Sunday, May 30, 2010

One of my favorite stores

Sorry to those out side of Chicago, this will probably be of very little use to you, But I was at one of my favorite antique stores today and was reminded of how amazing it is. The Penn-Dutchman (at 4912 N Western, 773-271-2208, is pretty much made for props masters. In an amazing feat the owner Jim Mowery has succeeded in organizing and selling every little piece of clutter and ephemera you can imagine. The front room (he will tell you there are 13 rooms, though I think he is counting some walk-in closets that he has filled) is full of much more typical antique store pieces, furniture, dishes, delicate figurines etc, but as you move further into the store you realize he doesn't just sell the typical high-profit-margin antiques. He sells everything.
There are stacks of drawers all over the shop with labels so you can find vintage advertising, political buttons, tie clips, yo yo's, house keys and everything else.
He doesn't just save and sell whole things either. There are endless supplies of hardware, doorknobs, hinges and handles.
One of my favorite rooms is filled with bins and bins of old photos. He has some from every decade and of every sort of subject matter. He has even gone so far as to file some of them meticulously be content (barbeques, dogs, rhode island, women, men, couples etc.)
In back there is a rack of old table and chair legs, you might find a matching pair, you might not, but the price is right and you won't find turnings like these at the Home Depot when you are working on a period piece.
Upstairs there is a room of fabric: old clothes, bed sheets and table cloths. Things that could be used as is or cut up to create a costume or maybe a throw pillow. There is a room of silver and pewter dishes that can be a pain to root through, but has turned up some wonderful pieces for me.
On top of all of this, Jim is expanding into a trailer behind the store, so there is more excitement to come. Also he's a really wonderful guy. He knows the history of so many of the things he sells, appreciates the value in something being perfectly beautifully distressed and really likes artists and creative people. If you have a chance you should really check it out, I promise it will be worth the trip.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

some things inspiring me right now

I hated the idea of twitter, I also thought that it would be fairly useless if you didn't have a smart phone to keep with you all the time. On some level I was right. Twitter would be a far more interesting tool if I had a smart phone and could read and respond and be part of the conversation in real time. But on another level I was wrong because if you use it right, twitter is not a bunch of pointless updates on what your friends are eating or what happened on American Idol. Twitter can be a conversation with people all over the world sharing ideas all day every day.
I joined twitter to follow the conversation at 2amtheatre (#2amt). It started out as a bunch of theatre artists talking one night on the future of theatre and now it's grown to a conversation that keeps going every day all day. People all over the country and the world talking about marketing ideas, audience development, networking, playwriting and everything else. Most importantly they are sharing links to blogs, articles, pod-casts and videos; giving me something new to look at and fresh ideas to inspire me every day.
Here are some of my favorites-
making meaning

part of the reason I love Chicago

It's the relationship stupid

outsourcing? Admin sharing?

and there are many many others. I have found that being a part of this ongoing conversation, or just reading it many times, has reenergized my passion, not only for what I am working on, but for theatre as a whole. I feel ready to change the world, and that's what theatre should do right?

"I know it's nieve to think that art can change the world, but it would be tragic to think that it couldn't."
From Wendy Smith's book Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940 the other thing that is inspiring me right now.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Coping with Change

I love my job, I get to be self-employed, work in a business I love, go shopping, and play with arts and crafts. I never do the same thing two days in a row, and I learn something new and exciting every show I do. With all of that, you would be surprised there isn't more competition for props jobs. In reality there are very few people who work in props and stay in props for an extended length of time; there is a ridiculously high burnout rate. The source of this burnout, from what I can see, is change.
Get a bunch of props masters together and you will inevitably start swapping war stories about props that took hours of time, a big chunk of budget, or every favor you could call in and then got cut. Or on the other side, a giant prop that was added two days before opening when there was no time or budget left to get it done. I have found the difference between decent props masters and the really good ones is the ability to not let incidents like these bother you.
The reality is that props are much easier to change than sets or costumes and are much more likely to be effected by a small change in the action onstage. You have to be prepared for change at every turn. If you let yourself be surprised, upset or defeated by changes, cuts and additions, you'll never make it.
There are ways to make life easier on yourself.
  • Communicate with directors and designers early and often. Use pictures samples and anything else you can to make sure everyone is on the same page (for example don't say "what color are you thinking you want the chair," say "which of these three spray paints on the table do you want me to use").
  • Get the basics done early, especially furniture and anything that is going to be involved in complicated business. Once the furniture has been approved then take the time to reupholster, paint or refinish it. The earlier actors and directors get something in rehearsal, the more likely they will become attached to it, comfortable with it, and not want to change it later.
  • Provide rehearsal props for anything you don't have, if actors are miming something, there is a good chance the eventual prop you provide will not live up to what they had in their head. Make sure that rehearsal props are as close as possible to what the final prop will be (If the final prop is going to be steel, don't give them a rehearsal prop made of foam, when the real one arrives someone will have a problem with how heavy is.). And always make sure that the stage manager is aware of which props you have provided are supposed to be final and which are rehearsal.
  • Finally, smile, shake it off, and say "okay". No matter how good you are at your job, how perfect the props you provided were, or how much everyone liked everything last week, something is going to change. If you take a positive attitude, prepare yourself for change to happen, and roll with the punches, you are going to be a lot happier and this job is going to be a lot easier.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Set Dressing

Set dressing, for those who don't know is everything on stage that isn't handled by the actors, but that serves to make the space look more full. This includes the pictures on the wall, the rugs on the floor and the books on the shelves. It also often includes the random pile of junk mail on the counter, the muddy shoes in the corner and the dishes in the sink.
Set dressing is regularly a headache and a challenge for the props master. It is often left until the last minute becuase the things that actors need to touch and work with are given first priority. It also really can't be completed until the set is, and if the set is being loaded into the space during tech, that means that by the time the set is up, time is at a premium and you will be fighting with lighting designers and actors for a time in the space to do your work. Don't be surprised if you end up doing your set dressing by the light of a small headlamp while the lighting designer is writing cues.
To make set dressing easier there are some things that you can do to prepare. First, take a look ahead of time at the set drawings to figure out how much space you need to fill (five shelves that are 3ft long hold A LOT more than five shelves that are 2 1/2ft long). Second, pull twice as much stuff as you think you need, if you need a cluttered or messy space make that 3x as much stuff. You will be surprised at how quickly your three boxes of kitsch will get used and leave you hunting for more stuff. Third, have all of your tools ready. My set dressing tools consist of a hand stapler, short screws and a drill, floral wire, double stick tape, a hot glue gun and rope caulk.
The hand stapler is good for tacking down fabric and papers.
The screws I will use for bigger items that I am allowed to damage, and for hanging pictures. People outside of theatre would probably be horrified at how often I put a screw right through the wooden frame of a picture rather than hanging it from picture wire or a hook. In the theatre though a screw is faster, won't be seen at a distance, and most importantly will prevent the picture from shifting or falling off if the wall is knocked.
The floral wire is great for pieces that can't be damaged, but need to be secured down. It can be wrapped around your item and then wrapped back to another item nearby or a screw placed for just that purpose. It can be especially effective if the piece you are attaching down has a hole that the wire can be wrapped through.
Hot glue is great on wood, plastics, metal and glass becuase it can be peeled off of these surfaces after you are done without causing much damage. It doesn't take much force though to get the hot glue to release though, so if the piece is going to be moved and jostled a lot you probably should go with something else. Also hot glue does not come off of or out of fabric.
By far my favorite tool though is the rope caulk. Rope caulk is essentially a sticky clay that never dries. You can use it on just about any surface. It is removable and reusable. To use it simply pull a bit of caulk off, roll it into a ball, press it onto the piece you want to stick, press the piece down onto the surface you want to stick to and twist slightly. The major benefit or rope caulk is that this can be repeated again and again. If you want to move the vase to the other table, you can do it in a second. If an actor decides to pick up a stapler on the desk he wasn't supposed to touch, he can do that without looking awkward, and when he sets it back down you can still be reasonably sure that it won't slide off when you roll the desk offstage in the next scene. It's pretty much a miracle tool, is cheap, and available in most hardware stores.

Monday, May 10, 2010

If at first you don't succeed...

Patience is a virtue that I am sometimes lacking as a props master. I know, for example, that I need to give adhesives time to set and paint time to dry between steps, but I still try pretty regularly to cut corners. Almost as regularly I end up setting myself back even further or getting a final product I'm not really happy with.
This happened again to me a few mornings ago, so I thought I would share my cautionary tale about the benefits of doing the work patiently and getting it done right the first time.

I needed to fill some cheap plastic juice glasses to make them look like they were filled with water, they are placed on a cart that moves very quickly down a ramp and onto the stage, so real water wasn't an option. I decided to use gel candle wax. I melted it down on the stovetop (note: gel candle wax will not melt in a microwave, something I would have known if I had taken the time to read the package before wasting 15 minutes microwaving it), and then poured the gel wax into the glasses at varying levels. After a couple of minutes I noticed that the wax wasn't setting very quickly and that the cheap plastic glasses were starting to warp. Instead of pouring the wax out though, I tried sticking the glasses in the refrigerator. This was a horrible idea. The fridge couldn't cool down the wax fast enough, the glasses continued to melt, and eventually the still-hot wax began to pour over the top of the glasses, making a huge mess in my fridge.
To add to the excitement, it was 10:30 am, and the glasses were needed for the 1pm matinee at the theatre an hour away.
I drove first to the closest grocery store, none of their plastic glasses were right; then to the dollar store, no plastic glasses there; then to the Target, where I found some glasses that were good enough.
There was no room for mistakes with these glasses, so I had to take the time and effort to do it right. I placed all the glasses in the freezer while I remelted the wax. Once it was melted I turned the heat on the stove down as far as possible. I took the glasses out of the freezer two at a time, poured 1/2" of wax into them and then put them back in the freezer to cool before adding another layer. As you can imagine, 1/2" of gel wax cools and sets much more quickly than 4" of gel wax, so the glass was never exposed to the heat long enough to warp. After I was done with all the glasses I let them sit in the freezer for ten more minutes to cool, threw them in a plastic bag, booked it to the theatre and had them placed on the cart just as the house lights were going out.
On another note, I really liked the gel wax as a fake drink option. It's a little pricy, but one of the 23oz tubs I bought at JoAnns probably would have been enough to do the job (since so much was lost in the mess, good thing I bought two). I'll try to post pictures later of the good glasses, I didn't have time in my hurry to get them to the theatre.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

vines, and Sleeping Beauty's bed

This is a very overdue post about the bed from Sleeping Beauty. The show wanted to be very natural and yet magical, the director talked about it having a "Narnia" or "Midsummer Night's Dream" feel.
I needed to build some sort of bed for sleeping beauty to be laying in when she is woken by the kiss and I decided it would be really cool if it was created out of natural branches and vines. I built the frame for the bed out of oak dowel rods (I didn't trust found branches to be strong enough for this part) and then used found braches for all the cross bracing. None of the cross bracing pieces is incredibly thick (the widest was probably a 2" diameter) but by using so many pieces at so many angles the bed frame became incredibly sturdy. 

The vines were created out of some camo-colored climbing rope I bought at Home Depot. This rope was rated for up to 100 pounds and since I was weaving it so closely together I knew no part of the rope would be taking near that amount of stress. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE if you are going to do anything like this be sure that the rope you use is rated. If it does not list how much of a load it can handle and you intend it to hold a person, it is not good enough rope. It doesn't matter how short an amount of time the person is on it, or how low to the ground they are, when safety is involved the better rope is ALWAYS worth the investment.
To make the rope look more natural I purchased a tub of liquid latex, tinted it green and painted the rope with it. The latex hid the weave of the rope, and gave the rope a more natural texture. When painting I made a conscious decision not to be particularly careful with how I laid the rope out on the tarp. This worked great because once the rope was dry, and I pulled apart the pieces that had dried stuck together, I was left with some very natural, interesting texture. 
Once the rope was dry I dusted it with brown spray paint (the green I used was far too bright) and wove it around my frame. The latex also helped to create some friction against the frame and allow me to wrap the vines much tighter. The fabric forming the alternate weave is actually some burlap ribbon I picked up at Michaels. I had never seen this stuff before but happened across it while working on this project and it seemed perfect. 
I tied some jute lashing around the joints to hide my screws, wove some dried grass in on the corners and the bed was complete. 
On a side note, this project would have been much easier if I had been able to work on it three weeks later. Good branches are hard to fine when you are wading through snow to get to them. Three weeks later as everything thawed and people started their spring yard work, the branches were everywhere.