Fit For A King - A Nine Piece Rolling Throne

by Jay Duckworth
Joe Tapper, Zenzi Williams, Michael Bradley Cohen and Leland Fowler in The Public’s Mobile Unit production of Henry V, directed by Robert O’Hara and running at The Public Theater, following a free tour to the five boroughs. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.
Joe Tapper, Zenzi Williams, Michael Bradley Cohen and Leland Fowler in The Public’s Mobile Unit production of Henry V, directed by Robert O’Hara and running at The Public Theater, following a free tour to the five boroughs. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Design drawings. Sometimes they come in late. There are times when not all the information is on the drawing. A designer has actually said ‘I wish you would have told me that you were going to build it the way I drew it.’ Then there are times you’re sitting in the production meeting and you find out a whole lot about the drawing you were given just the day before. Usually this doesn’t stress me but for Henry V the drawing for the throne had an exploded view as most drawings do. This wasn’t just for details sake, it was because at the beginning of the play, during the first monologue, the nine-member cast has to take one part each and build Henry’s throne onstage. So, challenge one—the cast has to put a chair together and it has to be in nine pieces. Challenge two—during the production meeting I find out that the chair has to be pushed over carpet and so will need casters. Challenge number three—the director also wants an actor to stand on the throne and be pushed around the stage, on the carpet. So again, I see all our challenges; I see our limited budget; and I have to complete this in two weeks.

The good news—this throne is the only prop in the show. The show is being produced by our mobile unit that goes out to all the boroughs in New York; and to shelters and prisons. The Public Theater started up the mobile unit again to go out to New Yorkers, bringing free Shakespeare to them. There are always challenges with Mobile Shakespeare because they’re limited with what they can bring to shelters and very limited to what they can bring into prisons. Having limited room—carting actors and a set in two vans—production management was happy to hear that for Henry V all they had to worry about was one chair.

Rebecca David, the shop head, said she would help me build this throne, which was appreciated since I haven’t built a chair since King Lear and that one was pretty simple. This chair was to have Cabriole legs and every part must be custom-built. Rebecca had me build the back legs of the seat and she built the back while we were waiting for the arrival of the front carved legs, that we ordered off eBay. The assistant designer really helped us out by working with us on what would be the strongest way that we could put this chair together but still be able to move it around. One suggestion was building a metal cross-member on casters that the chair could sit on; it would just be an X from leg to leg keeping the sides, front, and back open. The stems from the casters could go up into the legs. This would help square-up the legs up with the seat making it a lot stronger for when it gets pushed around. To make sure those connections were secure we used 1/2’’ threaded rod and an aircraft pin. Cut the threaded rod to the size you need, drill your hole slightly smaller than 1/2’’, then put the threaded rod into your drill and tighten the chuck. Then drill the rod into the hole. It works like a charm and holds on as tight as a crazy ex-girlfriend!

You need to do the best you can, but when a deadline is looming in front of you—in building something you’ve never built before—you’re definitely challenging yourself and challenging your own patience.

Because of the Nor’easter that hit the East Coast during the build, the legs were delayed in getting to us and that set the throne-build behind a day. And without the legs you can’t set the pins in the metal rolling base; backing us up even more. Also, it took time trying to square up the rest of the chair; all matching-up so the chair is safe to move around the floor and not break apart because of some undue torque on the throne. I also had never tufted pleather before, which I found doesn’t work the same way as upholstery fabric. (More on that, later.)

The show was rehearsing off-site and we needed to bring them the throne. I knew we can get all the chair parts on the freight elevator—but only if we get there before 4pm. I grab a cab but it’s after 4 pm so we have to carry this huge throne, in nine parts, up five flights of stairs! [A fat 50-year-old guy and stairs do not get along!!] Robert O’Hara, the director looked dubious at all the parts laying on the floor, so I show him and stage management how to put it together. I put the director in the built chair and start to push him around. They love it and we do a quick video of how the chair goes together so they can show the actors.

If it wasn’t for the help of Rebecca, really pushing me along, I know I couldn’t have done it. Unfortunately being a props master means you have to go to a lot of meetings and don’t get out on the floor as much as you would like to. Especially in an organization as large as the Public. So my ego was pretty deflated by the simple set backs that I brought on myself because of not being on the floor enough, not a bad thing but it reminded me why I love working with these great people of theater, and it reminded me that I don’t have all the answers. Mostly it reminded me that I just need to get out of peoples way and let them do what they do best.

Tufted pleather valuable lesson learned: air passes through cloth, but not pleather. So, the French King drops his butt on the throne and three buttons shot out like bullets! I looked at the director, and he asked, ‘Can we always make that happen?’ Uh...NO!

Postscript - The idea of the throne being built on stage was cut three days into rehearsal; they decided that building it on stage was too clunky and not too elegant. So, the request came down to put all the parts of the throne together permanently. The seat and seat frame were rebuilt so they would be more structurally sound. After sitting in a run of the show before tech I understood why it was changed. Sure I was a little crestfallen, but it’s a good reminder that ultimately we are here to collaborate and tell the story inside the world of the play. - JD  

Building the Henry V throne for The Public Mobile Unit  Putting the back on the Henry V throne for The Public Mobile Unit  Henry V throne for The Public Mobile Unit