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It Came from the Scene Shop

David C. Glowacki • Answer Box • October 1, 2007

A high school production of Little Shop of Horrors builds a set strong enough to withstand aliens and dancing students.

One challenge I faced preparing for a recent production of Little Shop of Horrors at Hawken Upper School, near Cleveland, Ohio, was the need to create fire escapes for the “Skid Row” scenes. Because our scene shop is not configured for metalworking, the fire escapes needed to be constructed entirely of wood. As the scenic designer, I wanted to reproduce traditional-looking wrought-iron fire escapes. As the technical director, I was concerned with the need to create structures that could withstand the stress of multiple cast members climbing and dancing on them.

My research revealed that most traditional fire escapes consisted of stock step-and-landing assemblies that were set in a framework made of angle iron. The step-and-landing assemblies usually are constructed using a welding process, and the components are then either welded or riveted together to create the final structure.

Each of the two fire escape structures we built consisted of seven steps and two landings, with the surface of the top landing 72 inches above the stage surface. Each step tread measured 12 3/4 inches by 24 inches and was constructed using nine 1-by-3s placed on edge and spaced 3/4 inch apart, plus four 1-by-3s, also on edge, which were doubled at each end of the step tread for strength. A similar process was followed for the landings, which measured 24 inches by 47 1/4 inches, but the landings were slightly different because for these, the long sides were doubled with the short lengths spanned between. Two 2 1/2-inch drywall screws were shot through the double-thickness end pieces and into the ends of each crosspiece, which can be seen in the sketch.

Once we had finished the assembly of step treads and landing platforms, we needed to create angle iron for our framework. We ripped 12-foot lengths of 1-by-6 to create pieces 2 1/2 inches and 1 1/2 inches wide. These were then glued and screwed together to create lengths of 2 1/2-inch angle that could be cut to the desired lengths to support each step and landing. Additional pieces of this angle assembly were used to create the handrails and supports.  

Once the fire escape structures were assembled, they were base-painted black. The final step was a wet-blend treatment combining a very dilute rust color and two metallic colors of spray paint, which resulted in a very natural and believable finish.

The members of the Hawken Stage Crew completed most of this construction. These talented high school students were involved with all the technical elements of this production, and the success of the show was largely due to their efforts.
David C. Glowacki is the resident designer/technical director for Hawken School in Gates Mills, Ohio. This past summer, Dave completed training to become an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer. He also serves as a director-at-large for the USITT-Ohio Valley Regional Section.

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