Platforming, things to stand on, stage decks, etc.

Platforming Article #1

Hello Again and welcome to the Techie’s Corner. This month I am going to start a series of articles on platforms. We will try to cover everything from parallels to triskets to space age stressskin and everything in between.

Platforms in some form or another have been used in theatre as long as theatre and the stage has existed. In fact the stage itself is a form of platform. In some cases a stage is a permanent installation inside a building and is usually raised to some degree above the audience. By far though, the majority of stages in the world today are temporary structures made up of platforms. Rock concerts, Music festivals, fair grounds, school cafetoriums, etc. comprise more stages than all of the legitimate theatres in the world.

It is difficult to say exactly how the Greek theatre used platforms as few descriptions of performances still exist. We can surmise that some appearances, disposal of dead bodies, etc. Availed themselves with rolling platforms. During medieval times Miracle Plays were performed on platforms that were basically wood planking laid over the beds of real wagons. I can not say if that is where our present term for rolling platforms originated or not.

In the renaissance stages were often set up as temporary structures in large ballrooms. When winter weather chased Shakespeare and his contemporaries indoors for the season, some of their stages were permanent and some were once again set up on temporary platforms in large halls, taverns and other places.

Today we continue the use of platforms in many ways. We use platforms to build sculptured unit sets, rolling platforms to bring on special pieces of scenery or even entire sets. We use platforms to build the very stage we act upon and sometimes we use them to set our audiences on.

Today we continue the use of platforms in many ways. We use platforms to build sculptured unit sets, rolling platforms to bring on special pieces of scenery or even entire sets. We use platforms to build the very stage we act upon and sometimes we use them to set our audiences on.

There are many different types of platforms and methods of building them. Which one is the best way or the right way? There is no such thing as best or right, only what is best in any specific situation. Right is determined by being the look the designer wants, the cost the production manager wants, the building method the technical director needs in relation to the time, tools, and kind of skilled labor available.

All platforms have a number of things that are in common. First is the “lid” or the surface that is walked on or that supports other scenery. The second is the frame or the structure that supports the lid. Finally there are the legs or the method by which the platforms’ height is achieved. Because theatre is notoriously short of space, time and money, platforms also have several requirements in common. They need to be able to be reused more than once, if possible. If they are to be reused, they need to store easily and in the least amount of space possible. If the platforms are used in a touring show, they need to be light and strong and easy to move. In repertory theatre or touring shows they need to be quick and easy to setup and takedown.

The first type of platform we will look at is the old standard parallel. The parallel platform has been around for over 300 years and it is still one of the most useful, overall, platforming techniques devised. The parallel is so named because the lid is removed and the frame then folds up, all the sides remaining parallel as they fold. There are three types of parallels: The standard parallel or closed corner parallel, the open corner parallel and the continental parallel.

Parallels are made up of a series of frames built very much like a standard theatrical flat without a cover. Notice however that the corner blocks are not held back from the sides of the frame as would be done on a flat. This is to provide a flat surface for the hinge to sit on. Some times the frames are simply cut out of a solid piece of ¾” plywood. The frames are then hinged together so that they create a square or rectangular foot print when opened out and fold flat for storage or travel. The hinging method is what determines the type of parallel.

Although I have drawn a 4’ x 8’ x 2’ tall parallel, parallels can be as short as 6″ or as tall as 20’. The very short ones can simply be made of hinged planks and very tall ones will have to be made of heavier and or thicker lumber, but the principal is exactly the same. A parallel can also be shorter or longer in either direction, 2’, 10’, 12’ 16’, 20’ or any other size that fits the specific need of the production.

As I said earlier, the thing that determines the type of parallel is the way it is hinged. Shown below is the method of hinging a standard or closed corner parallel.

The second type of parallel, the open corner type is built the same way except that the side frames are shortened in length by the same amount as the thickness of the end gates. This allows you to place all the hinges on the interior of the unit. It is much easier to construct but not quite as sturdy as the closed corner, relying more on the strength of the hinge to provide corner stiffness than the tight fitting wood to wood contact of the closed corner type of parallel. Hinging of the open corner parallel is shown below.

The third type of parallel is the “continental” type. The name came about because European theatres supposedly used this type exclusively. The continental type is the least sturdy of the types, the most difficult to construct, requires more middle gates and hinges. Why would someone build this type? The reason is that it folds up in it’s own length. Notice that both the other types, when folded, are as long as the length plus the width. There times when packing size is all-important. I most recently experienced this when sending out a USO tour to Guam and the Philippines. We were a small troupe going to small, out of the way bases so our total amount of gear plus personal luggage had to fit into 36″ x 36″ x 72″ crates. The Air Force gave us 40 shipping crates but everything, repeat EVERYTHING, had to fit into those crates. The platforming was all continental style parallels because it could be designed to fold and fit into those crates. The parallel frames were made of square aluminum tube rather than wood and the lids were an aluminum honeycomb stress skin, but they were still the good old reliable parallel. The hinge placement for a continental parallel is shown in the next illustration.

Parallels without lids are only flimsy frames. The lid is what completes the picture. The lid stabilizes the structure so that it will not fold up in use. It provides the horizontal stability to the entire unit. Before the development of plywood lids were made of planks laid parallel to each other with cleats or battens of wood fastened across the planks at right angles. The cleats also were spaced to make a tight fit inside the frame and gates of the parallel. Depending on the action of the performance, these lids often did not have to be fastened to the frame except by the snugness of the fit. This made setup and takedown on the road extremely quick. Today lids are usually made of plywood. Plywood is notorious for having some degree of warp, curl, or twist. It will rarely stay flat on top of the frame. As a result lids today usually have to be fastened down by some additional method such as loose pin hinges, bolt and wing nuts, drywall screws etc. One of the main mistakes made today is to eliminate the cleats or blocks on the under side of the lid as these provide considerable lateral stability in addition to any other method of attachment.

Other types of lids today include shop built stress skin, commercial stress skin, Triskets, the Texas Trisket and standard framed platforms all of which will be covered in this series in their own right.

This series of articles on platforms will continue for several months but I am always open to suggestions for other subjects.

For now, don’t sweat the small stuff and remember …………….. It’s all small stuff!

Michael Powers