Problem/Solution: Theatrical Savvy Saves A Project For The Detroit Zoo

When the Detroit Zoo approached designer Monika Essen to design four studios to be used for art classes, meetings, and more, she knew the task would go beyond creating an exhibit protected by glass or ropes, or designing a production to last through a limited run. People, often classes of school children, would sit and move about in her environments.

She would have to create rooms that would be entirely functional and, at the same time, exciting and educational, where people would be immersed in four ecological systems, each the natural climate for clusters of animals in the zoo. One room would be drippy, suggesting a tropical rainforest; another wet, evoking grassland watering holes and freshwater lakes; a third dark, creating an impression of underground areas and caves; and a fourth freezing, plunging visitors into Arctic and Antarctic environments.

Essen began by researching ecosystems. What are the climates and vegetation like? What animals thrive there? “You need chairs and tables and blackboards and coat racks, and they can’t look like chairs or tables,” Essen says. “When I showed examples to the zoo committee, I suggested logs to sit on and Plexiglas® ice cubes instead of real furniture.” She envisioned children sitting here, but when she learned the rooms would seat adults also, she had to rethink things so the rooms would be “friendly to all age groups,” she says. “They had to be places a company might rent for meetings, too.”

How do you install a bulletin board and make it look like it belongs in a natural environment? Where do you hang book bags and other belongings? If Essen wanted to use projected images, where would she hide the housing for a projection screen, and what would she do with theatrical lighting? How would she create a multimedia room for multiple functions and various age groups on a budget and in a way that could withstand abuse?

Essen designs imaginative sets, lighting, and costumes for the stage as well as home interiors, retail spaces, and restaurants. When she does interior design, she calls upon tricks and techniques she’s developed in the theatre and commercial venues, and when she works in the theatre, her expertise in interior design comes into play. “This project is a conglomeration of all these different areas,” she says.

Essen painted “scenery that hangs from ceilings and rests on walls” and created graphics that play digitally on the floor via JVC DVD players feeding video content to Eiki EIP-25 2,500-lumen projectors. To keep rooms—each with a giant window—dark for projections, images project onto motorized Da-Lite Cosmopolitan Electrol® Square Format seamless screens that can roll down and over the windows. A matrix switcher sends signals to one or all projectors to control content. Essen also designed signage that she sent to Event Solutions International to develop for hallways leading to each area, giving each hall the same feeling as the room without spoiling the surprise for visitors who would be immersed in it. And she set the stage with functional props.

Painted enamel stencils, provided by Essen’s Detroit firm, Époque Design Studio, cover floors and walls. Those on the floor surround the huge digital images: a giant cracked ice floe, oversized lily pads, tremendous palm leaves, and, for the dark room, worms that are as big as snakes. Some of the images came from stock photographs of species found in each ecosystem and others from photographs taken by zoo employees. “Some love what they do so much, and they visit wild animals on their vacations,” she says. Cracked Plexiglas® ice hung over the walls accentuates the painting in the Arctic room, while prefabricated drippy tropical foliage from Autograph Foliages in California and Nordlie’s in Michigan highlights the rainforest.

The projectors hang from the wood ceilings on universal 11" triangular aluminum truss. “There were giant industrial heating vents that crisscrossed the ceiling, and I didn’t want to obliterate that,” Essen says. “In daylight, you see interesting architectural features and beautiful wood.” Visitors also see shaped panels hanging from the ceiling. “I created a bunch of floating panels, and then we stapled on different things—leaves or branches or icicles. They are theatrical looking, not very real.” New Jersey-based Petraworks helped fabricate screen surrounds, floating panels, and surrounds for the tack boards.

Some projection elements are hidden in giant tree branches or icicles made of resin, while some lighting is tucked away in the ceiling. Essen designed her own lighting and effects, with equipment from Pegasus Lighting in Michigan, including Le Maitre Show Fogger units, AV equipment, projectors, automated screens, dimmers, gobos, and the truss system for the project. “I used traditional theatrical lighting, including Fresnels and PAR lights and some gobos [from Rosco] that I thought would be appropriate,” Essen says. Theatrical lighting fixtures create freezing ice floes, dirt, giant leaves, and other images all over the walls, too. Gear includes ETC Source Four PARs, as well as two six-channel dimmer packs per room and two 12-channel controllers. "With the controller, you can also program in a specific lighting scene, so that a non-theatrical person just has to turn it on, push a button, and it will create the lighting effect desired,” Essen adds.

Fantastical surrounds for Velcro tack boards, blackboards, and projection screen housing mask the unsightly. Plexiglas icicles transform these in the freezing room, with large fabricated branches and leaves doing the job in the dark room. Essen made the “rooty type things” from foam and canvas, as she might in a scene shop. “I designed them and had them fabricated,” she says. “Then I painted them and blended them with the tone of the room.”

Laminated surfaces helped create functional scenery. Essen took photos and sent them to Wilsonart in Temple, TX to fabricate custom laminates for the tables for each area: bark treatment for the dark room and bamboo for the drippy one. Laminates that look like ice serve as built-in shelves and benches, where someone might sit to remove boots and then store them. Essen designed all cabinetry and shelving, fabricated by West End Studios in Detroit.

She also had to find practical options for seating. The solution: durable chairs of transparent Plexiglas for the freezing room and chairs that resembled lily pads for the wet areas, all from Laytrad in the UK.

Since Essen wanted total immersion, sound, as well as lights and projections, had to be part of the project. For the ultimate final touch, she enlisted sound designer David Dunn, who added recorded sounds of moving bugs that you can hear in the rooms.

For the full story, see the May issue of Live Design.

Davi Napoleon has been writing for Live Design under its four names and four editors since 1977. She authored Schoolbiz, a column for TheaterWeek, and Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre, and continues to write widely about the arts.

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