IU Theatre personnel making it ‘rain’ on stage

There are plenty of things that go into making a live production look as realistic as possible, including costumes, set design and props.

But what about recreating Mother Nature on stage? That’s where Paul Brunner, faculty technical director and assistant professor of theatre technology at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, comes into the picture.

IU Theatre opens its fall season with Australian playwright Andrew Bovell’s “When the Rain Stops Falling,” and Brunner and graduate student assistants Meghan Potter and John Houtler are already working on ways to make the “skies” open up in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre.

As this video snippet shows, they’ve constructed a frame of two-inch PVC pipe that will be installed on stage, drilling holes at regular intervals on the top side of the piping so that when water is pumped through the frame, it will spill through, creating “rain.” The water falls into a trough below, where it’s collected into a reservoir and recycled through the frame via an industrial pump one might normally find in a golf course sprinkler system.

Designing such a contraption is not quite as easy as it sounds, Brunner said.

“Our first test of the concept was a success in that it worked. But we’ve still got some things we need to fix,” he said. “The rain is such an integral part of the show and a wonderful metaphor for the story, and we want people to be like, ‘Wow!’ when they see it rain on stage.”

Several thorny issues have popped up along the way: How to make the rain look realistic, and not just like water pouring through a pipe? Brunner’s team drilled holes on the top of the frame, so some water remains inside the pipe; as more water is pumped through, the water level rises up and out those holes, creating more of a drizzle than a downpour. Another trick? Covering those holes with fiberglass screens to further separate the “raindrops.”

Now, Brunner and his team are wrestling with how best to handle all that water.

A three-foot wide trough covered with a steel grate will run the length of the Halls Theatre stage, capturing the runoff and carrying it back to a reservoir. In an effort to be as sustainable as possible, Brunner and his team would like to use the same 30 to 50 gallons of water necessary to create the rain effect during the show’s two-weekend run. While sitting water stagnates quickly, chlorinating the water could have unpleasant side effects, including smell and potential damage to costumes.

Brunner and his team are also building a computer-controlled revolving stage for the show. Both equipment effects will remain in the department’s scenery stock for future performances.

“When the Rain Stops Falling” opens Sept. 21. Named Time Magazine’s Best New Play of 2010, the story centers around a young man courageously defying the legacies of his ancestors.

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