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Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss

Review: Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss

I only recently came across this book for the first time. I’ve never noticed it before because of the title; if I had seen it before, I would have assumed it dealt only with costumes, not props, and I would have moved right along. Make no mistake though, this book is vital to the props maker. It actually contains almost nothing about making clothes or fitting actors or even that much about fabrics and sewing. Instead, Costumes & Chemistry: A Comprehensive Guide to Materials and Applications, by Silvia Moss, covers all sorts of paints, adhesives, and plastics (in both sheet and casting form) which the prop shop uses. Though the examples shown are mostly costume props and accessories and giant character heads and suits, you can very easily apply it to many of the props you need to build.

Costumes & Chemistry reveals a lot of research and development. It turns costume crafts and props into more of a science where the materials are thoroughly tested and described, rather than a hodge-podge of traditions and assumptions swirling around in each person’s head. Moss talked with chemists, technicians, salespeople and manufacturers of many of the materials you use from basically every company you’ve ever heard of who makes these materials. Armed with a number of grants from UCLA and interviews with so many people working in the field, she has created a reference book that should be on the shelf of anyone working in props and costume crafts, as well as those interested in cosplay and convention costumes, replica prop making, LARP, and even model making.

Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss
Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss

Part 1 of the book is brief, providing much of the same safety information found in Monona Rossol’s book. The bulk of the book is divided between parts 2 and 3, or materials and applications.

The section on materials divides them into categories such as paints, adhesives, plastic sheets, and thermoform plastics. For each type of material in these categories, Moss gives the brand names of the various products that she tested, examples of why and how they are used, a description of the physical properties, how to clean them up (where applicable), precautions and health and safety information, where to buy them, and what sizes and forms they come in. This isn’t where you will find information about making props from paper plates and pipe cleaners; this covers all the modern materials you’ve used or read about such as Sintra, latex foam, leather dye, Kydex, etc.

In the section on applications, Moss breaks down how many example costumes were made. These include costume accessories, headpieces and jewelry from Las Vegas revues, Broadway musicals, advertising characters in commercials, various mascots, and other venues. This section provides some illustrations giving general techniques, but for the most part, it discusses the applications of various materials through very specific examples from a wide variety of craftspeople. Some of the pieces chosen for the book are quite recognizable, and it can be interesting and surprising once you find out what materials and techniques were used to create their look.

Costumes & Chemistry was published in 2004, so it should remain up to date for awhile. I could see an update in a few years to include new formulations of current materials and new brands (as well as the deletion of defunct brands; Phlex-Glu, for example, is listed in the book but no longer produced). For the most part though, most of these materials have been in use for several decades now, and barring some dramatic new invention, should remain in use for several decades more.

First Links of Winter

Okay, so it’s still a few days until winter, but the sudden temperature drop makes it feel like it’s already here. I am driving down to North Carolina today; enjoy these links and websites in the meantime.

Stage Directions magazine shows how props artisan Jay Tollefsen improved the “baby-in-a-bag” trick for the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s annual production of Dracula in this article titled, “Baby’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

Hirst Arts Fantasy Architecture has compiled a nice tutorial with lots of helpful hints on casting small resin pieces in silicone molds.

This fascinating post looks at the history of imagined books as props in theatre. One example is the first use of a prop book in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the script mentions Prospero’s book; what would they have used as a prop in those earliest of performances. The article talks about far more; like I said, it’s pretty fascinating.

The Educational Theatre Association has a nice how-to on adding texture to hard scenery; it’s great for using on props as well.

By 1974, the EPA had produced over 80,000 photographs showing how America interacted with the environment. The National Archives has begun making them online, and the Atlantic has posted a fine selection of some of these slice-of-life images of America in the 1970s.

Future Fossils is a collection of technological items from the near-past, such as 8mm cameras and Atari joysticks, which have been molded and cast in concrete so they look like archaeological relics from bygone days. You can buy them as well, but really, I just thought they looked cool.

Evidence of Elizabethan Props

I found this wonderful magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

‘In the mean time, I will draw you a bill of properties such as our play wants,’ says Peter Quince, the carpenter, when the performance of ‘the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of “Pyramus and Thisby” has been duly agreed upon by the ‘crew of patches, rude mechanicals that work for bread upon Athenian stalls.’ ‘Properties’ have been, time out of mind, indispensable to theatrical exhibitions. When Melpomene first appeared, she grasped a ‘property’ dagger; when Thalia entered upon the scene, she carried a ‘property’ pastoral crook. Mr. Tennyson’s burthen of ‘Property, property, property,’ has been from days immemorial a sort of watchword to Thespis and his children.

Upon the Elizabethan stage certain properties were almost of the nature of set-pieces or detached portions of scenes. There were as yet no movable scenes employed as backgrounds to the figure-pictures formed by the actors; but the stage was not altogether without furniture or accessories to theatrical illusion. One of the earliest of properties was a representation of ‘hellmouth,’ very frequently employed in the performance of miracle plays and morals. Malone’s liberal quotations from the Diary or Account Book of Henslowe, the manager, under date March 10, 1598-9—the original work has unfortunately disappeared from Dulwich College, where it had long been preserved—supply curious information touching the properties, machinery, and fittings of our early stage. It is clear that rocks and steeples, trees and beacons, pictures now of Mother Redcap and now of Tasso,—in plays by Munday and Drayton and Dekker,—were freely brought upon the stage, in addition to such properties, in the stricter sense of the term, as musical instruments, weapons, armour, clubs, fans, feathers, crosiers, sceptres, skins of beasts, coffins and bedsteads, bulls’ and boars’ heads, a chariot for Phaeton, a trident for Neptune, wings for Mercury, a mitre for the Pope, a cauldron to be employed in the ‘Jew of Malta,’ and a dragon—one of the ‘terrible monsters made of brown paper’ ridiculed by Stephen Gossonin 1581—to figure in the ‘Faustus’ of Marlowe. A mysterious item,’the Moris lymes,’ is supposed by Malone to refer to the limbs of Aaron the Moor in ‘Titus Andronicus,’ who in the original play was probably tortured on the stage; in the same way, ‘ for the playe of Faetan the limes dead,’ may be understood to represent the remains of the hero of Dekker’s ‘Sun’s Darling’ after his fatal fall.

Mr. Payne Collier cites certain manuscript plays by William Percy, written probably about 1600, which are prefaced by a list of the properties requisite for their due performance. These are of the simplest kind—’ a ladder of roapes and a long fourme’ being prominent items—and were employed to vary the aspect of the stage, so that the spectator might persuade himself that the scene represented now Harwich, now Colchester, and now Maldon. A note to one of the plays explains that even the humble accessories contained in the list might be dispensed with upon occasion: ‘Now, if so be that the properties of any of these that be outward will not serve the turn by reason of concourse of people on the stage, then you may omit the said properties which be outward and supply their places with their nuncupations only in text letters.’ From this rather vague stage direction it may be gathered that for a ‘property’—a tree, a tower, a rock, &c.—was often substituted a mere inscription, such as reminded the spectator that he must understand the tapestry enclosing the stage to represent, now Thebes, now Rhodes, and now the Temple of Mahomet: wherever, in fact, the events dealt with by the dramatist were supposed to occur. We learn, on Mr. Collier’s authority, that the technical word ‘properties’ was applied to the appurtenances of the stage as early as the reign of Henry VI. in the ‘Castle of Perseverance,’ one of the oldest Moral Plays in the language. In an account of the furniture, &c., required for the play of ‘St. George’ at Basingborne in the year 1511, the terms ‘properties’ and ‘property making’ are both used, the tireman or wardrobe-keeper being called ‘the garment man.’ In the ‘brief estimate’ of the revels at Court in 1563-4 the ‘properties’ for five plays at Windsor are several times mentioned.

In the Gull’s Horn Book, 1609, there is humorous and minute advice to the gallants who, seated on three-legged stools, at a charge of sixpence each, crowded the stage, much to the annoyance of the actors and the audience in the other parts of the house: ‘Present yourself not on the stage, especially at a new play, until the quaking prologue has by rubbing got colour into his cheeks, and is ready to give the trumpets their cue that he is upon the point to enter; for then it is time, as though you were one of the properties, or that you dropped out of the hangings, to creep from behind the arras, with your tripos or threefooted stool in one hand and a Teston [sixpence] mounted between a forefinger and a thumb in the other; for if you should bestow your person upon the vulgar, when the house is but half full, your apparel is quite eaten up, the fashion lost, and the proportion of your body in more danger to be devoured than if it were served up in the counter amongst the poultry.”

He has got into our tiring-house amongst us,

And ta’en a strict survey of all our properties,

says Byeplay, referring to Peregrine in Brome’s comedy of ‘The Antipodes,’ 1640, and a description follows of various theatrical properties, ‘our jigambobs and trinkets,’ and other scenic accessories:

Our statues and our images of gods,

Our planets and our constellations,

Our giants, monsters, furies, beasts, and bugbears,

Our helmets, shields and vizors, hairs and beards,

Our pasteboard marchpanes and our wooden pies…

Peregrine is a sort of Quixote, and acts accordingly:

Whether he thought ’twas some enchanted castle,

Or temple hung and piled with monuments

Of uncouth and of various aspects,

I dive not to his thoughts; wonder he did

Awhile, it seemed, but yet undaunted stood;

When, on a sudden, with thrice knightly force,

And thrice, thrice puissant arm, he snatcheth down

The sword and shield that I played Bevis with,

Rusheth amongst the foresaid properties,

Kills monster after monster, takes the puppets

Prisoners, knocks down the Cyclops, tumbles all

Our jigambobs and trinkets to the wall.

Spying at last the crown and royal robes

I’ th’ upper wardrobe, next to which by chance

The devil’s vizors hung, and their flame-painted

Skin-coats, these he removed with greater fury,

And (having cut the infernal ugly faces

All into mammocks) with a reverend hand

He takes the imperial diadem, and crowns

Himself King of the Antipodes, and believes

He has justly gained the kingdom by his conquest.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 282-284.)

Cutting out a shape on a bandsaw

The Prop Building Guidebook: 25% Done!

I have an update to The Prop Building Guidebook: for Theatre, Film and Television I am writing, due in stores February, 2013. I submitted the first 25% of my book to Focal Press yesterday, roughly four chapters. Does that mean I am a quarter of the way done? Hardly! Besides editing, I am sure I will continue adding to and refining the chapters I’ve already submitted even as I move forward on the rest of the book.

A lot of the early work has just been organizing and outlining what I want to cover in the book and developing the table of contents. I may be posting that table in the near future as it begins to solidify. I have never liked how previous prop-making books have organized information; one book even places painting first. Painting! Who picks up a book and says, “Well, I can’t build a prop, but at least I can paint it after I finish not building it.”? I think I have figured it out though. I begin with a sort of overview of the world of props in the realm of theatre, film and television, and how the role of the prop maker has developed over the years. I look at the materials and technology of prop making and how that has evolved to what we have today. I go through some more general concepts like safety, adhesives, tools before delving into the principals of prop making, such as determining the needs, breaking it down into simpler parts, and figuring out what problems you need to solve. You may recognize this thesis from my 2009 presentation at the SETC Theatre Symposium. In the book, I expound on this process, and take it from an abstract idea to a practical method.

The bulk of the book touches on the many materials and methods used for making props. I’ve been busy taking photographs and diving into research to flesh out what I already know. Having a lot of pictures is another goal of this book. I hate books that describe something but do not illustrate what the author means, particularly when a picture can clear up so much confusion. Previous props books seem to rely heavily on illustrations rather than photographs. While this is better than nothing, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Illustrations show a simplified and idealized version of a process, rather than what you will see if you are actually trying the process out. It also calls into question the accuracy of what is being presented; can you be sure that the author knows what he or she is talking about, or is the illustration just drawn from a description he or she has heard or read from another source which may or may not be true. By taking photographs of everything I discuss in the book, I am also testing out the accuracy of my statements.

Here are just a few samples of some of the photographs I’ve made for the book:

A quick molding and casting of a bird head
A quick molding and casting of a bird head
Cutting out a shape on a bandsaw
Cutting out a shape on a bandsaw