Friday, January 29, 2010

Things I am learning

I'm at the research, listing and brainstorming and shopping stages for several shows at once right now. There isn't a lot to show here (unless you want to see lists and receipts) but this is one of my favorite parts of the process because this is where I am learning about the plays, learning about the settings and learning about new products and stores. So just for fun, here are some things I have learned in the last week:

-The regulation size for a high school girls' basketball is 28.5" 
-Technically a trunk with a flat top was for storage at home, so that it could be stacked and things could be set on it, a trunk with a rounded top is for traveling, so water and snow don't pool on the top when the trunk is sitting on the back of a carriage.
-You can buy the same type of "dummy" cell phones they have in store displays off ebay. I found this I-phone that has a backlit screen for added realism. 
-They make small vials with little a twist close caps that hold a single shot of cocaine. It's called a bullit and I now know where to buy one in Chicago (for receipt...never felt more out of place in a store...but the man was very helpful and understanding of my naivete ).
-If you want Star Wars themed memorabilia now, the majority of things available in stores are from the "Clone Wars." 
-Kinkos has a really easy, really quick self-laminating machines, and they are a lot of fun to use.
-I am going to have a lot of fun doing magical effects with one of these.
-Google sketchup is free to download online, and they have an extensive series of free tutorials. 3D drafting is much easier than I thought it would be.
-There is a Habitat for Humanity ReStore in the Chicago area, it's in Elgin which is a bit of a drive, but is a fantastic resource. It's like a Goodwill store for carpenters and home improvement. I first went to one with my parents, looking for a replacement door for a house they were working on, I am beyond excited to visit the one here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Zulu Warrior Sheild

I'm working on a show right now called "The DNA Trail" at Silk Road Theatre Project and I'm really excited for it, first because I think it's going to be a good show, but second, and most important for this blog, there are some really fun props projects involved. 

The first project is this Zulu Warrior sheild (matching spear yet to come). Out of several options I showed the director and designer, they liked the shape and style of this one best. 

I bought one yard of a fake leather/vinyl and doubled it with a piece of  posterboard laminated between to give it some stability. I was worried about it being too rigid, as many of the images I looked at showed that the leather had a flexible wavy look to it. I clearly over compensated. Even with heavy stitching around the sides, and a coat of glue on the back, it was still far too flexible. If I were to do it again I would buy a yard of a fusible (read "iron-on") stableizer from the fabric store to go between the leather layers. 

The stick I used was just a cheap broomstick I bought at the hardware store. I roughed it up and made it look much more natural by using my draw knife.  I don't see many draw knives around anymore, but I think it is one of the best tools you can have around a prop shop for distressing. It's easy to use. Tip it almost flat and you can lightly shave the wood, tip it on a more extreme angle and you can take large gouges out of the wood along the grain.  

I used a spool of suede lace to weave the shield onto the pole and tied it tight through holes I drilled in the pole at the top and bottom. I added the small dowel rods top and bottom to give the shield the sturdiness it was lacking. 

At the top I tied more of the suede lace, tucking feathers underneath as I wrapped and sewing feathers onto the loose ends of the ties.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

An experimental space

For a long time now, my long term goal has been to eventually open and operate my own theatre company. This is still something that is pretty far in the future, but recently I had a new idea about what this company would be about. I wanted to get it out in writing here, both for my own record (this is the first time I am setting down the details, so bear with me if I go off track at times) and hopefully to get some comments, suggestions and opinions.

The idea is based around the common problem of "you can't get a job without experience, but you how do you get experience without a job?" My theatre's mission would be to give people that chance. People would be able to come to me and say "I think I would make a really good set designer/props master/director/stage manager, and I would really love to give it a try." I am sure I would get some people who had never really done theatre, or hadn't done it since high school, but I think I would get even more theatre professionals hoping to mix it up.  For example, a few years ago I was a resident tech director at a theatre, but was thinking that I would love to try my hand at production managing. I felt stuck, because I knew that no one would hire me as a production manager without any experience, but I couldn't afford to take three steps back and take an internship. I know that internships can offer great training, but most of them don't pay, or pay so little that only students and people right out of school tend to be able to afford to take them. Once you have rent, student loans, health insurance etc. to pay, an internship ceases to be a viable option. My hope is that my theatre could offer an opportunity to those who are are bit older but interested in trying something new.

I would run my company like a regular theatre company and would have to insist on doing high quality work (after all, a credit on your resume from my company would have to mean something in order to achieve it's goal). I would have a resident company of professionals who would make up the majority of the team for each production, and we would rotate in one or two "students" per show. The "students" would have the experience of working in a high level company with professional policies and high expectations. They would be held to the same standards as every other member of the team. To assist them, there would be the member of the resident company (the person that normally does the job they are working) as a mentor.

The mentor part of this formula I think is the key. There is something to be said for jumping in head first and learning as you go, I've learned a lot doing this in certain situations. Eventually though, you hit a point where it is hard to learn new things when there isn't anyone around who knows more than you. Imagine how much you could learn if you were to jump in head first, learning by doing, but with the extra support of someone who could give you tips, tricks and techniques to push you forward each time learning begins to stagnate.

In addition my theatre could offer classes. The artistic director could teach a class in choosing a season (how to create balance, where to start when reading scripts, how to better understand your audience...) the managing director could teach a class on theatre business (grant writing and development, contract writing...) and the artististic and technical team could teach an endless list of skill workshops (upholstery, foam carving, furniture construction, computer drafting, welding, first aid, taping out a groundplan, basic SM paperwork, tailoring tricks, wig styling, stage make-up, practical wiring...). I would love to have regular open forums. For example, once a month choreographers around the city would know that they can come to a meeting full of choreographers and bounce ideas of people who really know how to help.

In theory my theatre would be improved by an endless supply of new thinkers with fresh ideas, and theatre around the city would be improved by an active, collaborating community of technicians, writers, directors and administrators.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fake drinks

Another one of my favorite tricks is to use soap to create liquids in glasses. As long as the drink is allowed to be a little bit cloudy (can't use it for water or white wine) it is a great step up from painting the inside of the glass (a technique I always think looks bad). It is sold in 5 pound blocks at craft stores and if you don't have access to a stove will even melt in the microwave easily. One of the best results I got was hot apple cider. I used clear glass mugs, a little bit of food dye and real cinnamon sticks in each mug. It looked so real that the actors initially thought they were.

I have also used it in the past for soup and even for a bowl of hummus (for that one I waited until it was hardening and added texture).

Another bonus is that, unlike a two part resin or a paint, it is not permanant. If you want to reuse the glass for a new purpose all you need to do is run it under hot water for a while; the soap should slip right out.

I had a mishap recently when I tried to reuse the soap though. I had melted the soap down in a stockpot and added in some color and real spices to make soup. For a show I am currently working on I needed a carafe of orange juice and decided to save money by reusing the soap from the soup. I reheated it, added a yellow-orange paint and poured it into the carafe. Problem was that the soap had slowly eaten away the paint on the inside of the stockpot. The orange juice was the right color, but it was full of small chips of black paint...oops. There won't be a round two on this one because we decided to switch to real orange juice, but lesson learned for the next time, always strain the soap to make sure.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


I had a meeting recently with two people working on PR for a show I am production managing, and I have to say I learned a ton. I have only been peripherally involved in PR up to this point and I had no idea what was involved in promoting even a small storefront show. Our PR coordinator had a book called the Chicago Media Guide which listed every paper, magazine, radio and tv station in the Chicago area. He went through the thousands of listings in the book to weed out the ones that would have any interest in our show, and then sent them a preliminary press release, three months before the show.
We spent time talking about facebook event pages (we can't make it too soon or people will forget, we should definitely include videos of rehearsal or interviews with production team members, it would be nice to have an intermediate event so people have something to look forward to sooner), press releases (we need another one two months before the show and a third one one month before the show, we need to approach different angles on the show), and other promotional questions (do any of our cast or production team have an interesting life story, we need to make sure that the author has a facebook page).
You need a certain number of performances of a certain type in order to qualify for "Jeff Award" consideration (that's the Chicago theatre awards), and you need to contact the "Jeff" committee in a certain way by a certain day.
I am excited to learn even more as I work through this show, and I'll be sure to share my newfound knowledge here so everyone can learn along with me.

Monday, January 4, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things

No real direction to this post, just a random list of favorite products, reliable techniques and fun tricks.

-I'm slowly falling in love with Google Documents- If I make the props list for a show in Google Docs, instead of just as a file on my computer, I can send a link to it to the rest of the production team. Then they can check in throughout the process to see how different props are progressing (and save a "did you get the note that..." email)

-I love epoxy putty- I always keep some around for little fixes. Just recently I have used it to:
  • replace a missing piece on a gramaphone that held the horn piece on.
  • steady a wiggly top on a street lamp
  • repair the plastic on a friend's car key
  • add trim detail to a bent piece of conduit to make it a bank window
  • repair a broken handle on a ceramic "flagon"
  • add more grip to the hilt of a sword for an actor
and I've used it a dozen other ways in the past. On top of that it's cheap, readily available at any hardware store, and comes in an easy tube you can just throw in your tool box for when you need it.

-Sewing as a means of attaching- When glue can't be trusted, or won't seem to work, my favorite trick is to "sew" things together. I drill small holes and use heavy-duty thread to literally stitch one item to another (in the same way you would attach a rigid button to a fabric shirt). I mentioned this before when describing the Full Monty car but I wanted to emphasis the many uses.
I discovered this trick when working on Hello Dolly. The waiters all needed trays with straps on the bottom so that they could do all sorts of dancing and acrobatics without loosing their trays. We tried one type of glue after another, but eventually they all gave in to the torque of the trays twisting and turning on the dancer's hands. Our final solution was to drill small holes in the trays and stitch through those holes into the fabric strap on the bottom. We used heavy-duty thread, and it took the stress better than any adhesive we had tried. Since then it is my go-to attachment method when I am attaching anything to fabric.

-High Density Foam Tape- It's just weather stripping, like you would use for the windows in your house. It is cheap (about $3 a roll) comes in different widths and thicknesses and again is readily available in a hardware store. I discovered it when TDing a show where two sliding walls were operating on a traveler track like doors. Every time they would come together they would make a banging noise and it was driving the director crazy. I bought one roll of the foam (sticky on one side) and ran it down both walls. It took two seconds, solved the problem, and made it even easier to close the doors and not leave any sort of gap in the middle.
Since then I like to keep it to use to add just a little extra padding for noise reduction, actor comfort, scenery protection or just general safety.

-I just watched a stage manager go around prior to a show and "charge" all the glo-tape quickly with a camera flash. For those who don't know, glo-tape is a glow-in-the-dark tape used on stage to help actors and crew avoid running into things, or falling off levels in the dark. Like anything glow-in-the-dark it needs to be charged before it will work. As a freshman in college I remember walking around with a flashlight before the show every night "charging" each piece of tape for 2 minutes. Turns out one bright concentrated flash of light from a camera does the job just as well and saves a ton of time!