Category Archives: How-to

Guides to building props or using certain techniques and materials

Cardboard Props

Here is an interesting article: Students make ‘trashy’ props for Cats. It talks about a production of Cats at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee where students in the art department made many of the props. The show required large pieces of trash, such as a fish skeleton or can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup.

Brad Reagan, the assistant professor of art, had his students build most of the props out of cardboard, which challenged them to make cardboard props sturdy enough for the stage, and to turn flat sheets of cardboard into three-dimensional shapes.

This brings up two important points.

First, if you are part of educational theatre, you can bring in other departments to help with aspects of certain productions. For example, my undergrad theatre department was often aided by students of the film department if a performance needed projections or live-video integration. The other department will often have equipment and facilities which the theatre department does not or cannot obtain on its own, and the students can receive class credit for their contributions.

Second, building props out of cardboard is an intriguing idea. I found a great Instructable on how to design your own cardboard furniture. It’s a wonderful introduction on working with cardboard and making it structurally sound. Apartment Therapy has a post on carboard furniture made by the Cartonnistes, and another post showing additional cardboard furniture creations. Another website called Foldschool gives you free patterns to download and print to make foldable cardboard furniture.

Credit: Vitra
Credit: Vitra
A bar for Why Torture is Wrong...

A bar for Torture

I recently finished building props for Why Torture is Wrong, And the People Who Love Them, at the Public Theatre. It’s the world premiere and is written by Christopher Durang.

A bar for Why Torture is Wrong...
A bar for Why Torture is Wrong...

One of the more complicated and interesting pieces I had to make was this bar. The top is kidney-shaped, and the whole base has an elliptical footprint.

Interior structure of the bar
Interior structure of the bar

You can get a better picture of the overall shape of the piece in the picture above. You can also see how I framed it out.

A closeup of the strips which run the length of the bar
A closeup of the strips which run the length of the bar

Above is a closeup of one of the three strips which run across the center of the bar. They stuck out an inch and a half, so I built up strips of wiggle-wood and lauan. I used lauan because it was cheaper than the wiggle-wood, and the front of the bar had a gentle enough curve for the lauan to handle.

If you’ve ever worked with wiggle-wood, you know that it leaves a rough surface. There are any number of ways to make it smooth, from covering it with some kind of laminate or veneer to coating it with some kind of filler. For this piece, Jay, the prop master, told me an easy recipe for a coating. I mixed about 4 parts of joint compound to about 1 part white glue, and added a touch of water until I got an easily spreadable consistency that wouldn’t drip or run. Joint compound can be sanded very smooth, and is easy to work with, but it tends to crack and flake off over time. The addition of the glue helps give it enough flexibility to keep that from happening.