Most fans of Four Horsemen Studios know us for the work we have done over the years in the toy and action figure industry, whether that be the projects we have done for other companies, or via our popular in-house Legions lines. Toys are not the only things we work on at the studio, however. In this Behind the Scenes article, we will take a look at a very cool project that we completed recently and which has just been revealed – the incredibly detailed piano at the center of the Broadway play, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.
Our Work with Prop Designs
If you’ve ever been to Four Horsemen Studios for a tour, perhaps during an Intern for a Day event, you know that we share space with a company called BBProps. This company not only stores set pieces, costumes, and props for various Broadway productions, but they also fabricate various items for plays, television, and movies. For many of the projects that require sculpting, molding, or casting, BBProps partners with Four Horsemen Studios. Together, we've been able to do items that have appeared on Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Seth Myers, the Apple TV show Severance and HBO's "Succession", along with many others.
About The Piano Lesson
According to the website for August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson”:
A battle is brewing in the Charles household. At the center lies the family’s prized heirloom piano. On one side, a brother plans to build the family fortune by selling it. On the other, a sister will go to any length to keep it and preserve the family history. Only their uncle stands in between. But even he can’t hold back the ghosts of the past.
THE PIANO LESSON is the play for now. It reaches into the souls of the present, revealing startling truths about how we perceive our past—and who gets to define our legacy.
Playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre at 243 W. 47th Street in New York City, The Piano Lesson stars Academy Award® winner Samuel L. Jackson, Screen Actors Guild Award® nominee John David Washington, and Tony® and Emmy® nominee Danielle Brooks, It is directed by Tony nominee LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
About this Project
Earlier this year, Beowulf Borrit, the set designer for the play, contacted BBProps about creating this intricate prop. He provided references on what the piano should look like, which included complex panels carved into the sides of the instrument. Those panels would tell the story of the Charles family.
BBProps built the structure of the piano itself, which included a space to insert a playable keyboard so the piano would be usable. Openings for three panel sections were allocated for the carvings – the front and back, as well as the side that faces the audience. For this they turned to Four Horsemen Studios and Bill Mancuso.
The panels themselves needed to be done in the style of Makonde art. The Makonde are an ethnic group in southeast Tanzania, northern Mozambique, and Kenya. The Makonde developed their culture on the Mueda Plateau in Mozambique. At present they live throughout Tanzania and Mozambique, and have a small presence in Kenya. Makonde art often depicts scenes of daily life, and that is what was needed for the piano. The panels were meant to tell the story of the Charles family. Using Z-brush, Bill digitally sculpted these panels. The large scene at the front of the instrument told the story of the Charles family matriach, while other panels featured other members of the family over the years.
Note: the first two image below show renderings of the sculptures Bill created, while the third on is an original piece of Makonde art used for reference.
The panels themselves were quite large, so while the team did print a small section to test for fit and style (the second image below shows that small piece of the front top panel added in for testing), the final versions that would be used were printed in California. Shipped back to New Jersey, those panels were added to the structure of the piano and the entire instrument was painted so it looks like one cohesive piece.
Once completed, the piano was transported to the theatre where the set design team added lights into the structure itself, providing visual effects that would be used during performances of The Piano Lesson.
You can see images of the creation of this amazing prop throughout this article, and below is one of the promotional images that has been shared for this production which very prominently shows the piano that BBProps and Four Horsemen Studios created.
After this article was first posted, it was announced that this stage prop would be heading to The Smithsonian once the show completes its Broadway run on January 29th, 2023. The Piano at the center of this production is being donated to The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is an incredible honor to have a piece of our work recognized in this way!
For more reading on this stage prop, see below:
The Piano Head to the Smithsonian - article here
How the Design Team Created the Piano - article here
Published on 01.27.23