December 13, 2022
Let it snow
Wintertime in Chicago can often feel like being stuck in a snowglobe; however, have you ever wondered how theatrical productions are able to make it snow on stage? We had a chat with Scott Wolfson (Associate Technical Director) to hear how the technical team brings the beauty and magic of snow into our theater without including the windchill.
Lyric: What is the process for making it snow on stage?
Wolfson: We use two methods. The classic version is to use a snow bag. This is kind of like a fabric hammock, which uses a 3'x40' snow cradle that is stretched between two parallel bars flown above the stage. The fabric is mostly solid, but has a strip of holes that runs along its length. The snow bag is filled and raised overhead. One of the bars is lowered or raised to shift the snow, letting it fall from the holes. The other method is to use snow drums. These are perforated metal tubes that are attached to a flown bar. We'll put 7-10 on a bar with a motor on one end. The motor spins the drums, causing the snow to fall out.
Lyric: What is the snow made of?
Wolfson: Typically we'll use snow made from plastic. It's essentially shredded plastic grocery bags. This is a fluffier, quieter option, but can be slippery. The other product is made from flame retardant paper, and looks like the stuff you clean out of a 3-hole punch.
Lyric: Is this one stagehand's specific duty, when called for?
Wolfson: It tends to be cross-departmental. Snow bags are hung and operated by carpenters, but filled by props. Snow drums are hung and operated by electricians, and filled by props.
Lyric: How much snow did we use for Fiddler on the Roof?
Wolfson: Fiddler used approximately 150 cubic feet of snow on the stage, with 3 bars of snow drums overhead. The snow on the ground came from the Komische Oper Berlin, and was reused. The snow overhead was new snow each time.
Lyric: How do you make sure it covers the area of the stage that you need it to?
Wolfson: Fiddler had a large 'quilt' that was brought on stage during the intermission and stretched across the deck. Once that's down the props crew used brooms and shovels to spread paper snow across the stage, making sure to create drifts along the walls and central cabinet. The snow drums overhead were spaced apart to create visual depth.
Lyric: Does it require special lighting?
Wolfson: Snow falling from drums or bags is lit from the sides to highlight it. Without that light, it would be much, much less visible.
Lyric: How does cleanup go?
Wolfson: Needless to say, it's endless. We'll have snow kicking around the corners of the building for years. Much like confetti, you can sweep and vacuum all you want, but it never gets it all. During the run of Fiddler, we used electric leaf blowers to clean off the overhead lighting to ensure it didn't fall during Ernani. We also have fabric covers to wrap the snow drums when not being used, to prevent any snow from shaking loose.
Lyric: I’ve heard a rumor about us inheriting the snow they used in the Home Alone film. How did that happen? Do we still have any of it?
Wolfson: Can't say I've heard that one, but it's definitely not true. Movies typically use biodegradable or artificially produced snow.
Lyric: Obviously, Fiddler is not the first show we’ve used snow in. Are there any recurring issues?
Wolfson: No real blunders, but during rehearsals a director inevitably will ask for heavier and heavier snow. The person raising and lowering the snow bag will take larger and larger pulls of the rope until eventually it just dumps the contents.