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Tiny Theaters at Lighthouse ASP

Tiny Theaters at Lighthouse ASP

Many of the activities we host in the Tinkering Studio are inspired by artist residencies and collaborations. This year's visit by tinkerer-in-residence Tim Hunkin was not only a great time to work together, but also prompted a new activity for us to try with students in the after school program at Lighthouse Community Charter School. Continuing on the idea of Tim Hunkin's "peep shows," we spent several weeks making Tiny Theaters. Tiny theaters take place in an enclosed cardboard shoe box and use lights and mechanical elements to tell a brief story when looking through a viewing window.


Before we dove into making our tiny theaters, we began the day by thinking about narrative and storytelling. The group worked together to tell an "exquisite corpse" style story, where each person added an element to the plot and said "and then..." to pass the story on to the next person. We ended up telling a silly story about a panda that likes peanut butter but makes a huge mess and a dog that helps clean it up. To me, this process was valuable for conveying that storytelling isn't something that's serious and unapproachable - we were able to work together to come up with ideas quickly and could shape the narrative as we went. This scaffolding helped to set the tone for the day and prepared us to dive into making our tiny theaters.

Some students weren't sure where they wanted to start and began by drilling holes into boxes as eye holes. We found that a 1" forstner bit was the perfect size to make a hole for viewing. The biggest challenge was getting through several layers of cardboard. In the photo below, Marla is showing Ahmed some helpful techniques for using the drill that she had learned earlier.


Other students came in with ideas right away; for example, Katrina wanted to tell the story of an activist she learned about on a school-day field trip the previous week who she found inspiring. She began with the elements inside the box first, building out the pieces of the story that she wanted to move, then added the circuitry for the lights and switches in the later weeks of the project.

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Marla was inspired by the sea, and made a stormy scene with two sets of lights. The calm blue seas are replaced by a darker second scene that drops in, while the LEDs flash and flicker to replicate lightning.
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Antero decided to forgo the idea of a story completely, and instead built a complicated circuit with multiple lights that acts as a game. The goal is to move a dot of light that comes through a hole in the top of the box between the blue and white lights inside the box without them touching. It's a little hard to see in the photos, but it's really amazing in person. Along the way we also discovered that the hole in the top of the box acts as a pinhole camera too!
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Thalia incorporated elements of her paper circuit card into her tiny theater. The devil emoji pops up by pulling a string in the back to scare the children in the scene so they run away. Although it's unfinished in the photos, the plan is for the pop up to also activate a switch that turns on the light inside the box.

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In terms of curriculum development, I like how this activity followed our explorations of both paper circuits and sound, and was the perfect segue to continue into more complex experiments within those themes. Adding elements of movement and narrative made the projects more personal for each student than the original paper circuit cards. There was also a greater focus on designing circuits with more complexity - either by adding multiple lights, having more than one circuit on the box, or adding switches to animate the scenes. In the weeks before building the tiny theaters, the students at Lighthouse used piezo mics to explore harvesting sounds and recorded them onto greeting card sound modules. They were available as a material to incorporate into the theaters, but most in the group ended up choosing not to use them. I think if we had had more time to work on the theaters, incorporating recorded sounds would definitely have been in the next steps.

Interested in making your own tiny theater? In addition to the materials for Paper Circuits, it's helpful to have:

  • A shoe box or small box 
  • 1" forstner bit and drill for making eye holes (an x-acto knife works well too)
  • Coin cell battery holders (like these)
  • Popsicle sticks, tongue depressors, skewer sticks, etc.
  • Small weights like metal washers
  • String, yarn, fishing line, etc.
  • Hot glue gun and glue
  • Awl (to poke holes in the box for the LEDs)
  • Greeting card sound modules (for recording in the story)

Here's an example of a tiny theater that tells the story of Bruce Wayne turning into Batman to save Gotham City from the Joker. Each step uses either movement and mechanisms or switches that control LEDs to continue the narrative.


For building your theater, the beauty of this activity is that the possibilities are almost endless! There are many points you can start from, then build out new elements as you go. You can experiment with creating mechanisms that pop up, slide, drop in from outside the box, swing, or fold to help convey the narrative. You can explore circuitry by deciding where to place LEDs. You can use homemade switches to choose when you trigger lights to turn on and off. The sound modules can record songs, voices, or sound effects to add to your story. By using some or all of these techniques, you can create a small world in a box to tell your story!

This collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.