For years, theater artists have used their skills to create stage illusions from unlikely ingredients. Today, at Woolly Mammoth, two artists are using those skills to save lives.
The artists are Woolly Mammoth Technical Director Joel Garcia and his assistant, Alec Sparks. They are using their skills with Woolly’s 3-D printer to create parts for face shields which Baltimore’s Open Space is assembling in the effort to fight the novel coronavirus.
“I saw Open Works‘s post on Instagram about making face shields and really wanted to help out,” Sparks said. He explained that a Czech 3D printer manufacturer, Prusa Research, had published a face shield design for free, and Open Works wanted to use it to enhance production in the DMV. “They enlisted the help of home printers across the area to turn out parts, then Open Works would do final assembly and packaging and send it off to health providers.”
The Woolly printer is “a fairly large printer” which can, Sparks said, produce two pieces of the shields at once. “That means I was able to turn out parts for 10 shields in just a few days,” he explained. “All together, Open Works has enough parts coming in to make hundreds of face shields every day.”
The company sells the masks to the health-care providers at cost, “to cover paying our small crew of assemblers and the materials like the elastic and the clear face shield,” according to Open Source’s Riggs Marietta.
Open Works is a nonprofit makerspace — that is to say, a corporation devoted to making space and equipment to small-project manufacturers. According to its website, Open Works is the largest makerspace in the country. Among the other services it offers, Open Works does fabrication by contract, and thus is able to assemble the face shields on its own.
“I really want to give credit to Open Works for coordinating 100+ volunteers and Prusa for publishing a great design free on their website, for anyone to download and make,” Sparks said. Open Works is a 501(c)(3) company, which means donations are tax-deductible. Folks with home printers who want to help out can call them at 410.862.0424.
Woolly’s 3-D printer is a versatile instrument, and the company has used it to fabricate a wide variety of theater props over the years. “To me, the most prized 3-D print is one of the simplest,” Garcia said. “Any time we build a realistic indoor location, we have to put [electric] outlets on the walls.” Without the 3-D printer, Woolly’s carpenters would have to install real electric outlets, which also required installing an outlet box. “So we would typically have someone spend half a day cutting holes and installing outlets, and once installed, moving them meant a massive patch job.”
The 3-D printer makes things much easier, Garcia explained. “With a 3D printer, we printed beautiful fake outlet plates that are flat on the back. Two screws will install one, and if the designers aren’t sure, double stick tape will hold that sucker on for a week.”
Sometimes, though, Woolly has called on the 3-D printer to help it take on difficult, exotic projects — like the time it manufactured a specialized blood rig, designed to make blood splatter after a character committed suicide by gunshot. Typically, the blood rig will be a compressed air cartridge hidden somewhere on the set which will make stage blood shoot out the moment the character is shot. “But in one particular show, a character was supposed to shoot themself through the head, facing forward, in full view of the audience,” Garcia said. “Which meant the rig had to be on the actor. And we couldn’t use a standard tube rig, for fear that the tube might squirm or rotate and wind up firing directly into the actor’s neck. So, we 3D printed a backpack plate with a rigid tube built into it that curved at the top.”
That task presented the technical team with some special challenges. “It was especially challenging because it had to fit the actor’s body well enough to be worn for a whole scene. The tube had to stick out enough to peek out from the actor’s collar without drawing the audience’s attention. And the tube had to angle up a bit so that the blood appeared to come from head and not the neck, but if it angled too much (or the actor stood further from the wall) the blood would be comically separated from the body, hovering where a wall clock would be. We wound up printing 4 versions of the darn thing, and each one took 12 hours to print!”
Does it seem a little strange that a machine and the skill to use it, once employed to stage a spectacular theater death, is now being used to save lives in the real world? To Garcia, the same creativity needed to solve difficult theater problems can be useful during the present crisis. “To work in theatre is to be a problem solver. Real life carpenters get to make the same things over and over again, but every time we build a house, something about it changes. It has to ‘burn down’ in Act 3, or the walls have to become transparent for certain scenes, or the house has to age 50 years over a 15-minute intermission. Theatre people are used to having the wrong tools for a job no one has ever done before and finding a way to make it work.”