What’s Playing the Role of Sand in Stranded on Earth?

My two least favorite things to see on stage are glitter and sand.

Sure, they might look great. Maybe they really serve the story. But I know from personal experience that every time glitter or sand appears on stage, that means some poor stagehand is going to be sweeping, vacuuming, and mopping that stuff up – and probably breathing it in, too – for years. Those teeny-tiny bits get stuck in every corner and crevice of the theatre and then, I swear, they take turns sneaking out into the open so there’s always just a little bit more to clean up and you can never get it all at once. So, no matter how perfect an artistic choice they may be, I can’t help cringing a little whenever I see them used in a show.

Thank goodness we’re not using real sand for the set of Stranded on Earth! The scenic design by Chelsea Warren does call for a mound of sand that Brigitt Markusfeld, as the character Alexa, uses throughout the play to create a work of art. But it turns out there are plenty of reasons other than my personal vendetta to keep sand off stage: sand is heavy, inhaling silica dust is a health hazard, and the grains tend to get mixed up with other particles so you’re never exactly sure what you’re getting.

rubber sample
Rubber “sand”

Chelsea and our director, William Brown, both recently saw a production at Chicago’s Court Theatre that featured a fake sand they really liked. It’s made out of rubber, which is nice because it has no sharp edges and doesn’t absorb moisture, and it’s ground into pieces that are much larger than your average grain of sand. The size difference isn’t noticeable from a distance, but it means that the pieces can’t hide from brooms and vacuums as easily as sand does. Better yet, the Court had no use for their leftover fake sand, so they were willing to give us a great deal on it! Perfect, right? Well…not yet.

cork samples
Cork “sand”

Originally, Chelsea’s design featured a layer of sand covering the whole stage – that’s 35 cubic feet, or 262 gallons. The Court only had about 10 cubic feet of the rubber material, and buying the rest new would be too expensive. So Matt Reinert, our intrepid Director of Production, started researching other sand substitutes. He considered just about anything that comes in small pieces, including edible grains and seeds. The best balance of cost, appearance, and non-allergy-inducing seemed to be ground-up cork, which comes in fine and coarse varieties.

Chelsea Warren's scenic model
Chelsea Warren’s scenic model

But nothing looked as good as the rubber sand, which Chelsea liked so much that she modified her design to use less of it. That means we’re able to make do with the amount the Court Theatre had available, and it may also make it easier for Brigitt to create designs with the material, since she’ll have some empty space to push it into.

The staff at the Court packed up what they had, and then they just had to wait for an ice storm to clear up before they could ship it to us. It arrived safely and, now that we’re into tech rehearsals, Brigitt gets to spend lots of time playing in it. It’s much more realistic than the substitute she had to use earlier in the rehearsal process (click the picture for a larger version):blankets


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