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3D printing adds magic touch to Wallace theater
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3D printing adds magic touch to Wallace theater

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When the house lights go down and “The Magic School Bus” makes its debut this week at Wallace Community College in Dothan, there will be set pieces built with a mix of old-school carpentry, free-hand artistry, and 3D printing ingenuity.

The front of the school bus for one was created in large part with 3D printers purchased by the theater department. The curved fenders, bumpers and hood, as well as the amber lights, headlights, and hubcaps, were all printed in smaller pieces and then put together like jigsaw puzzles. They were bonded, sanded, and painted by students to give the finished look.

One fender took more than a week just to print with multiple printers.

Producing set pieces with 3D printers opens up a new realm of possibilities for theater programs like the one at Wallace, said Zac West, who is serving as the technical director for “The Magic School Bus.” West has worked with Wallace theater director Charles Sirmon in the past creating elaborate costumes and set design for productions. The 3D printers allowed a new approach to set design at the community college.

“It’s endless,” West said of the possibilities.

Based on the books and animated television series, “The Magic School Bus” takes young audiences on an educational journey with Ms. Frizzle’s class as their school bus transforms into a rocket ship for the ultimate field trip into space.

Tickets are $5 for students and $10 for general admission with performances on Nov. 18 and Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 20 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Bencze Theater inside Cherry Hall on the Wallace Community College Dothan campus. Tickets can be purchased at

A 3D printer uses materials – typically heated plastics – to create a three-dimensional object one layer at a time, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. A 3D blueprint for the object is created with computer-aided design software. With the Wallace 3D printers, a jump drive containing the computer blueprint is plugged into the printer and a nozzle deposits layer after layer onto a glass platform. Each layer solidifies before the next layer is printed directly on top of it. The process continues until the object is fully printed.

Such printers have come down in price since they first came out. Smaller tabletop printers like the ones at Wallace can run from $500 to $1,000.

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Making the pieces for “The Magic School Bus” started in late July.

First, West had to print a scale model (which took five hours), and from there he scaled up using 3D software to program the printers for the larger pieces needed to make the bus.

“It just draws each layer, and once it gets this layer completely done, then it moves up to the next layer and just continues and draws and draws and draws and draws until it’s all finished,” West said. “It’s insane, but all the detail, all the stuff it can do when it goes to those layers is incredible.”

While it can take hours or days to print an object, West said the printers free up theater and art students to work on other things for a production. Plus, he said, it allows the theater department to easily create multiple items that all need to look the same.

The completed school bus on the stage in Bencze Theater will actual pivot in a circle as it “transforms” from a school bus to rocket ship, with water-based stage smoke spewing from a rear engine, a starry backdrop of lighting and a series of proscenium arches framing the stage with freehand drawings by Wallace freshman Ashiah Brown.

Wallace theater director Charles Sirmon said using 3D printing is one way the theater department is trying to expand its technical theater arts program. Sirmon said the department used money from past ticket sales to buy the printers. Students, he said, are learning new skills and using math skills they may have never thought they’d use otherwise.

Sirmon said more and more students are expressing an interest in learning the technical side of theater set design.

“Technical things are exciting but it’s challenging in here,” Sirmon said. “We’re trying to update lighting, sound; we’re trying to update the facility itself so we can expand and do more… We don’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but we create the bells and whistles.”

Theater students said the expanding technical arts program at Wallace not only opens up new possibilities for set and prop design but it also opens up new possibilities for them as well.

Audrey Huff, a Wallace sophomore, got into theater after seeing the department’s production of “Cinderella” and was so impressed with the costuming and set design that she wanted to be a part of it. Not only has she worked on the set, she’s also playing one of the “Magic School Bus” students.

“I thought it was really cool being able to see everything in a bunch of little pieces, and honestly getting printed and it coming from nothing, and then everybody doing their part and putting it all together,” Huff said. “It’s just so cool how with the help of everybody we had nothing and now we have this.”

Peggy Ussery is a Dothan Eagle staff writer and can be reached at or 334-712-7963. Support her work and that of other Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at


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