PROBLEM:

Redmoon Theater in Chicago creates “theatrical spectacles that transform streets, stages, and architectural landmarks into places of public celebration.” Artistic director Jim Lasko considers last summer's Sink, Sank, Sunk a signature effort. The narrative, vignettes about a mayor without a population, was simple. The effects were anything but.

Performed on a river and surrounding landscape areas in Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chicago's Chinatown, the free show started at dusk and attracted over 12,000 spectators during its four-evening run. A band played as a 20' kayak covered in candles and nine bicycle-powered pontoon boats, with propellers towing campfires in truck inner tubes on long leads, traveled the river, representing a flaming funeral pyre. Since Lasko favors real fire over propane, the shop tried different wood samples to determine how to keep fire going throughout the procession. (Note: Pine burns fast.) And when they went under the 18th Street Bridge, a 30' net of flame dropped down, forming an archway to pass under.

Technical director Margaret Goddard says indoor rehearsals didn't always translate easily when actors ventured into overwhelming sites on the acre of performance area. The river, “a transportation hub with boats going by and freight trains crossing the bridge that bordered the south end of the performance, created an atmosphere of constant industrial noise and chaos,” not to mention scores of logistical issues. A “dressing room” in a shipping container in a privately owned landfill needed to be inspected by and defended to the EPA; bikes were stolen, and the same thieves returned on stolen bikes to rob other items.

Redmoon actors interacted with spectators to get them to move with the roving vignettes, and Redmoon staff negotiated with the Chicago marine police who kept boats away while the flaming procession traversed the river. Rehearsals, when the corridor wasn't shut, required that actors make sharp turns to move fire out of the way of oncoming boats. “Speedboats go fast,” says Goddard. “You can't outrun one in a bicycle pontoon.” A 20' tall tower on a rocking platform proved problematic, especially when it rained.

But perhaps the trickiest effect was the curtain of fire that 20 volunteers lit and dropped from the bridge. The rig on the bridge had to come down during the day to allow boats through. The 30' wide and 20' long slide kept getting tangled. “Laura Miracle, the curtain designer, had 10 technical challenges to solve within the next five minutes all the time,” says Goddard. Just how would Miracle create and maneuver such a large curtain of fire for use in a public space?

SOLUTIONS:

Miracle had created a curtain for a past event and knew it had to be made of aircraft cable. She ordered 1/16" cable and tried to weave it into a curtain. Stretched tight like fishing net, the curtain was 130' and became 100' by 40' long when hanging. Miracle began with a smaller prototype, but when they scaled it up, it kinked. “I realized the material was not appropriate to working in those dimensions,” says Miracle, who eventually solved the problem with 1/8" cable.

Where could they create something so large? Miracle and a group of volunteers laid it out in the large Redmoon parking lot, “systematically pounding off row by row” and setting connectors at regular intervals. Then, of course, they had to move the curtain to the site and make it work. They built a 100' long shelf they could attach to the handrail of the bridge for the event and take down after each performance. “This is a bridge that raises up on a regular schedule to allow boat traffic,” says Miracle. “We weren't able to do this work on site until a week before the show opened. Getting this fishing net to unfold gracefully — to unfold at all — was a challenge. Frequently, the curtain got tangled up in itself. We ended up lacing a weighted structure through the net so the net could slide down the leaders.”

Okay, it's working. Problem solved, right? Not quite. “Now we had to light it on fire. We created wicks made out of upholstery cording and aluminum foil soaked in paraffin.” Since the wicks weren't reusable, they had to make 1,250 of them for dress rehearsals and four performances. And how do you light something on fire that is 100' and has to be thrown over the bridge? “They stationed 12 volunteers over the length of the curtain, radio called the lighting of it at each end, and working toward the middle with long butane lighters, they lit the entire mass, smoking like mad, dripping paraffin, and slid it layer-by-layer down the slide, watching the person next to them until it was complete,” says Goddard.

Frank Maugeri, Redmoon's associate artistic director, appeared as a central character who walked along the riverside to the curtain in a procession of singers and band members. “The curtain was massive, impressive, daunting, and incredible,” he says. “The fires seemed to float in the air, like being right near a star, and softly and slowly, each one faded out, until the underneath of the bridge was empty and black again. It was poetic and eerie.” Thousands of spectators “would sit and stare at the dying lights in wonder and hope.”

If you've met a design or technical challenge, share your solution by writing to davi@comcast.net.