Friday, July 30, 2010

Magic Wand

For Pinocchio I was given the task of creating a slimmer, more dainty, magic wand. In past production the blue fairy had used this wand. It was well made, had a series of lights wired in between the layers of the star and had space to fit a 9V battery in the handle. It was just too big.
My initial idea was to shrink everything by using an LED light and a flat watch battery.
To create the wand itself I bought a long silly straw at the party store and cut the "silly" off of each end, leaving the long hard-plastic tube I needed. I was able to pass two lengths of wire through the straw and sodder them to the LED at each end. I then wrapped each joint in electrical tape so they couldn't touch and pulled them into the straw, leaving just the blue LED at the end.
 The first idea was to wire the switch and the battery into a bracelet where it would be disguised.
I created this prototype. Once she saw it though, the director realized how much the blue fairy would be restricted and tethered to keeping the wand in that one hand.

I ended up cutting some of the wire out of the circuit and re-soddering it. I then balled up the circuit and embedded it in a ball of epoxy putty at the end of the wand with the switch sticking out on one side and the battery accessible from the other. The ball was almost entirely hidden in the actor's hand and she was given much more freedom of movement.

And then I added sequins because...they're pretty and when the lights hit the blue sequins it made the wand even more magical.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Props Mercenary

So I've been thinking I need another project or some sort of side business to provide more steady work (I know I have chronicled my up and down struggles with making a living on this blog). My new plan came out of a friend's need for some unique prop/costume pieces for a show he is directing.
He is directing this show independently as part of a 10 minute play festival at a local storefront theatre. He was given no budget to work with and is spending out of pocket for props and costumes. There is a possibility of prize money if his play wins the festival, but he is really doing this as a way to get his name out as a playwright and out of a love for his art. There are so many people all over the city that are working on projects like this. Actors, directors, and writers all over the city put up shows in rented spaces on little or no budget. They couldn't afford to pay me a good wage to be the full props master on a show and a while back I decided that I needed to start turning down shows like these that couldn't pay me.
My new plan is to be a props mercenary. These productions cannot afford to pay me to do the entire show, and if it is a simple show there is a good chance that members of the company could beg, borrow and steal much of what they need. I would be hiring myself out to work on the unique pieces that take a more experienced hand. These companies may not be able to afford to pay me $500 to prop the entire show, but it may be worth it to pay me $20 to find that one piece no one seems to be able to locate, $30 to recover the cushion on a chair, $40 to put together a fake meal that can be reused night after night. I could pick and choose without the risk of over committing, and I would be able to help friends with their production without feeling pressured to give away my services for free.
Right now this is only an idea, there are still kinks to be worked out, but I am excited about the possibilities. I would love to hear from other theatre professionals. Is a props mercenary a person your theatre might use? What problems to you foresee?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Instant Marrionette

Okay, maybe not instant, but way faster than it could have been.
I'm working on a production of Pinocchio and in this script there is supposed to be a real marrionette on the table through the first few scenes. It is only when the blue fairy appears and that the doll is replaces by an actor. The doll didn't need to be life sized, but the other marrionettes I had purchased on ebay weren't big enough. Apparently the theatre used to have one (they have done this show before) but it seems to have been lost when they moved to a new space last year. I looked online and in toy stores for things that I might be able to alter, but eventually it became clear that I was going to have to make this thing. Turns out that it probably should have been the first thing I tried.
Here he is, pre-paint and clothing.

His body is made out of a piece of 4x4. It gave him a solid base so I didn't have to worry about balancing him to sit. I cut the neck and shoulders out of a piece of 2x4 and the head is a foam ball that I coated with Elmers glue to make it paint-able.
The arms and legs are simple dowel rods that I attached with little screw eyes. I don't have a picture of it, but later I stabelized these joints with strips of muslin (kinda like tendons) so that they couldn't spin and twist.
To attach the ball to the neck I used a T-nut in the neck and a long bolt through the foam head. 
The face was made by molding Model Magic over the Styrofoam ball. (As a side note, his face is weird because A: The script says that he isn't supposed to have a nose and B: the actor will be wearing a mask that creates big cheeks to disguise the mechanism for a growing nose so I wanted this to resemble that). For some reason as the model magic cured it developed large cracks all over the face. I filled the gaps by giving the whole mask a coat of elmers glue and then filled them the rest of the way when I painted the mask. 

In a move that would make any costumer cringe, I didn't sew any of the clothing. I hot glued all of it together, but since it won't be worn by any actors that will be exposed by wardobe malfunctions, and since hot glue really does stick fabric together really was easier and faster than trying to pattern something for a wooden block doll.

For his hair, I used some foam sheets that I cut into strips (note, start at the bottom).

I'm really happy with the way he turned out, and even better was how easily he came together.

Why I do it

First if you have never wandered around the, you should. My fabulous friend Bina turned me onto this website which offers a simple and brilliant resource, "riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world." If you are ever in need of some new inspiration you should check it out.
I recently came across a link to this TED talk- Simon Sinek. He goes into some fascinating details and interesting examples, but his main idea is this, "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." To apply the situation directly; "I do theatre that is well researched, well acted, intelligently directed and beautifully designed" is not going to give you an audience. "We do classic plays," "We showcase new playwrights," "We do plays that focus on minority characters," all of these mission statements are focused on what your company does. What Sinek suggests is that we should instead be focusing on why. You find your audience and inspire people to believe what you believe and invest in your product because of why you do theatre, you prove your point by what you do.

I do theatre because I believe theatre can change the world. I believe that the intimacy of the theatre can provide the best outlet for exploring a local community identity and tackling immediate issues. I believe that theatre creates a venue for discussing important ideas unlike any other. Books, newspapers, blogs and even television are consumed mostly alone, even if we discuss them with friends later. The closest experience offered by another medium is going to see a movie in the the theater. The discussions that I see people having as they leave movie theaters, debating characters, talking about favorite moments, are the same discussions that I think make theatre so great. The difference is that in the theatre, the artists can be involved in the discussion. By the time I see a movie the actors and directors have all moved on to other projects. The script and the ideas presented in it are already months, if not years, old. A play might go from script to stage in 6 weeks and when I see it the artists are still actively exploring the ideas every day.

I do props because I find the details fascinating, and I think that they matter. I do props because the research involved provides me a window into constantly learning new things. I do props because it is a skill-set I have, that allows me to actively contribute to art that I believe in.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reclaiming Community

This essay was written three years ago, it was the final assignment in my senior seminar "Issues in Contemporary Theatre". 
I don't know if I still agree with everything I wrote here, but I come back to it often enough to re-evaluate my goals and ideas, that I thought it ought to be a part of this blog. 
I'd love to know what you think and I am sure I will be sharing some of my opinions and changing ideas in the next couple weeks.

I am reclaiming community theatre. I know many theatre professionals who say the word with disgust. Community theatre is theatre hell, and working in one is the death knell for a theatre career. I like the word though, community. Community is what theatre is supposed to be about. Community is the source of theatre. "Theatre began as a way in which a community could tell its stories to itself" (Tori Haring-Smith). My theatre then, is a community theatre. I am reclaiming the term so that it no longer brings to mind images of the travel agent, dentist, and high-school students putting on a production of Oklahoma in the local church multi-purpose room. My community theatre means professional artists functioning not above, but among the world they are attempting to portray; a theatre for, about and integrally linked to the artists, patrons, students and organizations that make up the environment in which the theatre exists.

I find it funny that the word has taken on a pejorative tone, because we are all about community in the theatre; we are just too selective. We talk about the "theatre community," that group of people who choose to dedicate their lives to the same goal we do. The theatre community is us; the rest of the world is them. They don't appreciate. They don't support the arts. When are we going to realize that they don't understand because we won't let them in? How can someone be passionate about something they aren't a part of? We need to widen the theatre community to include the community as a whole. We need to allow the audience to be an integral part of the work that we do, not in a cheesy subscription pamphlet tag-line way, but in a real tangible sense.

Hold talks with the audience, not talkbacks. If they care about the work they are doing, the actors, directors and designers should have just as many questions for the audience as the audience has for them. Invite critics. Engage in real discussion. Give respect to the opinions and critiques your audience gives you, they are more insigntful than we give them credit for. 

Open up your rehearsals, shops and design studios. As theatre artists we know that the full magic of theatre is not contained in the final product, but in the process. If we didn't, we wouldn't have the desire and dedication to become part of the process. There is excitement and wonder in watching all of the parts come together as a whole. There is satisfaction in seeing the results of hours of rehearsals, meetings, compromises, creative brainstorming and sudden inspiration come together to create a finished product. If we don't allow the community to see a part of that process, how can we expect them to feel the same magic that we are all addicted too?

Deal in the here and now. Theatre is a biodegradable art. It can exist only in the moment and then can only live on as a memory. Your production of A Doll's House will never hang in a museum and no one will be affected by it who didn't see it. There is no point in the endless, and usually fruitless search for the universal. The universal is pointless in theatre, the local is everything. Find out what your audience is doing when they are not paying to see your shows. What do they care about? What are the issues, questions, problems in their everyday lives? Read the news, attend government meetings, attend PTA meetings, read the fliers on the bulletin boards in the local coffee shops. Find out who your audience really is and do productions about them. Try to find local playwrights; odds are they are writing about the community you are attempting to reach. 

Don't just accept cooperation, seek it out. Maybe the local PFLAG chapter would be interested in your production of Take Me Out. Ask them if they want to get involved, you can't wait for them to ask you and you can't be content with the one yearly cooperative production you've come to rely on. Find community partners for every show, even ones without such obvious themes. Maybe the local animal shelter would enjoy helping with your production of Sylvia? Maybe a local casino could get involved with a production of Guys and Dolls? You never know until you ask. And if there is no local group, business or school that is interested in helping with what you are doing, maybe you should go back and double check that the show you are doing is something that is worthwhile, meaningful and current in your community.

Educate, through your cooperation with community organizations, through the schools and through your own programs. Send artists out into the schools. Send an actor to work with high school students rehearsing for their spring musical. See if a middle school class would be interested in dramaturgy for your production of Big River. Offer internships, offer classes, offer to help prepare monologues with students auditioning for colleges. Don't just give help when it is requested, actively seek out places in the community where you can make a difference. Make your theatre artists into mentors for the theatre artists of tomorrow. 

Above all keep learning. Keep discovering the world. Keep finding new hobbies. Encourage the rest of the company to do the same. Don't just give the actor packet to the actors; give it to the whole company. Create an environment in which everyone is a student and a teacher for everyone else. Know about the world that you are a part of and find ways to bring that world to the stage and to the imaginations of your community. Keep reading, keep watching the news, keep discovering and keep connecting the art you are making with the world that is changing around you. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Testimony I Had to Share

The writer of another fantastic props blog (Meredith Ries at Malaprops) is taking a break from professional work to go back to school. Before leaving the world of freelance she has written a fantastic call to arms for props masters

For me the essay served as a reminder of how unique my job is, and how hard it is (if you want a great rundown of what it is I do you should read it). The job is often thankless and there are no easy shows. She urges prop masters to recognize how valuable we are and to demand a fair wage. It's a reminder I need sometimes, especially after a recent conversation I had about a prospective job.

I was contacted by a friend about propping a show in August. I have worked with the company once before and found that they often have unrealistic expectations for their budget. I told the production manager that I was interested, but I would like to have a conversation with the director before signing a contract, to make sure that we were on the same page. I was proud of myself for standing up for myself and thinking before jumping into a project. Later, I found out that the director had gone around the production manager and recruited an actor to do the job because this actor would agree to do the job for 1/5th the pay. 

I was offended that someone I worked with had such a low opinion of my work that he believed anyone could do it. But I realize that I don't need to lower myself to the situation. In the end this company will likely get exactly what they pay for from an inexperienced person who doesn't have the skills and sources I do. If I were to take the job for less pay, this company would start expecting me to do good work for less pay. Instead, I'll find other work to do in August and trust that eventually this company will be burned by recruiting people who don't know what they are doing. When that happens they will come back to me and I will be able to ask the fair wage that I deserve.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Shortest post ever.
You know what is a super easy way to fill out a cart full of carnival treats, popcorn.

I bought these plastic boxes foe $1 each at JoAnns, but you can also find the cardboard ones at party city.
I filled them with a couple squirts of Great-Stuff and let them expand and dry.
After they were dry I cut them up a bit with my matte knife so it didn't look like one giant piece of popcorn in each box.
And the best part, no paint needed, the foam is already a perfect color.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lollipop, Lollipop (oh lolli lolli lolli)

These Lollipops were a quick fun prop for Pinocchio. We had some old ones in stock that were made from painted circled of plywood; they had been used, beat-up and faded and the director asked me if I could liven up the colors. I could, but not to my satisfaction (I will readily admit that my paint skills aren't what I would like them to be, though I'm learning). I initially thought of making them from bake-able clay, but after seeing the dance number and realizing they might be dropped, this seemed like less of a good idea.

I ended up turning back to one of my favorite materials, Crayola Model Magic.

I rolled out two long snakes. I used half a pack of Model Magic for each snake. They were about three feet long and between 1/4" and 3/8" diameter.

Then I twisted the two snakes together carefully, making sure not to break them or stretch them much.

Finally I rolled the twisted snake into a spiral, gently pressed it flat and smoothed the edges. I carefully twisted 1/4"dowels into the clay for the sticks.

The final lollipops were roughly 6" across.

If I were to do it again I would have done it sooner. Because of the thickness it took the Model Magic three full days until they were dry all the way though and usable in rehearsal