27 January 2010

The Wheel of (a week's) Time...

You know what's hard? Pantomiming the driving of a vehicle in an effective manner. I would go so far as to say that simply pantomiming steering a vehicle in an effective manner is tough. Accomplishing this feat whilst acting, focusing on the emotions and intentions yet making it all seem instinctive, effortless? For that, my friends, we have a special acting term: SUCKY. ("Very sucky...!") I should know. It's one of those things -- right up there with the Marx Bros. mirror bit -- that I am routinely asked to perform with little-to-no regard for how insanely difficult it is. It is an idea that is simple, so (ergo, ipso facto, obiter dictum) them what aren't actually obligated to then execute said idea tend to assume that said execution is relatively simple as well. Well I say: Horse Hockey.

So. Josh Sohn's Flowers (see 1/25/10) is set predominantly within a taxi cab, and one that spends most of the play in motion. As ours was a production limited in both time and money, I opted to forgo the rear-projection, Dewey-decimal-encrypted sound cues, and even the flown car chassis. No, instead I made my priority four chairs, a couple of sound cues and one specific bit of vehicular-motion-implying choreography. Oh, and a free-standing steering wheel. That's a little specialized, thought I, but heck: I've seen one somewhere before, and it must be a pretty common necessity for plays now-a-days; I'm sure some theatre person or other will know a company with one I can borrow or rent...

Alas, no.

In my ten days of searching, I had only one lead, and that ended up being a dead end due to the theatre having recently cleaned out their storage. In addition to that, finding just a steering wheel, with no mounting or any other assemblage, was also proving harder than I had thought. Garages in and around NYC have precious little space for keeping such a rarely necessary spare part, and the wheels that are around (but are unattached, so to speak) are often gutted semi-circles of plastic where buttons and airbags used to be. There's little auto-salvage of worth that isn't miles out into the boroughs, and I had no time. So. On a Thursday night before our final rehearsal, I ventured out to Brooklyn to GET IN THE ZONE of all three of their AutoZones (endorsement gleefully submitted).

There was much prelude of calling the stores and getting - um - somewhat uninformed "assistance" (No no no: I said "steering wheel," not "steering wheel cover." No, the actual wheel, itself. No, not a tire, for mrgrph's rarghnlsik...) but suffice it to say there were not one but TWO steering wheels for sale at my first visit to an Atlantic Avenue AutoZone. I opted for the $30, somewhat dragster-looking one, rather than the more classic $100 kit with "mahogany" (read: red plastic) grip. Call me crazy:
From there it was a question of making a stand for the thing. Now, I am a very organized person who likes to plan everything in advance and is rarely forced to improvise. (The preceding sentence is a total fabrication.) However, I had little-to-no time in which to construct a somewhat reliable stand that would not only hold the wheel up, but allow it to turn. I considered all sorts of possibilities on the subway from Brooklyn to Upper East Side -- I'm still wondering if I could find a door handle mount that might allow for turn resistance and a proper stop point -- but by the time I made it to Home Depot, I was pretty well settled on "simple" plumbing hardware.

The longish bits (technical term).
The joinish stuffs. (Very technical jargon, don't be embarrassed about totally not knowing it.)

The bits you see above are the final result in terms of ingredients, but initially I didn't know with what sorts of things I had to work; it was a little bit like seeing Legos for the first time, and trying to attach them diagonally to one another or make a one-bump lock that allowed a piece to turn around a bit. (No one with me on this? Just me? All righty then....) I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that before flexible plumbing solutions developed, plenty of folks struggled with questions of angles and changes in pipe width. Of particular excitement were the varied lengths of "nipple" above (and, on the barcode, no joke: "five-inch black nipple") and the hex-nut-looking thingamajig, which converts 3/8 inch threaded pipe to 1/2 inch. But the pièce de résistance was the 45 degree joint. I doubt the good people of Home Depot have ever seen that kind of unbounded expression of enthusiasm in the plumbing aisle (they're probably still trying to clean up that aisle).

Now there followed about 24 hours' worth of trail-and-error. In a perfect world I would have had access to some kind of very heavy, fold-able music-stand base. (Actually, in a perfect world I would have been able to find a flippin' free-standing steering wheel in someone's prop closet.) Things being as they were, I came up with the below to solve the problems of a secure base that pitched things at the proper angle. Initially all three legs had the rubber stopper you see below on the stabilizing leg, but it didn't clear out the wobble caused by the lower T-joint making contact with the floor, so I had to get a couple of 90 degree joints for the other two feet.

Don't worry, honey; I bleached the table after all this photographic genius.

It's a great base in terms of setting the angle of the rest; it's only okay for stability. A sandbag or the like would make it rock-solid, and frankly, this is pretty good for NYC purposes in that it's awfully portable. It was less so initially, when I had a single three-foot length of pipe for the main shaft. But, as a bonus, I felt COMPLETELY BAD-ASS walking down the street with that. Anyway.

Twice. I bleached it twice. Cross my heart.
The actual mechanism of a turn-able wheel, while not terribly complex, was interesting to figure out. The hex-shaped conversion piece was a great find because it allowed me with the help of a few washers to create a rather more stable bed for the wheel. Without those pieces, the wheel would have wobbled on the millimeters of space between its central hole and the axle (tiny nipple!).

Once it was all sandwiched together, I started getting excited. The 45-degree joint seemed like my best bet in the store, but I couldn't very well construct the whole thing there, so there was no way for me to know how it would present. Damn my boring geometry teacher! I pretty much had to give it up at that point and just see how we did. I couldn't do any better, at least not for this go-around.


What? WHAT?! Oh yeah - that was me, I did that. Me. Recognize.

It so worked. I mean, it's not going to trounce Avatar for scenic design anytime soon, but look at the angle of that wheel. Just look at it. It's a thing of beauty, borne of truth. That is undeniably a prop that will turn any set of two-to-six chairs into a motor vehicle, is what that is. I plan to be renting it out, never you fear, and at the exceedingly reasonable rate of $100/hr., with only a $5,000 security deposit. Sure, the wheel looks like it belongs on a stock car. Sure, the frame sooner inspires thoughts of Supper Mario Bros. than it does aerodynamic internal combustion machines. And yes, the wheel continues to turn ad infinitum, turning anyone who drove such a vehicle into some strange singularity of time and space.

But for ten minutes worth of a show, an actor who otherwise might didn't have to mime a steering wheel.


Davey said...

You re-invented the wheel dude. Nice job. It looks great. Also, I was wondering if the Home Depot had any 5 inch Hispanic nipples, b/c I was looking to upgrade.

Jeff Wills said...

Dude: offensive. Everyone knows that it's 5-inch LATINO nipples.