Neat Things One Is Called Upon To Make, Only In Theater

Hey there Teammates,

This is Theater J Tech Director Tom Howley, speaking to you on location from the Theater J Scene Shop in Beltsville, MD. While only popping up very rarely on our blog, the theme I’ve enjoyed touching on is “Only In The Theater,” and I have to say that the talented Paige Hathaway’s design for ANOTHER WAY HOME, written by Anna Ziegler, has afforded us another one of those happy opportunities. She’s given me permission to give you a behind-the-scenes look at a particularly fun element of her design: The CAMP KICKAPOO sign that looms over the primary playing area on the stage.


It is, of course, one of those traditional made-from-branches camp signs that have been appearing in films and on postcards since about 1903. Very outdoorsy/folksy/artsy-craftsy. But, what there’s NOT is a chapter in the ol’ Scenic Construction 101 on how you’d actually make one of these venerable, iconic items? Happily, it’s really not that challening from a technical standpoint.


Did not cut any live growth. That just seemed inappropriate.

Step 1:  You need branches. Fortunately, a slice of county forest abuts most of our back yard, so I got out into the woods with loppers and a pruning saw, and worked my way around to a couple of particularly large dead-fall piles created by the remains of a) Snowmaggedon, and b) the Derecho (a few years ago).

Step 2:  Cut branches down to transportable, usable lengths, aiming for a ballpark diameter between 1-1/4 ” and 2-3″.



This was easily the most taxing aspect of the project.

Step 3:  Good heavens. These branches are ALL covered with unusable bark! The branches need to be stripped. What expensive, special tool does one have to use to do that?  A machete?  Some new power tool?  Or. . . my Dad’s old Swiss Army Jack-knife which I’ve carried around for 25 years and never actually used?  I summon my inner Jed Clampett. . .




The branches are attached with a combo of long drywall screws and long finishing nails.

Step 4:  Then came the-honestly-quite fun part of the project, which was working from the drafted letters and finding real-branch analogs for them. It was necessary to take a couple of stylistic liberties here and there in order to make the letters themselves attach securely to the beams and to each other. The square panel you see to the right was a gridded guide I used to lay each letter out first to ensure that it fit correctly and that it presented well.


Several kinds of wood on display.

Final Step: The framework has a break point between the two words, as the whole piece is about 6 ft longer than will fit into our truck. Temporarily assembled, I propped some scrap ply behind the frame just to clear up the visual. The framework is open, and the letters themselves will have a lighter, grayer wash to both unify them and to make them visually pop from the darker wood around them.


And there you have it.  A how-do-you-do-it project that proved to be not too hard to figure out and was quite fun to fabricate in the process. One component in a truly delightful design for our final show of the season.


Another Way Home by Anna Ziegler runs at Theater J from June 23-July 17. Click for tickets and more information. 


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