Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Working with water

Water is tricky, more powerful than you would imagine and pretty much has a mind of it's own. I still don't know that I'm good with it, but I learned a lot creating this creek for a high school production of "The Women of Lockerbie." 

Each platform was built up with layers of foam attached together with contact adhesive and then carved down. The creek was carved into the foam and then coated with Jaxan rubberized coating to make it water tight. 
 I added a chunk of 2x4 to the front of each platform and built up the sides with more jaxan to create the waterfalls in between the levels.

I ended up adding a small piece of lauan under that in order to extend the ledges out further. From there it was a constant exercise in engineering.
The water was run using a fountain pump from Home Depot. I purchased one that was listed as being good for up to 15 feet. My water was flowing for 12 feet horizontally and three feet vertically. As it turns out it was FAR too strong. On our first test the water came pouring out of the hose and overflowed the "banks" of our creek everywhere. To fix the problem I covered about 3/4 of the intake of the pump with duct tape to limit the amount of water, which made a huge difference, though in the future I will remember how incredibly strong these pumps are and get a smaller one.
After that it was a constant battle and engineering challenge. I would run the pump and have students stationed at all point along the path watching, finding the drips and leaks, figuring out where they were coming from and trying different ways to fix them. the first few times I worked with them we would make as many fixes as possible with the jaxan and then we'd have to wait for it all to dry before running it again. For the last few fixes I bought a couple tubes of quick dry silicone caulk so that we could do multiple rounds of fixes in one after school work session.

Drop more keys

I know I just had a post recently about the need to share your knowledge and ideas, but a friend of mine just forwarded me this link and I really wanted to share it. I might just adopt this as my new philosophy "build fewer cages, drop more keys"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Defining the Problem

I just stumbled across this article about problem solving by problem definition. The main idea here is that it is very important, when approaching a problem, to make sure you are asking the right questions. Something I am continually saying as a props master and a TD is "tell me what you want it to do, let me figure out how." I think that this says it even better, "Define what the problem is before rushing to find a solution."

I find that often I will get a note in a rehearsal report that tells me of a solution that is needed rather than the problem that needs to be addressed.
For example, I might get a note that says "Can we add casters to the kitchen table?" If I add casters to the kitchen table as asked, I might get a note the next day that says "We need brakes on the kitchen table casters, it moves too much when she leans on it". If I then switch out the casters to ones with breaks, or add another type of break, we might later get a note saying "The casters on the kitchen table are too obvious, can we add a long table cloth to cover them up?", then the table cloth might clash with a costume, or get caught in the wheels while the piece is being moved and on and on.

If at the first note though, I had taken the time to ask for more detail I might have saved myself a lot of trouble.

Me: Why do we need casters on the kitchen table?
SM: We don't have enough people to do that scene shift, so it needs to be moved by one person.

Once I have the problem defined better I can open up the possibilities for many solutions. Maybe the table would be able to be moved on small discrete glides instead of large casters. Maybe I could add handles in a couple places so that one actor could grip and lift the table more easily. Maybe I could find a different table in stock that could be more easily moved by one actor? Maybe I could talk to the rest of the crew to see if there will be someone else backstage at the moment who could assist with the scene shift? Maybe in the end casters are the best option? You never know until you ask.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Recycled Sculpture

Another prop for The DNA Trail, (I told you this was a fun show). In the second show, one of the characters is supposed to be a former sculptor, we are on her property in the New Mexico desert and her yard contains some of her old sculptures. In our initial design meetings we were discussing how to make this desert scene distinctly American. We had a heavy muslin ground cloth that we were pulling over the stage for this piece, and we decided we should dye it a burnt orange which is more southwestern
(dying a 20'x24' piece of fabric is insane by the way...thanks though to Northwestern University's costume dept for the use of their gigantic dye vat),
we also decided that using old car parts as the basis for the sculptures might help tie us back to the "route 66" Americana feeling.

The first part of the adventure took me to a salvage yard. I didn't really know what to expect going in. How salvage yards usually work is they have acres of old cars sitting out, a mechanic goes and finds the right car, with the part he needs, uses his own tools to take the part off, goes inside and pays for it. I, however, didn't need "a started for an '94 Chrysler LeBaron" I needed "interesting shapes, something that looks recognizably like a car part, and fairly cheap."
I walked up to desk (with all the men in grease soaked coveralls looking at me like I must be lost), explained to the man what I was doing, and asked him if they had a junk pile of pieces that were too rusted, broken or otherwise unsellable.
He took me out back to a small pile of scrap metal (smaller than I had hoped) and told me to load what I wanted into my truck. I found 7 or 8 good pieces and brought the man out to quote me a price, $30, not bad.
If I were to go again I would research to find out what the going rate is for steel by the pound. If I had known that going in I could have maybe bargained to lower the price a bit, oh well.
The TD of the show works in a really nice commercial scene shop for his day job, so we were able to use their space, welder, and scrap metal to assemble the pieces.
As we were working we learned that the simpler designs, letting the shape of the car parts do the work, were the most effective. We also learned that "easily carry-able" was one of the best features we could include.
Now all we have to figure out is what to do with them after the show closes.

Anyone in the market for some art?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

prop food blog!

So I've mentioned on here more than once that prop food is one of my favorite things to work on, and now I've discovered a blog that is focused completely on prop food. The blog is called fake-n-bake and its written by Anna Warren at Milwaukee Rep. There's not a lot there yet, it's still a new blog, but what is there is really fantastic.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Making a living

I need to be better about money. I used to be, but with the move to Chicago, starting over again making connections and learning a new city I gave myself a break. A recent conversation with my best friend (and money maven) reminded me that it's time for both of us to get back on the bandwagon. She told me to check out getrichslowly.org as a daily motivator, and one of the first articles I read was about an artist who quit her job and went freelance...it's a sign.
One of the quotes from that article was from a book called The Unconventional Guide to Art and Money by Chris Guillebeau. "Here's a shocking idea: artists are not destined to be poor. If you're an artist, you can actually make money from your art, feel good about it, and build up a following to support your independent career. Seriously."
I have to remind myself that just becuase I'm making art and doing what I love, doesn't mean I don't have the right to make a living. I may never make bank executive money, but my parents never made a ton of money either and have been able to save, spend wisely and provide my brothers and me with a solid middle class upbringing.
Doing what I do, I am never going to have a traditional IRA, so I set up my own Roth IRA and I put money into it every month, I have a life insurance policy that I pay into every month and I pay my student loans every month. My income may not be as regular as most people, but my bills are just as regular and that means I need to set up a budget and stick to it. We all know people who have "done the theatre thing" for several years out of college and then realized that it was time to get a real job to support a real life and a family. I know I am still young, the burnout might still be on the horizon, but I am proposing that it is possible to live as an artist and support a family if you plan ahead, live within your means, and take work that pays like work and not like a hobby.
(my apologies to actors, I know that it is a LOT harder for you, but I also think that there is a slippery slope of too many actors willing to work for too little that is driving down the value of your work, which I think you deserve to be paid well for)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"That is a Mountain"

For a "Theatre for Young Audiences" (TYA) show I'm working on, I had to turn this ladder into a mountain. It had to be easily climbable and easily movable for a very quick scene.
The ladder was already nicely mounted on this wheeled platform from an earlier production of Suessical.
I cut up some hula hoops to help round out the bottom (I couldn't go as round as I wanted becuase it still had to fit down the aisles), and screwed them in on each end.
I then took a large piece of stretch lycra fabric and draped it over the entire piece.
I stapled it into the ladder where I could and stitched it around the hula hoop.
Stretched tight the fabric kept pulling the center of the hula hoops up, so I ended up adding a strip of wood across the center, screwed into both hula hoops and the platform.

In order to make the mountain safe to climb I stapled the fabric back to create a foot hold on every other step, so that actor wold have a safe place to set his foot without the danger of getting caught up in the fabric.

To help round out the shape and disguise the form of the ladder a little bit better I went inside the mountain and added in the cut off pieces of the hula hoops so that the surface became a little less smooth. 

I also took a hand sewing needle and started gathering and pulling the stretch fabric to create even more texture.

After paint the mountain was looking decent, but was looking a little cartoony. I decided that the moment was so short, and the mountain so laughably small that I couldn't fight the rediculousness. Instead I embraced it, bought a yard of white crushed velvet, and gave the mountain a little snow cap.

Not a very complicated piece, but fun all the same, and I think this stretch lycra idea is going to come in handy in the future.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Magic Spear

This magical Zulu spear goes with the Zulu shield I posted about earlier. In a magical moment, the Zulu warrior draws out a plan of attack on the back of his shield with the point of his spear, the young girl then takes his cue and edits the plan, also with the tip of the spear. Here's how I did it.

I started again with my draw knife, to turn a broom stick into a believable natural looking stick.
I cut a spear point shape out of foam board and attached it to the end of the stick using electrical tape and epoxy putty.
I wired up a simple circuit using a UV-LED bulb, a push button switch, and a battery. All available at Radio Shack.
Two quick lessons I learned while doing this. First, LED lights are directional. They only work if the positive and the negative are attached to the correct sides. Before you decide that your circuit doesn't work, turn the battery over. Second, pay attention to the amount of power the bulb can handle. Before I realized the battery needed to be turned over, I tested the bulb with a 9V battery, and totally fried it. If I had looked, the bag on the LED lights stated that they were rated for 3V, good thing more than one comes in a pack. I soddered a new bulb into the system and tried again.

I used the same type of leather cord wrapping and feathers I did on the shield to help hide the wiring on the handle, and then I smoothed epoxy putty over the spear point to cover the wiring there and to give the spear a carved stoned look.

I added this muslin panel to the back of the shield and painted it with a glow in the dark paint (marketed for arts and crafts and kids rooms). The UV light acts like a pen on the glow-in-the-dark surface. It charges the paint briefly, leaving a glowing line that fades away slowly.

In the light it looks like this.
In the dark it looks like this.

I was a little disappointed in how long the image lasted, only 4 or 5 seconds, but it was still very cool and magical. In the end the drawing that the Zulu did was permanently drawn onto the muslin with green paint pen, (as we don't see him doing his drawing very well anyway) and the magic effect was just used for when the girl did her drawing.

Also, a brief plug for The DNA Trail at Silk Road Theatre Project. It opens tomorrow night and I'm pretty excited for it.