“So, you say, all that info about 3D printers is well and good, but how does this pertain to theatre?” You were saying that, weren’t you? That quote is from an article that Owen Collins, associate professor in the Theatre Department at Washington and Lee University, wrote about the use of 3D printing in theatre. The article, titled “Affordable 3D Printing“, was published in Theater Design & Technology, the Journal of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, more than two years ago and it seemed to be one of the first introductions of 3D printing to the theatre community.
Collins was introduced to 3D printing in 1999, seeing first an early 3D paper printer. It wasn’t until later, when the prices of 3D printers dropped dramatically thanks to the RepRap movement, that he was able to incorporate the technology into his own theatrical design practice. After using 3D CAD more and more, he wished that he had a machine capable of bringing his virtual set pieces into the real world. When MakerBot finally released the Cupcake kit, Collins jumped on board immediately and began printing. With his new machine, he became an early evangelist of the use of 3D printing in theatre, posting videos of his Cupcake with his theatre design podcast.
So, now, you say, how does 3D printing pertain to theatre? Well, for those who have seen its benefit in prototyping and architecture, the technology is valuable for creating scale models of things. In order to construct the elaborate sets you’ve seen on Broadway, a good deal of planning is needed. Collins points out the obvious advantages of the technology in planning scale models of sets, telling Stage Directions, “Printing out the pieces and putting them in the model theatre helps me take in the spatial relationships better than viewing a 3D world represented on a 2D screen. The 3D printer makes this a lot easier.”
The use of tiny 3D printed props has spread, since Collins’ article, so that others have adopted the technology for scenic design. Kyle Becker, a professor at the Department of Theatre at the University of Utah, came across Collin’s piece and found himself 3D printing his own props and sets. Becker won a $10,000 grant from the school to purchase 3D printers, which he now uses to teach his students how to complement 2D drafting with 3D printing, saying, “At the U, we start students out with the fundamentals of drafting in 2D with a pencil. Then as we move to 3D CAD, they understand what they are doing. 3D printers are a tool, not a replacement for other skills and techniques. Each time we’re going to build a scale model, we assess the set and decide the best way to build each part. There’s no reason to print a flat 3D wall when matte board will suffice. We want to use technology when it saves time, money, and improves the quality of our work.”
You may have seen the work of Kacie Hultgren on Thingiverse, where she goes by the moniker Small Pretty Things. After successfully using early MakerBots to model sets for Broadway, she’s begun selling her 3D printed furniture online. Her designs are frequently featured on the Thingiverse main page because of their ornate and delicate features. MakerBot even came to her to learn more about her practice, which you can watch in the video below:
Collins explains in his article that, while it helps with planning out sets, he’s also used 3D printing to craft puppet hands and a bust of Stephen Colbert, as an experiment in printing a puppet head. He explores the notion of 3D printing whole props:
Does the 3D printer actually save you time? I used my printer to make hands for puppets as an experiment. The larger hand, which had to be printed in two pieces because of its size, took three and a half hours to print. In the same amount of time I could have made a mold of a hand. Using the mold, each subsequent hand would take much less time. I also experimented with creating a head of the actor Stephen Colbert the same size I would make the head of a puppet. It had to be broken down into eight pieces and took over twenty-six and a half hours to print. However, this very long printing job only took about thirty minutes of supervision. Printing out the hands only took five minutes of supervision, which reveals the true value of the machine: it frees up your time. You can use the time the printer is working on other tasks that you wouldn’t have the freedom to do if you were creating molds and castings. Plus, it is easier to keep a stockpile of digital designs on your computer, than keeping molds in your studio or shop.
The supervision time that Collins mentions is not to be disregarded. Not all printers can get running as quickly as one would like and, it seems, since publishing his original article, the associate professor has become a fan of other 3D printer brands, as well, specifically noting that Afinia machines “just prints when you hit print.”
Seeing the potential that 3D printing has in the theatre, Collins has even begun releasing his own puppet designs for what he calls Open Bunraku. On his Thingiverse page, you’ll find the arms and legs for the project, as well as a few marionette heads and a number of props that one might print. Alongside the Pantalone Commedia mask, Collins has rod puppet parts with which to create a Bre Pettis puppet. If one can manage to take, say, a Stephen Colbert puppet head and paint it up like Rick Baker’s Popeye, 3D printing would make its way from a simple method for set planning to full-on puppet production studio.
The use of 3D printing in the theatre is beginning to pop up in the media. When theatrical artists begin to fully understand the possibilities that the technology presents, it may not be long before printed pieces, like the elaborate work of Jason Lopes at Legacy Effects, make their way onto the stage. And, by then, people like Collins and Hultgren will be seen as the pioneers of the industry.