Periaktoi: an ancient solution that still works

A recent post in the Educational Theatre Association’s ( open forum got me thinking about periaktoi. Back in school we thought they were really cool, like revolves, parallels, and a few other scenic solutions, but never used them all that much. The times I’ve seen them used, they’ve pretty much looked the same, so I thought I’d show a few ways of improving the look.

A periaktos (the singular form of periaktoi) is a scenic unit that goes back to the time of the Greek theatres and is mentioned by the Roman architect Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture. Their use became fairly common during the Renaissance as a way to quickly change scenes onstage, and we still see them occasionally. Actually, the same principle has been used on large billboards that can change the ads, although they are being replaced by LED screens.

The unit is simply a box, built as an equilateral triangle, which can rotate on a central vertical axis. Sometimes they are used individually, but more often as a set of several, side by side. When you want to change the scene, you simply rotate them. This is what a set of four periaktoi usually looks like, assuming they are each four feet on a side by twelve feet high:

Periaktoi 4

Notice the straight up-and-down sides, which are of course necessary if the units need to meet. But the outer, left and right edges also end up straight up and down. So let’s do something about this.

Starting off with a simple project, suppose you want to have a hedgerow six feet high, based on a periaktos four feet wide. You can hinge two flaps to it so they open out to create the silhouette of a hedgerow (about seven to eight feet wide total), but can fold in when you want to revolve the unit:

Periaktoi 1

Or, let’s say you want to have a Gothic archway, twelve feet high, on a wall approx. fourteen feet wide. You can hinge half of the archway to each of two periaktoi and have the halves meet in the middle. When you want to go from the castle to somewhere else, you fold the halves of the arch in, and then rotate the units:Periaktoi 2

Now let’s go one more step and create a clump of trees, twelve feel high by almost twelve feet wide. Again, each flap is hinged to the periaktos so they fold in:

Periaktoi 3

In this case, because one flap overlaps the other, you would add a hinged strip between the periaktos and the second flap to allow for the thickness of the first flap:

Periaktoi 7.jpg

Needless to say, all these flaps would be secured in both the open and closed positions so they don’t move when we don’t want them to move. There are a number of ways of securing them, one of the simplest being a hook and eye.

These are just three options, and the possibilities are endless.

Before you build a periaktos, please refer to a good book on scenery construction, or, better yet, consult an experienced theatrical scenery carpenter. These units are not hard to build, but they do require careful construction (especially to avoid tipping over) if they are going to be sturdy and safe and do their job.