Behind the screens: Wendall K. Harrington’s illuminating journey with Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense

To celebrate the re-release of Stop Making Sense, TPi’s Jacob Waite tracks down pioneering projection designer Wendall K. Harrington to reflect on her experience with Talking Heads and the legacy of the iconic 1984 concert film…

My first arena-sized production profile for TPi Magazine was David Byrne’s American Utopia at the-then Manchester Arena in 2018. Weaving through the backstage corridors, I was acutely aware of my privilege as a writer to chat exclusively to those responsible for curating the former Talking Heads frontman’s ambitious and technologically advanced production [see TPi #232]. Little did these battle-hardened roadies and creatives know, I was fanboying every minute. Talking Heads were the soundtrack of my adolescence – a gateway to afrobeat, funk and experimental music. The critically acclaimed Stop Making Sense (1984), directed by Jonathan Demme, is considered by some to be the greatest concert film of all time. In the week that UK cinemas will open their doors to throngs of Talking Heads fans, I tracked down Wendall K. Harrington to discuss her pioneering approach to projection design.

How did you land the gig?

“I knew the band as Chris [Frantz, drummer] and Tina [Weymouth, bassist] lived in the same Long Island City loft building as [trumpeter] Don and [Swedish artist and designer] Moki Cherry who I knew. Looking back, I think it was [lighting designer] Beverly Emmons who recommended me as a projectionist for Stop Making Sense. David [Byrne] was inspired by [American experimental theatre stage director and playwright] Robert ‘Bob’ Wilson’s idea of constructing the show live, and there were very few people considered ‘projection designers’ in those days – it was the slide era, and is still largely considered as a handcraft. And as I was involved in one of the first big projection shows on Broadway in 1979, I was known in the industry.”

Were the band when it came to formulating the aesthetics of this show, having reportedly financed the bulk of production?

“The aesthetic was entirely theirs and other than facilitating and making sure everything was correct, working and ‘tourable’ – I don’t think I made that much of an impact. I gave birth to my first child on 25 September 1984, so I was heavily pregnant during a show at Forest Hills, and the music was so loud, I thought my kid would come out singing Psycho Killer, and in a way, she did. She remains a huge fan of the Heads, and she and her sister have been to see the remastered version of the film on the big screen. I’ve been in the entertainment industry a long time, but I found David’s intelligence and reticence, mesmerising, and his pursuit of a larger more complex idea for concerts was thrilling. I am always drawn to ‘what if…’ The fact that Twyla [Tharp] was a kind of movement coach, was also so outside the realms of rock ’n’ roll.”

Wendall K Harrington wins the Claypaky Lifetime Recognition Award at the Knight of Illumination Awards USA. Photo: Jose Valdovinos

Did you ever consider that this production would be critically lauded four decades later?

“I think if it is culturally significant – and it is since The Muppets satirised it (my deepest honour) – the reason is that it broke the traditional concert form. They were not a band that reached out to the audience. There was no Judy Garland-style stage performing, with the band standing down at the footlights touching hands… To this day, I can’t imagine David gladly handing anyone. There was a conscious effort of ‘storytelling’ and Stop Making Sense is a story, it made a connection to the audience that was on another level entirely. I love the image of books and the standing lamp; it was incongruent and logical, and the correctness of scale ‘sells’ it. I’ve always been grateful for their generous crediting of my work, which I would never have had the sense to ask for!”

How often, if ever, have you watched the film?

I saw it in a theatre when it came out, I know we had the tape at home and my kids watching it endlessly dancing around, and my eldest used a big shoulder padded jacket for Halloween, so I knew the impact in my family was huge, and the music always delights, in years since, I’m surprised given the length and breadth of my career, its often what the youngsters will ask me about first…”

Where can people find you today? I am the head of the projection design concentration at David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University, and I’m about to go to Houston for a Jake Heggie’s Intelligence – happily without trays of slides!”