STEAMed Chicken

Back when I was in advertising and making TV commercials, I used to love to walk through the set and listen to the film crew as they worked.  I’m talking about the grips and gaffers, soundmen and camera assistants. These are the guys who did all the technical work, which required a lot of heavy lifting, rigging, precise lighting, and electrical know-how.  Business attire for them was jeans, t-shirt, and a tool belt and it’s my guess not a single one of them owned a tie. You might be forgiven if you labeled these guys ‘blue collar’ and deemed the actors, writers, and designers on the set as the ‘creative ones.’  As if a person could only be one or the other. As if there were no overlap. In point of fact, I learned more about the art of lighting and photography and creating illusion from the crew than just about anyone else. As I walked about the set, I’d listen to various members talk about the latest film stock as if it were a new paint palette or critique the most recent foreign film playing at the Charles Theatre. These are the guys who introduced me to Indie music. And 9 times out of 10, they were the ones who nonchalantly came up with the best adlibs when a line needed to be re-written on the spot. They were an endless source of creativity, who magically brought the imagination of others to life with artistry and skill.

It is with this same appreciation for the source of creativity – no matter from whom or where it springs – that I write today’s blog post. You see, November is the month that NDP puts on its big musical. This year they did Stephen Sondheim’s, Into the Woods, a lyrical mash-up of Grimm Fairy Tales, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. NDP English teacher and play director, Ms. Maggie Ward, had no problem casting ‘Hood, ‘Ella, and Jack. But what, she wondered, was she going to do about the all important hen-who-laid-the-golden-egg of Beanstalk fame?  Not to panic. Enter civil engineer and NDP teacher, Mr. Patrick Cusick, and his engineering class to the rescue. Ms. Ward conveyed her needs to the girls.

“I need a chicken,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“A chicken?” engineering student and senior, Jazz Keys, repeated (not sure she had heard correctly).

“Yes.  A chicken.” Ms. Ward confirmed.

” A chicken, ” Senior and Lacrosse Team Captain, Meghan Bennett, restated.  “Uh, a live one?”

“A live one will never hit its mark,” Ms. Ward explained as if from experience. “No. I need a robotic chicken. One that can move across the stage by itself, on cue, and be big enough to be seen by the audience in the last row.”

The girls thought for a moment.

“Could it be a rooster?” Senior Annie Maras asked, thinking outside the chicken coop.

“No! It really has to be a chicken,” Ms. Ward said firmly.

More thinking.

“Could it be a hen?” Jazz asked hesitantly.

“Yes. It can be a hen,” Ms. Ward conceded.

“What’s the difference?” Meghan whispered to Jazz, confused.

Jazz shrugged.

“I’ll Google it later,” she whispered back, out of the corner of her mouth.

“Any other questions?” asked Ms. Ward.

The girls shook their heads and headed out the door.

“Oh! And one more thing,” Ms. Ward called after them. “I need it fast. And I need it cheap!”

And with that, Mr. Patrick Cusick’s enterprising and creative engineering class set to work. On their own. With very little supervision and with tremendous enthusiasm. Their biggest challenge was not how to get the chicken to cross the stage. On its own. They are engineering students, after all. No, their biggest challenge was what the body of the hen should look like and be made of. They did a lot of research, put a Powerpoint show together, and presented their ideas to Ms. Ward. In all, 5 chickens auditioned for the part. Ms. Ward rejected the girls’ first choice: an homage to the popular video game, Angry Birds, which the girls thought the less theatrically inclined in the audience might appreciate. Especially the boys (particularly the boys). While Ms. Ward appreciated the marketing aspects of the project the girls had considered, she nevertheless asked,

“What else ya got?”

There was a metal chicken (too heavy); a paper mache chicken (too fragile) and a plush chicken (no place to hide the robotic brain).  Finally, they showed Ms. Ward a chicken made from coffee filters. Genius! They could make it big enough to be seen from the last row (just add more coffee filters) and they could hide the brain deep down in the coffee filter feathers. With the director’s approval, the engineering students set to work building a prototype. When I visited the class, the first of many robotic hens was just coming off the assembly line. Senior Jazz Keys (who once confessed to taking apart her Barbie’s pink Ferrari and refashioning it as a motorized Hummer used to transport her brother’s hamsters) was at the controls. The chicken sat on a mechanized platform. When Jazz operated the robot remotely, sure enough, the chicken moved across the classroom floor. Just not in a straight line. On the bright side, the chicken did move its head up and down in a sort of pecking motion.

“Very authentic,” I congratulated them.

“A happy accident,” Meghan confessed.

With only a week until the first performance the girls had some work to do. It was critical that the bird not look as if it had just failed a breathalyzer test. Might send the wrong message to the teenage audience. The girls assured Ms. Ward that they would work out that ‘one little kink’.

The engineering program at NDP is in its second year and is part of the larger STEAM program (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) where creativity is core; whether it is the creativity involved in research, engineering, design, or problem solving. And because they have been exposed to the creative and collaborative aspects of engineering, the three students I interviewed plan to pursue engineering in college. Meghan has already been recruited and accepted by the Naval Academy where she would like to study ocean engineering. Annie would like to attend the University of Maryland and study civil or mechanical engineering. Jazz cannot decide between Virginia Tech, West Point, and the Naval Academy. I have no doubt, however, that wherever she goes she will be able to take things apart and put them together to her heart’s content.

And the chicken? True to their word, the girls worked out the kinks and the chicken was a straight-shooting success, as was the entire production. Still, just to be on the safe side…they built a backup chicken.

It was reported the understudy did not need to go on that night.

Here’s to those with imagination and those who bring other’s imagination to life.

NEXT WEEK: Focus on Maggie Ward.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Cami says:

    I saw the chicken and can verify that it performed nicely…as did all of the actors and singers in last weekend’s productions. Kudos!

  2. Anna says:

    This is so great! As an engineer alumna, I would have loved to have a program like this. 🙂

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