Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Women in the Scene Shop

Recently on a woman started a conversation about the frustration and annoyance she feels being a woman technician in the theatre world. I have struggled with this issue a lot personally and I wanted to share some of my opinions, experiences and decisions.

I feel like this issue is the constant struggle of women working in the industry. We face double standards and catch 22s a lot. You are told that in order to get any respect you must be able to do exactly the same amount of work as your male counterparts, but at the same time you should accept help when offered by a "gentleman" and know your limits. You are told to speak up for yourself and assert your skills and your rights, but speak up too much and people of will get frustrated at that woman who cries sexism at every turn.

First I think I should mention my incredible good fortune to have been brought into the world of technical theatre and trained by a women, the technical director of my college theatre program. I was able to start in a place where being female made absolutely no difference at all. By learning in an environment that was so gender-equal I was able to understand what my work environment should feel like, and I have been better able to recognize that type of environment and later create it myself.

My boss at one of my first professional jobs, when explaining why he hired me, explained something else for me incredibly well. He told me that he often doesn't like working with young female technicians because they often talk about their work like they have something to prove. He explained how he had interviewed another woman for the job who, during the interview, mentioned again and again how she was just as good as the male carpenters and he was completely put off by it. Since then my personal rule has been to avoid acting like I have something to prove and instead act like I've already proven it. This is not to say that I don't work my butt off, but I do it with confidence. I don't need to be looking over my shoulder to see if anyone is judging me, I work like I know that they aren't.

When I first started out as a carpenter, I refused to accept my limits. I remember unloading lumber trucks at my first summer stock job. I would watch the master carpenter take a stack of six 2x4s off of the truck and say to myself, "if Adam can carry six then I can carry six," and I would. The problem is that I was completely ignoring the physics of the situation and probably risking seriously injuring myself. Adam was literally twice my size. Regardless of gender, Adam should have been able to carry more lumber than me. I have since learned to respect the laws of physics. Sometimes the guys can do the heavier lifting, and that's ok. And I know some women in the industry will argue with me, but if some condescending guy comes up to me moving something heavy and gives me a "let me help you with that sweetheart," I let them. I find it much more effective not to argue, I just hand off the heavy thing and move onto something equally heavy/challenging/or high skill. Eventually the smart ones will understand that you are perfectly capable of handling yourself, and the ones who don't weren't going to get it anyway.

The biggest struggle for me as a woman in a job dominated by men was reconciling my behavior at work with my feminist political and social views. As a feminist I have been taught that I shouldn't let anything slide, that the details are the fight of my generation if we want to achieve real equality. I have felt at times though that by pointing out the details in terms of gender equality, the attention shifts away from the thing that is most important, my work.I have been fortunate not to work with any extreme bigots, but I have noticed that while men are willing to adjust their points of view, once they begin to think of me as someone who knows about gender issues and workplace reform, they forget, on some level, the most important thing- my expertise in technical theatre.  As a result I have started picking my battles a little bit more. I will still stand up for myself on important issues, but I let a lot slide. My hope is that I am making things just a little bit better for the women who will come after me. I hope that a pleasant experience with me (and maybe a few good natured reminders) will result in male technicians showing the next female they work with that much more respect from the start.

Like I've said, I've struggled a lot with this issue, and I'm not sure all of my conclusions are final. I would love to hear about your experiences with similar issues.

Friday, December 25, 2009

On Regional Theatre- Part 2 the perks of freelance

Let me start off by saying that I have only been freelance for about a year, and I know that things will continue to change as I work my way more into the freelance community, but here are the perks I see for now.

One of the biggest benefits to freelance work is the variety. As an artist I have been forced to learn more, quicker working freelance than I ever did when I was a resident at a company. One day I will be working on a big musical and the next day a period piece and then I will go do a modern comedy. In the past twelve months I have worked in 14 different spaces, from large auditoriums, to outdoor spaces to basement studio theatres, and each one presents a new set of opportunities, limitations and experiences. I've adapted, problem solved and become a better theatre artist for it.

The variety is a benefit, not only in the shows and the spaces, but in the people. In regional theatre, working with the same people each day can be wonderful. As I mentioned in the last regional theatre post, the sense of being a part of a team is something that can't be beat. The problem comes when nothing changes on the team for a long period of time. At some point the same six people doing one show together after another will start to get stale. You know how you have approached problems before and just go back to the same solutions to solve the problems when they come up again. As people develop a comfortable routine there is less and less reason to look outside the box. "Why fix it if it isn't broken" may work in many industries, but in theatre it leads to stale and uninspiring art.

In my freelance work, the theatre community is small, and I run into the same people over and over again as I move around the Chicagoland area. I have developed some fantastic working relationships with some of them. The difference is that every time I run into them, we've all been working on multiple projects in between. When a problem comes up more people can contribute fresh ideas because the collective body of work we are drawing from is so much larger. I tend to be working on three or four shows at a time at different stages of the process, but once that is mulitiplied by the entire production team, we may collectively be working on 20 or 30 shows and we have all of those experiences to inspire us.

Having said all of this about my contrasting theatre experiences I would like to point out that there is a difference between inherent dangers and inherent problems. Having the same group of people working together day in and day out will always put you in danger of creating stale art, but it doesn't mean you have to. If you are aware of the danger, make a conscious effort to mix things up, bring in fresh ideas from fresh designers and encourage continued learning, you can produce fantastic work with the benefits of a strong team atmosphere.

The same applies to freelance based theatres. the variety and fresh ideas are going to come much more naturally; the focus here needs to be on creating a strong team. Production meetings should happen early, often and never be rushed. Encourage production team members to meet outside of full production meetings to discuss and brainstorm issues, in person if possible (instead of relying entirely on email and phone communication). I have found that this type of attitude catches really quickly, and anyone can lead it. If you put the work in to stay in touch and communicate, the rest of the production team is likely to follow.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Floral Arches

I was asked to make some floral arches of Christmas greenery for a dance number in Christmas Carol. I knew exactly what the director was talking about when she was describing what she wanted. I feel like I have seen ballerinas dancing with them in happy spring folk dance numbers, but when I went to find them online I was finding nothing.
The floral part of the project was going to be easy, but I couldn't figure what the base would be. It had to be rigid enough to hold it's shape, but flexible enough to bend as the dancers moved their arms. They also had to be long enough to jump rope with. I searched the hardware store for a hose or pvc that would work but everything was either to limp or two rigid.
I hate reinventing the wheel, so I posted on some discussion boards hoping to find someone who had constructed these before and found no luck there.
I found this image of "portugese flower arches" but using search terms related to that didn't get me anywhere. Eventually  I came across this website on Phillipine folk dance with pictures of girls using similar flower arches. Luckily though, this wasn't a picture taken by a tourist or an observer, but the website of the dance school that choreographs the dances. I emailed the dance school instructor listed on the website and asked her how to make them. She sent me a very friendly email explaining exactly how she made the arches by cutting apart hula hoops and wrapping the ends in tape.
From there the arches were all a question of design. I wrapped them in garland and then wove holly, ribbon and battery operated twinkle lights through them.

On a side note during the holidays you can buy small strands of Christmas twinkle lights (some standard, some LED) attached to battery packs. They are invaluable for creating wireless lighted effects for endless uses, but they are only easily available during the holidays. So buy them while you can and keep a few in stock. 

There are two strands of lights in each arch. The packs are tucked into the greenery close to the handles at each end. The batteries were placed at the end because I wanted their weight to effect the swing and movement of the arches as little as possible.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tiny Tim's leg brace

I'm super excited for this prop. It was a quick build, cheap and easy, but was just what was needed.

We needed some sort of leg brace for Tiny Tim to go along with the traditional crutch. The leg brace needed to be easy to remove by an actor onstage (as Bob Cratchit helps Tim get ready for bed), be adaptable to our two different child actors (with a 4" height difference), and be durable (the theatre is planning on bringing this show back year after year).

While searching google I found this image which served as my inspiration. The leather straps and the wooden base are just what I was looking for.

I bought three similar brown leather belts at a thrift store for $1 each. I stained some scrap lumber and bought a small strap hinge for the knee joint.
The joint looked far too open with just the strap hinge, and didn't really give the appearance of a supportive, functional medical device. I went back to the hardware store and found this sliding hinge. It is designed to support the lid of a box or trunk. After some tinkering to remove pieces that controlled the speed and direction the hinge could slide (prevented the hinge from sliding past 90 degrees) I screwed it on.
The brown leather belts were all cut long enough to go around the boy's legs and then I drilled new holes for the belt buckles (use a bigger drill bit than you think as the leather will stretch around the bit and close back on the hole). I used extra screws to screw the leather to the wooden base, an then stained it all dark.

I had to go back later and drill a couple more holes so "Tinier Tim" could tighten the belts a little more and I went back and added some epoxy putty around the strap hinge because the joint of it was just a little too wide and was poking "Less Tiny Tim" in the leg, but all in all a simple project with some great results.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On regional theatre- Part 1 The things I miss

Right out of college I worked at a mid-sized non-equity regional theatre, and now after a year of working freelance I'd like to talk about the differences, benefits and challenges.

First off. I loved most of my time at the theatre. We had a resident costume shop manager, Tech director, sound designer, stage manager and two addition scene shop staff (1st season carp and props, 2nd season two carps and I doubled as props and TD), a resident ME the first season, a managing director the second season and 4 tech interns. There were lighting, set and costume designers who came back for multiple shows and almost all of the shows were directed by the artistic director or one of the resident acting company.

Since leaving to work freelance the thing I miss most is being part of a team. With the heavy work load (we opened one show per month March-December and ran an intense murder mystery on top of that October-April) we became a team immediately and the longer we worked together the more we learned about each other, refined the system and developed a support system. The resident technicians were able to meet every morning to start the day with a run down of where we were in the process, what our plans were for the day, and what help we needed.

Working freelance that luxury of communication and understanding is missing. Most of the theatres where I work, the designers have worked together maybe two or three times and they are only ever all in the same place at production meetings (if you're lucky) and during tech. Much of the work takes place off site and I may not see any of another department's process between preliminary design drawings and final product; between then a lot can change. Everyone does their best to communicate, but the person they communicate with is the production manager. The production manager shares information when they think it might help or be relevant, but in the end it is impossible for them to share everything and it is impossible for them to know everything that might help another designer.

In a regional theatre, with all the shops on the same property it was easy to stop into the other shops. This simple question of location meant that we always had a panel of experts at our fingertips. If I had a question about a prop involving sewing I could walk to the costume shop and sit down with the costume shop manager to discuss how to tackle the problem. I could also use her sewing machines, thread and notions if I needed. On the flip side she could come to me when she was working on a bigger costume crafts item. We worked together to create the plan for a giant spider costumes for our children's show out of extra PVC and hinges I had in stock. We were then able to talk to the sound guy (who knew quite a bit about lights) to find some supplies in stock to make wireless glowing eyes.

Working freelance that network doesn't exist. As a props master I need to have my own sewing machine, do most of the work for any electrical needs (within practial props) myself, build the furniture myself, and take care of any costume crafts that fall into the props world on my own. This is not to say that the people I am working with are not collaborative, kind people, who are willing to help when I ask; I have met some of the best theatre artists in the world here in Chicago, but I am saying that as much as I love workng with them, I don't work with them enough. I feel much more like we are working on concurrent projects, than a part of a team .

Another thing I miss is the coordination of projects. One of the biggest challenges of working freelance is working for multiple theatres at the same time. It can be very difficult to keep all the balls in the air as you are working through the process, and no one you are working with is in the same boat. Everyone is busy with multiple projects (or possibly a single project and a day job), and has different priorities. I miss the regional theatre where when things got hectic there was a built in support system. When October and November rolled around we would have to open two mainstage shows and our murder mystery within a 6 week span. Most people would go over a month without a single day off work, but we were in it together. As stressful as the work was, there was a support system of people who were going through the exact same thing that you were and so understood when you got stressed/ tired/ overwhelmed. As a freelance worker I feel I have far less outlet for the stress and frusteration. I try more often to keep those emotions from my coworkers and in turn I probably place alot more stress and pressure on myself.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Job Interviews

I've been interviewing people lately for some props design positions and I thought I would share some of my favorite interview questions and why I like them.

Talk to me about your favorite director you've worked with?
-This is a really great question especially if I know the director they are going to be working with and can compare a director they like with the director of the show. But even if I don't know the director well, I feel like this question exposes a theatre artist's commitment to collaboration. Being able to speak positively and enthusiastically about the work of another artist, tells me the person respects and understands the work of his/her fellow theatre artists.

What are your pet Peeves?
-This question is one I use to help decide if the person will be able to work well with me. Often it is less about evaluating the person I am interviewing and more about honestly looking at myself and the theatre company I am working with. For example, I was working with a company I loved but in order to aviod politics and rumors, the powers that be often waited a long time to share important information with the rest of the company. If someone were to tell me that secrets and lack of communication was a pet peeve for them, I would have to honestly look at the situation and see if they would be able to work well and be happy with the company.

What is your favorite part of the job?
-For a stage manager this might be blocking rehearsals or calling the show, a tech director might say drafting, a props master might say building furniture. I just like this question becuase I feel like it gives me a good first impression on the type of stage manager/tech director/props master the person is. Most of the jobs in theatre are incredibly multi-faceted, knowing what part of the job a person enjoys gives me an idea of whether they can fill the holes the company currently has (we don't need two people in a props shop who are upholsterers) or lets me know what to look for in someone else if I am hiring multiple people at the same time.

If you could take a class right now to learn/improve one skill, what would it be?
-I hate negative questions, and I feel that the alternative to this question, "What is your biggest weakness," puts people on the spot, makes them uncomfortable and doesn't get at the spirit of the question I intend. This is another question that is going to let me know where I am going to have holes that need to be filled, but it can also let me know if this job might help the person to grow and move to the next step in their career. I also love the question becuase I, personally, love learning new skills, and someone who responds enthusiastically to this question is likely someone I'll get along with.

How do you handle it when the impossible is asked of you?
-Everyone who has done a reasonable amount of theatre has been in this situation. What do you do when you are told "I need it to be amazing, I need it tomorrow and don't spend any money." The way that a person responds to this question tells me if they really understand the callaborative process of theatre, and the importance of compromise.

What is the show you've done that you were most proud of?
-I love people who are passionate about what they do, and asking someone to talk about a show they are proud of is a great way to get a peak at that passion. It's also a great way to get to hear about how they deal with challenges and think outside the box.

What does a good day look like to you? A bad day?
-I feel like this question is more aimed at work ethic. If someone is talking about a good day at work being one where they don't have to do anything, thats not the person I want to hire. It's like when you were growing up and someone would ask you your favorite subject in school was. I don't want to be working with the kid who said "recess".

Monday, November 30, 2009

Magical light-up book

For the Ghost of Christmas Past, we needed a magical book, where she could read the events of Scrooge's life. The idea was that it would light up and "glow".

The very first part of the idea was that the center pages of the book would be velum so that the light could shine through them. There were four pages total. Two of the pages were permanently attached as covers for the "light box." The other two were glued in just at the spine so that the ghost could turn the pages.

 I made the pages of the book out of craft store foam sheets which I cut the centers out of and then loosely attached to each other. One of the biggest problems with making a hollow book is that the pages will either lie flat when the book is open or lie flat when the book is closed, but not both. for this book it was much more important for the book to look nice open, but I still split the difference a bit and glued the pages with the book not quite fully open.

The cover of the book is lauan and the spine is made of gaff tape. I glued the outside page on each side of the book to the lauan cover. The tape wrapped from one side to the other to hold the front and back covers together and create a soft flexible binding.

You can see some of the tape through the fabric cover in this picture, if I were to do it again I would either use a thicker fabric or cover the entire book with a uniform layer of tape so it wouldn't be as visible.

The gold fabric was attached with spray adhesive, wrapped around the edges of the book and the edges attached down with a thin strip of tape. The gold detailing was done with puff paint.

The wiring on the inside was all done with supplies you can find at Radioshack. The circuits on both sides were run in series, two batteries and two light sockets. Both circuits were run through the same switch which I then set on the outside of the spine. It was hidden when the book was in the actor's hands and easy for her to switch.

Be careful that you get a wattage of bulb that your batteries can support. I spent a long time looking for a short in my circuit before discovering that the bulbs were just too high a wattage and were draining the batteries.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Some fun fake food

I love prop food. It is by far my favorite prop to work on.
I had quite a bit of prop food in Christmas Carol and thought I would share some of the fun.

This Christmas pudding is made of great stuff which I carved and sanded down to a smooth half sphere. I painted it brown (it's not visible in this picture but I used three different colors to bring out the texture) and then poured a thick mix of plaster of paris over it to make the hard sauce. A sprig of holly on top and we have an English tradition.

I found these hollow plastic potatoes in stock. cut them into eighths and filled each section with a squirt of great stuff. After the great stuff was expanded and cured I cut off the excess. I knew I wanted to spray paint them so I coated the foam with Elmer's white glue to seal it (in case you haven't yet experienced it, spray paint eats into any foam if it isn't sealed with something).
Both the turkey and the potatoes were painted with Design Master, Glossy Wood Tone spray paint. You can buy it at most craft stores (except in Chicago city limits where you can't buy spray paint anywhere). It is the easiest and best way to "cook" any fake food. It gives the perfect shine and color to make food look perfectly roasted.

These Green Beans are just dowel rods cut up and painted green, the carrots are bigger dowel rods, sliced thinner and painted orange. To make them more realistic I used a chisel to cut the edges so they weren't perfectly circular slices and added a touch of a lighter orange in the center of each slice. After arranging it on the plate I squirted Elmer's white glue over it, it ran down between the dowel rods and held everything in place as it dried.
First, I didn't make the turkey slices (wish I had but they are rubber and the theatre had them in stock). The other item on the plate though is one of my favorite tricks. I tore some old yellowed upholstery foam into small pieces (about 3/4" round), cut up an extra leaf from a silk flower, and drizzled hot glue over the entire thing. I wish I could tell you exactly what it is supposed to be, but I really can't. In a large dish it looks like a casserole, on a plate like this it sometimes looks like a pasta dish, sometimes a potato dish but it always looks like food. It's my favorite fall-back solution when I have to fill a table with food.

As a small side note, you may have seen the croissant in the backround of the last photo. I did not make it, if you've never checked out the fake food selection at Hobby Lobby you should. They have fake bread for incredibly reasonable prices, as well as decent looking cheeses and some fantastic looking fruits.

Blog Update

I just wanted to give everyone reading un update as I start to really get into the groove of writing this blog. First, I think that I'm going to be able to maintain a more regular schedule so, at least until the end of the year, look for a new post every 5 days. Second, with all of the Christmas shows already open and not much else going on, there isn't a lot of work in chicago right now. The next few weeks are probably going to be heavy on the thoughts on theatre and my process entries and rather light on the specific prop descriptions.  But not to worry, things get going full swing again in January and there will be some very exciting projects to tell you about.
Hope you enjoy reading and Happy holidays!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Turkey Adventures Part 2

 When I found myself needing to make another turkey a few years later I decided take my lessons from turkey number one, skip the latex and plaster mold and just start with a lump of great-stuff to carve. (as a disclaimer, the majority of the work for turkey #2 was done by a very talented props master named Maiko)
I figured that a more sold base would save a lot of great-stuff, so I used a milk gallon as the base and emptied a can of great-stuff around it. It was far too big.
My original reaction to this was "no big deal, we just have to do a little bit more carving." The problem with this logic is that the inside of the chunk of great stuff was a much softer more porous foam, so it carved decently, but it didn't take the bondo very well and it very much didn't take the sanding of the bondo well. It ended up being much more fragile then we would have liked and developed cracks over the course of the show. When we reused it the next season we almost completely redid the bondo shell and it still didn't hold up for a whole run very well. (Sorry, no pictures of turkey #2)

So for Turkey #3 I decided that I would go with carving, but start with a stronger foam, so I bought pink insulation foam, broke it into chunks, stacked it and attached it together with contact cement.

Big mistake at this step. If you are looking at the cans of contact cement in the hardware store there is one with a red label and one with a green label, if you read the labels it appears that the only difference between the two is that the green label is rated as flame retardant, both seem to be safe on foam. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Spend the extra couple of dollars for the green label, the red contact cement ate into the foam and caused me lots of problems.

After carving, using lots of pictures of every angle of a turkey, I started to coat him. I really liked the texture that the latex and cheesecloth skin gave turkey #1 before I had to abandon it, so I used it again here. The skin had the added benefit of covering the gaps left by my disintegrated foam. It turned out decently.

Lessons for when I do turkey #4-
Use the correct contact cement- I never really was able to cover up the seams created by the gaps in the foam.
Think about the shape of the turkey when gluing together the pieces of foam (for example, having wider pieces already set where the legs need to go would have saved me a lot of carving)
Not something I can change, but cooked turkey color is a lot easier to do than raw turkey (which is what this one had to be). I would much rather do a cooked turkey.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shopping and other creative aquiring

When I am describing my job to people who don't know much about theatre, I find one of the hardest skills to explain is the intangible skill of "acquiring". I have encountered many people who look at this skill like an in born talent, ether you've got it or you don't, but I believe that like any skill it is just a matter of experience, practice and determination.
As a props master you have to have guts. You have to be willing to look rediculous, to hear "no" time after time and keep asking. You learn the stores and get to know the managers, you start to learn the tricks for buying on ebay and you develop a system for finding things on Craigslist.
Without a really logical way to organize this, here's a random list of advice and tricks for shopping and aquiring things:
  • Always smile and say thank you. It's simple advice, but it is easy to forget when you've been shopping all day and dealing with traffic and long lines and not finding what you've been looking for.
  • Ask for help. Especially if you've got a strange project or looking for something unusual it's wonderful to have the extra opinions and ideas of someone who knows the store and it's stock. I especially find that the guys at big box hardware stores enjoy the change of pace when you come up to them and say "I have no idea what I'm looking for, but this is what I need to do, do you have any ideas?" 
  • Remember program advertisement and comp tickets are tools at your disposal. See if you can arrange a trade. While with a small summer stock the local lumber yard gave us $300 worth of lumber in exchange for a program advertisement. I had a local furniture store loan a bed frame and nightstand for the run of the show while I provided lobby signs letting people know where the furniture could be purchased and encouraging patrons to support local businesses that support the arts. 
  • Ask for a discount. At thrift stores especially I find I can bargain by being totally honest. "I am interested in this large dining room table, but I only need it for two months and after that I have no place to store it and will donate it back to you, is there any way you could give me a discount?"
  • Make friends with the thrift store and antique store workers. Even when you don't find what you need make sure you say hi. At a large antique mall in a small town I was working in, the workers would have a scavenger hunt with me whenever I came in, because they got to know me one of the workers ended up inviting me to browse his personal warehouse storage unit for things I needed that weren't currently in his antique mall booth.
  • Write down contact info. If I am out and I pass an interesting store (the tiny magic shop on the side street or the canvas and drop-cloth dealers on the route out to the theatre on the other side of town) I write down the information (store hours, phone number, who to ask for) on a post it note and stick it in a file for when I need it (because the really good corner stores are also the least likely to have a website or be searchable on Google).
  • Never burn a bridge. You never know when you are going to need to contact that person you worked with three years ago because you remember their brother owned an antique accordion that is exactly what you need for this show or you want to know how they built that douser out of an old cd-rom drive. Theatre people get it and I find they are often happy to help no matter how long it has been since you've spoken.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Process- part 3

The third part of the "my process" series takes place after the budget is made and before the first rehearsal. 

At this point I have a list, a good base conversation with director and an idea on how I plan to use my budget. After that the process can vary significantly depending on the type of show, but I'm going to try my best to give a general outline.

My next step is to go down my list and divide it up into pull, buy and build. To keep things easily accessible I will redo these lists separately so I can focus on the one I need at the time (taking the buy list out shopping or the pull list to props storage)

The pull list gets done first so I can be absolutely sure that I don't waste money and time on something the theatre already has in stock. As I am pulling, everything gets set together in a place where I can keep track of and organize it. While I am going through stock this first time I make sure to take as much as possible that might be useful. This includes pulling multiple options for things I have in stock and pulling rehearsal props for things I plan on acquiring later (even those I expect to have final props for long before they are needed). I take pictures of all the props I am hoping to use and email them to the relevant people.

Throughout the process I find that my camera is my best friend. I take pictures of everything and send them on to designers and directors. I don't think there is any reason not to embrace all of the technology available to you. Before working as a props master I saw no need for cell phone cameras, but now I use mine all the time. I can find a piece of furniture at a thrift store, take a picture, send it off to the set designer, and get a yes or no answer before I leave the store. In short, get a camera or camera phone and use it. It is worth the investment.

Next I start to tackle the buy list. I place ads for anything I think I might be able to get through freecycle or craigslist, then I take my shopping list and use it to make a preliminary list of stores that I need to visit. I find it incredibly important to take the full list into every single store and re-read it before leaving to make sure I have checked for everything that I might be able to find there. It is so easy for me to get hung up looking for one or two major things, and completely forget to pick up something little, which means I'll have to take another trip out shopping later.

The build list is the most variable by show, so it's hard to describe the step-by-step. I think the most important thing here is to keep your to-do list up to date and to continually consult it.When I am working in the theatre (or shop) I tend to have several projects in the air at the same time. An up to date to-do list allows me to find another task that can be completed while I am waiting for the paint or glue to dry on something. I will usually make my to-do list either at the beginning or end of the day at a point when I can sit and think through the whole picture. Taking the extra time to focus on the list, and making it as complete and detailed as possible, pays off later when I have a number of projects in the air and I can just trust my focused list and not have to stop and think through the steps again.

It is always my goal to have all the final props there by the first rehearsal, this never happens. There will be props you are making that take longer and things that have to wait until needs are decided in rehearsals, but the goal is always there and is a good one to strive for. At the very least you must have something there to represent every prop even if the rehearsal prop is nothing like what the final will be, having something the approximate size and weight to pick up in rehearsal is incredibly important for the actors in rehearsal.

Also going into the first rehearsal it is important to label everything with the item, scene and character who uses it. I find that the better props are labeled, the more likely actors are going to feel comfortable picking them up and using them earlier in the process, the more likely they will get used to them and comfortable with them, the less likely they are to want them to be changed.

So to recap, the most important parts of this part of the process are- 1. Take pictures of everything. 2. Take the time to keep a current and thorough list, 3. Trust your list, 4. Have at least a rehearsal prop for everything at the first rehearsal  5. Label everything.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Lots of Food Props!

I received this as a comment on one of my previous posts, and my response got so long I decided to make it it's own post.

"Hey, Jesse. I am currently directing a production that calls for a lot of drinking and eating. I am trying to figure out how to make a cake that gets frosted on stage every night and has but one bite taken out of it, beans thrown at the set (the designer is having a fit), edible stuffed mushrooms and scotch, wine and whiskey being consumed in mass quantities. Also, would ice made from melted glass beads pose any health threats to the actors? Please help!"

First off, consumables are just expensive.  For a short run (like a 3 performance high school show) it's no big deal, but for a longer running show the multiplication can get ridiculous and it's important to budget out these props early because they can come back to bite you.

First the cake: I would build a cake out of insulation foam (otherwise known as "pink foam" sold in most hardware stores), paint it to be the right color for your unfrosted cake, and seal it really well (try rosco foam-coat). When you are carving your cake shape, carve out an empty space where you can set in a small piece of cheap store bought cake every night. Because it's being eaten, you're really going to have to use real frosting, but you should be able to make it cheaply using a very basic recipe (powdered sugar, butter and milk). If you seal the cake well though, someone should be able to wash the icing off the foam every night pretty easily, reset a new piece of real cake in the hole, and be ready to go for the next performance.

For the beans, I am assuming that you're talking about some sort of pork and beans style dish (the brown saucy messy kind). I would stay away from real beans as much as possible, and my thought is to go with sponge. Cut lots of bean shapes out of sponge and then place them in a bowl of water colored with food dye. They should make a nice squish and splash when they hit the wall, but without making too much of a mess. You set designer should be sure to seal the paint on that wall really well though as it will probably need to be wiped down every night.

The stuffed mushrooms are tricky. I'm a little stuck on the mushroom base, if it's bigger I would look into using canned pear halves and cutting off the top part, otherwise maybe some sort of bread (half a roll? a muffin top?). The filling really depends on the base. If you use the bread you have lots of savory options (stovetop stuffing, scrambled eggs and dye, mashed potatoes and dye...) if you use the pear maybe try chopping up the cut off from the pear and mixing in some food dye, different jams or chutney).

For Scotch and whiskey either substitute tea or food dye (use mostly yellow with a touch of green). For white wine try white grape juice, for red wine, red grape juice or cranberry. I've also had some luck with Crystal Light powdered drink mixes.

I don't think that your glass bead ice cubes should be a problem in terms of safety. I've also made them by melting down clear plastic pony beads (made for kids projects so maybe even more safe in terms of chemicals). Check out this article on flickr for a great step-by-step.

Always with consumable food make sure you check with actors to make sure there are no food allergies involved, and make sure that you have arranged where you are going to safely store and prepare the food (there is nothing worse then finding out that someone ate your food prop for lunch).

I'm sure everyone has their own tips, tricks and favorite products to use for edible food props, so please feel free to leave a comment to share them.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Turkey Adventures Part 1

I just built another turkey, my third, and I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of this, but it took a while and some lessons from the first two.

The first turkey was built for "Hello Dolly." We had one fake turkey that we had ordered online, but did not have the budget to buy the second one we needed. The plan was to make a skin on the plastic turkey by painting on liquid latex with layers of cheesecloth in between coats of latex, then make a two part plaster mold of the turkey with this skin. After the mold was dried I took the plastic turkey out, removed it from the skin, fill the skin with great-stuff expanding foam (found in the red can at any hardware store) and place it back in the plaster mold. The idea was that the great-stuff would expand to fill the skin, but the plaster mold would prevent it from becoming misshapen.

I did all of this and the result was beautiful... the first day. When I came back the next day, I found that the great-stuff had shrunk back and my beautiful turkey turned into "Mr. Wrinkles." In an attempt to fix it, I pulled the skin away from the lump of great-stuff, made a hole in the skin and injected more great stuff into it until it looked like a turkey again... and then it shrunk again, and again and again.

 After days of trying to fix "Mr Wrinkles", I gave up. I peeled off the latex skin, and emptied another full can of great-stuff onto my great-stuff lump. I let it sit out for a day and then just carved a turkey out of the foam with a knife. It turned out well. I smoothed some Bondo onto the outside, sanded it smooth and painted it.

-I have much better luck with carving than casting and molding.
-Inside the latex skin the Great-Stuff can't cure in the air the way it is supposed to.
-Always check a small sample of your plaster-of-paris before using it for a whole mold, if it is bad and won't fully harden, you don't want to have to remake a entire mold.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A perfect hinged box

This is one of those ideas that prompts a "why didn't I think of that".

In the past I have made hinged boxes and the lids never lined up quite right (or at least not easily). Then a friend showed me this trick.

Build the box as a cube first, this one was built with 1x3 pine with lauan tacked on the top and bottom.

After the box is tacked together glued and dry, set the table saw to the depth of the lid and split the box in half.

When you are making the origional box be careful to add the 1/8 inch blade width that you will loose when you cut the box.

All you have to do then is line the pieces back up where you cut them apart and screw the hinges on.

I built four of these in about 1 hour (with painting), alot faster than building the lids and bottoms seperately.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Process Part 2- Budget

I once had a discussion with a friend about tech theatre and art. She told me a story about a student that was assigned a five minute long light cuing project. When it came time to present to the class, the first three minutes of this student's project were the best in the class, but then the cues stopped. The student had spent so much time and energy making the first three minutes perfect he hadn't had time to finish a full five minutes. The student failed the assignment. Her logic as a teacher was that anyone, if given unlimited time, could put together an amazing piece of art, but in theatre we never have unlimited time. As she put it, "theatre design is art with a deadline and a budget. In the end, no matter how beautiful it is, if it wasn't on time and within budget, you failed."

It is important when working on a project to always keep the calendar and the budget at the front of your mind. When I am working on a show, after I have a full props list, have spoken to the director to make sure I know what is needed, and have checked stock to see what I already have, I start making a rough budget. This document is a simple excel spread sheet with the props list and a list of estimated prices. The first time through the list I go item by item and write down what I would like to be able to spend. Sometimes that number is based on my prior knowledge (lumber, fabric and craft supplies I purchase regularly), but often it requires some basic research to get an idea what I should expect to spend. For example, on a recent show I needed a silver punch bowl and nine matching cups; a quick google search revealed that I should expect to pay about $120.

After creating the first list I add up my estimates to see if I am within budget. Usually I'm not and I have to start looking at places to save money. Sometimes I need to research renting instead of buying, sometimes I need to call in favors, sometimes I look for a couple items I could reasonably post on freecycle or the craigslist wanted section. Often I find that I have to make something or alter something in stock as opposed to buying or finding exactly what I wanted. I have also found that often a director will be willing to change things (I could probably get a glass punch bowl for $75 less than a silver one).

If you are lucky enough to have a budget big enough to do what you want, there are decisions to be made there too. You should always keep a fraction of your budget reserved for late additions and tech week notes. If you have more money beyond that, you have options. You could just leave it and come in signficantly under budget, but many theatre technicians would advise against that. Especially in not-for-profit theatre, if you don't use it, you loose it. If you come in significantly under budget enough times, the powers that be may assume that you don't need as much money and you will likely find yourself in trouble when the next big show comes through. Most often I will go back through the list and pick out a few items where spending more money would make the most difference, whether in the look of one piece (ex: I was just going to build a bench out of scrap 2x4, but for a little bit more money I could build it out of new cedar), or the improvement of your stock for the future (ex: I was going to rent those end tables from theatre X, but now I can afford to buy similar ones for our theatre, and then we would have them next time they are needed.)

After the budget is completed, it is important to communicate your estimates with the production manager, scene designer and director. It will be helpful as you go through the process for these people to be aware of how much flexibility there is in the budget and what your big purchases are going to be. Much better to tell people early on "we are going to be very tight on money for this show, but I'm going to do my best," then to have a director frustrated and confused when she tries to add things later in the process and you have to tell her no. You will also find that things that looked set in stone earlier have a little bit more flexibility, and you may also learn that a prop you thought was important is only really going to be onstage for 45 seconds.

Once I start spending money I record every purchase on a separate spreadsheet (columns are- date, vendor, item purchased, price and money remaining), but every couple of days I go back to my estimates sheet and update it. If I spent more than I planned on something then I have to find out where I am going to make up the difference. If  I saved money somewhere or found a really good deal I can look again and see if I need the money somewhere else (ex: now I can afford the kitchen table I really wanted for scene 2).

As you move through the process, just like with everything else, communication is key. Send your budget out regularly to the people who need to see it (different people at different theatres). It is much better to have people deleating emails from you that it turns out they don't need, then for someone to feel out of the loop.

Monday, October 12, 2009

covering an uncoverable floor

I'm not sure how common this practice is, but I just learned this trick and thought it was amazing. If you are dealing with a floor you can't put screws in (like concrete, marble) or aren't allowed to screw into (like the high school auditorium I'm currently working in), but still want to use the floor as a design surface, try this trick.

Start with blue painters tape. You can attach it to almost any surface and it will come up easily without damaging the surface or leaving a residue.

On top of the painters tape use double stick carpet tape and then stick your floor covering on top of that. The double stick tape is too strong to stick directly to the floor, if left for any amount of time it can do permanent damage, but the painters tape protects your floor surface while giving you the stickiness you need.

I used it recently to stick burlap to the floor of this high school theatre to create a base for the "gardens" we were going to create in "Love's Labours Lost", but the friend who taught me the trick was using it to attach a masonite deck (sold in lumber stores as "hardboard") to marble, and I'm thinking about using it to cover the ugly linolium tiles in my kitchen.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The blood fountain

I'd hate to ever give the impression that I always know what I'm doing. Many times the difficult props require much more of a back and forth and a ton of tweaking, this is my best attempt to detail that process.

The idea is that in a scene in the chapel the alter starts to drip blood, the effect wanted to start quickly and be very big, but then not draw attention for the rest of the scene. The alter was upright (like you would find on one of the side walls of a church) and about 1'-0" deep. There is a curved piece of lauan at the top that created a space about 1'-0" high and 7" deep to mask my work.

The first part of the idea was always the same. A tube, that "T"s from either side of center full of holes and capped on each end. The blood would be pushed into the T fitting from the back, run through the tubes, out the holes, and run down the back wall of the alter.

My first plan to get the blood there was to use simple pressure and mechanical force. There would be someone behind the alter with a 2 Liter soda bottle full of blood. This would be connected by a hose to the T fitting. The person operating the effect would simply squeeze the bottle and the force would push the blood though the system. The first plan feel though though when the alter (and the curtain that was supposed to live just behind it) got moved 4' upstage. The space behind the alter was now too small to fit a person. This meant that the person controlling the blood would have to be below the stage. The tube would have to be significantly longer and my soda bottle would no longer hold enough blood to fill the entire length of tubing and make it out the top.

The solution we ended up using was a small fountain pump (purchased in the garden section at home depot). These garden pumps are relatively cheap, have a lot of muscle and, when fully submerged, make almost no noise. They are sold right alongside the tubing that fits them. We placed the blood supply in a paint can on the back of the unit, placed the pump into the blood, connected the pump to the T fitting, and ran the cord for the pump down though a small hole in the stage to an extension cord on the other side. The extension cord is then plugged into a surge protector. To make the blood go, all the assistant stage manager needs to do is flip the switch on the surge protector for 30 seconds.

This set-up was tested before the first preview and declared a success, but after watching that night from the back row, we had to make some changes. The 1/8" holes that I had drilled along the tubing were far too small. While the blood looked very cool up close, from the back of the house the thin lines of blood were almost invisible. We needed fewer bigger holes. I took the back off the alter, covered some of the holes with tape and redrilled other holes so they were almost 10x the size. I then turned the hose so that the holes were facing directly at the lauan back; this helped to spread out the stream of blood.

At the second preview the blood was much more visible and exciting, but after the show we discovered a new problem. The bigger streams of blood were messier, drips were hitting the cross on the wall, bouncing forward and not falling into the tub (made out of long thin planter boxes) at the bottom. I didn't want to make the tub bigger because it needed to be easy to remove and rinse out after every show. I ended up creating a run-off slide out of thin sheets of craft foam (available in sheets at any craft store) and duct tape. Any blood that splashed in front of the tub would land on the foam and slide back into the tub.

Most of these solutions were easy to do, but the trick to being successful with props is more in the willingness to do them, to never expect your first solution to be the final one, and to always be prepared to change your plans to adapt to new problems.

(Also I promise to provide a photo of the blood in action at some point.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

My process- part 1

For anyone who has been in the business this will be rather basic, but it was a back to basics kind of day for as best as I can describe it, here is my process.

I start by reading the script once to get a sense of the plot and the characters. Ideally I will be able to do this well in advance of starting work on the show and can therefor let the show sit for a few days after that. Giving myself time between readings forces me to focus more than re-reading immediately, when I tend to have too much confidence in my memory of a scene and end up skimming past an important prop.

On my second reading I start to create my props list. The final document is a 6 column excel spreadsheet. The first column in my list is blank to start, but I will use it later in the process to keep track of where the prop is in terms of completion. The second column lists the prop itself. The third lists scene and page number (ex: if it is act 1 scene 3 page 15, I write 1.3.15 on my chart), I use this number to help me communicate with the stage manager and easily identify props in rehearsal reports. The forth column lists the character who uses the prop. The fifth column lists notes about the prop (ex: someone will stand on this, needs to be small enough to fit in a pocket, script specifies "expensive brand"...) and the sixth column lists questions I have (ex: how tall is the actor using this? How likely is it to get broken? How many do we need?). The sixth column is then the source of my first conversation with or email to the director. At a quick glance I now know every question I had while reading the script, which prop it applies to, and on which page it appears.

After I have a detailed props list and answers to my first set of questions I start my research. I find multiple images of each prop, often aiming not for accuracy but for variety. The biggest goal of this first round of research is to establish a shared vocabulary with the set designer and the director. Words can be very confusing things, and it can be very frustrating and expensive to work on creating exactly what a director described only to find out that the director had something totally different in his or her imagination. Words like long, short, fancy, old, rustic and delicate have very different meanings for different people. Instead I take all of the images I find online and copy and paste them into one document. I can then sit with this document on my computer and go through with the director. Our conversations about the pictures can then be much more concrete ("I like the height of this table, but the legs of that table are really what I was thinking", "do you picture this one or this one when you say 'typical 80's style cooler'"). I find that the time it takes to sit down and create this shared visual vocabulary pays off over and over again through the process as changes and additions need to be communicated.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Elizabethan Settee

For the Castle of Otranto we came across a piece of furniture we needed that didn't seem to exist. A wounded man is brought to the castle and in the next scene he is being tended to in the chapel. We needed him to be laying on a chaise or couch, but also wanted the piece of furniture to look somewhat logical in a family chapel.
I came across this image of a jacobean sofa in my research and we decided to adapt it. We decided that by mirroring the raised arm on the opposite end, the sofa would look much more like it was intended for sitting instead of lounging and therefore be appropriate for a family chapel, while still looking comfortable when the actor was using it to lounge.
The legs and turned arm supports are available at Home depot with outdoor decking lumber and the detailing on the stretchers was a cut-off of some dollar-store plastic garden-edging fence pieces. The fabric was a remnant I bought at LZ fabics in Chicago.
The frame of the seat is 2x2 with supports every foot, and a 3/8 ply lid, which makes the whole thing very light but still sturdy enough. The design of the original sofa is inherently weak, in order to better support an actor laying against it I made the cushions in between the turned supports rigid and I added the small braces to the back of the rests for support.

-If you are in the Chicago area and have never been to LZ fabrics, go. It is located at 2121 21st street and as one friend described it "it's like Harry Potter and the Fabric warehouse!"
-When building furniture I like to designate it as "sittable, standable or dancable" to directors and stage managers. I find it communicates the appropriate uses for the pieces with minimal grey area.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Skeletor Part 2

Skeletor's chest plate is based around a fleece zip up vest, worn backwards, that I found at the salvation army. It has a plywood sternum and ribs made of bendy plywood. The "bones" are attached to the vest by screws, which go through into small pieces of wood on the inside of the vest. Between the vest and the ribcage are strips of scrap fabric that were sewn into the collar line.
The hand is made of small sections of dowel rod which have springs wrapped around at each joint. I nailed the ends of each finger to a small square of wood, and from there attached two dowel rods for the wrist bones. This forearm was then sewn to the top of an old gardening glove (one of the best ways I have found to attach fabric to a rigid wood, plastic or metal is to "sew it on." Drill small holes along your rigid piece and stitch through these into the fabric) . Fishing line was then tied through holes at the tip of each finger bone, and sewn into the tip of the glove fingers. This allows the actors to manipulate the skeleton fingers while his hand is hidden inside the sleeve of the robe.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Skeletor part 1

For a gothic play called "The Castle of Otranto" we needed a ghost. It was decided that the ghost would be played by an actor and I set about making him into a human puppet. His costumes consists of a head piece, a chest piece, a hand and a cloak over it all.
To make the head I took an old plastic skull and cut off the front to turn it into a sort of mask. I built a headglove for the actor (You build a headglove by starting with a plastic grocery bag on the actors head then wrapping it in layers of masking tape, it has a level of suction to it because of the plastic inner layer and the custom fit. It and can therefor hold some very heavy mask and other head pieces). I embedded floral wires in between layers in order to wire the plastic skull to the front. springs were screwed to either side of the hinged jaw and a piece of tie line attached underneath. The actor can pull the tie line to move the jaw down and the springs pull it back up, making the ghost talk.

Full Monty Car

There is a car onstage in the Full Monty. The designer didn't want a fake car or a cutout. I went to the junk yard. I am constantly surprised by how nice people can be, and how eager they are to help with my ridiculous requests. The man at the junk yard drove us around in a van with no doors, taking us car to car until we found the one we wanted. We agreed on a price, and then the junk yard cleared everything out of the car for us (everything under the hood, all fuel lines, everything in the back seat...), and had it ready when our tow truck, belonging to a friend of the theatre, arrived.
Once we got the car back to the theatre we needed to cut it down so we had only what we needed. What you see in the image is what there was. We cut the car just behind the drivers door, and then lengthwise at about 5' from the drivers side. We masked the open sides of the car with deuvateen. The car was then installed onto a 4x8 platform (with extra framing) and set with knife guides into the tracks on the stage.
Lessons learned- We should have had them remove the windshield as well; if you do not have the proper tools removing a windshield is a long, painful, sticky tar mess. The hood will not support itself; we had to weld an extra bit of frame to support the passenger's side before we did the lengthwise cut. A sawzal will do the rest of the cutting, but it takes time and we ruined/bent/dulled about 6 blades in the process so budget for that.

Cell Phones

I was doing a production of "Fires in the Mirror" and all four actresses were doing a monologue together, which contains a cell phone. This meant that I needed four matching cell phones circa 1991 which is all but impossible. I ended up using four very similar cordless phone receivers I found at thrift stores. Old cell phones and more recent cordless home phones are not all that different. The moral of the story though is save your cell phones. Recently I have been asked to provide cell phones for numerous shows and no one has them in stock yet. Technology is going to start showing up more and more in scripts as it becomes more integrated into our culture. Unlike other household items though, we don't keep out technology around in the same way. Broken laptops and cell phones don't end up in thrift stores or garage sales the way coffee makers and couches do. I have started telling my friends and family to save all their own cell phones and laptops for me, and it's already come in handy more than once.


I was having a terrible time finding a "flagon" for Macbeth that matched the one in the director's head until I came across this one at Hobby Lobby. Finally one that both he and I liked! Then it rolled off a table while being washed and the handle shattered. Though the handle was beyond repair, the whole find was not a loss. I sculpted a new handle from epoxy putty (two part putty, looks like clay, available with the adhesives or in the plumbing aisle in any hardware store) and wrapped it in leather strapping to hide the putty handle.
Only after fixing it did I look again and realize that I could have sculpted a handle onto almost any vase and created a similar effect. Next time.