Friday, April 29, 2011

Cleaning Out Props Stock

 I've recently been helping one of the theatre I work for clean out their stock. I could not be more excited to do it; the stock has been overflowing since I first started working there. It took far too much time to even get to the box you were looking for and still you might not find what you needed when you got there.
There have been multiple times when I searched for something, couldn't find it, went out and bought what I needed, only to have the costume designer or assistant production manager ask me "Why didn't you just use the one we had in stock?"
Over time, after dealing with stock organization at many theatres, I've developed some rules for what is worth keeping and what should be thrown away, donated, sold or just generally gotten rid of after a show closes.
All of the boxes in this picture were dishes. most of which was packed tightly in newspaper to protect it. If I wanted to find anything I would have needed to pull all the boxes out, unwrapped dish after dish until I found something appropriate and then put it all back. As easily as dishes can be found at thrift stores and as cheap as they are when you find them. It is no wonder that many props masters didn't bother with stock. Buying was much easier, took 1/4 the time and they were able to select exactly what the show needed. It is smart to keep some common pieces in stock to pull for rehearsal props and to use when you need something basic (solid colored plates and bowls, a few versatile serving dishes, a matching set of silverware, anything that looks like it would be used in a diner or a restaurant...), but dishes with unique patterns, especially if you only have one or two of that pattern are best donated right back to the thrift store instead of taking up room in storage and preventing you from being able to find what you need quickly and efficiently.
These shelves though, when they are completed are going to be fantastic. I have found no better system than file boxes for organizing props. They are sturdy, easy to label, stack easily and hold a ton.
One of my biggest pet peeves in props stock at any theatre is liquor bottles. Especially if space is limited, please do not waste space storing empty bottles. I promise you, when a bottle of vodka, whiskey or wine shows up on the props list you will have someone in the company more than happy to empty a bottle for you. If you must keep something around, keep one red wine, one white wine, one vodka and one whiskey bottle that you can pull easily for rehearsal props. Directors can be very specific about their liquor anyway, sure as you have Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Seagrams Seven and Wild Turkey Whiskey bottles, the director will insist that this character would be drinking Makers Mark.
So PLEASE just recycle your bottles and save room for other things.

Something else that should always be thrown away after a show is cheap disposable food and toiletries. The "vanity items" box was overflowing, but after we cleaned out all the cheap soaps, lotions, hair dyes and shaving creams that had been saved we had a manageable box of compacts, mirrors, brushes etc that really will be useful. 
The same thing goes for canned goods. I have often purchased canned goods to help fill out the shelves in a kitchen or corner store. After the show is over please just eat the corn or donate it to a local food pantry. Canned goods are heavy, take up a lot of space and can be purchased cheaply and easily the next time you need them.
This is the box of all the broken and mismatched silver
It had previously been mixed in with this box of nice matched silver. Both boxes were a mess and full of broken useless pieces. After sorting I decided to keep two full silver tea sets, a serving dish and an ice bucket. Between these two sets I am sure I will always be able to find what I need.
We had two full sets of dishes in stock, and with all the space created by everything we had thrown away, I decided that it was worth keeping them both. One was this set of formal fine china and one was a much more everyday set of dinnerware. It they had both been formal or both casual I only would have kept one. 
I also wanted to point out the awesome thought someone had to put a picture of the set on the outside of the box. I'm sure it has saved a lot of props masters a lot of time; myself included.
Acrylic drinking glasses are getting better and better. Basics can be purchased cheaply at stores like Target and there is an incredibly wide variety online for specialty pieces. I have started to believe that while it is good to have some glassware around (for those times when glasses need to clink and the acrylic just sounds wrong), it makes sense to get rid of some of your glass if the same thing is available in acrylic. I know personally I will always choose the acrylic when I have the option to avoid dangerous breakables on stage.
In addition to the basics I tend to save things that are special and would be hard to replace. This candelabra is unique, beautiful and I can imagine it ending up in multiple shows. It is also big, heavy, and doesn't fit in any of our boxes, which makes it tempting to get rid of, but that is the reason we are cleaning out stock. We are getting rid of junk so we have room for important pieces like this. Another downside of an overstuffed props shelf is that pieces like this can get damages. It was buried in the back of a shelf, corroding (and that's likely where that one arm got bent). It could have stayed back there for years, unused and sustaining more and more damage without ever being noticed. Now it can get used and cared for and will continue to be around when we want it.
Though, with that said, some hard to replace things are worth getting rid of. I am sure there was a good reason to save this at one time. The theatre used to do a yearly cabaret-slapstick Christmas show. This would have been a perfect piece to have on hand, but they have moved away from that type of theatre and it is time for this cup to go too. Keep in mind the types of shows that your theatre does. There are some pieces that I can look at and think "That is perfect for a big dance musical," but if this theatre doesn't do big dance musicals, maybe it is better to sell it to someone who does and make room for things we will use.
Sometimes, even when something seems incredibly useful and you know it will be used in show after show, it's still worth paring down your stock. Candleholders like these are used all the time in shows set prior to electric lighting. Since we have eight in stock though I am betting that multiples have been purchased when stock ones couldn't be located (I found these spread across four different boxes).
In the end I kept the biggest one, the most ornate one and two matching ones. I put them all back in the same box where they will be much easier to locate in the future.
As we were sorting and purging I realized there was one more box we needed to make. Often I have found myself working on a big interior set and going back to stock the week of tech to pull set dressing. You always need more than you think and one thing overstuffed stocks are good for is finding a lot of junk to fill in around the edges. So I decided to make a box that I could go to when that junk was needed. I filled a box with versatile, high quality kitsch and put it back on the shelf. 

A couple other stock notes:
  • After a show ends I like to offer all props to the actors and production team first. I tell them that they can buy anything we used for half of what we paid. It just makes sense to have a little extra money now, then to put the items back in stock on the hope that they might get used in the future.
  • When sorting, it is ideal to have an idea of the next three or four shows that you are putting up. Having an idea of what will be needed will save the frustration of getting rid of something only to need to buy a new one in three months (it will inevitably still happen, but you can minimize it, and the fear of that frustration is no excuse for hanging onto useless objects).
  • Re-donating things to thrift stores is a great way to build up some good will with the people there. If they see that you are regularly bringing in donations, they are much more likely to work with you when you need to bargain for something that is out of your price range.
  • One of my favorite stories about props stock involves a local Chicago theatre. They were curious about whether the money they were spending to pay rent on their storage unit was worth the price. For a full season someone kept track of what they pulled from stock for each show. At the end of the season they added everything up and realized that they were losing money. They got rid of their stock and now, at the end of each show they recycle what they can, throw away what they have to, invite other theatre companies to come scavenge at their strikes and donate whatever is left over. I'm not saying that this will work for everyone (especially if your storage space is free), but it certainly provides some perspective when you are contemplating what to save at the end of a show.
  • And finally, stocks require maintenance. Every three or four shows you need to go back, clean sort and purge again. You can help yourself when you clean by allowing room to grow. If when you sort you go from overflowing down to full, after one or two more shows you will be back to overflowing. Instead try to sort and purge until you are at around 80% capacity so you give yourself room for new items when they arrive.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Giant hands Part 2

To recap from Giant Hands part 1. I cut lengths of PVC, used the toggle nut from a toggle bolt as a spring hinge, and then screwed all of the fingers into my wooden base. From there I added a lauan cutout to the back of the hand to compete the shape between the fingers and wrist. 
I ended up having to go back and redo many of the joints to replace the screws. Especially at the joints closer to the hand, where they took much more stress, since the screws weren't locked into anything on the inside of the hinge they were loosening themselves. I replaced the bad ones with machine screws (or machine bolts, whichever you prefer to call them). I bought nylon lock nuts, and used them on the ends of the machine screws to make them hold tight. 
Next I started to skin the hands. I used a stretch lycra fabric I purchased at JoAnns (in with the dance and swimwear fabrics). I sewed long tubes and turned them inside out to cover the hands, then stretched the rest of the fabric around the palm and stapled it in place. I also used a little hot glue in places where I couldn't get a staple. 

I painted the handle black so it would disappear by the laws of theatre magic. I used heavy duty beading thread to stitch through the eye bolts in the tips of the fingers and then ran them through eye bolts in the center of the palm.
I've found this thread under the name "spider wire" before. This version was at Michaels under the name "Dandy Line." It looks and feels like button thread, but it is rated for up to 20 pounds.
I tied all five lines off to a clip. 
The clip hooked into a grommet on the actors belt. By pulling their hands away from their body, the actors were able to pull the hands into a fist.
Unfortunately the pictures of the giants in action aren't very good. They kept their heads down and often huddled in a circle, but you'll have to believe me that when they punched and pointed and scratched their heads they looked awesome.
Overall a success. If I had to do it again I would probably work in some foam or stuffing to shape the back of the hand, and I would look for a more rigid belt (the belts were wide elastic so sometimes they were the point of least resistance and would stretch instead of pulling the strings tight).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Blunty is another one of the "Little Ones" in the play I have been working on. The beginning of his head was constructed almost identically to that of the Curious Child. I molded his face onto a cheap soccer ball using clay, paper mached over everything and then cut through the back to remove the clay. 
Blunty is different though, in that he is not a free standing puppet, but works as an appendage to an actor. In the script, Blunty is slowly transforming from a sweet innocent Little One, to a large brutish, food hoarding giant. We decided that this would be accomplished by putting a Little One head onto a human body. 
To make this work, Blunty's head needed to be operated from behind (where the puppeteer would be standing)  instead of from below. I also wanted Blunty's mouth to be stronger because he would be constantly chomping on food whenever we saw him.
I used a reacher/grabber, like these, I bought at a local pharmacy for the mechanism of the jaw.
I used carefully pre-drilled screws to attach into the narrow ends of the grabber.
And secured it to the back of the head.
Instead of just paper mache, I made Blunty's lips stronger by filling in behind them with epoxy putty.
Blunty's head is mounted to his shoulders with a long bolt and lots of washers to spread out the weight and reduce friction. This simple pivot point was enough to allow the grabber, already attached, to turn the head in addition to chomping.
I used a baby carrier, like this one, that I picked up at a thrift store as the rigging to attach everything to the front of the Blunty actor.
For Blunty's arms we used two actors behind our main actor, doing the "boyscout arms" trick (sticking their hands, from behind, under his armpits and through his shirtsleeves). To make this easier I sewed wire around the edges of the front and back openings of the sleeves to hold them open.
In these images you can see how Actor 1 provided Blunty's body, and held the tray of food. Actor 2 was Blunty's right hand, and operated the head.

Actor 3 was Blunty's left hand and hugged all three actors together so that they could move as a unit.
This is Blunty's tray of food. I included some realistic fruit, and lots of torn up sponges to resemble fruit that had already been chewed and smashed into a mess.
Some of the sponges were glued down around the outside, but most were bundled and attached to the tray with elastic.
Which was simply threaded through holes in the metal tray and knotted to attach it.
This way Actor 2 and Actor 3, serving as Blunty's hands, could blindly pick up pieces, shove them at the mouth, and then drop them without ever causing a mess.
Also Blunty likes doing Jazz hands :)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Butterfly

The first and most important part of this butterfly is the beautiful fabric. Everything else has come back to letting the fabric shine.
I laid out the fabric, folded in half, measured and traced out the wings. I then cut the fabric while still folded so I ended up with two mirror images. I turned under the tiniest hem I could and stitched each wing all the way around. Ideally I would have done this with a Serger and gotten a cleaner edge, but alas I do not have access to one, so I hemmed, which resulted in the edges haves that rippled effect (I decided it looked okay and am calling it a design choice).
For the body I took a piece of PVC and ripped it in half. 
I installed wooden blocks at each end with mounting hardware
And used the rollers from spring-roll window shades to hold the wings.
The end caps were cut so that when the two halves of the tube were placed back together, there was an opening for the wing to be pulled through.
I attached the wings to the rollers with Gaff tape. You can also see the labels in this image to make sure the wings are installed correctly. Once the fabric is folded and rolled, top and bottom and front and back can be difficult to figure out. If everything else is correct, but you take the wing out of the wrong side of the body, you'll end up seeing the back side.
On my first attempt with the wings I attached grommets to the wing tip and hooked the puppeteer's rods there. the curved shape of the wings caused big problems though. If you can imagine drawing a line from the tip of the wing diagonally to the point where it attaches to the roll, the curve above that line was completely unsupported and instead of flowing beautifully like the rest of the wing, it flopped and sagged.
We tried stiffening it with iron-on interfacing, we tried supporting the the wing vertically with wire and plastic ribs. Nothing worked. 
The eventual solution was to move the imaginary diagonal up.
I cut off the old corner and sewed a piece of sheer netting onto the top of the wing, creating a diagonal line from the grommet down to the roller above the wing itself. The entire wing hung beautifully from this line.
I textured the body with a coat of masking tape
gave him antennae
and legs, and painted him dark brown
Then installed my fabric rolls, leaving just the sheer fabric and the grommets sticking out. 

The original plan was that, once installed, the spring rollers would allow the wings to easily retract into and be pulled out of the body night after night. That idea ended up failing because, to make everything fit, the rollers had to be taken out of the body and rolled neatly. I initially kept the spring rollers in though, because I believed they provided resistance to make the unfurling of the butterfly smoother. In the end though, the problems the rollers caused weren't worth the benefit (the same slapstick comedy problems always caused be roll-up blinds and maps and projector screens; constantly rolling backwards when you want them to lock in place and refusing to roll up when you  need them to retract).
I ended up taking the tubes apart and taking out the spring roller element. The sheer amount of fabric inside that small tube provided plenty of friction force to make the unfurling a smooth controlled motion. 

In the play our magical character pulls the butterfly body out of a wheelbarrow, presenting it as a bug before our three puppeteers enter. One takes the handle on the base of the body and the other two insert the grommets into hooks at the end of long dowels. They unfurl the butterfly wings and flap away.