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Anything but Stock Scenery

Thomas H. Freeman • Answer Box • May 1, 2016
Andrea Syglowski, Rob Nagle, Melanie Lora, Kat Foster and Corey Brill across two set pieces in South Coast Repertory’s world premiere of Of Good Stock by Melissa Ross.
Andrea Syglowski, Rob Nagle, Melanie Lora, Kat Foster and Corey Brill across two set pieces in South Coast Repertory’s world premiere of Of Good Stock by Melissa Ross.

The scenic wizards at South Coast Rep created moving platforms for a revealing Of Good Stock

Of Good Stock, by Melissa Ross, requires a lot of different locations, but they are all centered around the kitchen and living room of an upscale Cape Cod home of a famous (deceased) novelist. As his daughters and their partners come together for a weekend, arguments are had, love is tested and secrets are revealed. For the South Coast Rep production of the show, scenic designer Tony Fanning wanted the same types of reveals to happen with the set. So he and Jon Lagerquist, technical director at South Coast Rep, put their heads together for the best way to make that happen. 

“We needed to be able to place focus on those rooms,” says Lagerquist, “but still add inside and outside looks to that as well.” Early brainstorms included such ideas as stage elevators and freely moving wagons that could go anywhere on stage—but Lagerquist kept things in a more practical realm. “Sure, it would have been really cool if I had many millions of dollars and a year to build,” jokes Lagerquist. “But in the time frame and budget we had, I knew what we could do.” He and Fanning worked together to tweak the design so the movement Fanning wanted could be accomplished. 

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In the end, the automation came down to two main pieces: The living room and kitchen of the house, which would track on and off in a single axis, and a smaller wagon downstage of the main unit that would also track on and off in a single axis—but then rotate around itself to join with the main unit. 

The back unit was anchored on two of its sides to a single cable that wound around sheaves in the deck, redirecting the cable so only one winch was needed to pull the wagon on and off. “Normally you’d run a cable out and back,” says Lagerquist. “But if you go out and then back, and then over, and then out and back again to return to winch, you have two legs traveling in the direction you want.” The two legs let them anchor the platform in two locations for easier and more stable movement. Normally the gap between the legs would take place offstage, but due to space constrictions Lagerquist had to place all of that redirection under the stage. 

A section of the front (rotating) wagon.
A section of the front (rotating) wagon.

The front unit consisted of two parts: A round platform that was a carrier for the top platform. The carrier piece was driven on and offstage by a winch—but the platform on top needed to rotate around it. The outer wagon was suported on inverted casters built into the carrier wagon and zero throw casters on the outer sections. The outer wagon had a second motor that pulled itself along a chain wrapped around the carrier piece. “We needed 90 degrees of rotation but had closer to 180 on the unit,” says Lagerquist. “Better to have a little extra travel than you need.” 

Because of a variety of needs, power and control for the carrier platform was supplied via an electrics umbilical. The umbilical was hooked up to a counterweight offstage, so gravity provided the tension to keep it out of the way. 

All the motors and winches were part of South Coast Rep in-house stock. A DC motor with a gearbox handled the rotation of the platform, while two 5HP motors powered the deck winches which tracked the wagons on and off stage. They used Creative Conners OEM cards for motion control and interfacing with Creative Conners Spikemark software, which is where the motion was programmed. Lagerquist did the first “rough draft” of programming the movement, while his automation technician Emily Kettler fine-tuned the automation during tech, making sure the motion was right, and that there weren’t set pieces, props—or people—in the way of movement. 

Thanks to their careful engineering and programming, the effect went off without a hitch, and everyone was pleased. “It definitely was a big hit,” finishes Lagerquist. “Folks were very impressed by it.”  

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