Theatrical Explosions: Solving Technical Challenges of Live Theatre

man in black sports coats motions to his right
Emily Wiley

Dan Carter

"Sometimes the reality of life isn't spectacular enough for live theatre," Dan Carter told a captivated audience of community members at last Wednesday's penultimate Research Unplugged event of the fall season. "We strive to create performances that are safe and spectacular."

Carter, director of Penn State's School of Theatre, discussed the technical challenges that arise in live theatre. He and his colleagues, Todd King (technical director) and Zachary Keller (scenic designer), took the audience "behind the magician's table" to explain how sets are constructed and how special effects—such as explosions—are produced for a live audience. Carter used examples from his upcoming production, Pentecost, written by David Edgar and running November 6th through 15th, in the Playhouse Theatre, on the University Park campus.

"If I were a reductionist Hollywood producer," Carter said, "I'd describe Pentecost as Da Vinci Code meets Blackhawk Down." The play is set in an unnamed eastern European country after the fall of the Berlin wall, he explained, and the focal point is the discovery of an ancient fresco in an abandoned Romanesque church that might pre-date the work of the 14th century Italian painter Giotto di Bondone, considered to be a founder of the Italian Renaissance. Edgar's play combines an art world mystery (art historians debate the fresco's provenance) and a political commentary on war and ethnic conflict, as an assortment of asylum-seeking refugees take hostages inside the church.

In Pentecost, Carter continued, an explosion destroys part of the church's wall and the fresco crumbles to the ground. "How we chose to address the explosion impacted everything else we did," he said. "The solution had to be reliable and repeatable; it had to occur in every performance safely and theatrically."

"We have a lot of technology at our fingertips—from high-tech computerized effects to old-world mechanics," Carter added. "But you can't fall in love with technology for technology's sake."

The team chose to construct a simple steel track upon which part of the wall is pulled backwards on cue. Keller showed the audience a video clip to demonstrate the effect. "In the scene, the audience is focused on action happening 14 feet below the wall on stage," he explained. "Then a crackle is heard, the wall slides out of view, and debris falls from above."

"In theater, speed kills," added Carter. "When action happens too fast, the audience can't follow it. It's like a bad ping-pong match. One thing happens over here, and they just miss it. Something else happens over there, and they just miss it." Said Carter, the audience must experience the action in the moment, otherwise they get frustrated.

King noted that the explosion simulation may seem simple, but a lot of engineering went into its construction. "The walls of the Romanesque church set we created are roughly 23 feet tall, and the arches are 14 feet tall," he said. "The collapsing wall alone weighs 100 pounds." King and his crew took roughly six weeks to complete the set.

As for the fresco, it's attached to the wall like a jigsaw puzzle. "Some pieces are permanently attached and will not fall," Keller explained. "The remaining pieces are attached with a magnet, and when we remove the magnet, those pieces fall to the ground."

Carter added that safety is paramount. "We had to address the proximity of the actors and the audience to possible flying objects," he said. "Stuff happens. People get hurt on stage. It's a dangerous thing that we do."

Quoting English acting great Sir Laurence Olivier, Carter said, "If the audience doesn't believe that the actors are risking their lives, they don't care." He continued, "But there's another school of thought that says the audience gets uncomfortably nervous if they think the actors are in real danger."

One audience member wondered how State College theatres rank in comparison to similar small communities. "We have an embarrassment of riches," Carter answered. "Other towns of this size don't have the options or the quality. This is a great place to be. And you don't have to take the subway home."

Dan Carter, M.F.A., is director of the School of Theatre in the College of Arts and Architecture; dhc4@psu.edu. Todd King is a technical director in the School of Theatre; tek12@psu.edu. Zachary Keller is a graduate student in scenic design in the School of Theatre; zak110@psu.edu.

Last Updated November 05, 2007