Sunday, August 15, 2010

Assembling an airplane

In the final scene of the Drowsy Chaperone a plane is supposed to fly onto the set, and then 10 people are supposed to fly away to Rio in it. Realism was not a requirement; the play sets itself up as classically theatrical. In past productions large scenic pieces have been flown in from above or brought in from the wings. Our challenge was to create the same effect at our theatre in the round.

The solution, from set designer Tom Ryan, was to build the plane as a set of small pieces that the actors would hold together to create the plane, almost like a giant puppet onstage.

The basic plan was that most of the pieces were to be carved out of foam. With the handles and hardware that was required though I had to have something to attach to, which meant I had to sandwich some type of wood between layers.
I used green contact cement to glue all of the foam pieces together and then carved and sanded them to round them out and give them dimension.

I made four of these clouds. They were created by cutting the two foam pieces and then tracing them onto either side of a piece of lauan that I cut to match the overlap. I screwed this piece of lauan to the dowel and then glued the foam back on either side (with a trench carved into one of the foam pieces to accomidate the dowel.

For the propeller I screwed a metal pipe phlange onto a piece of plywood and screwed that onto my large lauan circle. I glued the foam to the lauan with a hole cut for the plywood, and then another layer of foam on top to hide the plywood. The propeller itself had a lauan base with a dowel screwed to the back. The dowel passed through the phlange and the actor was able to spin it.
The actor wore the propeller like a shield with his arm passing through two canvas straps.
Each of the four wings was built from ripped down 1x2. Especially when using wood that was so thin it was important to predrill every screw and use glue on every joint. 
The large flat pieces were made of lauan again, sandwiched between pieces of 1/2 in foam. 

The tail fin was probably one of the trickiest pieces of the plane. each piece needed to attach to a belt, which meant that the lauan I used on the other pieces wouldn't be thick enough on end to screw into. I ended up carving out a groove to fit a piece of 1x4 between the two layers of foam. For the belt I found one that had grommets all the way around like this one so that I would have reinforced holes for the screws wherever I needed them (a lesson I learned, I still needed washers to further spread out the stress on the screw, on my first attempt the screws pulled the grommets through.) The side fins each had handles (with screws going into that hidden 1x4) so the actor could hold them out on the sides. The tail fin was stableized by running a thin line from one of those handles, through the top of the tail fin to the other handle.

The pieces came down all four aisles and before most of the audience realized what was happening the actors had assembled all of the pieces the create this fantastic spectacle.
Then to top it off the actors marched the entire thing in a giant pinwheel moving the wings and clouds up and down in time to the music.

I love theatre magic.


  1. Hi Jesse,

    I'm doing something similar and was wondering what were your dimensions of the wing pieces? Did they work for you, or do you think they needed more space between the wings? I've got a 45' proscenium stage that I'm working on, but it's only 19' deep with no fly system! This is an excellent idea for a practical solution.

    1. If I remember correctly, each wing was 18" tall, 4' long and 2' deep. The spacing seemed to work really well for the actors, though it took some time and careful spacing once we moved from the rehearsal space onto the actual stage to get it to work out perfectly.