little loops of actual Packers footage from the 1960s, projected so it looks like a nagging nightmare floating above Lombardi’s head. Tutaj’s work is never intrusive—his video feels like part of a theatrical environment rather than a destructive burst of reality. "I like to highlight the scenic design," he says. "I hope my work grabs attention when it needs to, but remains otherwise in the background."

If you see a lot of Chicago theater, you’re probably seen some of Tutaj’s work. Earlier this fall, he created the period-Chicago montages in the American Theater Company’s Chicago-specific production of "I Do! I Do!" And, as you can see in the photo that accompanies this column, he made the unique Wrigley Field scoreboard part of the set in the Victory Gardens Theatre’s production of "I Sailed with Magellan" last season; he got a Jeff nomination for that one.

Later this season, Tutaj will begin work on the Raven Theatre’s production of "Columbinus," a piece about the Columbine school shootings. He’ll use a lot of archival footage. And there are future projects in the works with both Silk Road Theatre Ensemble and Chicago Children’s Theatre.  Some of these companies are, of course, smaller theaters. You tend to think of top-grade video and projections as components of only big shows. But when I talked with Tutaj earlier this week, he pointed out that the cost of the technology has come down so far in price that even storefront troupes can consider at least borrowing a rear-screen projector.

But the projector won’t do it alone. You’ll need Tutaj.