With over twenty hours dedicated to just design, and another hundred hours to build it, UWEC faculty technical director James Zwicky and a team of UW-Eau Claire theatre students successfully created the scenic piece of a lifetime: a giant climbable peach. Roald Dahl's story of James and The Giant Peach, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s latest theatrical production, comes hilariously to life in a delightful dramatization that reveals the wickedness of some, the goodness of others, and the indecision encountered by many when they are faced with crises. Through the fantastical nature of this show came a plethora of creations, puppetry, props, and scenery, including a giant peach.
The original concept for the peach design came from Curtis Phillips, the production’s scenic designer, who showed reference images of a jungle gym and gyroscope at a design meeting. In addition to the aesthetic, Curtis and Dr. Jennifer Chapman (the show’s director) wanted performers to be able to climb on top of it, causing James to take the design and factor in the realms of physics and geometry. In the end, the peach was three-quarters of a sphere that sat atop a turntable, and was roughly 16' wide and 12' tall. It was built out of concentric ladders that pivoted around a central pole using, of all things, roller blade wheels, which were specifically chosen for this unconventional purpose due to how noiselessly they roll.
The design meetings started in October 2019 and a final design decision was reached by late November. The technical design process took place in December, which meant "taking the original design drawings and adapting the design so that the geometry was functional within the parameters of the aesthetic," described James. The lengthy process caused build to take place almost entirely in January.
With the piece’s complexity, the design’s geometry, and the long process, inevitably there were challenges. The design consisted of four concentric rings that pivoted on a central point, 2.5” apart from each other. Challenges included making sure they cleared each other, and that manufacturing was correct. If the littlest part of a ring was off, clean movement would be impossible. “We used a manual roller bender to bend the steel rings, a MIG welder to weld the steel together, and AutoCAD and lots of trigonometry and geometry for the entire design,” James describes.
The initial construction was completed separately, followed by test fit. At that point, James and his students determined that the central pole would be necessary in order for actors to stand on top of it, as their original peach design lacked this element. “We took the entire peach apart, made modifications to the pivot and rings, painted it, and did another test setup - this time, on the turntable – a revolving stage piece. Then, we finally completed the final move into the theatre to set it up for tech and performances.”
After hours of research, design, build and dedication, the namesake giant peach was completed and successfully made the performances come to life. And, after almost 300 hours of creating the peach, it took only 30 minutes to take it apart.