Projections designer, lover of cooking, and wrestling enthusiast John Erickson graduated from Fossil Ridge High School in 2010. Since then, he has attended Colorado State University and received a bachelor’s degree in theater. Erickson has lived in New York City for five years, working on the Broadway musical Be More Chill among many other jobs in tech. He now attends the University of Texas at Austin, and plans to get his master’s degree.
Projections design is on its way to becoming more well-known, and it is a fairly new element of theater. Although people do not always know what it is by name, many have seen it without even knowing it. Erickson describes projections design as, “using video in theater.” By taking video, photos, or animation and programming it to be projected onto a surface, shows can go beyond a single background. It is used in musicals, plays, concerts, dance performances, and many more places.
For Erickson, high school was much better after a poor experience in junior high. Fossil gave Erickson the opportunity to find a place where he felt he belonged—the theater department. He was a part of every production in his four years of high school. His first role was in Beauty and the Beast, where he vividly remembers being in the chorus as “Villager #3” and the whisk for the song, “Be Our Guest.” Erickson’s final show was the musical Brigadoon where he played Mr. Lundie, an old, wise man.
Through experiences in the plays and musicals, Erickson slowly considered his passion as his career. Erickson explained, “[High school] was when I started thinking maybe I wanted to become an actor, which would dishearten my mom greatly, but she was very supportive.” Despite wanting to go into a difficult and competitive field, Erickson says his mom has always been supportive of his goals.
During Erickson’s time in the Fossil theater department, most of the cast also helped with the technical aspects of productions. There was typically one stage manager, and a few people only interested in tech without acting. However, everyone acting also helped with whatever parts of tech needed more hands. Erickson helped a little with set building, and enjoyed learning about aspects of theater newest to him. “We had people like me, who just kind of liked the environment, and liked doing stuff with our hands. So we would help in the off times build sets, and, you know, enjoy it. Any chance someone would trust you with power tools was an exciting moment,” he claimed. In Erickson’s free time outside of rehearsals, he often played around with the lights and occasionally the sound board. He was happy to help wherever he could.
Another important program of Erickson’s high school experience was Ridge TV; when he was in the class, the final products were put on CD’s. “I think I just kind of eventually started doing more and more of the editing. I started watching tutorials about stuff like how to make a head explode and started doing stuff I was more interested in,” he recalled. From there, Erickson began to enjoy editing more and more. He remembers being inspired by Robert Rodriguez’s book on making independent films and worked very hard to edit a short film for Films On A Shoestring, or FOASS his Senior year. Erickson said, “I remember [my film] stood out because it had some kind of color correction. It was really bad color correction, but did at least have it.”
While visiting CSU, Erickson fell in love with the sense of community there. It reminded him of Theater Club and made him feel right at home. He began in the theater program, acting in a couple shows a year. Erickson can summarize his acting career in college as, “I died a lot,” as in every production he was the character either killed off or lost to suicide. Erickson remembered, “My biggest starring role was in Spring Awakening, where I died at the ending. It was sort of an odd reputation to end up getting, as the guy who died in all the shows. My mother was still very supportive.” He likes to joke around and say that his mom is the reason he stopped acting, because she did not like to see him die in every show. However, college showed Erickson a new perspective in the acting realm, and he decided it was not for him.
“Acting in college was very eye opening, because I met a lot of people who really liked acting. And I really liked doing comedy. In the whole of my college acting career, I only think I did two comedies, but they were student run. I loved acting and working with other people. But I worked with a lot of people that I could clearly see had more passion for it, and were much better than I was. And I just hated memorizing lines, so so so so much. I felt like if that’s what acting was, then I didn’t really want to do it,” he explained. Erickson never heard of projections in high school—they were not a thing then. However, when looking to stay involved in theater in any way possible, Erickson asked what he could do to help on a student production and was asked to do projections—and with that he was introduced to his future career. He started designing for his first show only when he was in his first projections class.
Senior year opened the doors into getting a job for Erickson. His artistic director brought in a guest projections designer from New York City, Alex Koch, to help with the show Arrestees 2.0. Erickson was glad to have guidance, as it was a weird show to work on, and it was also unique to learn from someone currently in the business for an updated take on the theater world. As the programmer for the guest designer, Erickson took video content and set it to be played with cues throughout the show. It was his most complicated show yet, set to run six projectors from three computers. Erickson asked Koch for recommendations for where to go and get a job after college, and he was so impressed with Erickson he was told to move to NYC after graduation, and he would help Erickson find work.
Just three days after graduating from CSU, Erickson moved to NYC. He immediately began to work on a show alongside his projections professor from college, and started to make connections through his professor and Koch. During five years of living there, Erickson worked on a total of 85 shows. For him, finding success meant making connections—meeting people in the field and being recommended for job openings.
Although Erickson enjoyed something different about each project he worked on, he has a few personal highlights. In 2017, Erickson went on tour for a month in Europe. He created projections for the band The Magnetic Fields’s 50 song memoir, containing 46 unique music videos. Erickson was proud of the show, as it combined all his previously learned skills into one cohesive project, including different styles of filming, hand-drawn items, graphic design, old films re-edited, visual effects, and of course editing. Erickson loved the environment of the show, saying, “Everyone was very chill. There weren’t any divas. Everyone there was just really happy to be there. Nobody had an attitude, everyone pitched in, and it was very much a family feel.” While on tour, Erickson helped run video tech for the show. He travelled across Scotland, Ireland, and England, ending the tour in London.
Erickson entered the world of Broadway with the show Be More Chill, and watched as the musical grew up. Be More Chill began as a small show in New Jersey. Despite good audience response, bad critic reviews caused the show to close pretty quickly. As the show was closing, a cast album was created to be posted on Spotify. Although nobody knows how, the musical suddenly blew up on Spotify, with over ten million streams—second most listened to cast album on Spotify behind Hamilton. Directors rode this fan support and interest to bring the show back into Off-Broadway, and the show began to grow. Projections were added for the show’s return, and Erickson was hired. He loved the idea of adding it to the show: “It’s a show about technology, and so it’s a show that I think really, really benefited from having video.” Before Be More Chill even opened, the entire six week run of the show was sold out. About six months after the Off-Broadway debut, Be More Chill was announced to be coming to Broadway.
Preparing for Broadway was a process that had to happen quickly, so the environment was very intense. For most of the designers, it was their first Broadway show. Erickson was the associate projections designer, working alongside Koch. He also was head animator and helped with programming the show. He told the programmer how each scene that was designed was supposed to look. “Alex had done a broadway show ten years ago, but it was a play and not a musical. And musicals are a whole other kettle of fish. So it was very intense in the room. The thing about doing a show a second time but with bigger budgets and a bigger scale, is you put a lot of pressure on yourself to make it look ‘like a Broadway show.’ In the end, the only thing that makes a Broadway show a Broadway show is the number of people there and the theater it’s at—there is no perfect formula for a Broadway show,” Erickson claimed. His time working on the show was a huge learning process for him, building his confidence in something change the end of this later.
Despite working with many people who were extremely successful in the theater industry and people who were new to Broadway, Erickson said the entire team was very thankful to be working on the show. He says, “Our lighting and set designer had both won Tony [awards] before, but they both still felt like they were very invested in the show. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a show they had seen grow up or if it was just the environment we have created.”
Besides Be More Chill, one of Erickson’s proudest works was for a show called Less Than 50%. He was the head projections designer, working alongside young people who were new to the theater business. “For a lot of people, this was their first big show. And this was not a huge show. But, you know, for them, it was huge. And that reminded me how much I liked working while also being able to teach people and help. Because it was a smaller show, we were all scraping together whatever we could, and it felt like a group together. It reminded me how much I like working more personally with people. Broadway is fantastic and amazing, but I was a part of a huge team,” Erickson said. He was pleased with how Less Than 50% turned out, and it reminded Erickson how much he enjoys personal relationships in jobs. With smaller crews, he feels that he is able to connect with more people and get to collaborate more.
After five years, NYC was taking its toll on Erickson and he made the decision to leave to go to UT Austin. He is working towards a master’s degree in integrated media, so he can have more opportunities in his future. As projections design is now becoming more mainstream, he hopes to become a college professor and teach projections in the future. He reflected, “I don’t think that I will ever make the greatest piece of projection art ever out there, but I would like to help someone else make it. I enjoy what I do, and I enjoy talking about what I do. I think that goes hand in hand with having a desire to teach.”
Additionally, Erickson felt the need to start off on his own. He was often assistant to Koch for jobs, and he is thankful for the connections made and the opportunities from him. However, Erickson wanted more one-on-one connection, and felt ready to gain more skills in order to not be an assistant. Surprisingly, after working on Broadway, he wants to explore other things. He hopes to learn in college what he can do with projections outside of just theater. Although he does not know exactly what he wants to do after he gets his master’s, Erickson says there are lots of options—concerts, music videos, dance shows, escape rooms, and more.
High school was difficult for Erickson, mostly because he did not feel strong in most of his classes; things he knew he would never use beyond high school were not things Erickson chose to spend time on. However, beyond his time at Fossil, he has found a career, passions for free-time, and everything has worked out through trusting what he has learned about himself along the way. Looking back at his teenage years, Erickson said, “My advice for any high school or college age is you’ve got time. I worry that my generation was told a few too many times, ‘do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,’ because I think that leads to a lot of people thinking that the thing they love, they need to immediately pursue. And if it’s not really what they think, if they learn it’s a lot harder than it is and they don’t want to do that anymore, then they think they have failed, and they give up at ever finding a new pursuit. I think that is then your opportunity to try something totally new, and to look for something that you never thought you would love.” Erickson did this when shifting from acting to design, and wants to encourage others to learn what their unexpected passion is.
However, at the same time Erickson warns, “Don’t let your passion be your personality. I knew people who were really into anime. And they made that their entire personality. I knew people who were really into sports, don’t make that your entire personality. Let your personality be who you are, and have interests and passions, but try and vary them a little bit and try to figure out who you are without that stuff around you.”
Finding a career does not have to be a linear process. People are allowed to not be sure in high school, and even college, and even change their mind later. For Erickson, finding a role in theater has not only been a passion, but a place where he has grown, learned, and evolved. He went from being unsure of what to do besides acting to getting a job three days after graduating from college. He hopes to continue to learn in his future, try new things within projections, and pass on his knowledge to others. There is so much more after high school, and every student has time to figure things out.