A Volley of Arrows Using High, Low and No Tech Solutions

by Brent Stainer and Camille Taliaferro-Barber
Maddie Mayans, Nikki Rose, and Sean Murray in The Maid’s Trial; Joan of Arc
Maddie Mayans, Nikki Rose, and Sean Murray in The Maid’s Trial; Joan of Arc
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When Archbishop Murphy High School, in Everett, WA, produced The Maid’s Trial; Joan of Arc, the script called for two volleys of arrows to strike the stage, creating the illusion that the characters were being attacked from a long distance. In the first volley, arrows strike across the set and the character of Joan is struck in the shoulder. The second volley strikes around the stage and onto shields held up to protect the injured Joan. The effect needed to look realistic to reflect the heavy tone of the play, so comical or whimsical effects would not do. The primary concern of course was safety, so actual free-flight arrows would not be considered. The solutions to the multiple challenges were found using three approaches – high tech, low tech, and no tech. 

High Tech
With the need for multiple arrows to strike almost (but not quite) at the same time at various locations on the set, it was apparent that a DMX controlled mechanism would be required. The design team selected a relay switch that would, on DMX command, power 120-volt circuits. These relay switches were hidden around the set, including the cart Joan is behind, covering the general area we would have the arrows appear. Arrows were then created, painted, and installed on stout springs that would flip them up into view of the audience. Initial efforts found that weaker springs certainly flipped them into view, but there was an undesirable—and somewhat comical—twang and vibration of the arrow as it settled into its resting position. Stronger springs resolved that issue; however, they could have caused injury if one of these struck an actor. Careful blocking, exclusion areas and safety plans mitigated that concern. With the springs as firm as they needed to be, strong solenoids were also required and 120-volt pull-type solenoids were utilized to release the arrows. 

With simple angle brackets, pins, and wire, releases were fabricated that permitted the arrow to flip into position with a short ¾-inch pull of the solenoid. Wiring the solenoids to the relay packs and programming on the lighting console completed the effect. A switch was used on the relay packs to serve as a safety. The packs were powered up by the stage manager when all actors were in the proper position for the effect to take place. A lighting cue—and pre-programmed follow cues with a tenth of a second delay—tripped the relay packs in sequence and released the arrows. All at the touch of a button.

Unseen side of the cart reveals its inner workings  Electric solenoids pulled cotter pins releasing the arrows  Appropriate spring tension needed  

Low Tech
For the shields used to protect Joan from the second volley of arrows a low tech answer worked. As the shields were props held by the actors, it was very impractical, and unnecessary, to have them tripped electrically. Two half round lengths of wood (as arrows) were laid into groves routered into the shields. The shields and the inlaid flat side of the arrows were colorfully painted to hide their presence. The round sides of the arrows were painted brown and three fins of balsa wood were concealed in the shields. These half round arrows pivoted on a small axle built across the groove of the shield. A hole was also routered through the shield which allowed the butt end of the arrow to pivot to the backside of the shield. On this butt end, a stout angle bracket was attached and connected to a strong spring. This spring rides on the backside of the shield and pulls the arrow into the deployed position. A small eye screw attached to the arrow by the fins and passed to the backside of the shield. A simple pin and string were used as the trigger to release the arrow to its upright position.

As the second volley of arrows are released, the actors' blocking calls for them to use their shields to protect Joan as she lay injured in the cart, they triggered the releases allowing the springs to snap the camouflaged arrows to their upright position. As an unexpected bonus, these spring powered shield arrows created an authentic ‘thwack’ as they snapped into their positions, thus completing their effect.
Shield Front

No Tech
The ‘no tech’ element in the scene was a simple sleight of hand. The actress playing Joan simply palmed a bloodied arrow up her sleeve during the scene and in the chaos of other arrow effects ‘striking’ around her, she screamed a blood curdling cry, fell to the ground upstage and held the arrow to her shoulder until it was ‘pulled out’ a moment later. Simple, but with the ‘sell’ of the actress and the other arrows striking around her, it was very effective.

The arrows signified the beginning of the end for Joan of Arc. The overall practical effect, using all three techniques, was exceedingly potent for driving the story forward. It startled and engaged the audience, and as the play’s only battle scene, it needed to be stark, ugly, and stunning. It was a dismal moment in Joan’s life but a highlight of the production.