Props at USITT

I can’t make it to USITT in St. Louis this year, but a lot of prop-related events are going on.


Scenic Designers and their collaboration with Props Masters vs. Props Designers. Wednesday, 1-2:30pm, room 127. Speakers include S*P*A*M members Karin Rabe (The Alley) and Kelly Kreutsberg (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis), as well as Erik Diaz and Tom Burch.

Early Career Honors featuring Jay Duckworth, Properties Master of The Public Theater. Thursday, 9:30-10:45am in the America’s Ballroom.

Props for the Non-Props Person. Thursday, 5:30-6:45pm, room 242. Hosted by Jay Duckworth.

RC4 Wireless – Making Magic: Integrating Wireless DMX into Props and Costumes. Friday, 1pm-2:30pm,  Innovation Stage. Speakers include James Smith (RC4), S*P*A*M Member Sean Dane (RC4), Jen Dasher, Jeremy Fisher, and Jonathan Shimon.

Electrifying Costumes and Props: Safe DC Circuit Design. Friday, 2:45-4pm, room 131. Speakers include Jeff Mizener and Mitch Hefter.

Stage Firearms and Stage Weapons: Safety Procedures and Policies. Saturday, 8-9:15am, room 130. Speakers include Bill Reynolds (Yale) and Ryan Johnson (New Rule FX).

The History of Vice and the Props to Commit It. Saturday 11-12:30pm, room 127. S*P*A*M Members Karin Rabe (The Alley) is co-chair and Merrianne Nedreberg (Center Theatre Group) is speaking, along with Karen Glass, Ken Clothier, and Trevor Carrier.


Be sure to check out the Society of Properties Artisan Managers (S*P*A*M) on the Expo Floor at booth 1634. Members will be tending the booth throughout the conference.

Other prop favorites include Wonderflex World, Sculptural Arts, Smooth-On (found at the Reynolds Advanced Materials booth), Rosco, and RC4. It looks like Worbla is making their debut at the Expo as well. Of course you can find so much more just by wandering around the floor.

And stop by the Focal Press booth to see all the latest books. The second edition of The Prop Building Guidebook is due out this Friday, so they may have a copy you can page through.


On Friday, Muny scenic artists will be working on actual scenery for the Muny during the Stage Expo.

The Tech Expo is on display throughout the conference; you can always discover new ideas there. Cover the Walls is also an invigorating experience as you see what your peers have been working on. Most of the other exhibits are either costume or paint related.

The Scene Design Poster Session frequently has props-related entries. The presentation is Wednesday, 2:45-4:15pm, in room 127, but they remain on display for the rest of the conference.

I am sure I am missing plenty of props-related events, and the conference may have plenty of non-prop-related wonders you are interested in.

Ingenious Stage Machinery, 1892

The following comes from an 1892 Theatre Magazine article:

Probably the most ingenious stage machinery that the Meininger Company possesses are their contrivances for producing thunder in all its varied forms. Four distinctly different apparatuses, every one perfect in its way, are used for this purpose. The result accomplished with them is as close an imitation of nature’s thunder as human ingenuity will ever be able to make.

The principal apparatus consists of several wooden boxes, about one foot square, which run along the entire length of the wall from roof to cellar. Inside of each box, from one to two feet apart, slanting boards are placed, running about half way across the interior, as shown in the cut. At the very top of the box are several compartments, in which a number of iron balls of different sizes are placed. By means of a rope-and-spring attachment any one of these compartments can be opened from the stage, and thus the balls contained in it permitted to tumble down their tortuous course to the cellar. The noise that this creates is almost exactly like the thunder of a near storm. At first, owing to the great height from which the balls are started, the sound reaches the audience but faintly, growing gradually louder and more reverberating as the descent of the balls becomes more rapid and as they reach the level of the stage. With their passage down into the cellar the noise again grows gradually less and more distant. With this apparatus alone, however, no low, gradual dying out effects or that faint, gradually increasing rumbling of a far-away approaching storm can be given. For this purpose, then, an instrument made on the principle of a drum is called into service. It is a huge, square wooden box over the top of which a thick vellum is tightly stretched.

The operator uses, besides a couple of drumsticks, about a dozen wooden balls of various sizes, which are rolled around on the parchment in a most dexterous manner. The sounds produced in this way can be perfectly graduated according to the number and the size of the balls used and the manner in which they are rolled.

To simulate the crashing of a thunderclap a contrivance built on the principle of a policeman’s rattle is employed. On top of a huge box, about ten feet long and four feet square, a number of wooden slats are fastened so that they act like springs. A cylinder with wooden pins, resembling somewhat the cylinder of a music-box, is at one end of the box. On being turned the pins lift and drop the end of the slats in rapid succession.

The fourth device to contribute to the various “thunder effects” is the familiar sheet of iron, which is too old and well-known an institution to require description. All the apparatuses mentioned are in different parts of the theatre back of the stage and in the loft, so as to avoid having the sound come from one direction, and by their skillful manipulation and the exact blending or combining of the different sounds at the proper moment remarkably realistic effects are produced.

The lightning by the Meiningers is done with a camera lucida, an invention by one Baehr, of Dresden. It is a contrivance resembling a big magic lantern and is worked on the same principle. A powerful electric light is burned inside of it. Behind the focus is a revolving disk of dark glass plates, on every other one of which are faintly traced the outlines of different kinds of lightning. The disk is revolved very quickly, so as to throw the flash on the canvas for only an instant’s duration. The sheet lightning is also produced with an electric apparatus, one of which is used on either side of the stage.

The pouring and pattering of rain and the beating of hail require four different contrivances. The most novel of these is a wooden box, about twelve feet long and six inches square, inside of which are numerous slanting sheets of tin, punctured with small holes. A number of peas are rushed continuously up and down the box, rolling over the puntured tin and tumbling from one sheet to the other in a manner like that described of the iron balls in the “thunder box.” There are two or three of these “rain-boxes” in the possession of the Meiningers, each one differing from the other only in the angle and width of separation of the tin sheets within.

A soft spattering of rain is produced with an ordinary sieve on which a handful of peas are rolled around, while a more violent downpour, mingled with pelting hail and lashed by the wind, is given by means of a large revolving cylinder of wire gauze, inside of which are a lot of round pebbles.

For the marvelously realistic gusts of wind in the storm scene of “Julius Cæsar” an apparatus is employed which closely resembles a large revolving fan used for ventilating purposes. In this case, however the tips of the fan as it revolves scrape lightly against a broad strip of stiff silk, thus giving a swishing sound.

“Ingenious Stage Machinery.” Theatre Jan. 1892: 31-32. Google Books. Web. 28 Feb. 2017. <>.

Weekend Prop Stories

Inside the ‘Jitney’ Set: Picturing Pittsburgh Onstage – The NY Times takes a look at how set designer David Gallo and props supervisor Scott Laule brought the set to August Wilson’s Jitney to life. Set in 1970’s Pittsburgh, a lot of the set dressing and details come from conversations with Wilson himself when Gallo designed the original set back in 2000.

The tiny town that builds show-stopping sets for Beyoncé, Kanye and Madonna – This is such a great article on all the massive scenic shops which exist in Lititz, PA, the heart of Amish country. I grew up not too far from there, but I never knew that companies like Tait Towers have built nearly every rock and roll set here since the late 1960s. The larger tech theater schools send a lot of their graduates there, but most people are unaware how much fabrication and painting work can be found in the area.

This ‘Circus’ has elephants … in puppet form – A circus is not much of a circus without elephants, but most of these elephants are poorly treated. So the only humane solution is to build life-size puppet elephants. USA Today gives us a close-up look at how the puppet elephants in Circus 1903 come to life.

Batman’s Original Utility Belt Was Made Out Of Sponges – The headline tells the story. Before HD, television shows could get away with glueing brightly colored sponges to a belt and calling it a Batman costume. I have also heard that some of the phasers in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation were simply painted blocks of balsa wood.

Giant, Flame Spewing Animatronic Dragon – The only thing better than a life-sized elephant puppet is a giant, flame-spewing animatronic dragon. Check out how Zollner Electronics fabricated this monster for a seasonal folk play in Germany.

From Prop Making to Authoring

Last Thursday, I gave a talk to the Alamance Makers Guild at STEAM Junction in Burlington, NC. I’ve been a member of the AMG since 2012, and it was great to finally give a featured presentation. STEAM Junction is the new Maker Space started by the same people.

My talk was called “From Prop Making to Authoring.” I started off discussing my career as a prop builder and what that entails, before moving onto the blog and how that ultimately led to writing The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theater, Film, and TV.

My wife broadcast the entire talk over Facebook Live, and now the video is up on YouTube. It is a little over an hour long, so only the most diehard fans will make it through the whole thing.

The audience really enjoyed it. I was able to explain how my work informed the blog and how that built an audience for the book. I talked about why I blog, and how I use social media to promote it. Much of what I discussed was relevant to makers of all kinds, not just those who build props. It is all about teaching and sharing knowledge, and how to get people interested in what you do.

Mid-February Prop Links

Shop Tips: Cutting Foam for Propmaking – First up, Tested visits Frank Ippolito’s shop to see what tools he uses to cut flexible foam sheets. I want to try one of the blades he uses, which allows him to make some interesting cuts.

Shinken Sword Commission – The Prop Solve is back with an epic post on fabricating a fantasy sword for a client. The post is filled with pictures of every step, showing not just the successes, but the mistakes and learning experiences along the way. I especially like the build break-down she prepared for her client.

Queens Prop Shop Has Crafted Real Name for Itself in Booming Industry – NY1 visits the Prop “N” Spoon warehouse over in Queens and fabrication shop in Rahway, NJ. Check out the video to see some of the cool props they have built as business booms in NYC.

Adam Savage Examines the Props and Spacesuits of The Expanse! – We go back to Tested for this video of Adam Savage talking with James Murray, props master for Syfy’s The Expanse. Check out all the scratch-built armor, weapons, and other sci-fi elements for this sprawling space adventure.

Paperhand puppet master takes Chapel Hill-Carrboro teachers to school – In local news, puppet maker Donovan Zimmerman is teaching puppetry to local elementary students. Zimmerman is cofounder of Paperhand Puppet Intervention, which produces incredibly imaginative and poetic masks and puppets out of mere cardboard and papier-mache. It’s a wonderful program that will probably be cut as both art and education are eliminated in the next four years.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies