Problem/Solution: A Disappearing Design


Each year, the Huntington Theatre strikes a show early in its run, stores it, sets up a ceremony, and then restores the show — all in 38 hours, max. That's because of the professional theatre's affiliation with Boston University, which holds commencement exercises on its main stage each spring.

In previous seasons, four easy-to-move boxes of dirt served as a floor for King Hedley II; Love's Labour's Lost involved a large tree rigged onto a track and easy to roll out; movable portals and props set the stage for Falsettos. But sometimes those responsible for building and executing the quick changeover face more complex situations.

There was a time when many not-for-profits presented plays in rotating repertory, changing sets every day or two as a matter of course. Some Shakespeare theatres and opera companies still do. But, as scenic designer Alexander Dodge notes, “Opera houses usually have side and back stages that make swapping one set for another a much easier reality.”

At many regional houses, the problems associated with rotating rep were sometimes more spectacular than the productions. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, for instance, Robert Brustein advocated “the rep ideal” that allows audiences to watch actors transform from one set of characters to another on a single day and to see plays that are in subtle ways related to one another. But those working in shops and crews at the American Repertory Theatre talked of “the rep ordeal,” and shortly after Brustein retired, his theatre stopped rotating its rep.

The Huntington, however, has no choice but to strike and restore each spring, and this year's Present Laughter was not a laughing matter. “The big challenge was a curved cornice that could not have any seams in keeping with the streamlined art-deco aesthetic,” says Dodge, who focused on the text when he designed the show because he trusted “the cracker-jack shop at the Huntington.”

In addition to dealing with curved scenery — it took six days to put the show in initially — Dan Ramirez, scenic technical director, says the shop had fallen behind and had three weeks instead of the usual six to build a set that had to last through the run and have the capacity to disappear for a day.


By building large pieces in small units, the show was able to go on (and off and on again). “The set…is built quite ruggedly and made to come apart and go back together very quickly,” explains production manager Todd Williams, noting that much of it is made out of steel. “It's actually easier to bend than wood, and it tends to hold its shape.”

Dodge designed sections to break apart. “Adding architectural details such as pilasters to the room allowed for seams to happen that would be relatively hidden,” he says. “The shop ingeniously built the cornice as a separate part that would split from the rest of the walls and fly out of sight.”

“We built a large, curved soffit in two pieces, then bolted them together and hung it on chain motors,” Ramirez explains. “Then we rigged it in the air, so for commencement we could drop one end and hang it vertically. It could disappear into the grid.” The soffit was about 3' tall in its horizontal orientation and about 20' tall when hung vertically. Usually, the theatre assembles and works with scenery in the shop, but the theatre is about 60' tall, the shop 21' high, making it impossible to practice flying scenery there. Instead, they did practice runs onstage before previews.

After assembling and rigging the soffit, the shop assembled the walls. “We installed them underneath, settling the soffit back in and bolting it to the walls,” says Ramirez. These were steel-framed, skinned conventionally with ⅛" Masonite attached with Liquid Nails and T-Nails.

“We pre-bent all the tubes on a shop-made bender and built a jig in the shop that had the curve of the walls in it, and we laid all the pre-bent tube on the jig and welded it together into frames. Each frame was a little different from the others because the breaks had to be in certain places. We clamped the tube onto the jig and cut it to the width required for a particular frame, installed the vertical tube, and then cut away and installed tubing for door and window openings.”

Ramirez says each wall panel was between 4' and 8' wide, with heights changing to accommodate the curve, at the tallest 18' high. A vendor in Vermont cut 8' pieces of foam into a curved shape with a hot knife and ripped this into ¾" strips, parallel to the radius of the curve; the shop glued these together for cove molding in the cross section. “We sanded the foam to make a smooth surface and then coated it. When it was done, there was just one break in the middle.”

Modular platforms simplified the changeover. “Instead of using 4×8s for the floor, we made our platforms a multiple of the tile size, 3'×6'. These came apart easily and were easy to move,” explains Ramirez.

Ramirez says the strike went smoothly. “We got up on ladders and unbolted the soffit from the walls, and then removed two levels of deck, plus the base level level of flooring with tiles premounted to 3×6' ½" MDF sheet.” All sections were pre-labeled so crews could restore them without incident. “We stacked them on a dolly and put them in the shop. Then we took down the walls. After the stage was cleared of set pieces and personnel, we rotated the soffit and flew it out.”

Most of the props went into the shop. A large grand staircase took much of the wing space during the strike, and the walls sat against the back upstage wall. “We masked off the wings and the back wall,” says Ramirez.

While one crew was masking, another installed chairs, platforms, speakers, a podium, and risers. Then, says Williams, they struck the graduation, and “Lighting, sound, props, and paints all came in to restore the set-mounted lighting, speakers, buzzers, phones, furniture, props, and touch up the few nicks and bruises caused by the move out and in.”

If you have encountered a problem while designing or building a concert, event, exhibit, or play, please tell us about it at [email protected].

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