Thursday, January 15, 2009

A House (of Cards) divided by itself cannot stand

I was recently hired to create a house of cards effect for an Off-Broadway show. The play, "The Real Thing" by Tom Stoppard is being presented by the T Schrieber Studio on 26th Street in Manhattan. My good friend, a very talented director, Cat Parker, will be producing the show with Terry Schreiber directing. This is not the first time, I have worked at T Schreiber and I always find what those guys ask me to create, a welcome challenge. T Schreiber performs some of the most cutting edge and unique theatre in the city and with their very talented in-house designer, George Allison, they have created effects here that, I kid you not, rival what's being done on Broadway and on television. Just a sampling: In "Night of the Iguana" they (we) created a rainstorm (yes, a real rainstorm, ladies and gents, with water) on the 7th floor in an old building equipped with the usual old plumbing and electrical systems. An incredible and risky challenge that was rewarded with standing ovations every night. It was incredible, to say the frickin' least.

So now, I was asked to create a "House of Cards" that would collapse on cue. George Allison, the designer, created a rendering of what he had in mind. (See picture) In the bottom right corner you see the actor stacking cards. The effect will be that this actor is stacking cards methodically, a door slams and the entire house collapses.
So, creating this posed for me several challenges. First, the card house had to be set-up quickly every performance yet had to fall on cue in a logical manner, the way a real card house would fall. Moreover, the audience would have to perceive the card structure as authentic which meant no obvious tape or other fastening agents or glue. People understand and have handled playing cards and so, these cards had to act and behave in ways that people know they should. Also, for all intents and purposes, the card house could not stretch the credulity of the audience, in other words, no cards hanging off the end or positioned in such a way that would fly in the face of physics. So, with George's initial phone call a month ago and with the above cavaets in mind, I began. Honestly, when I first heard of the effect, I thought it would be simple. Well, I thought wrong, this was . . . not by any stretch of the imagination easy. Three weeks of drawings and concentration, one complete roll of packing tape, two coat hangars, seventeen one inch metal washers, three pieces of cardboard and more than eight decks of Bicycle Playing cards later, I emerged with a prototype (pictures above and left). I'm proud to say, that after much trial and error, I came up with a combination tongue and groove/tape process that collapsed on cue in enough of a believable way to scare my dog (who jumped everytime it collapsed). The card house resembles a puzzle in that all pieces consist of two, three or four cards. The entire house is built upon one hinged, load bearing wall at the very bottom. A hidden wire, (see picture above of back of house) when pushed by the actor will knock over the load bearing wall bringing down the entire house in several seconds. I will have to train the production assistant and actor in the set-up of the house as it does require some practice. Once you know where all the pieces go the house can be put together in about 30 seconds.

One of the first problems, I encountered initially, was to get the house to fall in a believable manner. If you were to really build a card house, it would consist of single cards leaned on top of, around, or against each other, forming each story. Since a standard poker sized playing card is 3 1/2 inches by 2 1/2 inches, any cards that appear above other cards have to be justified in the audience's mind with a logical reason, in this case a second, third, or fourth story upon which cards sit. Often times, when I would initiate the collapse, several pieces would fall but others would remain standing. After much experimentation, I decided to conceal metal washers inside of the top steeple of the house as well as the top and side floors. These metal washers, taped inside of two sandwiched cards would add weight and bring the house down in a uniform manner sandwiching upon itself.

The second problem also arises in any disturbance of the house. When set-up, the house will withstand a herd of elephants walking past it as long as the table on which it sits is not nudged. A small tap or nudge of the table could bring it down prematurely. Since the rendering shows the actor at close proximity to the audience, it was decided that an usher would stand near the entrance as the audience arrives to make sure no would-be knuckleheads decide to topple the house. Strengthening the house in any manner, with wire or additional tape would prevent its rapid collapse thus compromising the overall believability of the effect.

Experimentation last night and dinner with George and crew has resulted in some minor changes to the prototype card house before the production begins.

Stay connected for more details.