Sunday, February 28, 2010

Scavenger hunts

Sometimes finding an elusive prop is more luck and persistence than knowledge and research. Often it's about asking nicely, making lots and lots of phone calls, not being embarrassed to ask a strange question and never being shy. I finally found that spinning wheel I was looking for (the one that inspired me to start the Chicago Props Forum facebook group) and I found it today using some good old fashion props detective work. I thought I'd share the story because it's a perfect example of the "intangible" part of props work.

I started looking for the spinning wheel, for "Sleeping Beauty," by calling props rental houses I use and by putting out the word to friends to see if any of them knew of a theatre that had one in stock. I also checked craigslist and a couple of antique stores. I had no luck there, but the stage manager of "Sleeping Beauty" mentioned to me that she had used one in a show three years earlier. She gave me the phone number of the theatre and of the props master from that show. I left messages for them. The props master got back to me and said that the spinning wheel had been from his personal stock, but he had sold it a few months ago becuase it was taking up space. He suggested though that I look at knitting and yarn stores, that they often had spinning wheels and might be willing to rent one. I called 10 knitting stores today and left messages. Specifically the messages were not just, "do you have a spinning wheel?" but also "do you know anyone who might?" Three stores called me back and all told me to go to a store called The Fold, which wasn't open today, and whose website showed their prices for new spinning wheels as VERY high. I called and left a message there anyway hoping maybe to arrange a rental. The forth knitting store that called back, as it happens the one right around the corner for my house, suggested I look into a club called the "windy city spinning guild." Many of the members, she told me, have more than one spinning wheel at home and might be willing to lend me one, plus one of the members used to work in theatre. I looked them up online and called the contact number. The woman who picked up the phone barely let me finish explaining what I needed before she offered to loan me a spinning wheel. She gave me her address, I hopped in my car and 20 minutes later I had the prop I needed. She wouldn't have asked for anything in return, but I offered to get tickets for her and her grandchildren to see the show and she loved the idea. 

It's part of what I love about my job. I never know where the day is going to take me and I never know who I'm going to meet, but you have to trust that at the end of the day, it will all work out and the show will go up.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New Facebook Props Forum

Just a quick post today as I am opening two shows next week and am running around Chicagoland like a mad woman.
I was asking everyone I could think of the other day if they knew of a theatre in Chicago that had a spinning wheel I could rent for one of these shows. I haven't found it yet but one of my friends gave me an idea. "Why don't Chicago props masters have a forum?" he asked. There is an email list of Chicago production managers and a facebook group for Chicago tech directors. These lists as far as I have heard are fairly active with people helping each other find tools, overhire help and general advice. I feel that Chicago props people could benefit a ton from being able to ask advice and find items. And along the lines of my post about my theatre company, and the one last week about reinventing wheels, this could be another chance to collaborate, make everyone's life a little easier and make all of our art better.
So, long story short, I've started a facebook group called "Chicago Props Forum." If you are a Chicago props person please join, I will make you an admin and from there you will be able to message all group members when you have a question. On the group page we can keep track of favorite thrift stores, antique stores, and the best place to find that impossible piece.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tricky Cell Phone

This little pink cell phone for The DNA Trail had to have a couple of tricks in it. The scenario basically goes like this.

Teen girl- I wish I could just change my DNA.
Teen #2- Why not (pulls out cell phone, DNA swab pops up out of it, swabs cheek and reinserts it, opens another compartment in phone) mint?

***Please note these are not the actual lines, the playwright is much better than that***

I bought this toy cell phone at Target. I started by opening it up and removing everything I didn't need (batteries, wire speakers to make the buttons beep...) to find out where I had space inside the phone. It wasn't a lot, but it was doable. I decided that the best place for the mints would be the raised box at the base of the phone.

I carefully cut out the "lid" with a matte knife (care and patience is the key here, it took several passes with the knife to get all the way through the plastic, but anything more heavy duty then the knife might have torn up the plastic). I filled around the edges with epoxy putty to seal off the compartment and then glued a ribbon to the inside and to the lid to function as a hinge.

For the q-tip I decided that it would live in the top sliding part of the phone. I carefully cut a notch out of the top and back of that piece to give it space to fit.
During my first tests with it I could shove a q-tip in that would stay in place while it opened and then when I closed the phone, it would stay poking up about 1 in every five times it would catch the back and pop up when I closed the phone.
I needed to find a way to assure that it would happen every time. I ended up cutting out a small hole that the cotton of the q-tip would catch on. You could push a q-tip in and close the phone, pushing the q-tip past the stop point. When the phone opened the q-tip caught the stop point, then when the phone slid back closed the q-tip stayed put and the stick of the q-tip seemed to pop up magically for the actor to grab.
Worked perfectly.
I covered the phone in bling and took it to rehearsal.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A kindred spirit

Just a short post to pass on a great quote. As a lead-in, I was recently describing this blog to a woman at JoAnns who knew nothing about theatre. She asked me, "aren't you afraid of helping your competition?" and, "Do you think other props masters would be upset at you for giving away trade secrets?" I told her I didn't think any prop master would be upset about my blog, and, at least in this city, there is plenty of props work to go around so my only hope is if I help someone with a project they can return the favor at some point when I'm stuck. 

Today while reading Eric Hart's blog ( I came across this quote that says it perfectly. "It is highly inefficient for so many people to be reinventing the wheel every year in theatre, especially when there are so many more worthy prop challenges." 


Monday, February 15, 2010

Open rehearsals?

A couple of years ago I read an article by DD Kugler called "Educating the Audience: sharing the process" which talked about inviting your audience and community into the rehearsal process. I loved the idea at the time. I love theatre mostly for the process. I enjoy watching the creative process and collaboration in action through rehearsals and production meetings almost more than I love the finished product. The idea of showing part of that process to the community made sense to me. How can I expect people to appreciate theatre if they are missing out on my favorite part of it? Or to quote Kugler:
 "Theatre isn't just 'live' it's alive, dynamic, variable- a nightly process of re-creation in communion with the audience. If we find the audience an inadequate participant in that live re-creation, then I fear it's because we haven't trained the audience how to enter that process with us. In fact, we exclude them from our central process- the rehearsal- and we stridently promote the public performance as if it were product, rather than an extension and fulfillment of a collaborative process."
In just my props work I find that people often have very little concept of the thought and work that goes into the details. I was talking to my mom the other day and was describing my frustration at a last minute prop change. At the first production meeting, I told her, we discussed and debated the type of beer two of the characters would be drinking for ten minutes. We finally came to an agreement, I went out and bought the beers, some friends helped me empty the bottles, I cleaned them, delivered them to rehearsal and now the director wanted to change the brand. My mom's reaction, "You spent ten minutes with five people just debating the brand of beer?" She couldn't understand that in my world details like that are everything. We weren't just sitting around listing brand names for ten minutes, we were discussing the characters. How much money do they have to spend on beer? Where did they grow up? How important is image to them? Why are they drinking in this scene? What kind of beer do I drink when I am feeling like that? I have a feeling that if my mom were allowed to be a fly on the wall for a discussion like that she would be as fascinated as I am.
And I bet she would be equally fascinated watching a rehearsal where the actors spend two hours working a ten minute scene. Going back to try things again and again with slightly different blocking or different inflection on the words. I love the moments in a rehearsal when the director will say "What happens to the tension if instead of crossing to her there, you stay put and stare her down from across the room?" and then you get the instant gratification of seeing exactly how that effects the scene.
People wouldn't have to come to rehearsals regularly, but I would think that anyone who sat through a rehearsal or a production meeting and saw how much thought and work went into details, and how much a small change can make a big difference, would come out with a greater appreciation for the art and more respect for the artists.
After saying all of this about how much I love the idea, I have to say that I was in a rehearsal that was open for the first time last week and I hated it. It was a first rehearsal and while there were moments where everything seemed normal, there were also moments when the rehearsal seemed far too performative, as if it were being staged for the subscribers who were invited. The director stopped numerous times throughout the rehearsal to explain what was going on to the audience, the first read through was almost put on as a staged reading, with all of the actors on the same side of a long table, facing out to the audience, and then after the reading the actors were asked to talk about the script in a way that seemed more like a post show talk back than a discussion between artists beginning to explore a piece together. I am saying this not as a criticism of the director and the company, I think the heart was in the right place, but as a warning of the place that this idea can easily slip to. In order for the audience to see the magic, the artists have to treat them the same way they treat me. When I come into a rehearsal as a technician and quietly sit down in the back of the room for a minute, the actors don't pay any attention to me. They don't try to entertain me, they don't worry if I'm judging them and they don't worry if I understand what exactly they are working on and because of this I get to see the magic. I wonder how much more people would appreciate theatre if more people got a chance to catch those magic moments that I do.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Subway Handles

These Subway handles were a simple quick prop for The DNA Trail, but they were a lot of fun and turned out great. 
I started with this dog chew toy I got at Petsmart and cut out the center ring. 
Then I poked holes through the red rubber rings, cut up a wire coat hanger and threaded the wire through the holes. 

I took a piece of blue nylon strap that I bought at the fabric store and wrapped it around the wire.

Then I sewed the strapping closed on the top and both sides. 

Ta-da, subway handle that hangs from nowhere!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Magical book of life

The second fun prop for The DNA Trail at Silk Road Theatre Project is this ancient magical book. It needed to be incredibly large (the term used in the script was "unwieldy"). I started with the same idea as I used for the Ghost of Christmas Past's book. I bought lots of foam sheets in white grey and tan, about 50 sheets total, and used printer paper, tracing paper and velum in  between the sheets of foam to add variety to the texture of the book. I included a large chunk of tracing paper pages in the center, so the when the book was opened onstage the actress could turn pages that looked thin and light and a little more magical.
For the last book I created a binding by wrapping the edges of the sheets in a piece of paper soaked with glue. This time, with so much paper involved I didn't trust that method. Instead I divided that stack I had created into five sections and used a leather needle to sew through the layers to bind them together. I then glued the outside pages of each stack to each other and I wrapped the whole thing in a gaff tape binding like I did on the last book. For the outside cover I used foam board instead of lauan to make the book even lighter and bound it again with gaff tape to attach the cover to the pages. This time though I took the time to cover the whole cover in gaff in order to create a uniform smooth surface on which to work the next layer.
For the cover I bought a piece of leather and carefully wrapped the book. I had decided that I wanted to use my wood burning iron to press a pattern into the leather and since this play had an American West setting I researched Hopi and Navajo art to find my inspiration.
Once I had located the designs I wanted to use I drew them out on printer paper, cut out the stencil and traced them onto the leather with a light black pen. It is important for me to carefully lay out my designs before I start using the wood burner as I am not very good freehand and you can't erase anything you burn into the leather.
After the design was finished I rubbed a copper acrylic paint onto the book cover and then wiped it off, leaving the copper color in the grooves I had just created and lightly in the grain of the leather to give it more of a glowing magical feel.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Erosion Fences

These erosion fences were a side project at one of the theatres I work with. They needed to be sturdy and yet incredibly light and easy for actors to move. The designer wanted them to look old and weather beaten and for the wood to have the old "greyed" look of barn wood. In addition, the rest of the set is going to be made from raw wood with a little bit of stain and seal on it, which means painting wasn't really an option (my skills are not good enough to make painted wood look real next to the real thing). I went to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in hopes of finding some old lumber, unfortunately they had recently taken all of the old stick lumber they had in stock and used it to build more shelving in the store. After some discussion with one of the workers about options, he told me that, though they were not technically "for sale," he could give me some old palettes if I would make a donation to Habitat. It worked out perfectly, for less than I would have spent on new lumber I got all the wood I needed already greyed and roughed up.

If you're going to deal with palettes for lumber, there are some things you need to know about them. First, though they look rickety sometimes, they are very well constructed. The nails that are used to put them together are twisted, so trying to knock a palette apart with a hammer won't get you very far. You will do much better prying and twisting the boards. To get these apart I used a circular saw to cut the planks just inside both end boards leaving them only attached at the middle stretcher. I was then able to twist them back and forth to loosen them before prying them off.

Another thing to know about palettes is that they are often constructed of hardwoods (not the pine and cedar you would guess). I have found maple and poplar among others that I couldn't identify. You often can't tell until you cut it because the finish is rough and it's all so dirty.

After I broke the palettes apart I ripped the lumber down to the right widths on the table saw, used my draw knife to rough up the cut edges, and sanded everything lightly to remove the splinter hazard for actors who would be touching it.

The dirt at the bottom of the fences was made from a lauan base with layers of pink insulation foam attached with contact adhesive (the correct kind, in the green can for all of those who read "turkey adventures part 2"). I carved the foam down to natural rounded shapes and then cut slots in it with a matte knife for the planks. I attached the planks into the slots using more contact adhesive.

After the planks were in the slots (cut a little smaller than the plank so that friction would help to hold everything in place). I attached the planks together with cross-pieces. I learned while working on this that it is much easier to attach the top brace first. Also, if I were to do this again I would pay more attention when I was cutting the slots, that I was putting them in a straight line. It was nice that the fence posts weren't in a perfect line; the push and pull and bend and tilt made them look a lot more worn and weather beaten, but there were a couple of occasions when the posts were so out of line that I had to re-cut a slot and move them in order to be able to attach the cross-piece.

After the fence was assembled I used light-weight spackling compound to make the foam look even more dirt-like and to fill in all the gaps and seams. If you've never played with this stuff, you should try it. It has the texture of buttercream icing, dries incredibly fast and is fun to play with.