From Screen to Stage

One of the most stressful things I do these days is design and build stage sets. I have gone from a minor hobby to something people depend on to create an alternate reality for a period of time. If I can’t come through, I don’t just fail myself, but hundreds of others. When I succeed, however, it becomes pretty special. This was one of those times.

As with everything, it starts with an idea. This set needed to function in two different locations, and then after that for a completely different play. All I was told was that this to be a front entrance, and I already had an idea in my head.

Ultimate version of initial sketch

There were a couple of wrinkles as I alluded to. Since this particular play was being performed in two locations, it needed to be more mobile than most. I decided to build the entire thing with no bigger section than 4×8 feet. We also had a bit of a problem last year with our wall set being a bit wobbly and having to brace behind. The beauty of this design is that it is freestanding, as it was going to be located near the front of the stage.

Most of this is standard wall construction with 2×4 studs, set 16″ on center. The tricky bit was to figure out how to have the door set in the middle of an eight foot section that had to be broken down to two four foot sections. The solution was to set the door in the middle of a four foot section, and make two two foot sections to either side. These could be combined down the road to make a full four foot section if needed. With that design hurdle sorted, construction could begin.

I also decided to spend a few more bucks for a prehung door vs a slab, to make installation easier. I made the exterior frame of the panel, then placed the door in the middle, and inserted studs to fit. No header necessary because it didn’t need to support a roof. All of this was dead simple. With the door panel done, i proceeded to make the other two panels. The porch floor was standard, and the wall wings had two extra studs where I would need to then split it.

I decided to use the same panels on my shop to cover the walls, turned horizontal. These are redwood-look panels that are exclusive to Home Depot IIRC. These soak up less paint than T1-11 siding, and are slightly cheaper. With the TSC 55, it was super simple to make all the cuts needed, including cutting out a “U” to fit around the door and under the door trim. I also did one on the leading side stud, so it seemed to wrap around the side.

The side porch supports were fairly simple. A 2×4 to attach to the wall, a 4×4 as the front post, and a few 2x4s made up to look like the ends of the porch. I used Sketchup and the HKC to accurately cut cross supports. It was absolutely brilliant to do, and super accurate.

The next thing to do was to mock it up so that I could see how it all turned out. This involved me setting the entire thing up myself, which was also useful: it validated my mobility concept. Here is a later picture of the mock after everything was painted. The sides of the porch are attached to the wings and the porch floor by long screws, and it made everything very sturdy. I did end up with some small gaps where the wings attached though.

I did have one more piece to build, a roof peak. It needed to be open to allow the stage lights to not create too many shadows, so I did something simple to create the effect. It is three 2x4s on an approximate 30° gable. These cuts were accomplished with the HKC, and secured with screws. I got a perfect connection on the miters. I designed it to sit on top of the porch sides, but the bottom piece to sit between. This allowed me to get the piece up onto the porch sides without assistance if needed, then pull everything together with screws. I also made some decorative 45° supports for the top of the porch. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to mock this up before it was to be delivered.

It all turned out well, as evidenced by the header image. We delivered the set Sunday night, and installed it Monday before the play. After the first showing, we took it to the other performance location and had it set up in ten minutes. It came down just as fast the final time.

The only issue came to be was the door expanded a bit due to humidity and I had to plane quite a bit for the door to close properly. If it didn’t have to work that night, it probably would have reduced down to proper operating width on it’s own, as it closed much better for the subsequent performances.

Also, for the first play performance, we had a gap at one end of the stage that could have been a safety hazard. Without the benefit of a tape measure, I had to guess what size the gap was. I came up with the idea within a few minutes, and by the next evening had the solution. These were simple boxes that I would cover with cutoffs from the paneling. The size wasn’t too bad.

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