The Dodecahedron is a character in the children’s story The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, adapted for the stage by Susan Nanus. ChildsPlay AZ, our local youth theater, performed it during their September-October season. As part of our community work, FabLab Tempe built the Dodecahedron puppet the troupe.
The Dodecahedron is a precocious mathematical construct who meets Milo, the main character, at a fork in the road to Digitopolis. He is described as:
The DODECAHEDRON Appears, a 12-sides figure with a
different face on each side, and with all the edges
labeled with a small letter and all the angles
labeled with a large letter. He wears a beret and
peers at the others with a serious face.
The FabLab Tempe team built a series of these Dodecahedron puppets that culminated in a stage-ready puppet and backup made mostly of laser-cut acrylic. They started as material and geometry sketches, then choroplast (a fantastic material for working fast) and tape tests and finally as glued, sanded acrylic forms with internal lighting.
Development started with a series of requirements from ChildsPlay’s producers and design staff, mainly that it be portable, lit internally and easy to don/doff because it’s onstage for two minutes and the 5 actors were each playing multiple characters.
- Dodecahedron with at least six expressions as faces on geometry
- 18-24″ diameter
- Light and grippy enough for an actor to manipulate easily on stage
- Lit from inside – LED per face, NeoPixel, etc lighting.
- Rechargeable battery in object or on belt – internal is better as belt might be complicated during scene changes.
- Strong enough to survive dozens of shows or cheap enough to build/repair multiple units.
Some elements investigated and rejected included a tensegrity structure instead of finger joints (to complicated) and materials other than acrylic, including HDPE (milk jug plastic), lenticular plastics and polycarbonate. We also descoped the design from the original Dodecahedron as labeling angles and edges and making a doffable beret were to complicated for a two minute puppet.
We iterated through a development spiral that started with the above material and scale tests. Following paper prototypes, 4 units were constructed. The first was a bright and fun choroplast scale rehearsal unit. This was followed by three in laser-cut acrylic, two of which were stage-ready. The final acrylic unit utilized onyx-black acrylic for the faces instead of spraypaint or vinyl stickers, both of which were investigated in testing.
The biggest issue encountered in testing was developing an appropriate handle and handle interface. One constraint was the puppeteer’s size and an injured shoulder. Another was the thinness of the acrylic. Initially the actress wanted a spinning knob on a small lazy susan bearing, but this didn’t provide enough leverage. We eventually came up with using a length of pipe, bicycle handlebar grip and PVC tube mounted on an electrical fixture (thank you, ACE Hardware). The bottom of the Dodecahedron was reinforced with a second layer of acrylic and painted.
Several lighting elements were examined, including a NeoPixel array with Arduino microcontroller, a USB light and glow sticks. The best light was a simple LED bulb from the hardware store. It was bright enough, cheap ($7) and simple to mount.
Fabrication involved many hours of cutting on AME’s Epilog laser cutters and staged assembly. Units were taped, then glued and hand sanded to consistency. Laser cut appliques of the faces were carefully plotted to match ChildsPlay designer Rebecca Akins’ specifications. SciGrip 16 adhesive was used for both the seams and applique. The stage-ready units were then trimmed with black electrical tape.
Photographer: Tim Trumble. The Dodecahedron on stage at Tempe Center for the Arts.
Special Thanks to Xin Wei, Connor, Skaidra, Jenn, Sarah, Dwayne, Rebecca and Anthony for making this project possible.