Intelligent Design

by Eric Hart
in Feature

The broken wall in situ during Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures at the Public Theater in New York City.
The broken wall in situ during Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures at the Public Theater in New York City.
Building and destroying a wall eight times a week called for some creative problem-solving in the prop shop

"Oh, don’t forget about the breakaway wall.”

Never had such a casual phrase resulted in such an epic undertaking in our props shop. The show was The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, by Tony Kushner at the Public Theater in New York City, in the spring of 2011. Jay Duckworth was the props master, I was his assistant, and we were looking at the drawings with our production manager when the infamous words were spoken.

In the play, Vic (played by Steven Pasquale) is angry at his father (Michael Cristofer). He grabs a nearby bust of Garibaldi and punches it through the wall of his father’s Brooklyn brownstone. Later, he comes over to fix the wall as an apology, hammering and chiseling away at the hole to fit in a small piece of drywall. He sees something hidden down in the interior of the wall. A few scenes later, he grabs a crowbar and slashes open the hole down to the baseboard to liberate an old dusty suitcase which was hidden for more than a hundred years.

Our list of criteria was set. The wall had to: break easily when hit by the statue; look realistic when chipped away with a chisel; and burst dramatically when torn with a crowbar. It could not be too difficult for Steven to accomplish this, but it needed the strength and structure to keep from falling apart on its own. It also needed to be safe for Steven to reach into without cutting his arm.

These criteria needed to be balanced with our resources. Eight shows a week, six weeks of previews (with daily rehearsals), and five weeks of performances (with a possible extension) meant any material and labor used would be multiplied by almost a hundred. Therefore the walls could not take too much material to re-build or take too long to construct or to dry. With all this in mind, we went to work.

A rendering of the different layers used to construct the final version of the breakaway wall piece.
A rendering of the different layers used to construct the final version of the breakaway wall piece.
Making It Work
This show originated at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The wall effect was first developed there by Mark Maurer and their carpenters. Interestingly, the scenery department was responsible for the wall at the Guthrie, while it fell to the props department at the Public Theater. Their production needed two breakaway walls per show, swapped at intermission. After the Guthrie’s production, the show was workshopped and had another rehearsal period at the Public. The script rewrites left us needing only one breakaway wall per show. Though the Guthrie provided their “recipe” for the wall, we still did our own experimenting and testing, because the circumstances of the show were different, the script was altered, and the creative team’s ideas about the wall were still evolving.

We built the breakable wall onto a removable frame which was pushed into a hole on the set from behind. The set molding masked the seams: baseboard on the bottom, crown molding on top, and a door frame on one side—the other side was the end of the set. Behind the breakable wall we placed a removable masking wall constructed to look like the inside of the opposite wall.

The main workload throughout the run of the show was undertaken by our two artisans, Claire Karoff and Lillian Clements. Our carpenters, David Schneider and Bruce Townsend, did much of the development and construction at the beginning as well. I can’t list everyone who helped out; everyone who came through our props shop in that five-month period worked on the walls to some extent.

The “hole” in the back of the lauan that contained the break in the wall. The drywall was initially scored to make it easier to break.
The “hole” in the back of the lauan that contained the break in the wall. The drywall was initially scored to make it easier to break.
For our initial tests, we constructed the frame out of two-by-four lumber. We attached a piece of lauan on the face and cut a hole where the breaking occurred. This confined the hole to the area that the actor hit. We screwed the drywall on top of that. We spread joint compound on the back of the drywall. We cut strips of lauan to the size of lath and pressed those into the joint compound. Two-by-fours on either end of the lath kept them from falling when Steven hit the wall. We also initially scored the lauan to make it easier to break.

This test showed us what we needed to improve. The joint compound took a long time to dry, especially where it was unexposed to the air, so we had to keep the thickness to a minimum. The paper on the surface of the drywall made it rip rather than crumble like a true plaster wall, so we needed to remove it. We switched the frame to one constructed of one-by-four to make it lighter for the deck crew. Instead of cutting a hole in the middle of a full sheet of lauan, we placed several smaller sheets around the perimeter so we could use smaller offcuts. Also, we learned that scoring the lauan was not necessary and discarded that step, saving us some time. Finally, we added stage pins to hold the frame to the set.

Lath strips cut from lauan were placed on the backside of the drywall using the joint compound as an adhesive. We also initially scored the lauan to make it easier to break, but this proved not to be necessary.
Lath strips cut from lauan were placed on the backside of the drywall using the joint compound as an adhesive. We also initially scored the lauan to make it easier to break, but this proved not to be necessary.
We removed the paper on the face of the drywall by soaking it overnight. We skim-coated the fronts of the walls with a layer of joint compound to hide the boundary between the paper and bare drywall. It also matched the texture of the breakaway wall to the other walls.

Making It Perfect
Ultimately, we constructed about 20 frames; this gave us a week’s supply of finished walls, plus another week’s worth in various stages of drying, and enough left over for construction of new walls. This show had an unusually long preview period (five weeks) which gave the director, designer and even the writer plenty of time to tweak the wall effect.

The drywall and lauan added to the two-by-four frame that was inserted into a hole in the set.
The drywall and lauan added to the two-by-four frame that was inserted into a hole in the set.
The director wanted more shrapnel and mess when the wall was torn open by the crowbar. We added a second layer of lath to the back. This made it harder for Steven to break through, so we removed every other strip of lath in the second layer.

We added more debris to the masking wall behind the breakaway wall, such as oozing plaster and hanging chunks of broken-off lath. We added cloth-covered electrical wires and porcelain knobs to the rough-hewn stud inside the wall. This way, when the actor broke through the wall, it revealed a glimpse of a world well over a hundred years old.
We added “horsehair” to the joint compound. At first, we experimented with fake horsehair left over from the Public’s production of Kicking a Dead Horse, but that looked wrong. We ended up unraveling manila rope into individual strands. First, we mixed the hair directly into the joint compound before applying it, but that was too messy. It worked better to push the hair into the joint compound after it was applied.

A closeup of broken wall, showing the masking wall and some of the knob and tube wiring that was behind the breakaway wall.
A closeup of broken wall, showing the masking wall and some of the knob and tube wiring that was behind the breakaway wall.
The designer added a picture to the wall. We made a template to place a screw in the same spot on each wall to hang the picture from. After a few rehearsals, the designer decided the wall underneath the painting should be less faded from decades of sunlight then the rest of the room. We created another template to mark where the painting would be, and painted that a more saturated color.

It was a pretty successful run. Save for a few anomalies in the beginning when we were still perfecting the process, the wall broke every single time. After the show closed, we broke apart all the frames we had built and restocked the lumber for later reuse. We had “Build it Green”, a local salvage and surplus store, come by and pick up our leftover drywall sheets.