Where There’s Smoke

by Jay Duckworth

Duckworth in The Public Theater’s prop shop, assembling a “torch.”In order to create fire for an Iron Age King Lear, we needed something stronger than silk

"You’re obsessing again, we have the hand torches approved and ordered—just let it go.” 

So said Dan Sullivan, director for The Public Theater’s production of King Lear for their 2014 Shakespeare in the Park summer season. But despite his request, this Disney princess decided not to Let It Go.  

It all started at the first design meetings, when Sullivan revealed that this King Lear would be set in the last days of the Iron Age and that he wanted all four elements on stage: earth, air, fire and water. The scenic designer John Lee Beatty created a druidic set with all the elements represented, and one strict request: No silk flames. 

Clarke Peters in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park’s 2014 production of King Lear, with a prop torch from J&M Special Effects. Now, I loved those silk flames since the first time I saw them, but since then they’ve become so commonplace that you can get them at any drug store’s Halloween display, and the trick has been done. I agreed with Beatty that it was time to come up with something that looked good enough to really fool the audience. We found the best torches we could and rented some fine ones from J&M Special Effects in Brooklyn for the actors to carry on. But something was still missing for me—and my dissatisfaction is what prompted Sullivan’s admonition. I couldn’t let it go. 

So I was primed when Beatty delivered his designs for a large war machine that would roll onstage. His designs called for one of the machines to have torches placed on it. I leapt at the opportunity. I asked one of my interns, Jessica Ayala, to bring down a bunch of long thin sticks I had seen in our green room. Meanwhile, I cut a piece of carpet tube about 4 inches long. Then I recruited the props shop supervisor, Rebecca David, to help me and together we taped the sticks around the outside of the tube. When she asked what I was doing, I said “I have no idea…” Essentially we were creating the look of a large wicker stave for a torch, but inverting it. I then took an LED color-changing water mister for desktop fountains and stuck it in the top of tube, obscured by the sticks. To help direct the misted air out above the top of the torch I stuck a straw in the mister. The “smoke” was pretty thin, and you could only see it if you were in a dark room, but it worked! 

To increase the smoke output we made another unit with just a gelled Mini-MAG light and a mini-fogger. This worked well enough, the wicker cage held the smoke so it was visible, but the smoke didn’t dance in the light. To help it move, I put a piece of clear gel in the stave near the area where the bottom of a flame would be. The gel created a choke point where the smoke was forced in, creating a vortex that let the smoke dance over the light and escape in thin and thick bursts. I took the prototype to Sullivan and Beatty and on their approval we created the final torch. 

In the final version we used 5-inch PVC pipe (painted to blend with wood on the outside, kept white on the inside to help the light pop), wrapped with small willow branches (175 branches for five torches) held in place by cable ties at the top and bottom. We hid the cable ties with jute string and then covered that in indoor/outdoor wood glue. Inside the PVC tube we placed a mini-fogger and some LED lights, topped off with our gel. Holly Burnell from electrics wired up the tiny fogger FX by Look Solutions and the LED’s that enabled us to authentic looking fire and smoke—without using any silk handkerchiefs.