Michael Yeargan's design for the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific is more presentational than realistic, with a tropical bamboo surround and a translucency of an ocean/cloudscape horizon that grows ominous in Act Two. Mirrors on the side suggest a reach to infinity.
Yet, the scenery features unconventional realistic units — sand dunes, for instance, flatbed World War II Army trucks, and an obsolete dive-bomber (TBD-1 Devastator) from Douglas Aircraft Company that is nearly impossible to find. Drawings of the plane with clear cross-sections aren't available, nor are photographs with decent straight-on views. The downstage wing has to fold up to be rolled onto the stage and then down in view of the audience, and it has to be sturdy enough for actors to dance on it. There is no upstage wing, by design.
That's not the only unit that must be sturdy enough for dancing. A USO Thanksgiving follies show (“Nothin' Like a Dame”) is designed to look as if two surplus military trucks have parked back to back, with a 26' wide × 14' deep × 4' high stage built on top of them. Oil drums appear to serve as supports. A structure of trusses and towers resembling WWII-era construction material has rope rigging that flies up to raise a curtain. This “stage” is set up during intermission on a 33'-wide slip stage that can be retracted to reveal the orchestra pit for the overture and entre act.
The sand dune, 68' wide × 22' deep × 8' tall, sits permanently up center, spanning the slip stage. The surface has to look decidedly sand-like, but it has to accommodate barefoot actors and be strong enough to support the character Bloody Mary and her kiosk. She pushes a South Seas-carved canoe on bicycle wheels as she enters up the back, over the top, and downstage. Behind the dunes is the translucency. On them sits a realistic palm tree.
Where would the design team find the plane? How would they adapt the trucks and create the sand and tree? And how would they make it all seem real?
Dean Kozelek, an engineer at Hudson Scenic Studio, worked from Yeargan's model and scanned the best available photos of the plane. In the end, he says, “We bought a plastic model that we could glue together and then slice into sections that could be scanned into the computer to draft.” Enlarging the toy wasn't easy. “Nothing lines up exactly,” adds Kozelek, who modified it slightly after rebuilding it to full scale. After the scenic artists painted it, he added an authentic propeller found on eBay.
Plywood shapes with a steel framework served for a sturdy wing for dancing. “The wheels in the original plane were mounted to the wings,” Kozelek explains. With no tail wing by design — the rear of the plane stays off stage — the landing gear has to be moved under the fuselage. To counter-balance, he notes, “We used gas springs, a very heavy duty version of springs that hold up the tailgate in a car. A stagehand could pull it down with a rope.” Placing the landing gear wasn't as significant a technical issue as hiding large swivel casters in airplane tires made of layers of plywood. “The unit had to roll around in any direction so making the landing gear functional was not an option,” explains Kozelek.
Fortunately, WWII trucks are readily available. These came equipped with lead paint, which was discovered when crewmembers began to grind and sand them for painting. An industrial hygienist advised repainting without sanding.
“We cut out and painted a profile to look like the missing back end of the truck,” says Roger Bardwell, chief engineer at Hudson, who gutted the trucks when they arrived. The back half of the 12'×20' follies stage appears to stand on the trucks but is an independent steel frame supported by posts and casters that are hidden in “oil barrels.” “We had to come up with a structure without cross braces but that still was strong enough to withstand the lateral forces of the performers and the scene shifting,” Bardwell adds. They put the trucks together with that frame to form a revolving unit.
Since the cabs had no rear wheels, Bardwell hung their back ends from the stage frame and hid triple swivel casters behind the front wheels to roll the unit. The follies unit breaks into halves to get on and off stage, with a pivot at its center; the stage can be rotated by the cast and also be kept from moving when characters perform on it. This had to break into six pieces for shipping, four sections of stage and two trucks, which bolt together to form the two units. On top, the follies curtain and the Seabees medallion hang from two towers supporting a horizontal truss. The towers fold down, and the truss breaks in half. The two follies pieces come together, the towers lock vertically, the horizontal truss halves lock vertically, and the curtain lifts with a synthetic rope, made to look like period yarn. Electrical foreman David Rosenfeld found canvas and awnings to go on the truck.
Hudson Scenic built the sand dunes from Yeargan's model, scanning it in 3D and then developing drawings so the rough shape was within 4" of the model. After carving it from a thin layer of foam, the scenic artist developed a coating made of fabric, Aqua-Resin®, jacksand (a texturing product), and cork to insulate it from fire and provide a sand-like surface, friendly to bare feet. After the scenics layered this coating on, the foam had a textured look.
The shape of the dunes was initially a problem for Bloody Mary and her 10' cart, so they re-carved the path where it crests over the dune and worked on the cart. “It was originally like a wheelbarrow, and the front wheels didn't turn or steer,” says Bardwell. In order for Bloody Mary to push without lifting, swivel casters were added to the back wheels. Shortening the cart and moving the front wheels toward the back improved the turning radius to make the corner at the top of the dune.
Yeargan did a ¼-scale model of the dunes out of cardboard and clay. Bardwell turned to Digital Atelier, a company that does sculpture, to 3D-scan the model. They sliced the model in multiple directions and gave Hudson Scenic a DXF-based image of those shapes parallel to the X, Y, and Z axes.
That would have solved the problem, but Bardwell soon discovered the model had become distorted during construction, in so slight a way that it wasn't visible in the model presentation. By taking all the vertical slices parallel to the centerline and rotating back down to reorient them, he developed a usable CAD model. Using these sliced profiles, the team modeled a top surface with 2'-square facets of plywood. No facet was lower than 4" from the scanned surface. To simplify construction, the facets only rotated on an axis parallel with the proscenium. After drawing frames with routed tops following the bottom of the facets, the frames were attached to a base caster frame to allow the slip stage to pass under the dune.
“The downstage ends of the caster frames had pallets on rollers, routed to follow the bottom horizontal slice of the model, attached to them. Nine of these assemblages were bolted together to make up the 68'-wide dune. Gluing blue foam pieces from 1" to 4" thick to the top of the plywood facets created an undulating surface close to the final shape of the dune for the artists to begin their carving,” says Bardwell.
Hudson Scenic purchased a palm tree from a display items company. When they found the leaves weren't fire resistant — and treating them proved tricky — they stripped the leaves from the skeleton and attached new ones to the steel rim of a trunk that was made of bent pieces of steel covered with vinyl. By leaving a hole in the stage deck, the tree could go through to the stage floor, giving it a solidity that makes leaning against it possible.