Tag Archives: Childsplay

Milwaukee Rep

Organizing a Props Shop

We have a bit of a break during the summer at Triad Stage between when the last show opens and the new season begins. It’s the time we spend cleaning and organizing the shops. We’ve been busy in the props shop doing a pretty big overhaul with building new shelving and storage spaces, and moving around where things go. Organizing a props shop can be a challenge, since props people want to save every bit and scrap they come across. I thought I’d share some pictures of various shops I’ve been in to show how others have tackled this problem.

ACT Scene Shop
ACT Scene Shop

The first picture is actually from the scene shop at ACT in San Francisco, but props shops need to store and organize hardware as well. It’s pricey way to store things, with tons of metal shelving and matching bins. But it allows everything to be separated out while allowing you to find anything just by visually scanning the room; nothing is tucked away.

Childsplay Theater
Childsplay Theater

Childsplay Theater in Arizona uses the full wall approach, where a whole wall is covered in shelving from floor to ceiling and filled with bins. You can see boxes and bins of all sizes, as well as plastic tubs, baskets, and loose items. It’s very modular, allowing one to change what is stored there if you run out of one type of material and decide not to reorder it. It also has the benefit of displaying everything you have available without hiding anything away.

Berkeley Rep
Berkeley Rep

The Berkeley Rep props shop takes full advantage of using every square inch of their tiny props shop. A mix of open shelves, bins and drawers fill every hole in the wall.

Berkeley Rep
Berkeley Rep

Various cabinets and shelving units are tucked in every corner to keep every spare area utilized. I’ve found that if you don’t designate uses for all the out-of-the-way areas of a shop, they end up accumulating piles of random items and scraps in a big heap. Likewise, if you don’t have a bin or shelf to put a thing away in, then it will always be in the way, and you will always be moving it around.

New York City
New York City

Here is part of a shop of a Broadway prop maker in New York City. He is also using the “every square inch” approach in his tiny shop, though he has opted to keep everything out in the open, rather than in bins and boxes.

Milwaukee Rep
Milwaukee Rep

Props shops seem to naturally accumulate little metal file box cabinets over the years, and Milwaukee Rep has put them to good use. With bins, you can carry the whole bin to wherever you need it in the shop, whereas with drawers, a prop maker doesn’t have to hunt down a missing bin that someone else has taken. It’s a matter of preference which you use, though many prop shops have a mix of both.

San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera

I liked these drawers underneath the chop saw in the San Francisco Opera. Adding storage under tools and machines is a great way to use space, especially if you can store the materials and equipment associated with that tool.

Public Theater
Public Theater

The tool and hardware cabinet at the Public Theater was in a weird area, so a custom storage area was built by the shop. The angle in that corner was not square, and the walls sloped backwards as well, so any ready-made shelving or storage units would end up wasting precious space.

Public Theater
Public Theater

Here is the opposite side of the Public’s tool cabinet. With the right organization and storage, a shop can hold more tools, materials and supplies, and yet have more open working space than a poorly organized one.

How is your shop organized? I’d love to see pictures. Send them my way.

Big Friendly Giant mask

Rebecca Akins: Surviving Forty Years of Making Props

On the second full day of this year’s S*P*A*M conference, we watched a presentation by Rebecca Akins. Ms. Akins has designed costumes for Childsplay Theatre (our host in Arizona) for the past twenty-five years, and has been constructing costumes, puppets, costume props and masks for at least that long as well. She divided her presentation in two parts. The first was on materials and methods she’s used in the past which she now knows to be hazardous to your health. The second was on “new good things”, which are less-toxic replacements for these.

A puppet couple by Rebecca Akins
A puppet couple by Rebecca Akins

One of her earlier shows was a production of Devils in 1971. She created latex masks, Celastic armor, and sprayed the costumes with aniline dyes. Anyone who has worn latex knows it does not allow the skin to breathe, and the latex masks were very uncomfortable to the actors with the heat and build-up of sweat underneath. Aniline dyes are extremely toxic, and spraying them is a great way to fill your lungs with poison, especially with little ventilation and no respirator.

Ms. Akins used Celastic a lot in those days, starting with Celastic mitres, crowns and wigs for The Balcony in 1969, through at least 1981 with masks for a production of The Pied Piper. For those who are unfamiliar, Celastic is a fabric impregnated with plastic. When you soak it in a solvent, it becomes soft and flexible, hardening to a stiff but lightweight shell when the solvent evaporates. The toxic part is not the Celastic itself, but the solvent used to soften it; common choices include acetone and methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). All solvents are harmful to humans, and can enter the body through the skin, lungs, stomach or eyes. Not all gloves will protect against them, and not all respirators are designed to filter out their vapors.

She mentioned a material I had never heard of called “blue mud cement”. It is a powdery mixture of asbestos fibers and “spackle-y” binders; when mixed with water, the paste will dry hard and lightweight (it was originally developed for plumbing pipe insulation). For a 1974 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she created forms in chicken wire, wrapped them in plaster bandages, and coated the whole thing with blue mud cement. It sounds like a mix between Bondo and chopped fiberglass, except that it’s, you know, asbestos.

Cutting and carving Styrofoam with a hot knife or wire is another technique she described; the fumes created when Styrofoam melts are fairly toxic.

In 1984, Ms. Akins worked with fiberglass for the first time to create a mascot head for a Phoenix sports team. Fiberglass creates strong and lightweight shells, but she found the individual particles got into her skin and clothes and irritated her immensely, and the resins used give off a lot of fumes while curing; it is also an inhalation hazard when sanding the hardened fiberglass. She used fiberglass again in 2002 with more adequate protection (ventilation, a respirator and thick sleeves), but decided it was too much of a hassle to continue working with it.

The second half of her presentation dealt with “new good things”, that is, newer materials which attempt similar results with less toxicity. Examples include Fosshape, Thermaflex (or Wonderflex), leather, fabric, paper and silicone casting gels.

Paper, used in papier-mâché, is one of the oldest prop-making materials. Indeed, Ms. Akins has been using it since at least 1973 for a production of The Bacchae. She continues using it even today. She showed us a number of masks and puppet heads she has constructed over the years, many of them made with a mix of paper pulp, sawdust, and PVA glue. This gives her a material which she can sculpt and form like clay, but which dries to a lightweight and sturdy piece which is paintable and sandable. The fact that some of these pieces have been on tour since the mid-90s is a testament to their durability.

Fabric is another less-toxic material. She uses soft sculpture a lot for puppets; fabric, thread, fiber fill (stuffing) and paint are the only materials needed to make three-dimensional shapes.

soft sculpture

She showed us a number of examples of “found objects as materials”. An old leather handbag became a dog mask, a group of woven baskets transformed into a camel, and dryer hoses turned into snakes and an elephant’s trunk. Though using found objects has long been a staple of propmaking, Ms. Akins reminded us it remains a fairly non-toxic–and environmentally friendly–method, even today. Below is a photograph of a dog mask made out of wooden bowls.

dog mask made of wooden bowls

In 2004, she began using Fosshape to make a head for a production of Big Friendly Giant. Like Themaflex and Wonderflex, Fosshape is a plastic-impregnated fabric which becomes soft and pliable when heated, and retains its shape when cooled. In many ways, it is similar to Celastic, except you use boiling water or a heat gun to soften it, rather than a bucket full of solvents.

Big Friendly Giant mask

Finally, she described her first forays into using silicone mold materials. She would make a model in clay, mold it in silicone, and then cast it in resin. In one case, she mixed resin and Bondo together to make a puppet head; this gave her a translucent pinkish head which looked a lot like skin.

At the end of her presentation, Ms. Akins reminded us that whatever materials and methods you choose, you should endeavor to make the prop with as much care as possible. She left us with these closing words: “The more gorgeous a thing is, the more respect it is treated with.”

Puppets

Childsplay Theatre part 2

Previously, I showed photographs of our tour of the Childsplay props shop. Today, I will show photos from our tour of the rest of their facilities.

The dye room, located next to the costume shop, also had a spray booth which was shared with the props department.

Spray booth

The costume shop itself was clean and well-organized. I love shelves full of labelled boxes.

Costume shop storage

Someone was working on a bunch of tails for a giant mouse costume.

Mouse tails

I enjoyed the copious number of power cords hanging from the ceiling.

Ceiling power cords

We also toured the administrative offices of Childsplay. Old props and bits of artwork appeared everywhere. Here, Jim Luther, the prop master, shows us one of his creations.

Snap, Crackle, Pop

We saw many of Childsplay’s awards they’ve won over their 35 year history.

Jim Guy looking at awards

These puppets are delightful.

Puppets

Below is a portrait of Sybil B. Harrington, namesake of the Sybil B. Harrington Campus for Imagination and Wonder, which is where all these shops and offices are located.

Sybil B. Harrington

My wife, Natalie, found her long-lost twin sitting on one of the desks.

Natalie's friend

I hope you enjoyed sharing my tour of Childsplay Theatre in Arizona. Enjoy the weekend, and stay tuned for more information from this year’s S*P*A*M conference.

Upholstered car

Childsplay Theatre

I am back from the 18th (or 19th?) official S*P*A*M conference. This year’s host was Jim Luther, the Prop Director at Childsplay Theatre in Arizona. On the Saturday of the conference, he led us on a tour of his props shop and their facilities.

Welcome to the props shop

The front room of the shop is the “clean” room, which also had a number of props out for display. Jim showed us some pieces as we looked around. Continue reading