Shakespearean Actors and Their Props

One of my many interests is how the props used in Shakespeare’s plays have evolved over time. One way to discover what props may have possibly appeared on stage is by looking at drawings and photographs of famous Shakespearean actors posing as their characters.

The following images come from a 1900 book called the Shakespeare Rare Print Collection, edited by Seymour Eaton. Most of these actors are from the 18th and 19th century. I cannot tell whether they are posing with actual props from their performances, or if they grabbed real items just to pose for these pictures, but at least it is a starting point. Continue reading Shakespearean Actors and Their Props

No Retractable Blades

What is a retractable knife? We have all seen them at novelty shops or with Halloween costumes. When you push the blade against a surface, it slides up into the handle. When you pull it back, a spring inside forces the blade back out of the handle. With enough speed, it appears that the knife blade is plunging into your body as someone stabs you.

The illusion they create gives many a director the idea to use them onstage in a fight scene. However, they are completely unsafe. Most larger theaters already ban them outright, but many smaller and temporary performing spaces are unaware of how these seemingly innocuous toys become deadly during a stage fight.

If the blade were to press ever so slightly against the opening in the handle, it will bind with enough pressure that the blade will not retract. When that happens, your actor is suddenly plunging a real knife into another actor with enough force to puncture their skin and even their organs. Even the knives with plastic blades will cause fatal damage.

This is an inevitable part of their design; you cannot fabricate a retractable dagger that does not bind, nor can you adapt an existing knife to avoid this problem.

In 1990 at Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead, UK, Dr. Annabel Joyce used a plastic retractable knife while playing Lady Macduff. It failed to retract and she had to go to the hospital. She fortunately recovered.

In 1998, a production of I Pagliacci in Milwaukee saw David Rendall accidentally stab Kimm Julian with a knife that failed to retract. This happened during a day of rehearsal where they had already practiced the scene a dozen times, and were actually running the fight in slow motion with the fight director. Kimm did not realize he had been stabbed at first, but collapsed three or four minutes later. He was rushed to the hospital for immediate surgery and eventually recovered, though he had to be replaced for the remainder of the show’s run.

Also in 1998, Michael McElhatton was stabbed with a retractable during a performance. Before his famed role in Game of Thrones, he was performing in Twenty Grand at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin. His character was tied to a chair and stabbed multiple times by two other actors. He wore a padded vest for protection, and the whole scene was carefully choreographed by a fight director. The show ends with his death, and the actors untied him for curtain call. When he came off, he told one of the actors, “Ow, you really punched me with that last one.” He went on stage for a second bow, then returned to the wing to tell the stage manager, “I think he winded me. I don’t feel well.” He ran out for a third curtain call, then collapsed when he returned to the wings. The blade had jammed and missed the padding, plunging into his chest and missing his heart by an inch.

These are just some of the stories that have made it into the news. Countless other injuries are swept under the rug. You can see why most theaters ban retractable knives. Rick from “Weapons of Choice” even states that insurance carriers will not cover injury claims for a show in which a retractable is used. Even if the injury has nothing to do with the knife, the knife’s mere presence is proof of an unsafe work environment. He recommends destroying any retractable knife, plastic or metal, that you find in your stock.

The University of Michigan recently banned the use of them in performances after their local OSHA representative researched their inherent danger. They also consulted with Monona Rossol, the President of Arts, Crafts, & Theater Safety, Inc., who agreed that retractable blades should be banned at schools of all levels. Perhaps the only type that could conceivably be safe is one with a flexible blade, like rubber, so when the mechanism fails, the blade can bend rather than plunge directly into your lung.

So ban and destroy your retractable knives.

Prop Links of November

The Master of Paper Props – Great Big Story visits Ross MacDonald’s shop to see how he makes paper props for movies and television shows. This video delves into his process and into the power of paper props in general. If you haven’t seen Ross’ work before, this blog has covered him many times over the past nine years.

Want my job? with Khadija Raza, set and costume designer – Khadija talks with Voice about her job as a theatre designer in anticipation of TheatreCraft, the UK’s largest theatrical careers event for 16-30 year-olds.

Shrinking the world: why we can’t resist model villages – Simon Garfield ponders why we are drawn to miniature urban landscapes and why model builders feel compelled to create them. Along the way, he treats us to many photographs of some of the world’s finest examples of miniatures and model towns.

Original Big Bird, Caroll Spinney, Leaves ‘Sesame Street’ After Nearly 50 Years – In case you missed the news a few weeks ago, Caroll Spinney is retiring from Sesame Street after its 50th Anniversary special. Spinney has played both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since the show’s inception, making him one of the last original cast members to leave the show. The New York Times has this fantastic retrospective of his career.

Mortal Artists – The Craftsmen | Episode 3 – The upcoming Mortal Engines film features massive mobile cities that prowl a post-apocalyptic landscape. This video looks at all the prop builders who constructed the imaginative weapons and devices that make up this world.

Prop Links from the Hurricane

Inside the One-ton, History-making King Kong Broadway Musical – Where does a 2000 pound gorilla puppet sit? Wherever he wants! Find out all the technical wizardry that went into creating one of the largest and most expressive puppets to ever grace Broadway.

Exclusive: Head Prop Maker Pierre Bohanna Talks ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald’ – The latest film in the wizard world of Harry Potter is coming out soon, so The Knockturnal sat down with the head prop maker, Pierre Bohanna. Pierre has worked on all the previous Harry Potter films as well, so this is old hat to him. Old sorting hat, that is!

Secrets of the Solo: a Star Wars Story Creature Shop – Despite its unimpressive cinema run, Solo was actually one of the most expensive Star Wars films made, and was packed to the gills with practical creature effects. Puppeteer Brian Herring talks about how they brought all those crazy aliens to life.

Need a giant glacier? An Eiffel Tower? Tampa prop master Tandova Ecenia is selling them off after 38 years – Tandova has been supplying the Tampa area of Florida with props for nearly four decades. Take a peek into her storage facility before it is all sold off and scattered to the wind.

Players Pen: Setting a scene on stage is as much about the props as it is about the actors – Take a look at how props designer Wendy Huber and prop shop manager Kristen Nuh brought the nerdy world of Salvage to life on this Green Bay stage.

Art Deco Sconces

We recently opened “And Then There Were None” at Triad Stage in Greensboro, NC. Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery takes place in 1930’s England in a sleek, unique seaside home. Robin Vest’s scenic design gave us a sparse, Art Deco-inspired interior populated with a few trappings of a world traveler.

Flanking the fireplace were two tube sconces. Finding an appropriate vintage pair was proving to be too expensive, so I decided to make them.

Turning the End Caps
Turning the End Caps

I turned the top and bottom caps out of poplar on my lathe. I think this was the first project I personally used the shop’s lathe for, even though I purchased it last year.

I bought some plastic mailing tubes for the lamp shades. Glass tubes were pricey and difficult to find in the right size. I measured their inner and outer diameter and turned the end caps so the tubes would slide onto them snugly.

Cutting lamp parts for the arms
Cutting lamp parts for the arms

I needed some curved metal arms to hold the end caps, and they needed to be hollow so I could feed the wires through. I had some spare chandelier arms in my bin of lamp parts which I cut to size. It was a lot easier than attempting to bend a metal tube without kinking it.

Unpainted assembly
Unpainted assembly

Above is all the pieces mostly assembled. I drilled holes in the end caps to feed the metal arms in, and used epoxy clay to secure them. I cut a disc out of poplar for the wall plate and drilled two more holes to hold the metal arms. The bottom arm was epoxied in place, but the top arm was only bolted to the plate. I wanted to be able to disassemble the sconce in case I needed access to the interior of the tube.

I added a decorative disc of metal to the wall plates that also came from my lamp parts bin, which you can see in subsequent photos.

Base coat
Base coat

With all the pieces fitting together as they should, and sanded smooth, I took them apart and painted them. I used a variety of spray cans. First was a sandable primer, followed by two coats of gloss black, than two very light coats of chrome, finished off with an extremely light dusting of the gloss black again. I only waited about half an hour between coats, so the whole process was finished in a morning. If you wait too long between coats, the paint may develop that dreaded “orange peel” appearance.

Adding the LED tape
Adding the LED tape

Because the tubes were plastic, I could not use any incandescent or halogen bulbs. The heat would build up and melt everything. I bought some warm white LED tape and mounted it to a small stick of wood to hold it straight against the back of the tube. The wires ran through the arms and out the back to a transformer and DMX controller, where it could hook up to the theater’s light board.

I cut a piece of thick vellum to line the inside of the tube and provide some diffusion.

Finished sconces
Finished sconces

Here they are, fully assembled and ready to go. Even though these LEDs were the warmest white I could find, they were much cooler than every other practical light fixture on stage when we got in the space. I opened the tubes and added a piece of orange gel from my lighting designer to warm them up.

Sconces on stage
Sconces on stage

Here they are on stage. While they are very similar to modern tube sconces, they have just enough subtle period detail to help create the world on stage.

Lit sconces
Lit sconces

These sconces are so lit.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies