How to build a Snow Dragon in 3 easy steps!

(Ok – many, many steps and lots & lots of pattern pieces, but still really fun!)

dragon blog 1 Guest Blogger, Skylight Properties Director Lisa Schlenker

What an exciting project to fabricate! To start with, our scenic designer William Boles and I traded many images and research materials before he presented this final design concept for our snow dragon puppet. Much to discuss when planning for a 24 foot long prop that has to smoothly move with only 4 singers operating it. How long is too long? How short is ungraceful? What are the qualities of the materials we can afford to use? (Inexpensive to free, inherently flame retardant, light weight yet strong.) What are the qualities we need for this prop to move beautifully and look great? Light weight, resilient, flexible, strong yet delicate, floating, UV reactive, diaphanous, ethereal, dreamlike, and graceful; all these adjectives and more were important descriptors and considerations in the initial phase of planning and budgeting. After trading fabric swatches and in close collaboration with the costume designer Jason Orelnko, William and I made the final surface treatment and materials decisions. I bought a pile of fabric and foam core, and we were off to the races!

dragon blog 3dragon blog 2What now? The pattern. William’s design for the dragon body was relatively simple, and I assigned the patterning of the body to our Prop Apprentice Madelyn Yee, who built a 3’ = 1’-0” scale body mockup. Notes, sketches, and planning on paper is always a great first step – we call this the step list and we do one with a tentative schedule assigned, for every complicated project.

Next is the Head – the brains of the puppet, as it were. William’s fascinating design for our Dragon’s head was inspired by a sculpture by Toby Zeigler. Here’s the research on style and surface texture we needed to reproduce:dragon blog 4

dragon blog 5I would like to say that getting from the design sketch to the decision on the head structure was a quick and easy process. The fact is, it took many hours of painstaking geometry and flat patterning by our master prop artist Jennifer Lyons to get from point A to point B: from the designer sketch to a complete geodesic polyhedron structural plan.dragon blog 6 dragon blog 7 dragon blog 8

Then came the neck frills planning and patterning:

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And the scale model almost complete:

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From the rough scale model we could then trade opinions on the look of things back and forth with William, and also with our stage director Matthew Ozawa. Changes at this stage of the game are much more easily accomplished that in the final phase of construction! The team of fabrication artists became used to my daily comment “this is probably subject to change – ok this is how we’re changing the plan now, and this impacts the next step of the build process in the following ways…” This is the trouble shooting phase of our planning process and we were able to problem solve a number of structural and operational issues in the small model format, saving huge amounts of “Oops – do over” style mistakes in the full scale build. The result was that when we cut into full size materials and began real time real materials construction on the actual puppet we had very few unforeseen concerns, which made for a smooth build process, a happy team of prop artists, and a very happy designer and director.dragon blog 12 dragon blog 13 dragon blog 14 dragon blog 15

Some assembly required, of course. The light weight foam core components comprising the head needed to be thoroughly sealed against moisture before Carri Dahl, our Scenic Charge, gave the head the necessary painted texture and ultra violet light reactive paint treatment. Assembly followed, with Velcro, cloth ties, a variety of nuts and bolts, and some press fit pieces on the side plumes as well. All this fastener variety is necessary because our dragon needed to travel from the prop fabrication shop to the stage. This path goes through a number of doors and a passenger elevator that are all too small for the completed puppet. It’s not practical to fabricate something this large on stage from start to completion since so many other departments need to use the space, so to build it in our prop shop requires advance planning for assembly – also a part of the mock up process that we used our scale model to help with.dragon blog 16

Dragon test flight: The first time with the cast, our singers were very game for anything we suggested they try in terms of our dragon’s flight path. Skills more choreographic than vocal were necessary right at this point in rehearsals for this opera. We give our cast huge credit for making her look so elegant and beautiful onstage! Ian Toohill has the guns to manage our dragon’s head with ease. Erin Sura, Eric Madson, and Leigh Akin coordinate the sinuous weaving flight of the body smoothly. The entire effect our cast achieves is brilliant!dragon blog 17

Once we delivered her to our stage space fully assembled, she needed a clean resting place to live during scenic notes and other less than clean theatrical processes during our load in and tech process. Her she is, resting comfortably in the Cabot house.dragon blog 18

If you’d like to see Her Majesty in action, looking otherworldly and fluorescing under David Gipson’s incredible lighting design, come on down the to Skylight this week and catch a performance. We run through Sunday March 29!

The Snow Dragon puppet team:
Scenic Designer: William Boles
Properties Director: Lisa Schlenker
Master Prop Artist: Jennifer Lyons
Prop Apprentice: Madelyn Yee
Properties Artists: Andrea Alguire and Meghan Savagian
Scenic Charge: Carri Dahl
Scenic Art Apprentice: Nerissa Eichinger