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Natural Inspiration: Using Biomimicry in Theater Design

Jay Duckworth • Answer BoxJanuary 2021 • January 6, 2021

The hardest part is starting. I see it in my friends, and I see it in my students. There are so many options out there that it’s hard to take the first step. In my last article from December 2020, I talked about pulling all the information that you can from a script in order to narrow the choices you can make. You can get someone’s economic background, their social standing, and a lot of information from cues in the script. When I get asked about character development by an actor, I tell them to pick a birthday for the character. Like right off the top of their head. Then we both look up that date and see what zodiac sign for that date is. Then I ask them to Google what are the traits of that astronomical sign. You will get a bunch of character traits that a person can use as the foundation of a character. Sure, that’s great and all for actors but what about design.

Fish of the Day
We were doing Much Ado About Nothing at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. The set designer was John Lee Betty with costumes designed by Jane Greenwood. They have worked together for many years and both of them are masters at their craft. Jane came into the first production meeting at the Public and sat next to John. She opened a folder and said, “I have my color palette for the show.” Well, I was very interested to see what it was, and it turned out to be a picture of fish. WTF was my first thought! What the hell is this?!

Jane continued, “Since the show takes place in Messina on Sicily’s coast, I found the fish local to that region and am basing my palette on them.” My jaw hit the table. I was so blown away and John laughed in delight and said it was one of the smartest ideas he had ever heard. He turned to me and asked me to get a copy of that picture so I could use the colors to compliment the set and costumes.

Oh yeah, of course I did! 

Exploring Biomimicry
I also took Jane Greenwood’s great idea and use it every chance I get. I didn’t know it at the time, but Jane was using references from a laboratory with well over four billion years of successful trial and errors—the earth. For quite some time, scientists have been turning to ideas inspired by nature to engineer our world. That field of study is called biomimicry and we have been using it for a while. Biomimicry is sustainable innovation inspired by nature. By looking at thousands of years of evolutionary engineering we can take biological best practices and integrate them into design. You have been using it for almost all your life. George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, was out walking in the woods with his dog in the Jura mountains. When he returned home, he started picking off all the small cockleburs that were stuck to his pants and his dog. He wondered with all the other plants he ran into, why these were the only seeds that stuck to him. From mimicking the small hooks of the burrs, he invented the hook and loop fastener, which he named Velcro. 

The Shape of Things
The bullet trains in Japan were breaking the sound barrier when they would exit a typical tunnel creating a loud booming noise. The problem was fixed by an engineer who was a bird watcher and redesigned the front of the train to closely resemble a Kingfisher’s beak since it has a large head and a long, narrow beak that hardly disturbed the water when it dove in to catch fishes. With this new nose design, the trains also turned out to use 15% less energy and became 20% faster.

Enter the Gecko
One theatrical application was when we did the show Kings at the Public. There was a scene where two characters were in a Chili’s and ordered drinks and food. (Answer Box, November 2018, A Sticky Situation) After the scene was finished, two crew members had to quickly clear a tabletop that had margarita glasses and a full dinner. The stage was also a on raised deck, so our prop runners were moving all of this in the dark, and down stairs. Here we employed a product inspired by geckos, who can climb on glass and vertical surfaces because they have thousands of small hairs creating a suction-like effect on the bottom of their feet. Sewell’s Airstick Microsuction Tape is a product that mimics this effect that comes in sheets and you can get it online. It has a tacky back side, and on the front, there are thousands of microscopic air pockets that create a partial vacuum between the tape and the target surface, so it sticks with little pressure and can be removed from the suction easily. It’s made of an acrylic foam sheet with thousands of suction cups so small you can’t see them with the naked eye. Once you stick Microsuction tape to a surface, you can easily peel it from the edge, because the sticking power of each individual suction cup is weak. But add thousands of those suction cups together and it becomes very strong. A 4” x 1” piece of microsuction tape can easily hold up 1 pound. We used this Microsuction tape on the false tabletop to keep all the plates, cutlery, and glassware in place. 

Further Reading
There is a great book called Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus. I’d recommend picking up a copy if you want to do some follow up and get some ideas from the four-billion-year-old reference lab we call home.  

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