A disappearing act

Making a realistic two room living space disappear in half a minute is no mean task. To accomplish this, the sections of floor that the living room and bedroom furniture rest on sink into the trap room on hydraulic lifts, and sunroofs moved by air cylinders glide in to fill the gap. Later in the show the lifts return with a different set of passengers. On stage this action is spare and elegant but beneath the deck is controlled chaos.

A maze of pipes, hoses and cables crowd the space. One of the drawbacks to having lift/sunroof set ups that take up a majority of the stage is that the area required to house the mechanics is about twice the dimensions of each lift. The other challenge is finding a way to reinforce and support the stage when the area adjacent to the lift must remain free of legs to allow the sunroof room to travel.

With the stage level dropped a foot the ceiling in the trap room is at about six and a half feet and in many places valves, hoses, wires and stage supports hang from the ceiling. So, in addition to being extremely full there isn’t a lot of head room. This is the most thoroughly utilized trap room I have ever seen. Before a single thing was built the entire trap room complete with lifts and run off decks for the props which are stored in the space was drafted in Vectorworks to make sure that everything would fit.

The Trip to Bountiful is a relatively automation heavy show for our theatre. In particular we are using a lot of compressed air. The two main lifts are powered by hydraulics but the rest of the tricks in the trap room and in the grid use the compressed air that is piped in the walls throughout the entire building from a compressor in the basement. Our Technical Director Steve Coulter did some calculations based on the specs of all the air cylinders used in the show and determined that each show uses  2,542 gallons of uncompressed air. For some real world context I looked up the volume of air an average adult breathes in a minute, and multiplied it by the number of people in the cast and crew and the length of our show. It turns out that the volume of air breathed by the 14 members of the cast and crew during each show is roughly equal to the amount of air used by the various air powered tricks in the set.

All of the lifts and other below stage mechanics are controlled from this table. A few of the scene changes require multiple complex movements in a very short space of time and with little tolerance for error particularly with actors riding the lifts during some of the changes. Not shown in this picture is the control box at head height that fires the cylinders that make grass grow out of the stage. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were moments during each show that our Master Stage Carpenter wished he had an extra hand.

Each row of grass is a single unit made up of a custom built metal fork controlled by a small air cylinder. The tines of each fork rest inside of a coper tube held against the underside of the stage by a wooden frame. The grass bundles are attached to small sections of wooden dowel that ride freely atop each of the metal rods. The downside to this relatively simple arrangement was that resting in the down position the tips of the tines rattled in the tubes when anyone walked above them. Additionally as they traveled up the tubes during the scene change they rubbed against the sides lending the growing grass a decidedly metallic sound effect.

There are times in my job when the finessing of stage magic results in some amusingly surreal notes during tech. My favorite note for this show was the directive to make the grass quieter. We also had to adjust the system slightly to keep the grass bundles from firing out of the stage like some fuzzy relative of a potato gun. The solution to the ratting tines was as brilliant as it was low tech. At the base of each fork we tied elastic cord through fuzzy wool paint rollers. You can see the first prototype muffler in the picture above.

To solve the grass cannon and rattling ascent problems we shortened the tines a few inches and affixed hollow foam insulation using heat shrink to the tips. The ability to think on your feet and make use of available materials is often just as important in theatre as thorough advanced planning. MacGyver’s got nothing on stagehands in tech.

Next week is the last week of performances for The Trip to Bountiful, if you’re near Seattle I highly recommend you see this beautiful play before the end of the run. I’ve posted all the images I used in this series of journal entries plus a few extras in a new gallery folder. In a few weeks I’ll start posting about the second play of our 2010 season Female of the Species, I hope you’ll check back!

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