Prop Rehearsal Notes

Behind the Scenes at Playhouse in the Park – Take a read through this wonderfully written and gorgeously photographed article on the scene and prop shops at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park. Their shop is built in an old skating rink; if you look at the photo of the props shop, you can see how the floor is made up of curved wood boards.

Lyceum Theatre Flamingo Puppets – The Prop Solve is back with a post about foam and fabric flamingo puppets she made for Alice in Wonderland. The flexible neck mechanism is particularly ingenious.

How to be a Prop Maker with “Evil” Ted Smith – The Pod Sequentialism podcast has a new episode where they talk with Evil Ted Smith, who has worked on a number of film and television projects. You may recognize his name from his numerous flexible foam tutorials found online. If you have an hour to kill, give it a listen.

Creating Molds for Handmade Porcelain Dolls – Bill Chellberg guides us through the steps to make a mold for porcelain dolls. You can adapt these techniques to make molds for anything, or you can create your own cute (or creepy) doll heads.

Flame and Pyro Survey Results

I recently put out a survey to see how various theaters and other live venues deal with open flame and pyrotechnic effects.

I received a total of 118 responses. The chart below shows the breakdown by country.

geography

Responses from outside the USA came from Canada, the UK, and Australia, as well as from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Finland.

The responses were from a healthy mix of companies, from the largest regional theaters to the smallest community theaters. There were responses from Broadway and off-Broadway houses, as well as theme parks, opera companies, and educational programs.

The meat of the survey was a series of questions asking about the requirements for using various items. The items included open flame devices like candles and matches, pyrotechnic devices like squibs and sparklers, and heating elements like stoves.

requirements

Every answer has at least some variety. Perhaps the closest ones with any sort of “consensus” were burning paper and a hot plate. But it goes to show just how different every venue could be.  Even within the venues, the requirements could change on a show-to-show basis. A lot of what is “allowed” comes down to the fire marshal’s approval, and that can change depending on which fire marshal visits your theatre, or even how you present the effect to the fire marshal.

I also wanted to point out one interesting distinction between “Bic-style” and “Zippo-style” lighters. You can see in the chart above that a Zippo-style lighter is more likely to require a flame permit than a Bic-style lighter. Not all lighters are the same!

The use of cigarettes is not just dependent on the fire marshal; you also have to contend with tobacco and smoking regulations. I asked a question about what types of smoking products are allowed:

cigarettes

I was actually surprised at the percentage of theaters that could still use real cigarettes. From talking with other props masters, it sounded like they were all but completely banned by this point. But apparently a few places can still use them, usually citing free speech as their defense.

Looking at the individual responses, I found another surprise. In some venues, real and herbal cigarettes were allowed, while e-cigarettes were not. Usually, though, it is more likely to be the case that e-cigarettes were the only option where all others were banned.

The last graph shows whether theaters have a licensed pyrotechnician on staff.

pyrotechnic

Having someone on the theater’s payroll makes a big difference with what types of effects they use regularly. Using flash paper on stage gets a whole lot more expensive if you have to hire an additional crew member. If you ever wondered how some companies can afford to use a lot of pyro, this may be the answer.

The final question of the survey asked for additional comments on the use of flame and pyro effects. Many responses discussed the safety procedures they had to follow, such as maintaining a fire watch or flameproofing all the surrounding scenery. A few places mentioned they are only allowed to light and extinguish candles and matches on stage, not off.

A couple of responses reiterated just how arbitrary the rulings of a fire marshal can be. In one case, effects which followed national and state guidelines were banned simply because of city politics. Every theatre and every show is different, and you should never assume you can do certain effects just because you saw another theatre do them.

Prop News and Views

Some of you already saw this yesterday, but I began a quick little survey on how your theatre uses fire and pyrotechnics. Please take a moment to fill it out; it will only take 3 to 5 minutes. Even if your theatre bans all types of fire down to the smallest candle, that information will still be useful.

Take a listen to this podcast with Ellen Freund, a prop master in film and television for 35 years. Her credits include Mad MenMasters of the UniverseNight at the MuseumTwilight (no, not that Twilight), Twilight Saga: New Moon (yes, that Twilight), and so many more.

Karestin Harrison and Tammy Honesty are working on a recipe book of fake food due out in early 2018. Rosco has a few sample recipes up on their blog. It’s a much needed and much anticipated book for many prop builders, and one more step for Routledge in creating the ultimate prop library.

Collectors Weekly consistently publishes the most in-depth and interesting articles, and this one on the history of Holiday windows is no exception. After reading the article, take a moment to go through the photo gallery showing Holiday windows dating as far back as the 1800s.

Finally, in angrier news, the UC San Diego Department of Theatre and Dance and La Jolla Playhouse recently laid off 21 production employees, and then “invited” them to reapply for their jobs at a severe pay cut. These employees include most of the department heads of the various production departments, including the props master. Read this article on Broadway World for the specifics of how and why this happened, then head on over to the UCSD Theatre & Dance – Help Save Our Jobs! Facebook Group to see what you can do to help and to continue following the story.

Breakaway Window Pane

A few months back, I did the props for Arms and the Man at Triad Stage. Set during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War, the first scene revolves around a Swiss soldier breaking into the bedroom of a Bulgarian woman. The war rages around them, and at one point, a bullet shatters through the glass of her balcony door. That’s a prop.

We not only needed to make a breakaway window pane that would fit the decorative transom, but I had to come up with a way to break it. Obviously, we couldn’t fire a bullet through it; we couldn’t fire any projectile through it because it was facing the audience. I needed something that could be triggered from offstage and remain hidden both before and after the trick. Luckily, the audience could not see the upstage side of the door unit. The video below shows the mechanism in action.

Essentially, I took a mousetrap and tied a nut to it. When triggered, the mousetrap flung the nut into the window, breaking it, and then it hung out of sight. The rest of the mechanism is simply to keep the mousetrap secure so it will not trigger prematurely, but also to make it easy to pull the string when the cue is called.

The Bedroom, Act One
The Bedroom, Act One

The photo above shows the window in the context of the set. Somehow this is the best photo I could find.

Glass mold
Glass mold

The window pane itself was made from isomalt, a sugar substitute which works a lot better for breakaways than traditional sugar glass. I get mine from Make Your Own Molds, but you can find it at many baking and confectioners shops since it is used for sugar sculpture on cakes.

For the mold, I cut the shape of the pane I needed out of a sheet of silicone rubber, and placed it on a silicone baking pad.

Breakaway glass pane
Breakaway glass pane

Above is one of my first attempts. The panes became a little clearer and smoother as I made more of them and experimented with the process. Below is a behind the scenes video put out by Triad Stage for this production. It has a bit of footage showing me making the breakaway window panes.

The effect was eventually cut during tech. The scene was rather dark, so the audience could not see the glass breaking. The setup and cleanup of the effect was not worth the little it added to the scene, so it was replaced with a sound and lighting effect.

Prop Stories on This Friday

At a Brooklyn High School, Plenty of Drama Before the Curtain Goes Up – The New York Times takes a backstage look at the Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, Brooklyn. They have an absurd amount of students in technical theatre classes working to put on shows with production values that rival many smaller regional theatres. I think my high school had one kid who did tech.

Jay Duckworth: Proptologist, Bear, Philosopher of the Hand – Stage Directions interviews Jay Duckworth, prop master at the Public Theater. While his prop creds are truly remarkable (including the pre-Broadway Hamilton), this interview focuses on what it means for Jay to be an out gay man working in technical theatre.

Peter Jackson’s Movie Prop Collection – It turns out that Peter Jackson, maker of both awesome and horrible movies, has an overwhelmingly extensive collection of props, puppets, and practical effects from films throughout history. Tested and Adam Savage take a look at it in this large photo essay. There’s a video, too, if that’s more your speed.

Happy Halloween – The Home & Family Yard 2016 – Every year, Dave Lowe goes all out to decorate a house for Halloween as part of his job as props master for the Hallmark Channel. Check out pictures of the final result, then browse the earlier entries in his blog where he photographs the process of building all the various elements.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies