Tag Archives: costumes

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 4, 1912

The following is the fourth portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. You can catch up on the first partthe second part and the third part.

Fans too! Of course there must be real Japanese fans for “Butterfly,” and these are easily secured. For “Carmen,” however, it isn’t always a simple matter to find just the right thing. It must be a large fan painted with scenes of bull fights.

Last year the property man was down in Mexico, and seeing a lot of fans which were just the right thing and cheap too, he laid in a liberal supply. The Metropolitan company hasn’t given “Carmen” since, but when it does the fans will be ready.

In “La Gioconda” the ballet dancers representing the noon hours have fans of an unusual design. And in “Donne Curiose” Geraldine Farrar carries a small fan, but it is her own. She is said to be the only Metropolitan artist, by the way, who provides her own properties. She does it from choice. The only “prop” she does not furnish is the dagger with which she kills herself in “Butterfly.” The only other artist who provides any of the props (except some that have their own swords) is Emmy Destinn, who in the last act of “La Gioconda” uses her own dagger and her own basket of flowers.

“You would think,” said the property man, “that they would rather furnish certain small articles, such as eyeglasses or watch fobs. They could keep them with the costumes with which they should be worn.

“Sometimes they must have a key or some coins or a purse in their pocket, and you would think they might keep these themselves. But they don’t. Of course you can understand why. It would make them responsible for having the thing when it was needed on the stage.

“As it is, the property man has to see that the key is in the artist’s pocket, that he has his eyeglasses or lorgnette (just the right pair too), his purse or loose coins or dagger, or poison vial, or ring, or whatever he is going to use. If he or she, as in “Tosca,” is to carry a walking stick, we must hand it out and not make any mistake about it either. Not such a simple matter when you realize that we have about fifty of these sticks of different designs.”

This article will continue in a later post. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

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.

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.”

Monday Link-ography

For your Monday’s enjoyment, here is a short list of some more sites to augment your prop making skills:

Wednesday Link-O-Rama

Here are some quick links for the day.

  • Lonesome West Prop Tricks – Here are some quick tips for Martin McDonagh’s Loneseome West; most specifically, the stove that gets hit by a shotgun.
  • Costume Properties Construction Handbook – Costume properties has a lot of overlap with props; depending on the show, an object may have equal merit as a costume or a prop depending on the logistics of your production. Regardless, the materials and techniques are very similar for each field.
  • Top Ten Colbert Report Prop Malfunctions – If you watch the Cobert Report, you’ll love these prop malfunctions from the show’s history.
  • Stagehand Primer – Local 470 out of Wisconsin has their primer online. It includes a section on properties.  If you want to join the stagehand union anywhere in the country, this section will give you a good introduction as to what is expected of a props person in the union.