Tag Archives: Broadway

The Prop Building Guidebook

This Week I got a Book

So the big news this week is that I received my advance copy of The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV.

The Prop Building Guidebook
The Prop Building Guidebook

I cannot wait for people to start reading this. It’s the culmination of several years’ work. It clocks in at around 380 pages, and has photographs, charts, and illustrations on nearly every single page.

But enough about me, let’s talk about what else you can read on the web this week:

The House of von Macramé is a new pop musical running at the Bushwick Starr. It’s about a killer who targets models during Fashion Week. Waldo Warshaw did all the blood effects, delivery systems and splatter choreography, which Erik Piepenburg at the New York Times presents to us in this great article and slideshow called “A Scream. A Splash. Send in the Mops“.

This is actually from a month ago, but the Smithsonian Institute has received production-used costumes and props from the Broadway production of Wicked for display in their National Museum of American History. I think more props belong in a museum.

Everybody knows Google Street View, right? Well they have some special galleries hidden in different places. One very cool one is the inside of Scott’s Hut in Antartica. It’s an exploration hut from 1911 which the cold has preserved perfectly. It makes for some really cool primary research. If that link doesn’t work, or if you want to see what other galleries they have, you can view all their collections.


To Broadway and Back


What, exactly, are we looking at? Fans of the Nintendo Wii may recognize these as vaguely resembling the remote used to play games on that system (known as the “Wiimote”).

Flashback a few years. I was working on the off-Broadway production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Fans of the show will know that it has just a bit of set dressing, so you can imagine that the props department had their hands full. We had made it past tech and into previews, but changes were still occurring. The various sight gags at the beginning of Act II (when Andrew Jackson has just become President and is in the White House) were still evolving. A note came down that they wanted to add Wiimotes for one of the background characters to be playing with. Easy enough, right?

Well, our budget was fairly shot at the moment. We couldn’t really justify the $40+ per Wiimote (they wanted two) for a background gig. We searched high and low for used ones, ones to borrow, and even broken ones. At one point, someone found “candy” versions (a fake Wiimote filled with candy), but these proved to be too diminutive for our purposes.

“Hey,” I said. “I can make something really quick, so they at least have something in their hands while we continue searching.” I cut some shapes out of a 2×4, added some upholstery tacks as buttons and a small cross cut out of MDF for a directional pad, gave it a coat of gloss white spray paint, and called it good.

We ended up running out of time to find better ones. No one gave us any notes to improve these “stand-ins”. Opening night came. Watching the show, you couldn’t really see what was in the actor’s hands during this scene, even if you knew to look for them.

Flash forward. The show transfers to Broadway. All the props get recorded, packed and trucked off. I get tickets to see it. I pay attention to the beginning of Act II to pick up on any changes. The Wii gag is still there, but I can’t make out the props. “It’s Broadway,” I think. “They probably just bought two Wiimotes with their big budget.”

Flash forward again. It’s been over a year since the show closed and the props are still in storage. My boss pushes to get them back as the chances of a transfer diminish. After several go-arounds, he finally arranges for a trip out to the storage facility to pick up some of the items to bring back to our stock. Most of the hand props are packed into a few boxes, and we don’t really know what is in them (the boxes are labelled “action props”, which is Broadway’s term for “hand props”).

We unpack the boxes and guess what I find? Hint: It wasn’t a pair of “real” Wiimotes.

I am not sure what the moral of the story is. It is certainly an interesting side note to add to the list of strange ways and circuitousness routes which objects take on their way to the Broadway stage. Perhaps it is also a small reminder that you should always do your best work, because you never know where a prop may end up. Perhaps, too, it reveals how “theatre magic” can be created even with decidedly un-magical items.

Or maybe it’s just a funny-looking prop with an interesting story.

Knight of the Mirrors from "Man of La Mancha"

Costume Armour

This past weekend I made a trip up to Cornwall, NY, to visit Costume Armour. Brian Wolfe, the general manager, happily showed me around the shop, storage areas and all the pieces they have on display. Costume Armour was founded over 50 years ago by Peter and Katherine Feller, and later purchased by theatrical sculptor Nino Novellino in 1976, and has produced pieces for nearly every Broadway show since then.

Knight of the Mirrors from "Man of La Mancha"
Knight of the Mirrors from "Man of La Mancha"

The piece that kind of began Costume Armour is the armor from the original Broadway production of The Man of La Mancha. Before then, armor was either leather, felt or heavy metal. They solved many problems by vacuum forming a suit of armor from newly sculpted molds based off of historical research. Though the suit itself predates the company, Novellino made it while working with Peter Feller on the vacuum forming machines built by Feller to construct the Vatican pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Costume Armour still has those machines, and they are part of what makes their company extraordinary. The vacuum tank is over 1000 gallons, and they can produce pieces from sheets of plastic as large as 52″ by 12′-0″.


The shop was in the midst of a big order for the Disney Jedi Training Academy, Star Wars Weekends and Celebration, which they have been doing since 2004.


I was interested to learn that the shop still uses Celastic quite a bit for many of their sculptures. The original brand-named Celastic has long ceased being manufactured, though they did have a few rolls stock-piled for those extra-special projects (pictured above). The modern equivalents are a bit thicker, but act the same; the cloth is saturated with acetone, than draped or molded over a form or sculpture, and when the acetone evaporates, you are left with a rigid and rock hard surface. Brian explained that it is unrivaled for making realistically-sculpted drapes and clothes on statues.

So I stand corrected on my earlier article on Celastic, in which I claimed that it is rarely used and that there are less toxic alternatives that can do the same thing. Of course, using it requires the proper safeguards for dealing with large buckets of acetone, but working with most materials in the props shop requires understanding and protecting yourself against any potential hazards and toxins.

Jesus and C-3PO
Jesus and C-3PO

While I saw something cool around every corner, I thought I would point out the above picture. They cast a head based off of a scan and model of the Shroud of Turin, so what you have here is what many believe to be the real head of Jesus. He is, of course, on a shelf next to a C-3PO mask.

See you later!
See you later!

The statue pictured above was produced was was sculpted in foam, molded in silicone and cast in fiberglass . Though larger than me, I could easily pick it up off the ground; most of the weight, in fact, came from the plywood base, and not the statue itself.

Novellino was featured in the American Theatre Wing’s In the Wings series; watch the video to learn more about the company and to see the vacuum forming machines in action.

Good Links for Friday

I have some good Friday links for you this week.

Movie Scope Magazine has a nice interview with Grant Pearmain, the master designer at FB-FX Ltd. They are a UK-based shop making props and costume pieces for some pretty big films. Some recent projects include the upcoming Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman. Past films include John Carter, Kick Ass and Prince of Persia. It’s a great article. I wanted to highlight one quote in particular, dealing with why props will still be needed in a world of CGI:

“So we were supplied with CG models that were the same as what will be in the film—and those are milled out by computer, and then those milled models are finished off by sculptors here, who put all the fine details on, all the skin, and put a bit of expression into them. And then they’re moulded and cast out here and painted up to be completely lifelike so that then we have some very lightweight but very convincing aliens that can be picked up and moved around on set under the lighting, and positioned where they need to be for eyelines.”

Playbill has a great video up showing designer extraordinaire Donyale Werle going through the variety of found objects and repurposed materials she and her team are using to upgrade the set of Peter and the Starcatcher as it moves uptown to Broadway from its successful run at NYTW last year.

Drama Biz Magazine has an article by Mike Lawler on “The Eco-Friendly Theatre of the Future“. It is a good summation of some of the pioneers of sustainable theatre practices, as well as where the industry is (or should be) headed.

Speaking of eco-friendly, the Broadway Green Alliance has a Pinterest of upcycled crafts they’ve found on the Internet and pinned to their Pinterest pinboard.

I have also been hearing about Arboform, which is a biodegradable thermoplastic made from wood by-products and other sustainable natural materials. I put together a Storify about it, called “Liquid Wood.” Today is all about using hip websites, I guess.

Friday Fun Times

I like this article with interviews of the original creators and operators of Jabba the Hut. It’s unfortunate that, these days, he is made entirely in CGI. At least you can still find giant puppets in theatre,.

The Daily Telegraph had an article last year about a flat in Paris that remained untouched since before World War II. There are a few photographs there, and a few more over at How to be a Retronaut.

Speaking of How to be a Retronaut, I’m adding it to the sidebar as a permanent link because it continues to be so incredible. It’s constantly updated with photographs and video from throughout history, in particular color film from periods you didn’t know had color film. At the site, you can search their posts by decade too. It’s not the most comprehensive source for research imagery, but it has a lot of pictures you can’t find anywhere else.

Entrepreneur Magazine, of all places, has an article on Maker Faire and the Growth of Do-It-Yourself, told through a conversation with Mark Frauenfelder. I’ve gone to both NYC Maker Faires (2010 and 2011), and definitely recommend them and Make Magazine for those interested in the geekier side of prop building.

Playbill has an article on Charlie Rasmussen, the oldest active member of IATSE Local One. At 85, he is still running 8 shows a week of Sister Act as the head carpenter. He gives a great answer when asked why he chose show business: “An old-timer told me years ago that if I was going to work with my hands, I should go where I’m going to make the most money.”