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.