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Moving the Marfa Lights

John Landon • Answer Box • April 2, 2007

The world premier production of Marfa Lights, by Octavio Solis, opened our brand new $32 million Sybil B. Harrington Fine Arts Complex on the West Texas A&M University campus in the Happy State Bank Studio Theatre. The director, Royal R. Brantley, desired a set for the production that reflected the wide-open, rugged environment of the West Texas landscape near Marfa, Texas. The plot revolves around college students and their fraternity activities. They experience real and strange activity during their overnight adventures. The light design by Brandon Mitchell led us in and out of reality with natural and supernatural lighting. The scenic design by James Kemmerling achieved the director’s vision with eight large overlapping platforms resembling the flat, arid land of that area, as well as two large vertical shapes to break the space depicting the geological elements of West Texas.

As the technical director for the production, I had to construct the scenic elements in such a way as to disassemble and transport easily. As a participating production in the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival, the whole production had to quickly and simply be taken apart, loaded into a truck and reassembled in another theatre.

Each level of the platformed set was constructed as a single unit: legs attached for height and one flat straight edge on which the unit stood while being transported in the truck. Platforms too large to fit in the truck were constructed out of two sections that coffin locked together during load-in.

The challenge of building and transporting the two large geological elements was met by constructing them each in two parts. The lower sections were large polystyrene foam blocks sandwiched between a plywood top and bottom for strength and support while traveling. We had to find an adhesive that would bond the foam without bulk and without destroying the foam. We experimented with several products and found a water-based 3M Fastbond product that is made for attaching foam insulation. We then carved the foam with saws and Sureform tools.

The top sections were layers of polystyrene foam on a plywood base. The foam reduced the weight of the units and allowed us to carve the geological shapes as designed. After carving the foam, we had to protect the foam from rough handling during travel. We mixed drywall mud and white glue together and brushed it on the foam. This surface allowed us to apply the latex scenic paint.

The lightweight geological scenic units and the easily moveable platforms allowed for a quick and efficient load-in at ACTF.

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