The Sets of Opus: Building a CNC Router

We're all excited for Opus to kick off this week - the music is great, the cast if terrific, and the set looks awesome. One of the many folks we have to thank for that last one is our Assistant Technical Director Brian Fauska. In crafting the sets for Opus, which are engraved with highly stylized musical notations, it became clear that the Rep was going to need a piece of machinery it didn't have yet - a CNC router, capable of making quick, intricate and repetitive carvings. Brian took point on building a router that can make precision cuts all day long and innovates what we can do in our shop. And it turns out all you need to make one is one heck of a lot of technical know how, some programming savvy and a little help from your friends. Read on to get Brian's take on this exciting project!

When the early design ideas and research for Opus started showing up in the production office, Dana and I were having a difficult time coming up with efficient ways to create the desired wall texture. The wall texture is inspired by an architectural project where plywood panels were engraved with Morse code, and in order to achieve the level of detail and quality needed, typical sculptural techniques would take too long, be too expensive, or both. When doing further research into the project that inspired our walls, I found images of the process that they used to create the pattern and it included a CNC Router Table. I half-jokingly told Dana that we would need to buy a CNC Router to do the project; the idea of having one in the shop has been attractive for quite some time, and that suggestion was enough to start the ball rolling. Because of the myriad of ways this tool could help us in the shop nearly everyday, we decided it would be a worthwhile, if involved, project.

The general concept with a CNC Router is that you use a computer and motors to move a cutting tool around a table. The cutter can move in all three dimensions allowing you to cut anything from straight lines to intricate carvings. Once we had found some plans and an on-line forum to guide the build, we were set; we had 3 weeks and a limited budget but we were determined to get it right. We decided that we should be able to process full sized plywood and other sheet materials, so our cutting bed needed to be large enough for that, and we would probably want to carve architectural details and various shapes out of foam so we needed several inches of cutting depth. With our basic requirements in place we started ordering the legion of parts we would need, from simple things like steel tube and MDF to more complex things like stepper motors and controllers. While we waited for those to arrive, we pored over plans for our machine and learned everything we could about CNC machines in general.

In addition to the physical machine, there was the software and control system to consider. Typically in CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining, there are several steps in making a plan into a reality. You start with a drawing of the thing you want to make. This is drawn in a CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) program and then that file is loaded into a CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) program that turns it into code that the CNC machine can understand. My research led us to some flexible and affordable CAM and CNC software and we built the control system from components recommended on-line.

As soon as the machine was completed it started earning its keep. The machine has cut parts for three theatres already, and we’ve found new ways to use it that save us time in the scene shop and create an excellent finished product. The machine is capable of cutting with accuracy in the thousandths of an inch (for reference, a piece of paper is about 4 thousandths of an inch thick) and the ability to cut repetitious parts without variation is fantastic.

The project has been one of the most fulfilling I’ve worked on at the Rep or anywhere. I was able to engage my interests in mechanics, computers, and building all at the same time, and the product allows us to add even more creative solutions to scenic challenges to our arsenal. The intricately textured walls onstage for Opus are a small glimpse into what we can now create quickly and efficiently in the shop, and we’re still learning more ways to use the CNC Router nearly everyday.

To learn more about how our new CNC router came together and get a look at photos from every stage of the process, check out the forum that Brian worked with here.


Nadia Kaboul is a dresser for The 39 Steps. During the show, the cast of four plays dozens of different characters, each with a different costume. The costume changes happen lightning-fast, and what the audience doesn't see is the carefully rehearsed, mad dance of quick changes. Nadia reveals what it's like to prepare for and work the show backstage as a dresser.

Preparing Costumes for The 39 Steps

A typical show of The 39 Steps is pretty regimented. In terms of prep, or “day work,” we press all of the base costumes (shirts, slacks, vests) and steam suit coats and dresses. We check the costumes for any repairs that are needed or interim cleaning/lint rolling. All of the pieces that are added on remain on racks/tables backstage. We make sure the costumes are pre-set to where they need to be for top of show, and make sure they're all in ready and working order.

We start our presets a little before an hour before the show, and are standing by, ready to dress at 5 minutes to show. There are three tracks—meaning there are three dressers backstage, four people if you count hair. It’s a pretty heavy track because there are constantly quick changes all throughout the show. All of the changes are done backstage—many of them in the wings—as the cues are so fast."

Made to Change

Many of the costumes are rigged for quick-change. Most "vests” and “shirts" are actually shirts or collars made in to dickies (a detachable insert made to look like a shirt), snapped to a vest that velcros up the back or front. Most bowties are rigged to snap on and off, and many of the costumes are ready to be put on, and taken off, very quickly. However, there are a lot of clothes (jackets, basics, hats) that look up close just the way they look on stage.

During the Show

The changes are very intense. Most people don't realize that all of the things that happen backstage (including set pieces and props) are choreographed just a closely and specifically as the action on stage. All of the changes are rehearsed laboriously, planned and talked through, so they are cued down to the second. A few of the changes toward the end of the show even involve three people to one actor—that's how fast things are happening.

There is a lot of presetting and under-dressing that allow the changes to go as fast as they do (dressing one costume underneath another one) so you just have to remove something instead of remove and add something else. The actors are great to work with, and I think are fantastic sports for how much running around and changing they need to do! It's been a very fun show to work on, even though it's a lot of work.

Pictured above: Ted Deasy, Scott Parkinson, Eric Hissom and Claire Brownell in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps, playing in the Bagley Wright Theatre September 25 to October 24; photo by Craig Schwartz.

Guest Blogger Chris Bange on The 39 Steps


Here at the Rep, we’re proud to be part of the thriving theatre and arts community that Seattle is known for. In the interest of adding to the dialogue about the work we produce, we’ve invited several theatre artists from the Seattle area to be among the first to see our production of The 39 Steps and offer their responses to the show on our blog.

Actor and performer Chris Bange has appeared in a number of Seattle theatre productions and has taken his own shows on tour throughout the United States and Canada. in today's blg post, he offers his take on the top notch physical comedy that make up the heart of The 39 Steps.

The 39 Steps is a play that every audience member will love and every actor who sees it will want to be in (I know I do). This play is so fun because it allows the 4 actors to create the world of The 39 Steps using just a few trunks, costumes and hats. The 39 Steps is a high speed, action packed, thrill and a laugh a minute manhunt that follows the main character from London across the Scottish moors where he encounters literally hundreds of different characters.

One of the actors in the talk back session after the show described it as a vaudeville play! It absolutely is, in the best sense. Every comic gag in the book is thrown at the audience in rapid fire succession, from pratfalls to puppets shows. I think vaudeville play is a good way to describe it because, as in vaudeville, the main language used in The 39 Steps is a physical dialogue between and the actor and their fellow actors, and the actors and the audience. As an actor, when you play 70 some parts your physicality has to be very precise and clean, so that the audience knows exactly who that character is right when you meet them. With so many characters to play there is very little margin for error, especially when you only see some of the characters for a few seconds each.

There are also several strokes of stylized physical movement brushed throughout the play that put a very original stamp on The 39 Steps as a production, movements that physically draw out and heighten the moments of comedy or drama. Many of these movements are very much in the style of theatrical melodrama. A melodrama has essentially three iconic characters: the hero, the villain, and the victim, and usually the iconic character traits are traded off and on, giving the story twists and turns. Melodrama has a negative connotation as of late because most action movies today are essentially melodramas. Action movies give melodrama a bad name because they follow the basic character structures but it is so thinly done that it is often unbelievable to the audience or “melodramatic.”

The 39 Steps uses melodrama to great effect as the actors very physically play the life and death stakes of the scenes and you believe it. The struggle for life or death is the backbone of the story of this play, and this drives the comedy and drama to even greater heights because it is so immediate. These physical and emotional heights create a visceral reaction between the audience and play - in others words, when you laugh (and you will most certainly laugh) you will laugh hard! The 39 Steps is a rollercoaster of a play, to borrow a great quote, “You may pay for the whole seat…but you will only need the edge!"

Hitchcock Double Features All Weekend at SIFF!

We’re taking a moment today to address a common problem we’ve noted among audiences for The 39 Steps– namely, that seeing the play has whet viewers appetites for more Hitchcockian goodness.

Our first recommendation is to see the show again, but we’ll cop to a bit of bias there.

For those of you who just can’t get enough, may we suggest the Hitchcock film festival this weekend at SIFF? You can see the original film version of The 39 Steps along with five other classics from the Master of Suspense the way they were meant to be seen - on a big screen, accompanied by a theater full of people on the edge of their seats. And every show is a double feature, which means you get to check out two films for the price of one!

For more info and to get tickets, check out the SIFF website here.

Music School: Behind The Scenes of Opus

When Michael Hollinger's Opus opens in the Leo K. Theatre later this month, the cast, as talented as they are, won't actually be playing their own instruments. But they'll have plenty of coaching and instruction in looking and acting like they are from award winning Seattle-based musicians Melia Watras and Michael Jinsoo Lim. Keep reading to get a look backstage as Watras and Lim teach the cast how to conduct themselves like a professional string quartet.

The cast of Opus (from left, Charles Leggett, Chelsey Rives, Todd Jefferson Moore, Shawn Belyea and Allen Fitzpatrick) goes to music school under the tutelage of Corigliano quartet members Michael Jinsoo Lim and Melia Watras. Photo by Keri Kellerman.

Watras and Lim opine on zen and the art of violin maintenance. Photo by Ian Chant.

Allen Fitzpatrick and Todd Jefferson Moore demonstrate what a duel looks like in the world of chamber music. Photo by Keri Kellerman.

Director Braden Abraham looks on as Charles Leggett stops worrying and learns to love his cello. Photo by Keri Kellerman.

Todd Jefferson Moore, Chelsey Rives and Charles Leggett exercise the oft-neglected bowing muscles. Photo by Keri Kellerman.

Guest Blogger Warren Etheredge: The journey of The 39 Steps begins with one…

Here at the Rep, we’re proud to be part of the thriving theatre and arts community that Seattle is known for. In the interest of adding to the dialogue about the work we produce, we’ve invited several theatre artists from the Seattle area to be among the first to see our production of The 39 Steps and offer their responses to the show on our blog.

It's practically impossible to discuss
The 39 Steps the play without discussing the classic Alfred Hitchcock film it's based on. And when you're discussing the juncture of film and theatre, you'd be hard pressed to talk to anyone more savvy than blogger and arts aficionado Warren Etheredge. We're excited to bring readers Warren's take on the production, direct from The Warren Report. And if you can't get enough of him here, don't fret. Warren will be presenting our pre-play discussion of The 39 Steps here at the Rep on October 15th at 7 pm in the rotunda. Be sure to join us that evening for what's sure to be a night of lively entertainment both on stage and off.

It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. It takes a tougher man to tenderize Hitchcock. Steely scriptor Patrick Barlow has pounded and punched up The 39 Steps, transforming Alfred’s 1935 flick into a frivolous 4-person stage show — now marinating at Seattle Rep — that prioritizes silliness over suspense. This is an acceptable bargain given the light touch of the original and the wisdom of creating a new vision rather than just replicating the old. (Gus van Sant’s virtual shot-for-shot remake of Psycho proved that there is more to Hitchock’s genius than simply mise-en-scene.) Bravely, Barlow not only wrestles Alfred’s ghost, he also tangles with Charles Ludlam’s specter. Surely within this re-imagining there is more than a pinch of Ludlam’s presentations at The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. And it is in this context that these 39 Steps have, surprisingly, more difficulty competing.

Barlow boasts chutzpah and craftsmanship. With the audacious assistance of director Maria Aitken, this adaptation unspools energetically on stage. The technical cleverness of the production is worth the price of admission. How often will you see a train-top chase or North BY Northwest’s bi-plane rundown materialize below a proscenium arch? No question there is enough flash to stun theater-goers and to appease movie-lovers. But what about the laughs? Barlow recognizes the humor in the time-honored. He re-plays the screenplay’s set-ups at 78rpm, an obvious and successful student of the louder, faster, funnier school. He also indulges the cheap seats with shouts-out to many of Hitchcock’s most famous titles, allowing even the dimmest patron to feel in on the joke/s. However, both creator and cast have trouble nailing the essence of camp, thus far, failing to transition from note-hitting send-up to irreverent, yet earnest, homage. Ludlam’s genius was his ability to satirically deconstruct classics while secretly celebrating their enduring magic. Ludlam, with partner Everett Quinton, could plunge a dagger into Shakespeare’s back while smilingly shaking his hand and being honored to make the acquaintance. It is conceivable that this cast will eventually come closer, but at the preview I saw — the first, I believe — the actors appeared preoccupied with hitting their marks moreso than embracing the duality of their roles. Camp is best when its players can maintain the veracity of the characters while still engaging the audience by luxuriating in the theatrical artifice and textual tomfoolery. (I suspect that Scott Parkinson and Eric Hissom, already amusing, will come closest to fully embodying the spirit.)

The 39 Steps surpasses the two cinematic remakes (1954, 1978) and provides a diverting night-out capable of making me neglect — never forget! — Hitchcock while pining for the absence of Ludlam.

Guest Bloggers on The 39 Steps: Emily Carlsen

Here at the Rep, we’re proud to be part of the thriving theatre and arts community that Seattle is known for. In the interest of adding to the dialogue about the work we produce, we’ve invited several theatre artists from the Seattle area to be among the first to see our production of The 39 Steps and offer their responses to the show on our blog.

Since The 39 Steps features fast paced costume changes and is designed to be enjoyed by audiences of all ages, our first guest blogger is elementary school teacher and freelance costume designer Emily Carlsen.

The Seattle Rep’s The 39 Steps is an enjoyable caper into the world of Alfred Hitchcock, a world which is very much aware, and sure to remind you, of its Hitchcockian influences. The team of four actors (Claire Brownell, Ted Deasy , Eric Hisson and Scott Parkinson) take on many a character to tell the tale of Suspense with a capital ‘S’. The ensemble cast is strong and cohesive; the four seem to be of one mind with their clear, stylized physicality. They keep the pace of the show moving, and it is clear they are having a blast doing it. The action on stage is supported by spot on, period costumes and flexible set design by Peter Mckintosh that is simple yet effective. It takes great acting to completely switch character simply by adding a hat, but you might as well have a great hat while you’re at it.

The 39 Steps is a great vehicle to introduce young theatre goers to physical comedy akin to the old vaudevillian talents, skills decidedly absent from venues in modern pop culture. Sitcoms, blockbuster movies and reality TV shows are not about watching what people can create, but what they have and can blow up. When you can go to the theatre and witness tightly orchestrated scenes, with more recognizable characters than actors present, these are the skills that truly celebrate what live theatre is all about.

Who doesn’t chuckle at a good Scottish accent joke, flying spittle and all? And everybody loves shadow puppets. The tween next to me was totally laughing, like, really hard. When actors occasionally wink to the audience and acknowledge their ridiculousness you can’t help but smile at the connection, and you can’t get that from Youtube.