When Dave Nofsinger designed Honk!, a musical based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic The Ugly Duckling, a nest and eggs were central elements. Actors needed to walk on the nest, sit on the eggs, and dance with eggs on their heads. Ugly would hatch in full view of the audience.
Properties director Tim Hogan, technical director Paul Kaessinger, and Nofsinger knew the nest would have to be strong enough to hold the actors and sustain a 60-performance run at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, CA. A scarcity of backstage space and narrow access limited their options. “There was a width of 5' 3" to fit all scenery on and off stage and no fly space,” Nofsinger says.
How would they approach the build for this large, functional, durable piece and the eggs within it?
Nofsinger designed a nest that was egg-like in shape. “The oval shape allowed us to maximize the space for the actors and still fit through our opening,” he explains. They recessed the exterior of the nest in layers of 3'×6' upholstery polyurethane foam, 3“ thick, and dressed it with soft-foam cushion pieces, carved and painted to look like large pieces of straw. Hogan layered some pieces vertically, others horizontally, and cut the strands to different lengths to make sure they weren't all the same height. “We put a steel armature of metal rods down the center to give them a shape,” Hogan says, adding that they attached these straw rods onto the platform. “The straw pieces gave a fullness to the unit,” adds Nofsinger. By arranging these pieces to serve as steps, actors wearing half-eggs on their heads could step on and off with relative ease.
They castered the wagon unit so it could roll, “but the structure was very low to the ground, 16“, so we built an angled handle that could sheath into the bed of the nest for pushing and controlling the unit,” says Nofsinger.
The unit had to hide some actors until they hatched. Initially, Nofsinger planned to have two-part eggs, but he says director Risa Brainin thought hiding the actors in the bottom half would be problematic. So he opted to design a 16“-tall wagon with openings for each actor. “Most of their bodies were hidden within the wagon itself rather than completely in an egg,” Nofsinger says. By painting the deck of the wagon with the same color and texturing as the straw forms, and focusing audience attention elsewhere, when actors who were recessed into the platform base emerged from egg halves, they managed to create the illusion of hatching. “The actors were very adept at both getting into and out of the wagon for their entrances. There was little room to spare,” Nofsinger adds. Hogan says had time permitted, he would have covered the foam pieces with muslin. “Actors crawled in and out, and it wore down during the run, and there was maintenance involved,” Hogan explains.
Hogan selected Styrofoam™ spheres from Superior Studio Specialties, a window display company that creates oversized globes and Christmas decorations. He coated these with a cheesecloth-like process, but with lightweight muslin and thick coats of Aqua Resin from Rose Brand, a product he mixed with water and applied like putty. This gave the globes a hard egg-like shell, strong enough to support the weight of actors, without using a material as toxic as Fiberglas®. “We added handles into the insides of the four duck eggs to allow for choreography,” says Nofsinger.
The spheres were round and not tall enough to emerge from the base, so Hogan added a 9“ addition at the bottom to make them longer and oval. To add a decorative broken edge to the egg once it lifted from the nest bed, he cut a jagged line through the center of the ovals and created a jagged-edge base on the platform with more Styrofoam to hold the eggs. Until the ducks hatched, “the broken, sculpted edge was not visible to the audience because of the Styrofoam straw pieces,” Nofsinger explains.
Ugly's egg required a different approach and had to be built from scratch. Most of the eggs could lift off the nest deck, but the audience had to see Ugly hatch smoothly and quickly as he uttered the play's title line. His egg had to be larger, too, as it had to accommodate his mother's weight earlier.
Nofsinger designed as large an egg as the nest would allow, its length extending upstage to down. Again, Hogan cut a zigzag, this time slightly upstage of center to provide enough structure where the actor would sit. Ugly could then pop the downstage segment forward to give the impression of cracking. Because the duckling's eggs were off the unit at this point, and the upstage shell piece was hinged to the unit to open as he stood, Ugly could move the downstage shell forward in one swift movement. Papier-mâché, Styrofoam, and Aqua Resin were fundamentals here.
Ugly's egg will perform again this season, when little Horton breaks out of it for an upcoming production of Suessical. A little theatrical paint and sealer is all that's needed this time.