low-budget alice in wonderland: giant mushrooms

aiw stage

I work in a small rural school district that serves predominantly low-income families. Our drama club has 15-20 members, with a few extra students who join us the week or so before the production to help with crew responsibilities, hair and makeup, and the like. Funding for the drama club comes solely though fundraising. In our case, the annual production is our only fundraiser, which means the play budget comes from ticket sales and accompanying bake sale. We receive no additional funding from the district or outside organizations. With this in mind, the all-in budget for our productions is about $1,000.  After scripts and royalties, we typically have $600-$700 left for sets, wardrobe, advertising, and any other expenses we may incur. Given these circumstances, you can understand why we try to create our productions with thriftiness as a primary mindset.

When designing the set for Charlotte Chorpenning’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (produced by special arrangement with the Dramatic Publishing Company), I liked the idea of building giant mushrooms to decorate the set instead of trees to give the illusion of the miniature Alice so commonly associated with the story. Well, that and the fact that fake foliage is ridiculously expensive.

alice mushroom set

Materials:

  • White PEX Pipe for the caps with connectors (one for each mushroom)
  • 1″x2″ Common Boards for the stems
  • 4″x25′ Air Duct Connector for the stems: will be cut into two 10′ and a 5′
  • Spray Paint
  • Copper Wire (I had this on hand for robotics projects and used it knowing that we could reclaim it afterward)
  • 1/2″ Dowels (purchased from Joann Fabrics)
  • White (or other solid color) bedsheets (we’d purchased a bunch last year from Goodwill for Christmas pageant angels, so I just used those)
  • Muslin or Felt (muslin was left over from previous costumes, and we had large swaths of felt that we’d used for set decorations)
  • Something for the base (more on this later)
  • Hot Glue
  • Duct Tape

Making the Caps

Contrary to the link, I actually had 50′ of PEX pipe to work with for the three mushrooms and a giant teapot (a project that was regrettably scrapped at the last minute).  I cut the pipe into two 12′ and an 8′ length and used the connectors to create hoops. Given the chance to do it again, I would have made the taller mushroom caps larger, but I was worried that they would block too much light.

I made eight marks on each circle to indicate where the wire framing would be attached. Like cutting a pie, I just marked halves, then quarters, then eights.  I cut one piece of wire to go across the length of the circle with some spare for the cap, then used that to make three more wires of the same length.

Using the markings I’d made, I used hot glue to secure the wire and stuck a slice of duct tape over it for good measure:

IMG_3942IMG_3943Once I’d attached all four wires, I held them all where they crossed in the center and hot glued the heck out of it to keep them connected in the center.  I also attached the dowel here to run down the center of the cap, which I’d cut to run a couple of inches longer than the height of the mushroom cap.

I laid the cap down over a sheet and cut around it, leaving an inch or two of excess around the pipe. Then, I hot glued the sheet by folding up the edge and gluing it to the inside of the hoop.  Once I was halfway through gluing the underside of the cap, I cut a small hole for the dowel to feed through.

Next, I propped the cap up so that I could attach the top fabric.  For the smaller one, I stuck the dowel through a hole on a milk crate, but the bigger ones wouldn’t stand up in the crate, so I used masking tape to attach them to a microphone stand. Then I draped fabric over the top: the two large mushrooms are felt, and the smaller one is muslin that I dyed green. Making sure the cap retained its “shape”, I glued the fabric to the top of the hoop.

Once it was glued in place, I carefully cut around the hoop with just enough overhang to wrap underneath.  Then I glued it along the underside and cut away any excess:

IMG_4271

Making the Stems

The first step was to spray paint the duct connector. Be warned: this took me more than one can. I chose a tan color, but you could go with a darker brown, or green, or whichever color you’re feeling.

For the bases, I bought shelving braces, but they didn’t fit well on the 1″x2″ boards.  It was difficult to attach the braces using screws, so I ended up duct taping around them to hold them in place.  This was a workable solution on the smaller mushroom, but it definitely wouldn’t stabilize the taller ones.  Since I discovered this the week of the play, I searched the school for an alternative base and discover that we had some Christmas tree stands that did a fine job:

alice mushroom base
Left: shelf braces and duct tape. Right: Christmas tree stand

If you make these and plan to use a Christmas tree stand, make sure it will hold the 1″x2″. I found several bases in the school, but not all of them would fit the board.

Then I cut the air duct connector into two 10′ sections and a 5′.  I slid them over the top of the board before attaching the caps.

Assembling the Mushrooms

I’m sure there’s a better way to do this, but this is about how I did it, and I’m going to stay true to that. To assemble the caps to the stems, I lined the dowel up to the top of the board and duct taped the heck out of it. My rationale for this was twofold: it only needed to last through the week, and I was running out of time.

alice mushroom cap attachment alice mushroom cap underside
I left it overnight to make sure they would stand. Once they survived the night, I lifted up the air duct connector, taped it on the inside to the stem, and stapled it a couple of times to ensure it would stay up. If you look carefully at the top photo from the dress rehearsal, you’ll see that it did not stay up on the small mushroom, so make sure your stage manager has a roll of duct tape for last-minute repairs.

With the mushrooms fully assembled, we cloaked the bases with fabric scraps.
alice bare set with mushrooms

There you have it! If I’ve left anything out, please let me know and I would be glad to answer your questions. Again, I know that there are cooler giant mushrooms out there, but this is how I did it in a couple of weeks with a pretty small budget.

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