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At Burning Man

posted by Karen McKevitt on Fri, Sep 23, 2011
in Scene shop

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By Colin Babcock

As master carpenter of Berkeley Rep, I am constantly confronted with new challenges and get to work with new materials and techniques. It’s my favorite part about my job. Recently I built the rolling fire escape and stoop unit you saw on stage in Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup. The stoop unit was tricky. It had to be wheeled out and placed on its spike mark and stay there as Rita Moreno recounted her early years in New York. To accomplish my given task, I drew upon past Berkeley Rep experience, with some help from my wife Stephanie Shipman, who built two rolling desks for The Peoples Temple back when she was the scene-shop intern during the 2004/05 season. I was able to base the engineering of my stoop on what she did with the desks, but augmented her design with some techniques I recently employed on an outside project. I devised a lever-and-pulley system in the stoop that engages the wheels in much the same way that I made the rudder turn with the front wheels of the 25-foot-long submarine my friends and I made from scratch this summer.

The task was to build a replica of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that could be driven around the playa at the recent Burning Man Festival in Nevada. About 40 of us worked long nights and weekends all summer long at the Five Ton Crane Headquarters in West Oakland to accomplish our goal.

6034468988219_ORIG Attaching skeleton to the vehicle

Around April we got our hands on the kind of vehicle that pulls airplanes around on the tarmac and cut off 5,000 pounds of steel ballast and began replacing it with the vertical ribs and horizontal runners that we had CNC-laser-cut to be the skeleton of our little sub. After a couple weeks of that, we began the six-week process of skinning the sub from stern to bow with overlapping riveted sheet metal panels, each custom cut by hand to fit perfectly. The vehicle controls were routed to the conning tower, so the captain could pilot his sub from above. The subtle LED lighting and kickin’ sound system were installed, controllable by a dashboard-mounted iPad. Stephanie headed up the interior woodwork, using reclaimed lumber for the plank floor, and designed and built the fully stocked wet bar. While our crew started to tackle all the details, I began working on my end of the project, the tail.

Completed skeleton

We wanted to make the rudder turn as the steering wheel turned, so it looked like the rudder was actually turning the vehicle, and it ended up looking great! Also, and this one was a bit trickier, I devised a belt-and pulley-system to use the drive shaft of the vehicle to turn the propeller. I spent many hours underneath the jacked-up submarine, fitting in the shaft mounts and drilling holes in the rear bulkhead. It’s really something to cram yourself under 9,000 pounds of steel and weld overheard, lying on concrete and grinder dust! 

Here I am welding the first skin panel with some help from Lead Artist Sean Orlando

The project turned out to be a smash hit, and that was because it was a collaboration of so many great people. We are a volunteer-based arts community that’s been fortunate enough to work on a few big sculptures and projects over the past few years. It’s a lot of fun building big art, but what I really appreciate is building the relationships and experiences with some really talented people. Another bonus is that I can draw on their knowledge to add to my bag of tricks, as well as share my knowledge with the volunteers who come in to help us out. I have discovered the joy of teaching people to weld and seeing their pride in being a part of something much bigger than all of us. To see some details about Five Ton Crane, as well as some photos of our Raygun Gothic Rocketship, currently installed at Pier 14 in San Francisco next to the Ferry Building, check out our website at


Completed sub on the playa

5tc crew sub shot after squid attack

The Five Ton Crane Crew with the sub after the Giant Squid Attack!

This week in the Berkeley Rep Scene Shop, I’m applying some of the techniques I’ve been honing on thesubmarine to fabricate the freestanding door unit you will see upstage center on the set for How to Write a New Book for the Bible, which we will be loading in to the Thrust Stage this weekend. I hope you enjoy watching the show as much as I have been enjoying building the set for it!



Very creative!

However, I'm particularly interested in understanding the stoop you built for the Rita Moreno performance. I read the Cari Turley article in the the BR program and saw the photos of the stoop. But I could not understand how it worked? Could you provide an explanation? Thank you.

Richard Olsen | Mon, Oct 17, 2011

Hello Richard.

Thanks for taking an interest!

The stoop uses a very old technique called a "tip-jack" to engage the wheels, and a foot pedal that engages a lever. The wheels are bolted to two U-shaped frames that are separate but hinged to opposite sides of the stoop frame, making the tip-jack.

When the stoop is sitting on the ground, the wheel frames are angled up inside the stoop at about 25 degrees. In order to engage the wheels and lift the unit off the ground, you need to pull down on those frames so they are level to the ground. To do this, I used a foot pedal that is actually a lever attached to the wheel frames via 1/8" aircraft cable and a couple of pulleys.

One of the frames has an arm that sticks out and pulls the other wheel frame when the cable pulls the first one down. The slot in the side of the unit that the foot pedal travels in is L-shaped. This way, when you press down on the pedal -which pulls the wheels down so the unit can move around- you can kick the pedal to the side to lock it in place until you get the stoop where you want it to be. Then, push on the lever and move it back to the side so that it can slide up the slot and let the stoop sit down on its mark.

I hope that this explained how I engineered the stoop. Let me know if you have any other questions!


Colin Babcock | Wed, Oct 19, 2011

Thank you for writing this piece on the Nautilus project, it's great to see all the excitement we've generated! Unfortunately, the folks responsible for this project's vision and funding are not attributed.

Christopher Bently and Amber Marie Bently, the founders of Bently Holdings in San Francisco, were the driving force behind this project, as well as the means by which it became a reality. The couple, both long time burners and huge supporters of the Black Rock Arts Foundation community, had wanted to make their Nautilus a reality for years. I know the Bently's appreciate everyone involved, and are looking forward to making more projects like this happen in the future.

Brady J. Frey | Tue, Dec 13, 2011

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