The Lifeline Theatre in Chicago runs a season of main stage productions and a season of children’s shows at the same time and on the same stage. Children’s shows have to be staged on the downstage half of the stage, and the set must be struck after each performance. Generally, a drop goes up mid-stage to hide the main set, and props and set pieces from the main show are moved upstage during daytime performances. That leaves about 12' of depth for the children’s productions downstage, on a stage approximately 25' wide. That’s tricky enough when the children’s show is simple, but what if a production requires mountains, rivers, and a tower, as well as space for characters to move about? What if the charm of the show depends on bells and whistles: drawbridges that appear on cue, a table that pops out? “It is epic and huge and whimsical,” reports lighting designer Heather Gilbert, who had to work off the plot for Count of Monte Cristo, running simultaneously, but she credits scenic designer Chelsea Warren for meeting the challenges involved when doing 13 Clocks on a tiny budget in tiny space. With Warren’s solution, the show could go in and out five times a week and can easily tour. “Everything can fit into one van—costumes, props, and five rectangular boxes,” says Warren. So then just how did she make a mountain in a molehill?
With a tiny budget and a tiny space, why not build a tiny set? Warren, who likes to blog, doesn’t blog as herself, exactly. Her own puppet miniature posts each entry and is engaged in an online correspondence with another puppet, who happens to be another scenic designer. For a play about a prince on a magic journey to win a princess— Robert Kauzlari adapted the play from a James Thurber young adult novel—what could be more magical than puppets? If Warren made miniature versions of each character, and if they looked decidedly like actors cast in the roles, she could make scenery sized for them. When it came time to lock a character in a tower, all that was needed was to put a small puppet in a miniature tower. Characters could go in and out of miniature versions of themselves in Amanda Delheimer’s production, and audiences would see actors in medieval costumes manipulating miniatures of themselves. The set sports two worlds, one of them miniature. The larger world is made of plywood boxes. On each, Warren painted a clock—or two or three. The play’s villain is an evil duke, who has killed time. All the clocks are set to ten minutes to five. When good finally triumphs, Warren had to make sure the clocks work again. “All the clocks have hidden mechanisms behind them, a wing nut behind the hands. When they start moving, the kids freak out, so excited,” says Warren. That’s not the only trick the clocks can do. Warren wanted everything to be in the set from the start of the show, so all props come out of the rectangular boxes that look like these clocks. Most have trick doors on hinges. When a table is needed, the front of a clock pops off. When characters climb down a hill, an angled piece of plywood comes out. “You have no idea where something will pop out next,” says Warren, who put her background in scene painting to use here. “The biggest box, 6' tall and 2∏' wide, becomes a door.”
Clocks are stacked upon one another; a grandfather clock stands on top. Miniature rivers and hills make outdoor landscapes easy enough for puppets to negotiate, and when scenes are set indoors, humans take the stage. Making puppets that could move and stay durable proved challenging. Wire twisted on itself might wear down and break, so Warren did some research on YouTube to study techniques for animation. Using ball-and-socket joints with steel rods, Warren created what she calls “an erector set interior” to outlast the run. “The heads and hands are sculpted in clay, and the rest is ball-and-socket with steel rods,” she says. When Delheimer cast an African-American as the princess and a Caucasian as her understudy, that might have meant creating two puppets for the same character. By making two puppet heads and costuming one body, Warren solved the problem. A ball-bearing head, connected with nuts and bolts to steal rods, could be removed and replaced easily. “The balls are connected to rods, and they’re sandwiched between two steel sandwich plates,” Warren says. To keep the rest of the show within budget, she bought rebuilt interiors for the other two animated puppets in the show and covered these with costumes. “You never see the crazy bodies inside of them,” Warren says. It costs about $200 to make a stop-animation puppet, and there were three in the show, one with an exchangeable head, but the show only had a $300 budget for puppets on top of a $600 budget for scenery. But Warren cut costs by about 50% by buying parts from hardware stores instead of pricey online animation puppetry stores. She says large stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot didn’t know what she was asking, but small independent stores were able to provide threaded ball-bearings and more.
Rod puppets of snakes, bats, and a large spider also people this world; they came from Halloween stores, open at the time they were shopping. “Chelsea found bats, and they were great because the wings were made out of flimsy material, which we needed because we wanted them to flap,” says Katherine Greenleaf, props designer. Greenleaf attached shoe elastic to the apex of each wing and to the end of a dowel rod to create a moveable puppet, but when performers moved the puppet, the bats would move about and sometimes face backward, since the performers couldn’t focus on them. To give actors more control with less effort, Greenleaf attached a stabilizing piece to the back of the bat’s torso. “I played around with the elastic, and I got it to the point where, if you jiggled the rod with elastic in one hand, held the stabilizing rod in the other, and moved them past each other, the wings would flap.” Greenleaf also purchased a spider from a Halloween store. She found a large one, with a foam body and cloth-covered wire legs, which could be bent to any shape. By severing each joint with pliers and wire cutters, and adding elastic to the joints, she was able to make the legs articulate; then she stitched the cloth back on. Finally, she sewed some limbs to a glove; the person wearing it controlled the puppet. Warren notes that the spiders looked like vampires when purchased. “We replaced the eyes with more childlike friendlier ones,” she says. Adds Greenleaf, “We had to do this for the bats, as well. They had these red, evil eyes that I replaced with black buttons. I also painted over the bats’ mouths to make them look less rabid.”
Designing magic balls to bounce into the world of a duke who is haunted by children he has killed proved the biggest challenge to Greenleaf. “We tried a lot of different things,” she notes, including nerf balls and glowing orbs that Gilbert found at Columbia College in Chicago, where she teaches. “They were big—the size of volleyballs—and we really could not find anything that we liked,” adds Greenleaf, who stumbled on candy jars that came in two pieces, screwed together so the halves could be separated and the ball filled with candy. One half was clear, the other colorful. “They were made out of plastic and six inches in diameter. They looked like children’s toys, but they didn’t look magical enough,” says Greenleaf, who bought 16 of these in order to combine the clear halves, and she experimented. Finally, Greenleaf bought battery-charged LED strings of light; she screwed a hole in each plastic orb and put a dowel in it with the lights attached. “I stuck in mesh and wire and fabric. That way, you could see lights glowing but couldn’t see the lights themselves,” she says. When a performer manipulated them, they glowed. Stage manager Clare Roche replaced batteries periodically to maintain the magical effect.
Melanie Berner, who created the mini-worlds with Warren, says building a mini-set is similar to building a set model. “I built my houses with three walls and a roof so we could have access to the back for lighting purposes,” she says. “I then slathered the surfaces with gesso to prime the houses for paint, create durability, and hide flaws. The hilly landscape that the houses sit upon were sculpted with chicken wire and covered with plaster wrap. This makes for a lightweight and affordable surface that mimics the rolling hills of the fairytale while also adding dimension and height.” Warren painted the surfaces to help incorporate the miniature world into the clock set. Although flat pattern principals are the same when making mini-garments and human-size clothing, ensuring the proportions of the trim and fabric patterns are scaled correctly in miniature costumes is vital. “Creating the proper scale involved cutting the original fabric into tiny pieces and then reconstructing them so that they had the same print and texture, just significantly smaller,” Berner says. “For example, I cut the floral fabric used for one of the characters into tiny pieces and reconstructed the flowers at a fraction of the size. For the trim, I used the same principal and made my own mini version. For one character, we even strung up our own teeny tiny pom-poms to make our own ball trim to match his human’s trim.” Sewing in a collar the size of her fingernail required good lighting—and patience.
For Gilbert, the biggest challenge was lighting the mini-worlds. “They were so beautiful that I wanted to make sure they looked as magical as possible,” she says. “We lit all the interiors with battery-operated lights that the actors operated. Originally we thought that they would turn them on and off throughout the show, but we loved how they looked so we ended up keeping them on the whole show. “I used half my dimmers to light each of the worlds individually,” adds Gilbert. “It was completely worth it because that really allowed us to set locations by emphasizing the mini-worlds. I used the rest to create magical elements, like using Rosco Prismatic Gobos for moments when the actors looked at the jewels that Hagga cries instead of tears. With the gobos, I could turn the whole set into the colorful jewels using just a few ETC Source Four ellipsoidals. I also used a dimmer to create the dungeon and backlight the amazing bat puppets that Chelsea, Melanie, and Katherine created.”
The play references different fabrics and textures as well as locations, so a patchwork drop served as background. “Amanda and I went to the textile warehouse downtown and looked for four medieval colors—burnt sienna, dark blue, a gorgeous ochre color, and a beautiful rich brown velvet,” says Warren. “There were rich jewel tones in the story illustration in the original novel.” That informed the costumes; the princess and people from other realms wore lighter colors, while the people from our world wore darker garments. The lead characters popped from rest of the world. At the end of the production, the prince must fight 11 guards. Warren wanted the guards to appear as one puppet and then fan open to 11. “We stacked 11 guards and 11 swords behind one big dude,” she says. “Swords are made of screws. A puppet actor fighting a Ken doll is like six-year olds playing with dolls. The director said, ‘That’s our aesthetic.’” The rest of the magic makers included Mikhail Fiksel, sound design; Nathan Rohrer, costume design; Cortney Hurley, production manager; and Joe Schermoly, tech director.
Davi Napoleon is a theatre historian who writes widely about the arts for print and online publications, including American Theatre and The Faster Times. Her features on design have been running in Live Design and its antecedents since 1977.