Building “The Machine”

Spencer Burke, the Assistant Technical Director for Flat Rock Playhouse, started working in our scene shop at the beginning of 2014. When the scene design for The Fantasticks was presented, he volunteered to build “the machine.” This piece of scenery is the centerpiece of the show, and much of the action revolves around it (pun intended).  In other words, it’s very important to the overall production design.

Here is the quick Q&A I had with Spencer about his process building “the machine.”

Name and position at FRP?

Spencer C. Burke, Assistant Technical Director

The 'plan' view of the Machine.

The ‘plan’ view of the Machine.

“The Machine” in The Fantasticks could be considered the centerpiece of the show. Do you have a lot of experience building scenery like this?

Very much, yes. I have done a lot of sculptural pieces in my career in theater. It is, by far, my favorite thing to do. I really enjoy making sculptures out of steel or foam. Two years ago, I made a horse out of steel rod and wire mesh. It was for a production of The Merchant of Venice. The goal was to enable a cast member, who was in a motorized wheel chair, to be in the show. I made this horse so it could be fitted around his chair.  By the end of the construction he was completely overjoyed. It was by far one of the most gratifying pieces of scenery that I have made, not only because it was a sculpture, but it brought so much joy to someone who had a severe disability.

What materials are you using to construct “The Machine?” Why?

Everything for this project is steel box tubing. One of the main reasons is because we were told the actors intend to climb on it. The other, which may sound odd, is because it is easier to build out of steel. We have a roll bender in the shop, and using steel just made sense to get the curves we needed.

The curved frame (under construction)

The curved frame (under construction)

Are there elements of “The Machine” design that are particularly challenging to build?

Yeah, the main outside curves. They have two curves in two different planes. One of the things that I had to do was get the first curve and then do a technique called curfing. Essentially what you do is cut a lot of slits on one side of the material to get it to bend in the opposite direction. This was challenging because I had already bent the material one way and had to make cuts that were vertical to the bent steel.

Mechanically, “The Machine” does quite a bit in the show and has a number of moving parts. Can you explain what these are and how you’re going to accomplish building them?

One of the key elements is a main gear with a sphere that turns. It essentially starts the show, sort of getting the engine of the show turning. That unit is suspended by a single center pivot point. Thankfully, we did not have to automate that part, however the weather-vane on top has to spin independent from the actors onstage. With this piece we are using a small hobby motor. The motor is small enough to sit on top and, because the weather-vane is light enough, this type of motor is really easy to use. There are also some gears in front of the steel frame that get moved by the actors as well as fog vents to give the industrial look the design team wanted. All in all, pretty cool!

The Machine Frame (Under construction)

The Machine Frame (Under construction)

I noticed that there are quite a few curves, what kind of challenges does this present?

The biggest challenge for me was to match the curves so the gear sphere could hang straight as well as not collide with anything. This is where my experience comes into play. Most of the curves were made from bending on a hand crank roller. It was a very tedious task because I had to mark where I stopped in order to get it somewhat close to the previous curved pieces.

How does an object like this typically get communicated to the build team? Do you have specific draftings that you follow, or research images and examples?

Dennis Malden's (Scene Designer)  original Scetch

Dennis Maulden’s (Scene Designer) original Sketch

Well, I think the first step is deciding who wants to take on the project. I love doing these kind of weird projects so I offered to first. One of the nice things about the design team is having Chris Mueller (Assistant Scene Designer) able to draft in 3D. I basically printed out a rendering he did in multiple views. From there it was just a matter of trial and error. With something like this unit, it is typically impossible to build exactly what is drawn. Before diving into the final piece, I created some smaller model pieces. The scenic design team also made a small computer model to work off of.

Is there anything else of note that you’d like to talk about?

I hope that everyone who comes sees the show enjoys it. I know the scenic staff has put a lot of time and craftsmanship into the whole set. I think all the pieces that have been made look awesome! Cheers!


Read more about: Front Page News, FRP Blog, The Fantasticks

Author:  James Johnson

James is the graphic and media designer for Flat Rock Playhouse.