Tag Archives: Broke-ology

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Salon on Being Green

Yesterday at Wingspace Theatrical Design I attended their salon on “Being Green.” The featured guests included set designer Donyale Werle (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Broke-ology), as well as Annie Jacobs and Jenny Stanjeski from Showman Fabricators.

A lot of the facts which were presented are better summed up in my post on a previous workshop I attended called “Going Green in Theatrical Design.” I did see something that was new though (new to me, that is): UC Berkeley’s Material and Chemical Handbook which presents some of the materials we commonly use in prop making, along with disposal instructions and safety notices. It’s specific to their college, but it is a good starting point for developing your own.

Since I didn’t take notes, what follows is more of a highlight of various points made in the discussion as I remember them:

“Being green is not black or white”; it is not an either/or proposition. Rather, every day you try to make better choices, and every show you try to do a little greener. It takes a lot of experimentation, a lot of analysis, and a lot of effort.

Do not do bad “green” design and art; it’s worse than no design. The goal is to make good design, and the goal of sustainable theatre is to do it a little greener each time.

As theatre people, we already come from a culture of sustainability and recycling. We reuse and repaint flats and drops. We take the lumber from one show and use it on the next. We borrow and barter the costumes and props from other people doing the same. But as our careers progress and the shows get bigger, we get away from that. Maybe it’s because you get to work with bigger budgets, or maybe it’s because you want to push your work to have higher production standards. Making sustainable theatre is a conscious choice and takes a concerted effort.

One of the problems, someone pointed out, was in trying to do a green production with a designer who was still in the old mindset—the mindset that everything has to be new and bought just for that show. What is the new mindset? It may mean a design which evolves from the available materials, rather than a design which starts on paper and then requires the purchasing of all new materials. Maybe it just means less design, though as Donyale pointed out, she likes a lot of “stuff” in her designs:

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Thinking about more sustainable options means taking more time out of your already busy schedule, and asking others to take more time as well. Donyale pointed out that if you can do case studies on what you’re spending versus what you would spend in a more traditional production, you can convince the producers; for Peter and the Starcatcher, she calculated that they saved $40000 in materials by using recycled, salvaged and upcycled materials, but that the labor cost was a third more due to all the sourcing and processing of this material. Still, it was an overall savings; the extra labor cost was offset by the reduced materials cost. Producers like to see savings. It is also, for a lot of us, morally preferable to have more of the money to go to human labor (which is sustainable) than to the purchase of materials shipped from across the globe which will end up in the trash once the show is finished.

For artisans and production people, as opposed to designers, using more sustainable techniques means taking time to do your own experimentation and comparison of materials and techniques to arrive at better solutions. If you can come up with concrete alternatives to show your designers, it becomes easier to convince them to trust you. An example the ladies from Showman gave was using carved homasote, which is made from recycled newspaper and non-VOC adhesives, to make faux brick and stone facades, rather than vacuum-formed plastic panels. Not only is the plastic a petroleum-based product shipped from overseas, but it releases toxic fumes when heated in the vacuum former. Homasote comes from a company in New Jersey, so it only has to travel a few miles. The results look the same, and the costs are comparable. By showing the designers what they can achieve with more sustainable and less toxic materials, it makes it easier to convince them to accept them.

The interior plywood structure of the gnome

Gnome Building

For the upcoming production of “Broke-ology” at Lincoln Center, I was asked to build a three-foot garden gnome. They had a prop from the original production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, but it was starting to break and crack in certain places. The gnome undergoes a lot of abuse during each performance, so they needed a new one with a better interior structure. So for the past two weeks, my wife and I have been gnome building.

Structure

The interior plywood structure of the gnome
The interior plywood structure of the gnome

The original gnome was a solid chunk of foam, with weights added in the base. Since it gets fairly thin around the ankles, it was beginning to separate at that point. My major concern with the interior skeleton was making sure there were no weak points on the gnome.

Additionally, while I had the original gnome with me, I took measurements and tracings directly off it to make several “slices” of the gnome’s shape to use as the structure. You can see what I mean in the photographs above. So the plywood would not only give me structure, it would also serve as a guide while adding and carving the foam.

Chunks of Styrofoam added to the skeleton
Chunks of Styrofoam added to the skeleton

Carving

We couldn’t keep the gnome forever, so I took pictures of all four sides, plus the four in-between sides, as well as various views from above. It never hurts to have too many reference pictures. To remove large pieces of foam, we used either a knife or sometimes a reciprocating saw. If we needed a large amount of foam sculpted down quickly, we used a wire brush wheel hooked up to a cordless drill. We did the more precise and final carving and sculpting with a variety of rasps, knives, and sandpaper.  Sculpting and carving are very personal skills, so the best tools are often the ones you make yourself. Natalie made several tools just by gluing pieces of sandpaper to various shapes of wood.

Natalie uses a Dremel to carve details
Natalie uses a Dremel to carve details

You can see in the photograph above that we added auto-body filler (or Bondo) to fill in gaps, cover mistakes, or build up areas where we took too much off. You need a respirator when using it, but it hardens very quickly. You can use a rasp or knife on it after about ten minutes, and you can sand it after about an hour. We also used a Dremel tool for quickly carving out details.

Coating

I pontificated in an earlier post about various ways of coating foam. First, we wrapped the gnome in muslin strips which were soaked in glue. The process is very similar to papier-mache. We tore the muslin strips to give them a ragged edge which could be smoothed down over the previous pieces. After this dried, we covered the whole thing in Rosco Foamcoat, which we laid on like stucco to give it a bit of worn and weathered texture. After a light sanding, we painted on the various base coats.

Step-by-step process of coating the foam sculpture
Step-by-step process of coating the foam sculpture

The final step was coating it with epoxy resin. This gave it a very hard, smooth, and water-proof shell. It’s also fairly pricey, very toxic, and requires a lot of set-up. The exterior of the gnome was fairly solid with just the muslin and Foamcoat coverings, so for lower-budget shows and shorter runs, you may want to forego the epoxy resin. It’s a somewhat complex process, so I’ll address it in more detail in a future post.

Final Painting

After the epoxy had cured over night, we added the final paint layer. We used acrylic paint. We also dusted it with some black spray paint to weather and age it, as well as some dulling spray to get rid of the shininess from the epoxy.

Gnome for "Broke-ology"
Gnome for "Broke-ology"