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Corporeal Intangibility

Erin Kehr • Answer Box • September 1, 2016
A moment from The Nether at the Alley Theatre, with the custom-made acrylic gramophone.
A moment from The Nether at the Alley Theatre, with the custom-made acrylic gramophone.

Custom acrylic furniture represents a virtual world in Alley Theatre’s production of The Nether

In playwright Jennifer Haley’s cerebral futuristic crime drama, The Nether, the material and ethereal world collide. Scenic designer Kevin Rigdon needed to find a way to represent to an audience this world—described as a perfect Victorian-era simulacrum—but which only exists online. This was further complicated by the fact that the play also features scenes that take place in the real world. Rigdon decided acrylic furniture was the answer. “The choice of transparent furniture was rooted in the idea that the Hideaway exists in the ‘Nether,’ a virtual reality realm, not a physical reality,” says Rigdon. “The transparent furnishings become a ghost (virtual) of what we expect to find in the offline world.”

With that directive, our team at Houston’s Alley Theatre got to work. Some of the Victorian furnishings were able to be purchased in acrylic versions, while others required custom fabrication. In addition to clear benches, tables and toy chests, the most intricate objects were a gramophone and rocking horse. After substantial research into materials and techniques, each project was approached from a slightly different perspective.

The gramophone was built by prop artisan Eric Brown using an actual gramophone as a model. The base, top of the box and turntable were fabricated of various thicknesses of clear acrylic sheets on the table saw, using a fine-tooth plastics blade, with some pieces receiving decorative routing. The body was made from pieces on edge with mitered corners. Lastly, the arm portions that support the horn were cut on a band saw. The machining of acrylic produces an edge that appears “frosted.” To return the edges to clear, they were flame treated with MAPP gas, which burns hotter than propane. The flame was steadily drawn over the face of the edges, slightly melting a very thin layer of the surface.

Brown joined layered pieces by inserting ¼-inch clear acrylic rods as pins into holes drilled with a specialized plastics bit to avoid chipping. He used Weld-On SciGrip #4 Solvent to join the pieces any place where edges met. The solvent has a very thin viscosity and is applied with a needle applicator. A capillary action pulls the solvent into the joint. The process acts much like welding, softening the two surfaces so they can mingle. Once dry, the pieces become one. Additionally, as the solvent flows into the joint any “frosted” edges created by machining return to clear.

The decorative corners and horn demanded a different approach to achieve a similar effect. For the more organic dimensional shapes we turned to TranspArt, a clear thermoplastic that comes in pliable sheets. Not as rigid as standard acrylic, the ability to form it with a heat gun allows propsmakers to create complex shapes. The corners were heated and formed over a turned wood detail as a master shape. The horn was comprised of three pieces that were formed on the metal horn to capture its shape. The individual pieces were then “welded” at the seams using a soldering iron to comingle the edges.

The negative space of rocking horse pieces after a sheet of acrylic went through the ShopBot.
The negative space of rocking horse pieces after a sheet of acrylic went through the ShopBot.

The rocking horse posed interesting challenges. The desired Victorian design chosen required layering of multiple sheets of acrylic with exactly the same shape to achieve a solid body. First, we used a photo of an existing rocking horse as a reference to create AutoCAD drawings. We then imported these designs into Aspire, the software used for fabricating parts on a ShopBot CNC machining tool. We needed a lot of layers for the body, all four legs and the rockers. The ShopBot cut many, many sheets of acrylic with high enough precision so that when assembled, they provided the illusion of a single thick shape. 

We wanted to employ the same acrylic pin technique that was successful for the gramophone to join both the layers and the parts (e.g. legs, body, rockers). In order to bear the weight of the larger pieces the pins needed to be larger, which meant larger holes. This time the pin holes were cut as part of the CNC process. All the layers of a component were then stacked, and with the pin in place, solvent was pulled into the joint which secured each layer to the pin, keeping them layered tightly. Everything lined up correctly, and after assembly we routed the outer edges with a roundover bit and flame-treated all the edges as described earlier. 

The completed acrylic rocking horse.
The completed acrylic rocking horse.

While seemingly daunting at first, the production of acrylic furniture was completed like many of the challenges often faced by props: Successfully. With the proper tools, materials and techniques, we were able to fabricate furniture and props that provided the suitably otherworldly feel desired for the world of The Nether out of materials not often used for such purposes.  

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