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"Detroit" at the Jungle: Secrets of the set

Posted by: Kristin Tillotson under Theater, Behind the scenes Updated: May 13, 2014 - 3:03 PM

John Middleton and Angela Timberman (foreground) and  Anna Sundberg and Tyson Forbes (rear) seemingly risk life and limb nightly in the Jungle Theater's lively "Detroit."  Photo by Drew Trampe.

As anyone who has seen the free-wheeling play "Detroit" at the Jungle Theater can attest, there's a lot of potentially dangerous stuff going on --  dangerous to both the actors and the scenery. An outdoor umbrella collapses, gashing the forehead of Kenny (Tyson Forbes). A backyard deck caves in, sending the leg of Ben (John Middleton) through a floorboard with another gash. Fires are lit, patio furniture is smashed, and in a climactic scene, an entire house undergoes serious calamity. Even when the two suburban couples who make up the cast are dancing to a Prince song, their movements are so wild and seemingly oblivious, you can't figure how they don't trip over the fire-pit rocks and fall flat. How did director and set designer Joel Sass pull it off without maiming anyone or having to rebuild all the scenery and props every day?

“Part of the reason it looks so convincing is things are actually getting broken,” he said,. “Our awesome crew has a night clinic after the show when they reassemble some of the stuff.” As for those chairs that get smashed to smithereens, “we bought multiples so in the first scenes you are looking at stable furniture, and during the set-change blackout we replace it with breakaway pieces.” Other magic acts are created with optical illusions – a “wall” made of ripaway fabric stretched over foam rubber, other walls aer rigged to fly or slide out of sight in a flash.

The real-looking fake campfire is made with lightweight orange silk cut in a flame shape attached to a blower fan and ringed with flickering LED lights, with another machine piping in smoke through an exhaust hose.

“The only real flame is when the financial planning book is set on fire," Sass said. "That’s just a guy in the basement standing on a chair with  with an aim-n-flame.”

The menacing umbrella is collapsed by someone manipulating a rod from the basement through a threaded nipple in the floor.“Tyson makes it look much more violent than it is,” Sass said.

The true miracles take place during the quick-as-wink set changes, accomplished in total darkness, which Sass says were rehearsed just as often as every scene was.

“It’s an elaborate ballet between the cast and a crew of four  all moving items onto bits of glow tape. I had to choreograph a traffic pattern with as few movements as possible.”

As for the fake blood?  It’s a mix of karo syrup, peanut butter and food coloring.

“Detroit” is a crazy blast whether or not you know how all the effects are accomplished. It closes May 25.

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