Rabbit Hole #1

3D Printing—Bringing Theatre to Life in a New Way

Many industries have begun utilizing 3D printing to make work easier and more efficient. This technology is even making its way into the arts. Broadway theatres, university theatre departments, and theatres everywhere are implementing 3D printing technologies to construct props, and even to build entire sets. 3D printing brings new elements of realism and creativity into theatre. It is the future of stage and set design, by enabling mass customization of specific designs, independent of outside factors, such as time constraints and availability. The market for 3D printers in theatre has really changed from DIY projects to machines for professionals. 

How Does 3D Printing Work?

3D printing (also called additive manufacturing) is the process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed item involves additive processes, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of a material until the object is fully created. Each of the layers is a thinly sliced cross-section of the object. 3D printing enables the user to produce complex shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing materials. 

To create a 3D printed object, it starts with a 3D model. This can either be created from the ground up, or downloaded from a 3D library. After you have a printable file, the next step is to prepare the file for the 3D printer (slicing). Slicing is the process of cutting up a 3D model into hundreds or thousands of layers, and is done with a slicing software. After the file is sliced, it is ready to be inserted into the 3D printer, which can be done via USB, SD, or wi-fi. The file will then be 3D printed layer by layer. 

3D printing technology used to only be used for prototyping and one-off manufacturing in early stages, but now is transforming into a widely-used production technology. 3D printing has become destined to infiltrate many industries, even the arts. 

The First 3D Printed Set

The first entirely 3D printed set was for a show called “Fra Diavolo,” at the Opera Theater in Rome, Italy. The set was created by a 3D printing company in Rome, WASP, and took around 3 months to complete. It was made using cheaper material than what is usually used in 3D printing, and a total of five printers. To begin the process, the scenographer gave WASP a 3D printed model of deformed historic buildings, that was divided into 223 pieces. This model was then used to create a lifesize model that could be used for the show’s set. 

3D Printing Takes Broadway

Broadway scenic designers, Kacie Hultgren and John Lee Beatty, know that 3D printing technology has revolutionized the modern-day theatre world. One of their first tasks for each show is to create a miniature model of the set to show to the director, and the rest of the team, what the scenic environment will look like. Usually, creating this miniature model is tedious, and takes around one week. But, with 3D printing, the models are created fairly quicker, and are made out of primarily plastic. The printer can create a fully-formed prototype of any object, and it doesn’t take nearly as long as it used to. It is also common to need more than one of the same piece. With 3D printing, the pieces are able to be made completely identical. For the production of ‘Outside Mullingar,’ Hultgren was able to create large sections of entire sets of furniture. The desktop printers used for Broadway shows are large, and able to print entire scenic units to scale. 3D printing technology has been used to create sets for productions such as Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2012 production of ‘Don’t Dress for Dinner,’ ‘The Nance,’ ‘Orphans,’ and ‘The Snow Geese.’ 

3D Printed Theatre Props

Although building an entire set with 3D printing technology is not all that common yet, 3D printing props is a quick, easy, and cheaper way of creating exactly what you need—a World War II-era handgun or a skull-shaped candy dish. It is an easier and cheaper way to acquire items that are longer being produced, such as brooches or hatpins for a period piece. It gives the set designer(s) a way to be more flexible and creative with their set design, and the team can be involved throughout the entire process. You can walk away and work on other things while printing, customize the props however you’d like, and go back and fix little details if needed. You can also use 3D printing to create miniatures on a small-scale model to save time instead of carving out all of the little details. The process, depending on how complicated a prop’s design is, can take 20 minutes to up to a couple of hours. 3D printing is also helpful if a prop needs to be broken in a scene. There can be multiple replacement items to replace it. The 3D printer is becoming an important tool in a theatre designer’s tool bag. And it’s now being taught to future generations of theatre professionals. 3D printing skills are giving them a competitive advantage in the job market. 

Implementing 3D Printing into Theatre Education

Not only is 3D printing being used in professional theatre, but it’s also being taught to future theatre technicians and scenic designers at universities, such as the University of Lynchburg, Baylor University, University of Pennsylvania, Arizona State University, Trinity College Dublin, and Royal College of Art

University of Lynchburg (Lynchburg, Virginia)

Christopher Otwell, assistant professor of design and technical director at the University of Lynchburg, is teaching students to create props in a 3D printing course. Students use open-source software, such as Tinkercad and Simplify3D, to make props with the theatre department’s 3D printer. For one of their first projects, they were instructed to replicate an Old Bay seasoning jar. They have also made luggage tags, rubber ducks, and a heart-shaped candy box complete with plastic candies. After designing the props in Tinkercad, they then use Simplify3D to find out how many layers are involved, how much the project will cost, and how long it will take to print each item. The course is a win-win situation for both the Otwell and the students. The students learn a new skill, and Otwell is able to delegate prop making work for productions. 3D printing is making a direct impact on the university’s theatre productions. 

Baylor University (Waco, Texas)

For Baylor University’s production of ‘Into the Woods,’ the team used a 3D printer to create synthetic beans, mushrooms, and more. Using 3D printing software, assistant professor of theatre arts at the university, Joe Kucharski, was able to tug, flatten, and pinch a digital “ball of clay” into the desired shape, two dozen beans and a dozen mushrooms for the Witch’s dress.

University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

At the University of Pennsylvania, former lecturer of theatre arts, Eric Baratta, is starting to incorporate 3D printing into courses using a software called SketchUp. Students were assigned to look at the first scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, specifically the elements of design (line, dimension, movement, light, color, and texture) and composition (unity, harmony, contrast, variation, balance, proportion, emphasis, and rhythm/movement) to build virtual scenes. They finalized their designs and made sure they were optimized for 3D printing. The simplicity of the students’ designs carried through elegantly to the physical model, and the projects were all extremely successful.

Arizona State University (Tucson, Arizona)

Arizona State University’s, ‘Makerspace,’ is designed for students to collaborate and explore new skills. Students used the software, MakerBot Replicator+, to create costumes for a production of the Greek tragedy, ‘Ajax.’ Involved in this production are costumes with teeth. With their 3D printing technology, they were able to scan the teeth and print them in-house, decreasing their budget, and providing the students with a new learning opportunity. The use of a 3D printer has created an open and collaborative community at the university.

Trinity College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland)

The Lir, National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin’s courses offer unique, practice-based experiences for their students. The Academy has a partnership with Craftbot, a brand of 3D printing technology. Craftbot provided the college with two 3D printers to enhance the learning possibilities for their students. Maree Kearns, Head of the Master of Fine Arts in Stage Design, notes that the printers are not only used for set design, but also costume design. 3D printing can be used to make fabric and fabric layovers, accessories, medals, pins, and buttons for costumes. The 3D printers are accurate and simple to use, and are compatible with multiple types of filaments, such as plastic, wood resin, or metal. Professors at the college know that as 3D printing becomes more mainstream, students need to be able to use it. 

Royal College of Art (London, England)

Royal College of Art’s production of ‘Farewell My Concubine,’ featured actors wearing unique pleated costumes created a selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printer. Students who worked on this project created algorithms that could be read by printer software to generate pleated fabric to contour the actors’ bodies. This type of 3D printing technology uses these created algorithms to selectively harden parts of a mass powder in a vat. After curing by a laser, the pleated design remains intact and the excess powder is removed. This project was groundbreaking for the school, and taught the students a more complicated process of 3D printing technology. 


3D printing technology is becoming more and more widely used in the theatre industry. There have been many projects that have paved the way for a collaboration between theatre and this technology. 3D printing is transforming the industry, and making the process of set construction faster, cheaper, and higher quality. 


Andreoli, Maurizio. “The first 3d printed Scenography.” Wasp. September 29, 2017.

“Autodesk Tinkercad.” Tinkercad. Accessed March 4, 2022.

“Complete 3D Printing Solutions Customized to Your Experience.” Craftbot. Accessed March 4, 2022.

“Five Industries Utilizing 3D Printing.” Markforged. Accessed March 4, 2022.

Gentry, Bryan. “3D printer brings ideas to life for theatre students.” University of Lynchburg. March 12, 2018.

Goodrich, Terry. “Sculpting Costumes with 3D Printers is ‘the Way Theater is Headed,’ Theatre Arts Chair Says of Baylor’s New Technology.” Baylor University. October 8, 2014.

“Improve Your Print Quality With Powerful 3D Printing Software.” Simplify3D. Accessed March 4, 2022.

“Lighting Up the West End With High Accuracy 3D Printing.” Formlabs. August 5, 2021.

“MakerBot Replicator+.” Trimech. Accessed March 4, 2022.

Ramsey, David. “Surprising Ways a Performing Arts Department Can Use 3D Printing.” TriMech. August 28, 2020.

Scully, Leah. “3D Printed Costumery Creates Juxtaposition between Culture, Theater, and Tech.” MachineDesign. November 9, 2017.

Simonson, Robert. “3D Printers Revolutionize Work of Broadway Scenic Designers.” Playbill. March 2, 2014.

Somers, Ira. “State Design Just Got Easier with 3D Printing.” Massivit 3D. July 19, 2018.

“Theatrical plays with 3D printed props and decorations.” Craftbot. Accessed February 25, 2022.

“What is 3D Printing?” 3D Printing. Accessed March 4, 2022.

“Where great ideas get to work.” SketchUp. Accessed March 4, 2022.

Witherel, Claire. “3D Printing Meets Theatre Set Design @ Education Commons.” Penn Teaching, Research & Learning. May 16, 2018.

Leave a Reply