Friday, September 30, 2011

Think before you speak...

Last year when I was working on Menorca at 16th Street Theatre, we needed to have a table full of ancient skeletal remains for the archaeologist to be examining. I bought two Bags of Bones from the local party store (hooray doing this show right around Halloween!), and touched them with a light paint wash to make them look older. After the show the director took the bones home to add to her Halloween decorations.

In January I was working on another show that needed bones, so I called up the director and asked if I could have them; she was happy to help. After the second show, the bones ended up in one of the crates in my basement where I store prop pieces that I think I am going to keep using.

Several months after that I was working on a show doing puppets (not props) and this conversation occured after one of our tech runs.

Set Designer- I'm a little confused by the line the actor has after the first dance number about it being a perfect transition to talking about the skeletal system. 

Director- We were originally thinking of those dancers as being skeletons, but with the masks and the costumes, they ended up being just strangely creepy monsters.

Costume Designer- I think it would be a little late to change the costumes, and other than that line afterwards that doesn't fit, I really like the look of them. 

Director- I do too. I don't want to change the costumes, maybe we need to change or cut the line. 

Set Designer- What if, when the monsters popped out of the boxes and crates, they had bones that popped out with them. Then, after the dance is over, there will be bones scattered around the stage , and the actor can pick up one of the bones and use the transitional line. 

Director- That works for me.

Production Manger- I'll let the Props master (who had a conflict and wasn't at that meeting) know, and see if she can find us some bones. 

Me- I have some bones we could use.

-Silent stares-

Me- In a crate in my basement.

-More silent stares-

Me- That sounds weirder now that I say it out loud...

Production Manger- Yeah...

Me- They are props leftover from another show...I bet my neighbors (who also store things in the same basement room) think I'm pretty weird... hadn't really thought of that before...

Production Manger- Moving on...

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own world, I forget that the things I do are weird to outsiders. I now keep the bag of bones in a closed box instead of in an open crate to avoid creeping out the other people in my building.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This week's rediculousness

I am currently working on "Goodnight Moon" at Chicago Children's Theatre (going to be a great production by the way, and I'm looking forward to some exciting posts here about some super-fun props I get to build).

The set and props from the play are pulled right out of the book, and I am attempting to be as accurate as possible. Because of this, I am bring my little board-book copy of Goodnight Moon with me where ever I go so I can reference it. "What color was the bowl of mush?", "Do these slippers match the ones next to the bed?",  "how close is this lamp to the shape of the lamp in the picture?" etc. I thought nothing of it, until I saw a woman staring at me in Target and realized how strange it was to be intently studying Goodnight Moon in the middle of a store. Thinking back on it, I sure it looked even more out of place when I was at Home Depot.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

This is my job...beating up vehicles

I currently drive a Oldsmobile Bravada. Her name is Daisy and she is the most wonderful SUV/rolling prop shop I could ask for. I've had her for a little over a year and half, and if I don't beat her up too badly (she gets a lot of abuse) I plan on keeping her for a good long while.
Before I got Daisy though, I was driving a 1994 Chrysler Lebaron convertible. I loved that car, it was super cute, and it was fun to drive around in the summer with the top down. It was the perfect car for me when I needed it to just be my car. When I was working in Pennsylvania and there was a company pickup available to me when I needed it, everything was fine.
When I moved to Chicago things changed. The little storefront theatres in the city rarely have even a drill or a chop saw of their own, a company truck or van was out of the question. I rolled with the punches though and decided I would do what I had to do to get the job done. More and more I started using my convertible as if it was a pickup truck. I would put the top down and tie things into the back seat as best I could. I discovered that if I slid a ten foot board down between the front seats to the floorboard on the passenger's side, it only hung out the back of the car a few inches. I loved the looks on the faces of the old men in the home depot parking lot as they watched me walk towards my car with a stack of lumber. I loved watching the smile of realization on their face as I turned the car on, unhooked the roof and lowered the top to load everything into the back seat.
It wasn't always ideal though. Multiple times I got caught driving to the theatre with a full load right as it started to rain. As it got colder I would bundle up with hat and gloves and scarf as I would drive through the city with a desk hanging out the back and the heat blasting on my toes to try to keep warm.
One night, in early February I was moving some benches and a bookshelf I had purchased to drop them off at rehearsal. The top went down, I wedged the pieces in, and I headed downtown. I moved the pieces into the theatre and everything was fine until I went back to my car to put the top up. Apparently the heavy benches had bent or twisted or wedged some part of the mechanism the moves the convertible top up and down. The roof would start to go up, but then would stop at totally vertical and wouldn't go any further. I was standing on the front seat of the car, pushing the roof motor button with my toe and yanking on the part of the top I could reach to try to pull it down, with no luck. On top of all of this, I was already running late to pick up a friend from St Louis at the train station.
The look on her face, a perfect combination of pity, confusion, and amusement, when I pulled up in below freezing weather still makes me smile. She stood there on the curb with her bags and stared at me. All I could say was "It won't go up." She laughed at me, we got into the car and decided to head home to figure out what to do next. On the way home, because we both needed food, and because we had reached our limitations for cold, we pulled off into a Wendy's. Before going inside to order food, we decided to try again. We had been working on the top for about five minutes, me standing on the front seat pulling and Megan crouched on the trunk of the car throwing her weight against it, when two sixty-year-old women walked up and asked us if we might need some help. We told them we did. With the extra two sets of hands standing on the sides of the car pulling down, the twisted or wedged piece finally popped loose and the top closed. We thanked the women, went into Wendy's and got some much deserved dinner.
I can only imagine what those women (and those people who passed the two of us on the highway between the train station and Wendy's) must have thought of us.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Large overly fancy quill

Next to the letters, Cyrano's pen is the most important prop in Cyrano. I started by making a fairly standard sized quill from a cheap (goose?) feather I bought at Michaels. I found some pretty fabulous tutorials online about how to temper the feather with heat to make it less flexible, and how to cut the correct angles and slits in the end to make the ink flow. You can look it up yourself however, because the quills I made using those tutorials were not the quills we ended up using. 
 Instead of a basic goose feather we decided to use a large grand ostrich plume.
 I started by cutting back the feathers from the base of the quill until I had enough space for a hand to hold and write comfortably.
 We wanted the pen to be able to actually write when he used it onstage. To do that I took the inside out of this ballpoint pen.

I feel it is worth noting why I chose a cheap ballpoint pen for the ink. I would have loved to have used a fountain or felt tip pen, or even a nicer ballpoint, so that I could have gotten a heavier nicer line when he wrote on the paper. In this production though, Cyrano's quill doubles as the feather in his hat. With a nicer pen, with ink that flowed more freely, I was in too much danger of the ink flowing freely onto the hat and staining it.
 I attached the ink to the pen by wrapping it tightly with electrical tape (for a tight hold) and masking tape (for color and texture). 

 And I finished it off with a touch of black paint to imitate the staining a quill would get from being continually dipped into an ink well. 
And the effect is fantastic when he writes the letter onstage and the audience (especially those who are seated in the close balcony) can see an empty page filling with poetry. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cyrano Letters

These letters were created for Cyrano. Since they are the central piece of the show we needed to make them distinctive and special. 
I started with a nice parchment paper. I used a copper color for Cyrano's letters. 
To differentiate Roxanne's letters, I used a silvery blue parchment. 
I had an assistant on the show who actually was the one who chose the fonts and typed the letters. To get the fonts I sent her to, one of a number of websites available to download free fonts online. It's worth checking the whole thing out if you never have, but for this project specifically we used the section of handwriting fonts. The fonts on the site are much more natural looking than any that you likely have pre-loaded on your computer and using them is considerably easier and more consistent than doing it by hand and copying. The fonts are very easy to download and install, the site even has a step-by-step list of instructions if you need help.

 After seeing the letters in tech rehearsals I felt that the parchment didn't make the letters feel special enough. To help give them some definition I outlined the copper letters with a touch of bronze paint and a touch of silver to the silver letters. It's not visible from the audience, but it defines the letters a bit, and helps the edges not feel as new and modern and sharp.
 One letter needed to be soaked with blood (I don't feel bad revealing this because the plot of Cyrano de Bergerac is pretty much common knowledge). To stain the letter I used a mixture of red and blue food dye diluted with a very little bit of water. This picture is with one coat of very wet dye.
And this final picture is with a second coat of dye and the bronze painted edge. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

If only I could buy everything

One of the hardest things about being a props master is controlling the urge to buy things. It is so difficult to see an amazing deal on an interesting piece while walking through a thrift or antique store (or worse sitting out on the side of the road). I will stare a a piece thinking "I am going to need that one day, and when I do, i am not going to be able to find it." Eventually I remind myself that if I were to buy everything that I thought that way about, I would have to spend money every month to rent space to store the stuff, and I almost always walk away.
Today was a perfect example. While walking out of the Salvation Army I saw four vintage tricycles. I have no use for them on any show I can think of in the next year, but it was really hard to walk away. They were on sale for $50 each (a quick ebay search showed similar trikes selling for up to $100), they were here in the city (so there would be no dealing with driving to pick them up or paying shipping costs) and most importantly They Matched! Other props masters will agree I'm sure. Vintage is easy enough, though you sometimes pay more than you would like for it; matching vintage is darn near impossible.
I guess the moral of today's story is you have to let these things go. I certainly can't be spending $200 on something I eventually might use, as tempting as it might be. Every once in a while an item shows up on my props list and I think "A year ago I knew exactly where I could get one of those." In the end I have to say, "Oh well" and start a new search.

The other moral of the story is, if you happen to need vintage tricycles, and you are anywhere near Chicago, they are at the Salvation Army at Clyborne and Ashland. Go get them!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Never be Afraid to Ask...Neon bar Sign

Another last minute prop added to a show was a neon, Schlitz bar sign for Always Patsy Cline. In my initial conversation with the director I had asked if he wanted anything like this to help signify the transition for kitchen to bar, and he didn't think he did. After some rehearsal though, he decided that is would be fun, and just the extra touch we needed. Unfortunately that left me without an extended period of time to lurk on ebay to find a good deal. I looked into some "buy it now" options, but they were all pretty far out of our budget.

The stage manager mentioned he could get us one on rental from a theatre he worked with, but in the end, once we multiplied the per-week rental by the length of our run, it would have been almost the cost of buying one.

Eventually it dawned on me that I already had the connection I needed to get a sign. One of my very best friends works for one of the biggest beer distributors in Chicago. He had mentioned, while we were hanging out draining Schlitz bottles for show props (it's a hard life), that Schlitz was one of their beers. I called him up, told him what I needed, and he left me a sign on my front porch the next morning. We were able to use the sign free of charge as long as we didn't damage it. It worked out great! Free advertising for Schlitz and a free beautiful piece of set decoration for us.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Cyrano Lanterns

Cyrano opened at The House Theatre this weekend. There are very few props in this version of the play, so we were able to devote significant budget and time resources to some beautiful practical lighting.
We did a lot of research into chandeliers and sconces before we came around to these lanterns. We liked the shape of these little Moroccan lanterns for hanging above the set and the the shape of these stagecoach lanterns for hanging on posts around the lower part of the set. The problem was that the stagecoach lanterns were too big and the Moroccan lanterns were too small, we needed to switch the sizes.
To start I took the small Moroccan lanterns and cut the bottom off with the cutting tool of my Dremel.
I sanded the sharp edges to round them a bit. It took a while because there were 16 of them, but after that, the small lanterns were done. The big lanterns were another story.

I was going to use the cut off pieces from the small lanterns to extend the large ones, but I needed to build something to bridge the size gap.
I cut pieces from matte board. It took some experimenting to get the math right, but eventually I got pieces with the correct angle to fit together into a hexagon, with sides that matched the large lantern and the small one.
I hot glued the edges together,
and glued my cutoff piece into the center.
Here's a picture from the outside.
Finally I glued the new piece into the base of the large lantern.
I was satisfied with the look of them and handed them off to the electricians to be wired. They got the lanterns wired, hung them and told me everything had worked perfectly, then I got a late night email from the production manager telling me we had a problem. Apparently the heat from the lights in the lanterns, and from all of the other lighting instruments in the air, was re-melting the hot glue and several of my bases had fallen (thankfully not hitting anyone).
I went back in, carefully predrilled through the cardstock and the metal and added screws to hold the pieces together.
and another view from the outside.
I also added a screw through each side at the attachment point to the lantern.
Finally I had to frost the glass to diffuse the light, and hide the modern lightbulbs. The glass needed to be treated in a way that made the lanterns look like dirt and soot and smoke had accumulated over time.
I did a first coat of polyacrylic sealer tinted with just a touch of brown paint.
For the second coat I used black paint mixed with elmers glue and wood glue (to make it cloudier). For projects like this, I find it helps me to go as quickly as possible. If I take my time, the paint can turn out looking too intentional and "designed." By going super quickly I get more natural randomness.
And here is one of the twelve final large lanterns (with a touch of brass paint dry brushed on for texture).