Category Archives: How-to

Guides to building props or using certain techniques and materials

Air Tank and Valve

Funerary Urn Trick

For Twelfth Night, the director wanted a funerary urn trick. When the actor knocks it over, he wanted the lid to fall off and a puff of ashes to fly out. I decided on a pneumatic solution.

The Funerary Urn in Action
The Funerary Urn in Action

Early on, we decided the urn should be on a base which was hinged to the floor, which would keep the urn from rolling down the hill into the audience, and also have it fall in a consistent manner during every show.

Air Tank and Valve
Air Tank and Valve

This trick is actually extremely simple in concept, and pulling it off only requires a minimum amount of research to find the right parts.

The idea behind it is the same as filling a straw with corn starch and blowing it out. Instead of a person blowing it out, I have a tank of air which is filled before hand. And instead of a person deciding when to blow, I have an electric valve which is triggered when the urn hits the ground.

The tank of air is just a soda bottle. I fitted a tire valve onto the cap; I got it from an old tire, though you can buy them new if you wanted. A hose runs out the back of the bottle into the valve, which then runs to a hole in the stage which holds the corn starch. The valve runs off of eight AA batteries, though it can be changed to be plugged into the wall. Finally, I wired in a button between the valve and the batteries, which is on the stage floor where it can be pressed by the urn when it hits the ground.

Here is a video of it in action:

Weapons Storage

I received a question last week about how various prop houses store their weapons. First, there’s how they should be stored. Every prop house I’ve worked at, and every one I know of, keeps their weapons locked up. The depth and breadth of rules and regulations dealing with weapons, theatrical or replica, varies incredibly amongst states, cities, municipalities, and institutions. Locking up is the least you can do.

But I digress. The question was geared more toward the logistics of weapon storage. Props storage is a never-ending compromise between the ease of locating a specific object with the need to cram as many objects into a limited space.

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How to make a wooden ratchet

I published my first Instructable. It’s for a wooden ratchet noise maker I made for the upcoming production of Twelfth Night at the Public Theatre’s “Shakespeare in the Park.”

Here is the research image I was given to work from. The tutorial follows below. Don’t worry, it’s not a movie; sound isn’t going to start blaring if you push “play”.


Wooden Ratchet Noise MakerMore DIY How To Projects

Instructables just began allowing you to embed your projects in other websites. You can look at the whole thing above. Personally, I think it looks weird, but you can follow the link to the actual page for the best experience. Once there, you can also download the whole thing as a PDF.

If you’ve never been to Instructables before, now’s a great time to check it out. If you’ve never made an Instructable before, I highly recommend it; it’s such a great and intuitive way to share tutorials. Finally, if you’ve made an Instructable you think would be of interest to props people, let me know and I’ll share it on this blog.

Fake Food – Making inedible replicas

How do I make fake food props? The props department is frequently called upon to make all manner of food and food replicas for the stage. When food needs to be eaten by the actors, the props director is in charge of making the food every night, either for real, or by figuring out a subsitute. If the food is not eaten, the props director has more latitude in choosing what to do, usually making the food out of a material that will last the run of the show. This article is about the latter type, where we make inedible but realistic fake food.

uploaded by PetitPlat by sk_
uploaded by PetitPlat by sk_

Research is very important here; a good reference, either a photograph or the real thing, will go a long way to help you capture the essence of the food. Notice in the photograph above how the tomato, orange, and potato are all distinctive and recognizable, even though their shapes are fairly similar.

Sometimes you need to do research just to decide which food to use. Jay Duckworth pointed me to a website with a food timeline. If your production of Twelfth Night is set in 1810, can you have Macadamia Nuts at the picnic (no, they weren’t around until 1828).

Ron DeMarco pointed me to an older article with photographs about the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre (boy, they get a lot of press!).  Julia Powell, the principal craftswoman, describes her process for replicating food. Ron linked to another article about food on stage. Though it’s mainly about the preparation and adaptation of real food, there are some tidbits on constructing completely artifical food.

There are a number of other articles floating around the internet giving tutorials for specific types of food. “Shortone” has a cool Instructable on how to make fake cupcakes. Amy Sedaris (yes, that Amy Sedaris) has instructions for making a cake out of styrofoam and spackle. Between these two, you can get a good idea of how to replicate any number of pastries and desserts.

Michael Koslovsky has an article in Proptology describing how he made lettuce for a fake sandwich. Kyle May has a pictorial showing an interesting method for making fake ice cubes. The PropPeople forum has a few good food-related posts. Dead animals can be a particularly tricky kind of prop; here is one way to make a dead goat. Here are a few tips and ideas for making raw hamburger meat. The last one references an Instructable on making Playdough, which might be useful, though it uses flour.

There are, of course, countless places you can simply purchase fake food replicas.  DMOZ Open Directory has a number of listings under “Fake Food Props“. Or just search for “fake food” or “food props”. One of the top New York City food replica shops is Trengove Studios, which is actually geared more toward photography and film. Though probably too expensive for theatrical work, the pictures of their products are great just to drool over.

Trick Props and Illusions

This summer, we’re doing Twelfth Night at the New York Shakespeare Festival. There’s a number of trick and gag props in the show. Trick props are easy to do; you just need to remember every single mechanical gizmo, electrical doodad, and moving part you have ever run across in every object that exists, and pick the one that will work the best.

Actually, that’s not a bad way to think about trick props. If you can find some object, machine, or toy that already carries out the trick you wish to achieve, your job becomes that much easier. You can figure out a way to recreate it, or even just take all the relevant parts out and use those directly in your prop.

In order to start thinking about what type of mechanism, trick, or illusion would work for your prop, it helps to narrow the field a bit. If you haven’t tried Google Book Search yet, let me just say, it’s awesome. You can search through books, just like you search through websites. Best of all, if the book is in the public domain, you can read and download the entire thing – text and images.

So, when checking out resources for trick props and stage illusions, I’ve come across the following books.

Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements – This is very similar to a book I own in print, and I think a lot of the illustrations are even from the same sources. It’s a great guide to all sorts of methods of transforming motion through gears, pulleys, cams, and levers.

Endless Amusement; a Collection of Nearly 400 Entertaining Experiments – This book is short on illustrations and long on old-timey language. Still, it seems chock full of all sorts of experiments that could find use on the stage. The ones dealing with pneumatics and hydraulics are perhaps more useful than the ones dealing with saltpetre and slaked lime.

Twentieth century magic and the construction of modern magical apparatus – Stage magic and illusions are a great resource for prop tricks, if you can find the information. Luckily, magicians are not too worried about protecting one hundred year old tricks.

Magic: stage illusions and scientific diversions, including trick photography – Another fun book on magic, filled with lots of illustrations to show all manner of stage trickery.