Redhead Jail Cell Problem: For the Goodspeed Opera House revival of the musical Redhead (set in Victorian London), Eduardo Sicango's scenic design called for a jail cell to be brought onstage and assembled by the cast, during the performance, in a matter of seconds.
Solution: Jason Harshaw, Goodspeed's technical director, describes the process: "The scene transition is a vista shift from the Green Dragon Pub into the jail cell. The actors are still onstage singing while the set clears; the drop flies, the bar splits and tracks off, a stage full of tables and chairs goes away, and the jail cell is brought on.
"We knew from the beginning that the change would vista and that the unit would be motivated by actors, both for the entrance and while it was rotating during the number. We also knew that it needed to be structurally sound enough so the actors could climb around on it, and do so without it looking like it was made of plastic. We built the cell entirely out of aluminum tubing to provide the structural integrity and sound quality of metal without the weight of steel. For the wheels, we initially planned on using spring-loaded casters, but decided that they would not be durable or reliable enough to provide the stability needed for the actors to play around on it. It really needed to sit on the floor for most of the scene and then be able to roll on command.
"We ended up using a modified De Sta Co wagon brake to create a low-profile master jack. We refitted some 5/16" threaded-stem casters with neoprene wheels that we ran up into the wagon brake where the foot stop would normally go, creating a lever-operated wheel that could bolt onto the frame on each of the four corners. You push the lever down and the unit lifts up onto the wheel. The first time we set the unit up on the things, we instantly bent all the threaded stems. So we took it down, pulled the wheels off and welded a piece of 1/2" schedule 40 pipe around the stem to reinforce it and that did the trick. Because the build schedule for the show was pretty brutal--the jail cell was that last thing we got to--we never really had the opportunity to test the thing until actors got on it for the first time during rehearsals. We were sweating bullets about whether or not it would work, but it did.
"The entire scene is played on a bare stage with just this unit for scenery, so it needed to be impressive in scale as well as be large enough to hold the six or seven actors who play the scene inside of it. The cell is about 7' square by 8' tall, but enters from a wing that is maybe 3' upstage to downstage and barely deep enough offstage. Eduardo--who is an old hand at cramming scenery into our tiny theatre--designed the thing with sides that function like bi-fold doors. The front and back frames of the cell are 6' 9" x 8' tall and the two sides are hinged to fold into the middle of the unit, so it collapses to become about 4" thick for storage purposes. We even built the casters to fit inside the framing to try and lower the profile, but it still isn't quite flat enough; the handles on the caster jacks are still getting banged up by the Strangler Tableau unit [much of Redhead takes place in a wax museum] when it comes offstage.
"Two of the actors roll the unit out flat to center stage, and then pull on the middle of the two sides to open it up. We have little barndoor locks on the hinge line of both sides to keep them from folding back up. Then they kick the levers up on the caster jacks and the unit sits down on the floor. The transition from the time the jail cell enters to being open at center stage, barndoor locks in place and wheels up, is right at 12 seconds.
"During the number 'Pickpocket Tango,' the actors inside the cell step on the levers to put the cell back on wheels so they can rotate it while one of them hangs on the bars, reaching through for the jailer's keys. The actor riding the thing while it rolls around wasn't in the original plan; that got added near the end of the studio rehearsals. We weren't sure if that was going to work or if the wheels and surrounding framing would hold up over the 12-week run, but so far, it seems to be just fine."