Category Archives: How-to

Guides to building props or using certain techniques and materials

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.

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 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.