Micro Rolling Sets

By Charles T. Jackson

For our Summer 2012 production of “Into the Woods”, our director wanted to be able to do all of the scenes in Jacks house, the Bakers house Cinderella’s house, Rapunzel’s tower and Mother Somebody or Other’s tree. But due to limited space on the available staging in our summer venue, whatever we put on the stage had to be small while in use, and as they could not be removed from the staging, had to be hide-able while not in use. Our answer to this dilemma was small two sided sets that spun in place for use, and dressed on the back side similarly to the background so that they blended in while not in use.
Copy (1) of Into the woods Cammo effect
We were fortunate to have recovered a large drop that was being retired prior to it being thrown away


, and were able to remove four and a half feet from an edge to dress the backs of these flats on 2′ x 4′ dollies. As you can see the back of the Baker’s house blends extremely well with the background, and in the lower light scenes can barely be scene at all.
Into the woods oven fireplace
The baker’s house had this neat little baking oven.
Copy (1) of Into the woods oven fireplace
Cinderella’s house felt nice and cozy with this little fireplace in it. And Jacks House was equipped with a trash picked chair

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, and painted widow that was cut out of Rapunzel’s tower.
Into the woods Rapunzel
Both Rapunzal’s tower and the tree were handled the same way with 16 feet of flats with a small opening for an actor to deliver lines through.
I had been using industry standard triangles for securing these flats, but I was never really into their clunky appearance. For this show I made what I now fondly refer to as “hockey sticks”
They pretty much do the exact same thing that the triangles do


, but with a bit more adjustability, and some added stability in that they’re much taller.
Into the woods Hockey Stick Support
This is the only picture I could find that shows the support in use. I’ll try and find an even better picture, but I have to say that I was very happy with the added stability


, and the cleaner look of the hockey stick support as compared to the triangle. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make Milky White for this show, but I was assigned the task of building some way for her to get on and off of the front of the stage.
Into the woods ramps
These ramps and platforms allowed for Milky White to get on and off of the stage, as well as the actors and actresses, but didn’t take up a whole lot of space in front of the stage. Here they are all blacked out and in place.
Into the woods ramp use
Of course, before I painted them black, I had to set it up in a way that was hilarious for a Facebook post. In my next post, as I stated in my last post, I will be getting to some of the re-purposing I did for the Youth Theatre’s Spring production of Pinocchio, as well as their Summer production of “A Rocking Tale of Snow White.” Thanks as always for stopping by!!

Greased Lightening

By Charles T. Jackson

By now, certain things I do in the design phase have become a habit. First, I figure out the foundation of the set with the director with the models. Grease Pic 2
Once I have the foundation set, I draw out all of the details that the director wants on the stage.
Grease Pic 1
This image represents what the set will ideally look like if I can get’r’done. Once the director has seen the drawing, and approved it, I go ahead and get started on the construction. For this production of “Grease” at a local private school, I basically just had to put down on paper what the director was telling me, and then build and paint it. Easy right?
16' procenium piece Burger Palace side for Grease.
This particular director always wants to involve any interested youths in the painting of the sets. For this show, the kids initially painted all of the decorative pieces, and then I added some outlining and highlights and we were set. The proscenium pieces were re-recycled flats and were painted with red and white checkers on the stage left side, and pink and white on the stage right side.
16' procenium peice for the Marty Bedroom side of the stage for Grease
The kids in this show were thrilled when they saw all of the decorative pieces on the proscenium flats.
8' x 8' Grease sign
As this cast was huge

, the director wanted the wings covered so that she could stage cast members without being seen by the audience. She said that I could do whatever I wanted on the stage right side, but asked if there was a way that we could get a 50s style radio for the stage left side, and added that it would need a window for a radio announcer to peek through. Well, as I am not one to disappoint, I went ahead and built two new flats for the radio.
8' x 8' 50's era radio for Grease
These two flats are the only new things built for this show. I made the window round in anticipation of making it the knob of the radio, but they didn’t line up right, so I painted it anyway. No one cared, it looked and worked great. I’m pretty proud of the fact that you can barely see where the window is on the left flat.
Grease Pic 1Levels with Rydell High sign and Boosters for Grease.
I am extremely proud of the fact that I have been able to successfully get a show designed

, built, painted and installed pretty much just the way I have it initially designed. But what I am most proud of is the fact that since we have been able to build, maintain, and store many of these foundation set pieces, we have had a role in the cost reduction involved in putting on shows at this level, and have hopefully played a part in enabling shows like this one to go on for a long time to come. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the re purposing I did for the Summer Youth Theatre production of “Pinocchio”. Thanks for stopping by.


A Quarter Turn For Seussical

By Charles T. Jackson

With the return of the High School and Middle School’s theater season, I had already knocked out the high school’s production of “A Christmas Carol”, and with all of it’s antique scenes and their associated colors, I was glad to move on to a more colorful, vibrant show with the High School Musical’s production of “Seussical”. A design for a proscenium piece popped into my head the second the director told me what the show was going to be. I grabbed a piece of handy paper and drew it out.
Seussicle initial proscenium sketch
This was at a time when “The Lorax” was about to be, or had recently been released in theaters, so naturally a truffalo trees were right at the front of my thinking. Two of these, and 16 feet each would be a challenge, but I was up to it. For the foundation levels, I thought two attached, but separate and distinct levels would be cool, with the stairs pointing slightly in the direction of the audience. My initial thoughts on how to accomplish the slight turn proved unhelpful.
Seussical Quarter Turn Initial
Being mathletically challenged as I am, I assumed that half of a half platform would be an easy solution for a quarter turn that I was looking for. Nope. When assembled, it turned out to be a 90 degree turn, and an awkward looking platform set up. What I was looking for was a neat quarter turn.
Seussical Quarter Turn proper
Like this. What I needed, again, was a model. So I put out the platforms and stairs that I wanted to use, and then made pieces that filled in the blanks.
Having figured out that what I needed was more of a cone shape than half of anything, I went to work trying to figure out how to make it. In retrospect, it should have been a no brainer, but remember, I did admit that I’m mathletically challenged.
Seussical quarter turn platform
Boom! After a day of head scratching and figger’n, I got it done. Naturally I kept the first one as a template for ant others that I might need. When I threw all of the details that I already had thought about in an initial design for the director, she loved it.
Seussical initial design
With the go ahead to get’r’done, I got started with the rest of the building and painting. Seussicle Set Drawing real
I was very happy with the way the set looked as compared to the initial design.
Seussical set complete
And it just exploded with color when it was nearly done!!
Two of my favorite aspects of how I design and build sets are the fact that they are very compact when broken down and take up very little space when stored

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, and that out of that entire set, there was not a single discarded item. Every piece will be left in it’s original form for re-use in productions of Seussical, or repurposed for an up coming show. This was my favorite set to date!! With this set “The Collection” of foundation set pieces we had available expanded with the addition of a 4′ x 4′ fourth step platform, and four quarter turns. The new, smaller platform would make it’s second show appearance in the show I’ll cover in my next post. Thanks for stopping by!!

Inexspensive Long-lasting Gravestones

By Charles T. Jackson

After a nice,  relaxing couple of months, I got ready for the start of our community’s theatre season with a Fall High School production of “A Christmas Carol”. I pitched re-using the painted back wall for the Scrooge’s bedroom scenes. With the school year just getting started, and all the craziness involved, she said that sounds great. IMG_1324
For this scene I built a “four poster” bed out of 2″ x 3″ lumber in anticipation of it being mostly covered in fabric, but the fabric covering fell a bit short on covering the squareness of the construction. It wouldn’t matter due to the fact that all of the bedroom scenes were done in lighting conditions that were low enough that details like that would go unnoticed.  All of the furniture, other than the bed, transferred right from the set of “Little Princess”. Not to bad for furniture removed right from the curb on trash night in many cases!!
I went back to the foam core for the headstones in the cemetery scene with the Ghost of Christmas Future. I wanted to get a lot of impact out of the scene when the ghost directed Scrooges attention to the stone, So I cut out the lettering and we back lit it.
I think it turned out great, and it looked awesome both in the garage and on the stage.
I had a lot of fun with the rest of the headstones. I made them out of the thickest foam core available at the Home Depot, and the bases ore made from scrap 2″ x 4″ and scrap 1″ x 3″. They are very stable on the simple bases and are also light weight, easy to set, but at the same time hard to knock over. The Office scenes consisted of two sided flats on rolling dollies that on one side were stark wood plank walls for the office, and on the other side a simple yellow for the Christmas party scene.
All of these flats had been made for an earlier play, and as I have have saved and stored everything I have ever made

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, my wife and I were able to donate these set pieces and save the school a boatload of budget money. In my next posts I enter a stage of my career that is sadly short on photographs. This is the time where my wife and I got “smart phones” that take awesome pictures that I could post right to Facebook. I unfortunately got out of the habit of getting my camera out and taking pictures as I had so often done. It’s an example of where our access to “advanced technology” has actually damaged our ability to progress as effectively as we once had. Thanks for stopping by!!

Cast of a Thousand!!

By Charles T. Jackson

In the Summer of 2011, our Youth Theatre directors chose to do “Little Princess”. The theatre program was an extremely popular summer distraction for youths of two communities. As a result, the directors found themselves with 75+ participants. They challenged me in this show to make a set, that took up as little space as possible on the stage so they could easily fit all of these kids on stage. Always up for a challenge, I designed a set that used the back wall of the stage to represent the two rooms in the house most of the scenes were done

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, and used gobos for the rest. IMG_0917
For the “fancier” room of the mansion I painted a larger more ornate bookshelf, put up a huge landscape painting (I trash picked!!) and projected a chandelier. For the less fancy room, depicted a s a classroom in the same house, I painted a smaller plain bookshelf with a globe, changed the painting to Queen Elizabeth, and got rid of the gobo chandelier.
Little Princess with light
The scenes were extremely easy to change in that the 2′ x 4′ rolling dolly with the window flat on it just rolled across the stage to block the bookshelf of the scene not being done, and the painting just flipped over on a tie line hanger.
Of course there was some furniture involved, but that was minimized to save space.
I repurposed some benches that I had made for an earlier play, fancied them up a bit, and VIOLA we had not only places for lots of little kids to sit and act like they’re learning, but a place for them to be when they needed to be in levels.

While it’s a bit hard to see in this image, we handled the exterior scenes by just projecting a skyline gobo onto the main curtain. Once again, “building” for this show was minimal due to the space saving measures taken in the design, and well as the fact that all the sets used were right out of a saved collection previously built sets pieces that were just painted over to match the design of the show. What was added to the collection for this show was the chandelier gobo. It was placed in a light fixture that is kind of hard to reach, and stays safely stowed there to this date. It makes an occasional impromptu appearance when the lighting tech people aren’t paying attention. The scene painted on the wall remains there to this date as well

, and actually appears in the next show on deck!! In my next post I’ll be revisiting foam core for the making of grave stones, and how I got a Fall production of Scrooge on the stage. Thanks for stopping by.

Melty Plastic

By Charles T. Jackson

Now that we’ve discussed how to make a plaster cast, and all the parts required for a vacuum form table, the last element of the puzzle is the heating of the plastic and the “pull”. Like I mentioned in my last post, I tried my grill first as a heat source, and it did work, it just didn’t heat the plastic enough to get a “full pull”, meaning that I wasn’t able to get the plastic to pull all the way down to the table surface and capture all the details of the skull cast that I was using.

Vacuum Form Process
All of the successful home vacuum forming  videos that I saw on YouTube brought their hot media holders right out of their oven to the vacuum form table. I placed four ceramic mugs at the outer edges of the upper rack to keep the media holder up away from the metal rack


, and placed my media holder on the mugs, making sure that they were as far out of the way of the plastic as possible. I then set the oven to broil which produces heat in the range of 450-500 degrees. In a surprisingly short period of time, I could see ripples forming in the plastic, and then the starting of the expected “sag”. When the plastic sagged to a point that I thought it was about to go molten in my wife’s new oven, with proper safety gear on, I started the shop vac, removed the media holder, positioned it over the cast, and pushed it down onto the table until I’d made a good seal.

In this particular picture, I have the old media holder, and a small Stinger vacuum in use, and neither proved all that helpful. There might have been enough suction if there had been a better seal, but I’ll never know because I made the new media holder, and not wanting to take any chances I powered up to the largest shop vac that I had. With the new media frame and the full scale shop vac I was able to capture all of the detail of not only the plaster cast on the table, but many of the exposed holes in the table itself. Fortunately I had seen a video that indicated that powdering your cast with standard baby powder makes it easier to get the cast out of the plastic. You also have to be careful not to try and pull anything that has deep undercuts, as it will very likely get locked into the plastic and stop your reproduction operation in it’s tracks. Learning how to do this was quite a trip. You see a lot of people try it in different ways, and have differing degrees of success. The common theme in all of the videos, like from negative experiences, is that you have to be very careful not to get burnt while engaged in the craziness that is involved in getting the softened plastic from the oven to the vacuum table. Commons sense, and some oven mitts really go a long way!! The next step of course is cutting the piece out of the plastic. I had initially tried using metal sheers for that, but it was nearly impossible. At the bad saw, the came out of the plastic very easily. In my next post, I’ll cover a setting solution that allowed stage room for massive numbers of kids in our Summer Youth Theatre production of “Little Princess”. Thanks for stopping by!!

DIY Vacuum Form Parts

By Charles T. Jackson

As promised in my last post, in this post  I’ll discuss how I made my vacuum form having just watched some videos on YouTube.


For the first piece of the Vacuum form, I used a scrap piece of plywood left over from the 2′ x 2′ cubes I had made for the “Mother Goose” production. I cut a hole in it to allow for the vacuum port, and then installed the vacuum attachment.

I used the adaptor that allows for the use of different sized vacuums in case the smallest one that I had planned on using didn’t work. I’m very glad I did due to the fact that to get a proper “pull” on the softened plastic, I did need the largest shop vac that I had.


I then built a frame out of scrap 2″ x 3″ and attached to the plywood bottom. I would later caulk it all in due to “leakage” when the vacuum was attached.


I made the inner frame if 1″ x 2″ and supported the pegboard surface with staggered pieces of 1″ x 3″ in the open area of the work surface.

Vacuum Form Surface Supports

I wasn’t initially worried that the supports would be blocking the holes of the pegboard surface

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, but it turned out that would not to be a problem at all.

The next thing I had to make was a “media” holder that could both hold the plastic, and withstand the heating process. The above was my first try and proved way to leaky to allow for a good pull at the plastic. Using my grill as my first heat source turned out to be a bit disappointing as well, so I brought the whole rig inside to use our new oven. (Wife was at work!! LOL)


My second effort was the ideal media holder, and worked like a charm. It was a lot of work to make, and operate, but worked so well that it was well worth the effort. The key to the success of this one is the number of wing nuts…


…and the recessed bolt heads so the whole media frame gets flat on the vacuum surface, and gets a great seal. Even with all of the work that I had done with this project, the hardest part was figuring out what was the correct plastic to use in the media holder. After a couple of misfires with to thick, or hard to heat plastic, I finally got ahold of the right guy at Plastic Craft Products Corporation who recommended that I try .060 PETG plastic. With all of the elements in place, and realizing that the oven being on broil heated the plastic perfectly, I was able to make all of lanterns that we needed for our production of “Oliver” in a single morning. In my next post, I’ll outline what is needed to get a good “pull” off of your home made vacuum form. Thanks for stopping by!

Home Vacuum Forming to Save Money

By Charles T. Jackson

In this post I’m going to take a step back again, because I forgot a very exciting tool I built and used for some of the set we used in our 2008 production of “Oliver”. At the time of the show, I had taken a sculpture class at Rutgers, and had become fascinated with the idea of vacuum forming. I had seen the “Mythbuster’s” guys use a vacuum form machine to make quick molds for replication of their crash test dummy, and I thought, “I could probably make one of those. As it turns out, I could make one of those, but it took a frustratingly long time of trial and error to finally get it right. I initially only wanted to use it to make a couple of sculpture projects for class, but when our director mentioned how expensive the lanterns that she wanted to use in “Oliver” were, I asked her to let me see if I could duplicate them with my vacuum form as if I had mastered the art. IMG_1210
The first thing I had to do was make plaster casts of the lanterns that she wanted to use in the show. I laid the lanterns in clay, and then layered coat after coat of latex on them. IMG_1821
After what seemed like a million years, I felt I had enough of the latex on and tried to get the latex off in one piece.
I was surprised that it came off as easy as it did, but this was just step one of the process. I had to figure out how I was going to stiffen the latex so that it would hold it’s shape when I filled it with plaster. IMG_1198

I tried to find the Varaform mesh that I used in a skull mold project that I had done at an educational conference

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, but found that it was no longer available. I had to use the plastic infused gauze version of the product. It’s an awesome product in that it becomes very flexible when heated in water, takes the form of whatever you put it on, and hardens when cool. It worked great, but as it was very expensive, when I was done with the cast, I removed it from the latex mold, straightened it, and set it aside to be used again on another project.

The basic plaster cast turned out great

, and had quite a lot of detail. IMG_1825
The final product did not have much of the finer detail, but certainly had enough detail to be recognizable as a lantern when used on stage. Oliver Lamps 2
Here are the rounded lanterns in use in the show. These six lanterns would have cost in the area of $150.00 to buy outright, and would have been a challenge to fly. The vacuum formed lanterns cost around $1.50 each, weighed almost nothing, and were simply stapled to the lamp posts to be flown. In my next post I’ll show all the parts of the vacuum form itself, and discuss some of the challenges I encountered. Thanks for stopping by.

Reaping the Rewards of the Collection

By Charles T. Jackson

“Alice in Wonderland” was with out a doubt the most colorful show that I had done to date, and it was a lot of fun.

IMG_0740IMG_0739IMG_0724 IMG_0680IMG_0753IMG_0754

But as with many other shows, mostly all of the set pieces used had to be fabricated from new materials. Sadly in this process some set pieces were fabricated on foam core insulation panels that rendered the pieces useless after the run and had to be trashed. The mushrooms, trees

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, and Rabbit’s house in both sizes however were built in a way that assured that they will be available for many shows to come. My next project however, would involve minimal colors, predominantly white with red accents, and would be the first set that I was able to stage without fabricating any foundation pieces as I had saved and stored everything that I had built to date. The hard part was trying to figure out what to paint over, and what to save for future shows.
Beauty and the Beast BookcaseVillage Stores12 angry men pic

It was not an easy decision

, but the very “Beauty and the Beast” specific flats, and the non window flats from “12 Angry Men”  were the flats I chose to paint over. My other choices were block walls that can be used in almost any show that had a castle or dungeon, or the canvas flats from “Annie”. By this time in my development, I had realized how high maintenance painting, using, transporting and storing canvas flats were so the choices were limited.

IMG_0783 IMG_0784

The only thing that had to be fabricated new for this fairly large set for our Middle School production of “High School Musical” was the railing on the stairs and edges of the levels. That was a win in the area of the set budget!! The eight foot level was from “Urinetown” as were the stairs and stairs base, and the four foot level was from “Joseph”. The five flats were re-purposed from the shows mentioned above and even the basketball hoop was adopted from a home that had outgrown it’s use. While this design would have been quite a handful, and based on the expression the director had when she asked for it she anticipated problems, but as every piece, stair, and level are modular, it went up in just a couple of hours. When the show was over, this set was struck AND STORED in one hour and 30 minutes. Not a single piece of this set was discarded. I really suspected that I was on to something good with the modular design of these set pieces but it wasn’t until this show that I realized just how much easier this streamlined approach was going to make the process. We were able to put that set, that if built from scratch would have cost the school in the area of $500.00 to $700.00 in materials alone, for absolutely no cost at all. It was the ideal theatrical WIN/WIN and I was very glad to have had anything at all to do with it!! In my next post, I’ll discuss how I handled a request from the directors regarding having almost no movable sets whatsoever on the stage due to a large number of participants. Thanks for stopping by.

Sliding Doors

By Charles T. Jackson

For our Youth Theatre’s Spring production of “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” I had gotten the Cheshire Cat’s/Catterpillar’s house done, as well as the Rabbit’s, I needed to move on to the big door/little door scene. For these doors, that would be being handled by Youth Theatre helpers, I wanted to try and use very light weight foam core insulation.
I painted the little door on one panel

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, and the large door on another, and I bet I have inspired you to ask me why I didn’t just paint the little door on the other side of the large door panel. Well, the knob on the little door is a character in the show, and as a result a large hole needed to be cut into my carefully painted wood grained little door. The character had to have room to speak through the hole, so they couldn’t even be on the same dolly. So here’s what I did to solve this.
Sliding Doors
We couldn’t attach them together due to the fact that we would have had a real problem storing them off to the side of the stage, so we just stacked them face to face when off stage, and then when on stage, just set them next to each other with the first to appear visible in a gap in the mid curtain. When Alice drank the shrinking juice or bit the grow cake the kids just slid the doors back and forth. It worked great. I also built the “Hole” Alice initially falls through out of the foam core insulation…
…as well as the Queen’s podium…
…and some fence pieces. IMG_0751
The material was actually very easy to work with as far as getting it into the shapes that I wanted it to be. The glue on the “hole” too forever to dry I assume due to the non porous nature of the coating. Paint on either side of the panels is temporary at best. If the surface of the panels are scratched even a little bit, the paint come right off. In a show that I used it on well after this one, the paint came off in large latex sheets due to the number of coats I had to use to hide the writing. So, would I use it again? Yes, but not to the degree that I did in this show. All of those set pieces have had to be pitched due to the frailty of the painted surfaces, and at strike, and in transport, the took a beating. I just don’t like not having the option to reuse a set piece, so I’d use this material sparingly in the future. In my next post I’ll probably finish up my most colorful set to date, or get started on one of my least colorful sets. I’m just not sure. Thanks as always, for stopping by.