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This site is four years old

While my new book is one of the most exciting things on the horizon, let’s not forget that this blog continues to deliver lots of fun and free writing about props, and it will do so long after the book comes out. This blog turned four years old last week, and I almost forgot about it! I thought it would be fun to recap what has appeared here, just like I did after the first year, the second year, and the third year. It now contains 585 published posts, with a total of 266,384 words; that’s one and a half times as many in my book!

I’ve written a few little “featurettes” in the past year. I try to discover who the first prop maker was. I show off some photographs of prop artifacts held at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I take a look at prop expenses from 1716. I had a multi-part series of how they built Fafner the dragon at every production of The Ring Cycle which the Metropolitan Opera has done since it was founded (part onepart two, and part three). I explored who invented the jig saw, and looked at whether it should be called a saber saw or a jig saw. I did a story called To Broadway and Back, and looked at where to find summer jobs. I also did a few safety-oriented posts: Weapon Safety is nothing new, and The Nose Knows Not.

I have toured some places and wrote about some events. These include Wesley Cannon’s awesome film prop collection, a visit to Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s School, a visit and lesson at Dick Snow’s blacksmithing shop, the Burlington (North Carolina) Mini Maker Faire, a tour of the Costume Armour facilities in New York, and the NYC Annual Props Summit.

I added some more of my own illustrations, including formal dinner settings, and “Better Proud than Shy“. I have begun shooting a lot more video in the past year, such as adding a flange to PVC pipevacuum forming for zero dollars, an exploding cuckoo clocksculpting in oil claymaking a plaster mold, and sculpting and carving foam.

Of course, I posted pictures and explanations of various props I have built: Furniture for Henry IV and V at Playmakers Rep, a crepe cart at the Santa Fe Opera, a six-foot tall microscope, a dead deer at Shakespeare in the Park, King Roger’s throne at the Santa Fe Opera, twelve candlestick phones for Elon University, a player piano for Elon, various props for Crazy for You at Elon, Milky the Cow, Puppets for Into the Woods, some box elder boxes, and a CNC cast iron bench.

This year, I’ve also published some cool things submitted by other people. First up is Specter Studios building a foam axe prop, followed by the condensed history of their company. Next up is Costume Armour making a disappearing turkey. I also posted the video of Jay Duckworth’s KCACTF keynote speech on being a props master.

Regular readers know I like to dig out old historical writings about props. This year, these included the following: Actors in IATSE (1898)Backstage Views (1900)What Becomes of Stage Scenery (1903), A multi-part reprint of an article on prop maker E.L. Morse (1904): part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6, and part 7The Covetous Property Man (1904)A Factory for Making Plays (1909)Good Furniture and Moving Pictures (1915)How David Belasco shops for props (1919)William Bradley, Property Man (1927)Why Film Prop Men Often Die in Their Youth (1938).

There were also some great illustrations I’ve reprinted here: daggers and poniards of the Christian Middle Ages, an illustration detailing the construction of a table, cooking pots history, 1642-1969, chair back styles, and construction and upholstery of chairs.

Finally, I reviewed Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss. Though not a review, I also did a brief interview with Sandra Strawn about her recently published book, The Properties Director’s Handbook.

So there you have Year Four in a nutshell. I post lots of other links and videos in addition to what I’ve written here. If you don’t want to miss any future posts, you can subscribe to my blog with your favorite blog reader, or sign up to get all articles through email. For even extra prop goodness, you can follow me on Twitter as well.

Screenshot of Props Agenda during the first year

This blog is three years old today

Dear blog,

What a year it’s been!

But seriously, It’s hard to believe this blog has been running for three years already. I began a tradition where I would sum up the posts from the previous years, starting with the first 162 posts, followed by the next 151 posts. I’m now up to 461 posts, at a grand total of over 218,000 words. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, I would love to hear from you either in the comments or in an email; of course, if you’ve already left a comment in the past few years, feel free to leave another!

Screenshot of Props Agenda during the first year
What this blog looked like in 2009.

Probably the biggest news for me this year was that my book idea was picked up by Focal Press. It will be called The Prop Building Guidebook for Theatre, Film and TV and appear in bookstores in February, 2013. I submitted the first several chapters back in November, and my next partial deadline is this February. The other big news is that I left New York City to move to North Carolina.

I was interviewed by Angela Mitchell at About.com. I had two articles appear in Stage Directions this year. “From Agave to Zeus” was about the dead body and head we created for The Bacchae in 2009. “Intelligent Design” was about the breakaway wall(!) we made for The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

Some of the feature articles I wrote just for this blog include a comparison of recipes for Scenic Dope and Monster Mudwhat’s in a Prop Bible; why you should always be photographing; defining the scope of a project with Design Briefs; what is Pepakura; taking baby steps and jumping in; a brief discussion on period props; clearing up some confusions in the world of plastics; how Bad Props make Bad Shows; a union propmaker’s tool kit; product versus process; how your labor is a cost, not a profit; an imaginary conversation on whether the soldiers have swords or guns; how to work with what you have; making a fake newspaper; making fake but edible food; making fake drinks; a case against metric; and finding a job in film (for prop makers). Some of my articles deal with the important issue of safety as well. I wrote about safety goggles, the real dangers of MDF, how you should breathe nothing but air, and what happens when actors drink chemicals instead of fake drinks.

At the end of 2011, I shared what I felt was the top prop news of the year. I wrote about more news that happened, though what I wrote is more of what happens to me personally. Stories included a round-up of USITT 2011 in Charlotte, NC, a fire drill at the Public Theater, some new miracle materials, the 2011 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design, a tour of the Childsplay Theatre shops (see also part 2), Rebecca Akins’ work and speech at the 2011 S*P*A*M conference, how the backstage community helped out on September 11th, 2001, attending Maker Faire, guns seized on the set of Brad Pitt’s latest film project, and a salon discussion on “Being Green” in theatre.

Some of the projects I’ve worked on which I shared this year include a set of Art Deco footlights for Sleep No More, made on a homemade sheet metal brake; a set of chairs for an opera called Tea; food in Timon of Athens which I prop mastered at the Public Theater; letters for a Starbucks scene; Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; a Yoruban ceremonial sword; a new prop (a replica of a French 75mm artillery gun) for Shakespeare in the Park (one of my favorites); the set dressing in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, props in King Lear at the Public Theater, including a fake dead pheasant; a severed hand in Titus Andronicus at the Public Theater, molded from Jay O. Sanders’ hand (one of my other favorites), and a cast iron park bench.

I sometimes make my own illustrations, and this year I shared the parts and types of a hammer, parts of a table, and the parts of a cigar, cigarette, pipe and matchbook. I also shared helpful illustrations by others which included the history of the US flag, analysis of a chairAncient Egyptian weaponsAncient Greek helmetsAncient Greek weaponsAncient Roman weaponstheatrical ads from a hundred years ago, and olde time woodworking machines.

I also shared some videos: American Theatre Wing featured the prop master in their “In the Wings” series; the USITT 2011 Tech OlympicsJim Henson making Muppets in 1969; a screen test video for snake puppets in Stargate SG-1; a Tour of an Animatronic WorkshopJohn Sanders and The Walking Dead propsSeán McArdle and Faye ArmonProps in True Grit; the NYC Christmas Windows; and the automaton in Hugo.

I continued reviewing books which I find useful for working in props. This year, these included A Guidebook for Creating Three-Dimensional Theatre Art by Ann J. Carnaby; the Backstage Handbook by Paul Carter and George Chiang; Grande Illusions 1 and 2 by Tom Savini; The Business of Theatrical Design by James L. Moody; The Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery by Gary Rogowski; and one of the most important, The Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV and Theater by Monona Rossol.

Finally, I’m always exploring the history of props as it relates to the history of the theatre in general and the rest of the world. This past year, I took a look at the history of women in propscarpentry then and now, the history of props in Kabuki theatre, and more on Ancient Greek theatre props. I also asked some important questions like who invented the hot glue gun?  What is CelasticWho was Thurston James? I also relayed some biographical information about Joe Lynn, the Tony Award–winning Props Master, and took a look at a man who may have been the first prop master in America. Finally, I shared some old humorous anecdotes about props.

Integral to exploring the history are the reprints of old book excerpts, magazine articles, and news stories from the dusty bins of prop history. This year’s catalog includes Joining a Circus in 1922, Property Resources from 1916, In the Boston Museum’s Prop Room in 1903, The Agonies of a Stage Manager in 1914, Recollections of Dirty Snow from 1916, David Belasco and Set Dressing from 1904, Concerning Stage Viands in 1910, How to be a Great, Not Just Good, Set Decorator (date unknown), A Property Man’s Confession in 1903, the Salaries of US Theatre in 1798, The Old Proproom at the Walnut St. Theatre of 1910, Shams in the Theatre in 1880, A Madman in a Theater from 1893, Rehearsing the “Props” in 1911, How nature is imitated on the stage circa 1885, No Screen for Rehearsal in 1903, Duties of  a Property Man in Utah in 1921, and lastly, a lengthy magazine article from 1878 split up into several parts: Evidence of Elizabethan PropsProps at Drury Lane in 1709 and Theatre Royal in 1776Real Objects versus Constructed PropsNineteenth Century Prop ListsSkulls used in HamletGeorge Frederick Cooke’s Body as a Prop, and Macready and his Deer Skin.

As always, remember that you can subscribe to my blog with your favorite blog reader, or sign up to get all articles through email so you don’t miss anything in the future. I add three posts a week, and as a bonus, the RSS feed and email subscriptions remain advertisement-free.

This blog is two years old today

It’s hard to believe this blog has been running for another year already. Last year, I summed up the first 162 posts. I’m doing the same thing again this year. If you are new to this site, or even if you’ve been checking it out for awhile, you may not know how much stuff is here; I’ve written 313 posts (that’s over 139,000 words). You can subscribe to my blog with your favorite blog reader, or sign up to get all articles through email so you don’t miss anything in the future. I add three posts a week, and as a bonus, the RSS feed and email subscriptions remain advertisement-free. I also have a Twitter feed where I share news and links about props. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, now would be a great time to leave a comment or drop an email if you haven’t yet; and if you have, feel free to leave another.

I had some things going on outside of this blog this past year. Back in September, I was interviewed at TheatreFace, and you can read the transcript at the site. I also had an article in Stage Directions magazine on the breakable phone from The Book of Grace; another article will be appearing in this February’s issue.

I really hit a nerve with the props community when I asked Why is there no Tony Award for Props? My article On sharing and secret knowledge also proved popular. 25 memorable film props was a big hit with the kids. Other feature length articles I’ve written include Challenges in making props lists for Shakespeare, Which classes should I take, Importance of photographing your work, How much should you charge for your work?A Common Error in Making CutlistsBuying the Right ToolsUsing soft materials to mimic hard details, Building a Prop from a Photograph, applying for a NYC Theatrical Weapons Permit, and the all-important question: Why Make? I shared Some thoughts on brand-name propsThoughts on green props, and Thoughts on 3D Printing Technology. I shared two shorter pieces On making things and Getting the shape you want,, and finally gave advice on what to do When Nothing is Happening.

I am interested in the definitions of props and the ideas behind what it means to work in props, and so I opined on what the difference is with a prop master vs prop director, how to tell whether something is a Prop or Not? and what it means when a prop is Cut! I also asked Why the term prop master?, gave my theories on the Confusions in the definition of a prop, and listed some Categories of props.

I showed some process shots from some of the projects I and others in the shop have worked on, such as faux oil paintingsa fake deer butt, a paper-tearing jigfake french friesa breakaway telephone, a Medusa headan LED lighter, a fake dead lamb (part onepart two, and three), a steel headboard for In the Wake, a stuffed kitten from recycled fabrica chandelier from Romeo and Juliet, as well as an overview of the props from The Book of Grace, and the paper props from Capeman. I also documented the process in making a blood sponge baghow to gold leaf, faking a beer can, making a switchbladefive quick prop fixes, and ways to make crack and snow.

I took a heavier focus on safety this year, with articles on E-cigarettes, choosing the right disposable gloveall the chemicals in the world, blank-firing guns, and “A Label of Love“.

This past year saw “Props Month” at Stage Directions magazine, as well as the launching of the new S*P*A*M website. I attended the S*P*A*M conference in San Francisco, where I also got to take tours of the San Francisco Opera and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre prop shop. I also attended the  Maker Faire 20102010 NYC Props Summit, and the Going Green in Theatrical Design: Set & Props Workshop sponsored by the Broadway Green Alliance.

I began offering reviews of books for props people, and started off with some of the most commonly used texts, including Theatrical Design and Production by GilletteCareers in Technical Theater by Mike Lawler, The Theater Props Handbook and The Prop Builder’s Molding and Casting Handbook by Thurston James, The Prop Master by Amy Mussman, and Making Stage Props by Andy Wilson.

I made some drawings. This year I drew the parts of a sword hiltillustrated categories of props, and the parts of a book. I also linked to other helpful illustrations and diagrams across the web, such as an upholstery yardage chart, 36 knots, bends and splicesmechanical sound effects, and Nokia cellphones and Legos.

I also like looking at the history of props and prop-making, and wrote the following pieces: Oldest Surviving MasksMedieval theatre and trade guilds; Props in Henslowe’s DiaryProps in the time of MoliereThe Gore of Grand GuignolPre-war special effects; and A brief history of IATSE.

Finally, I reprint articles and parts of books from other authors which talk about the world of props in all its many forms and incarnations. In chronological order, these are the articles: The Property Department in an opera house in 1851Behind the scenes at the theatre, 1861To literally steal the show 1868; The secret regions of the stage, 1874; The End of Making Props 1883; Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: IntroductionConstructing a GodTechnical RehearsalsA Singing DragonDangerous EffectsThe Influence of Properties upon Dramatic Literature, 1889A Place to Buy Thunder, 1898Behind the scenes: The Property Room, 1898; Stage Sounds, 1904; Busy Stage Workers the Public Never Sees, 1910The Unreality of Stage Realism, 1912; Writing for Vaudeville, 1915; Play production in America, 1916Props in Movies, 1922Dressing interior sets for the motion picture camera, 1923; Stage-hands union, 1923.

So keep reading, and keep propping. This next year should be just as exciting!

E-Cigarettes

So your play needs cigarettes. Aaaah.

In most venues by now, real cigarette smoking is viewed as the next plague. The fear is that lighting a single cigarette for a few seconds in a large, well-ventilated theater, is worse than the constant outpouring of pollution from 250 million cars, 600 coal power plants, and every other industrial process. But I digress.

Even herbal cigarettes are becoming banned in many places; this is due to health reasons, moral hesitance, or simply for the fire hazard. Even if they are permitted, many people dislike them for their “marijuana-y” smell and horrible taste. Enter “e-cigarettes”.

First introduced in 2003, electronic cigarettes (“e-cigarettes”) quickly became popular for theatres stuck between the rock of smoking bans and the hard place of artistic freedom. They completely eliminate the hazard of second-hand smoke (the “smoke” is actually just water vapor), and seem to pose minimal risk to the user. However, because they are so new, our knowledge of them and their effects is in constant flux; a lot has changed just in this past year. Just last week, the FDA was blocked from stopping e-cigarette shipments to the United States. This means that, for now at least, they remain unregulated but legal to use here.

The FDA has been railing against electronic cigarettes since last July, when they released a study. What’s important to take away from their results is not that e-cigarettes are necessarily dangerous, but that their potential dangers are unstudied, and without regulation their ingredients may not be fully disclosed. In one article, we find that:

  • All but one of the cartridges was marked as having no nicotine when they actually contained the addictive substance.
  • The cartridges that were marked as having low, medium, or high amounts of nicotine actually have varying amounts of nicotine.
  • One of the cartridges tested positive for having a toxic antifreeze ingredient, diethylene glycol.
  • The devices were emitting “tobacco-specific nitrosamines which are human carcinogens.”
  • The devices were also emitting tobacco-specific impurities that are suspected of being harmful to humans.

(Health News, FDA Warns Against E-Cigarettes)

When we use e-cigarettes, we choose the “zero-nicotine” cartridges. What’s troubling in this report is that even these might contain nicotine. The danger is not necessarily the nicotine; nicotine is not one of the ingredients in cigarettes which causes cancer, and is not toxic in the amount found in cigarettes (read more about the complicated toxicology of nicotine). The danger comes from the possibility of mislabeled products. An actor on the nicotine patch (or other smoking cessation therapy involving nicotine) who smokes an e-cigarette under the false assumption that it contains no nicotine can overdose. I overdosed when I was on the patch, and it was painful, ugly, and frightening. Secondly, mislabeling the amount of one ingredient draws concern that other, more dangerous ingredients, are left unlisted.

A second article from last July adds:

Scott Ceretta is a respiratory therapist and works with the American Lung Association in Tucson. He explains, “First off is the safety. The manufacturer of this product claim that it’s safe and only has nicotine and doesn’t have the harmful chemicals found in tobacco. But, again, we’ve been lied to before.” Dr. Scott Leischow of the Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson says it’s likely e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes with tobacco. But, he adds they haven’t been adequately tested here. Dr. Leischow tells News 4, “We don’t know, this propylene glycol that the nicotine is mixed in, we don’t know what happens when a person inhales that over a long period of time.”

(KVOA News 4, Investigating the health of e-cigarettes)

Again, it’s not that e-cigarettes are dangerous; but a lack of testing so far cannot prove what effects they have on the human body. You can read the full report of FDA analysis (pdf) for more information which includes a diagram of how an e-cigarette works. They tested the “Njoy e-cigarette” and “Smoking Everywhere Electronic Cigarette” brands.

In response to the FDA’s study, Exponent Health Sciences carried out their own analysis. They found a number of flaws in the study, mostly relating to the amounts of chemicals not listed in the ingredients, and how they relate to FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapy products. In some cases, the disparities between the listed and actual ingredients which caused the FDA such great concern was less severe than in products they actually approve of.  Exponent was commissioned by the Njoy company, but the two companies are separate and discrete entities.

Let’s assume that the labels are correct. How does propylene glycol affect us? Here is an article from 1942:

Propylene glycol is harmless to man when swallowed or injected into the veins. It is also harmless to mice who have breathed it for long periods. But medical science is cautious—there was still a remote chance that glycol might accumulate harmfully in the erect human lungs which, unlike those of mice, do not drain themselves. So last June Dr. Robertson began studying the effect of glycol vapor on monkeys imported from the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Tropical Medicine. So far, after many months’ exposure to the vapor, the monkeys are happy and fatter than ever.

(Time Magazine, Medicine: Air Germicide)

We should of course be skeptical of a science article from 1942. DNA had not even been discovered yet, and cigarettes were still endorsed by doctors. Still, propylene glycol is used in many theatrical fog machines and hazers, and the dangers are known and their use regulated by Actors’ Equity. The concern over propylene glycol in e-cigarettes was described in ACTS FACTS last August after the FDA’s report was released:

Our concern is that, like the theatrical fog machines which also contain propylene glycol, this chemical will dissociate into toxic chemicals do when the e-cigarette heats or burns them. Since good actors can carry off the deception without inhaling, e-cigs still appear safer than real cigarettes for both the smokers and others on stage.

(ACTS FACTS, Monona Rossol, Editor. August 2009. www.artscraftstheatersafety.org)

They then return to my earlier point about accurate labeling:

But these points are moot if Chinese manufacturers cannot assure us that they can keep diethylene glycol and carcinogens out of e-cigs. At this point we have no advice and await further data.

(ibid.)

So Equity, for the most part allows them at this point (though some say they’ve had problems).

Since the rules seem to be changing so fast these days, and local laws differ vastly, you can’t be assured of anything. Look at the legal status of e-cigarettes around the world, and you can see how the USA is one of the few countries that still allows them. Also, understand that that list is probably out of date already. Before you drop a hundred or so dollars on an e-cigarette system, check with both your Actors’ Equity representative and production manager whether they are still allowed in your theater for your production. Make sure your actor understands that inhalation is not necessary for the effect and should be limited or avoided as much as possible. Finally, try to find the most reputable brand you can to avoid the problem of dishonest labeling. You should do all this the first time someone mentions they’d like to have one of the characters smoking on stage. For now, as long as we have fog machines, pyrotechnics, flying rigs, stage firearms and other dangerous devices on stage, I believe the monitored use of e-cigarettes can be safely regulated.

This blog is one-year old today

Tomorrow will be one year since the First Post of this blog. I now have a link to the archives of my blog, which will show the 162 posts I’ve made so far, as well as this one and all future posts. So if you miss a few days, or are new to the site, you can quickly check out all the contents. If you don’t want to miss any posts from now on, you can subscribe to my blog with your favorite blog reader, or sign up to get all articles through email. I post three times a week, and as a bonus, the RSS feed and email subscriptions are advertisement-free.

During the past year, I attended the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium, which focused on props. My paper was presented in a panel called “Creating Props, Creating Performances“. I’ve also posted some highlights from Bland Wade’s keynote speech as well as the closing remarks. I also took part in the “first” New York City Props Summit, where I met many other props people from the city. Finally, I was hired full-time as the Assistant Props Master at the Public Theatre.

I described some of the props I made for Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, including a separate post on the bar. During Shakespeare in the Park, I made a wooden ratchet and a funerary urn trick for Twelfth Night. The big prop for The Bacchae was a dead body, which I described in two posts (part one and part two) as well as a third post showing the evolution of the head of Pentheus. Last fall, my wife and I built a three-foot tall garden gnome. I prop-mastered my first New York show, Slave Shack, and wrote an article on the set props and one on the hand props. I finished the year with a wooden table for Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult.

I’ve also made some videos for this site. I have one on blood sponges, a breakaway bottle, making a breakable glass, and a video of my father throwing a ceramic pot. One thing I hope to show more of on this blog is diagrams, illustrations, photographs and timelines of specific kinds of objects. Whether I find them online, or create them myself, my wish is to compile a sort of “quick reference guide” for commonly used props. So far, I have information on bar glassware, telephone history, 40 Styles of Chairs, mid-century kitchens, old-fashioned carpentry tools, a brief history of gift wrap, and the parts of a chair.

This blog has a number of articles I’ve written:

I also reprint articles from older books in the public domain:

I investigated when the the word “property” was first used in the theatrical sense, as well as the first time it was shortened to “props”. I’m interested in the history of props and prop-making itself, and have written about Ancient Greek theatre props, Shakespeare’s Props, and gathered a group of photographs of props in the twentieth century.

And finally, I’ve shown off the work of other people and companies, such as the Santa Fe Opera, Actors Theatre of Louisville Props Shop, a tour of the Mythbusters Shop, Ross MacDonald, Milwaukee Rep’s Prop Shop, the Internet Craftsmanship Museum, prop people across the news, interviews at Collectors Weekly, Mad Men Props, and original Stargate SG-1 Props.

There’s still dozens more posts on this site I haven’t mentioned here, so take the time, if you haven’t already, to poke around. I wanted to thank all of you who have written or talked to me over the past year about this blog; I don’t know if I would keep writing this if I didn’t know people were reading it. If you like this site, leave a comment or shoot me an email, and share it with a friend. I’d also love to hear any suggestions for topics to cover in the future (or topics to stop covering). Until next time, prop it like it’s hot!