Tag Archives: Donyale Werle

Chairs as far as the eye can see.

USITT 2013 Wrap-Up

This past week was the 53rd USITT conference in Milwaukee. This year’s conference featured a lot of things for props people. I couldn’t get to them all, but I saw a lot of them. I took notes which I may go through later, but since I’m writing this on the flight home (and have to work first thing in the morning), I’ll just give the highlights.

First off, there was the Expo floor, filled with companies, organizations and universities peddling their wares. Wonderflex World had plenty of samples of their products, including a sneak peek of a new product coming out soon that is pretty exciting.

Smooth-On had their usual cool booth with all the rubber monsters and foam cinder blocks you can make with their products. There’s a possibility I may start getting samples of their new products to test out for this blog. That would be neat.

StageBitz had demos of their props management and inventory software. I first tested them out about two years ago, and it’s almost completely different now (in a good way). You can do a 3-week free trial of their software from their website, which is really the only way to start discovering how easy and seamless this can make propping a show, from letting the designer share images and research with you, to letting you send the designer pictures of items in your stock, to keeping up with changes in rehearsal, creating to-do lists to send to your artisans and shoppers, maintaining a budget, to finally adding all the props to your stock when the show closes.

RC4 Wireless Dimming had tiny wireless dimmers. It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how these little devices act so seamlessly to let you control any sort of battery-powered light or motor from your theatre’s lighting console. I also attended a session called “Wireless Light and Motion for Propmasters”, where a couple theatres were showing off various ways they used the RC4 units.

One of the last sessions of the conference was on sustainability in design and production led by Donyale Werle. It included the exciting unveiling of the College Green Captain Toolkit, based off of the already-successful program which every Broadway show participates in (I’ll post a link when it appears, or you can contact the Broadway Green Alliance for more information). Jacob Coakley from Stage Directions Magazine live-blogged much of the session.

An earlier session on “Reimagining Theatre with Green Ideals” also featured information about sustainability and the Broadway Green Alliance. Once again, Jacob Coakley live-blogged the whole discussion.

“Grave Matters” was a session with a lot of good tips and tricks for making gore and corpses. One of the speakers, Gary Benson, has his presentation online , including step-by-step photographs of how he made some skulls.

“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” was a bit disappointing since 3 of the 4 presenters could not be there. However, you can check out the handouts on firearm safety that they had. You will also find a link for a survey they are running to discover how various theatres deal with guns on stage (and off). I’m not sure how long that link will last, so you should download those files rather than bookmarking them.

I got to check out the Young Designer’s Forum, which had some great work. I was also able to meet two of my future coworkers this summer at the Santa Fe Opera.

The Milwaukee Rep props shop hosted a SPAM get-together at their space, though it was nice to see plenty of non-SPAM props masters and prop makers there as well. I wrote about their shop for Stage Directions this month, but to actually see their work space and storage facilities in person was a great treat.

Chairs as far as the eye can see.
Chairs as far as the eye can see.

Oh yeah, I also sold out of my book by the end of my signing. The response has been overwhelming so far. I am ecstatic that so many people are excited about this book, and I can’t wait to hear back from those of you who use it or teach from it.

Did I forget anything about the conference? Was there something I missed? Let me know in the comments what you saw at USITT that excited you.

USITT 2013

By the time you read this, I should be in Milwaukee for the 53rd annual conference of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT). This is the largest US conference dedicated solely to design, production and technology in theatre and other live entertainment. If you follow me on Twitter, I’ll be twitting about events during the conference. I thought I’d take a moment to share some events and sessions that may be of interest to props people who will be there.

First up, as if I haven’t written about it enough already, is my book signing. Stage Directions Magazine is hosting the signing on Friday, March 22nd, at 12:30 pm, at Booth 100, located in the far corner of the exhibition (to the left of the entrance, on the side of the hall with Cover the Walls).

In the same vein, be sure to check out the book signing for The Properties Director’s Handbook by Sandra Strawn. It will be held at the USITT Booth/Market Place on Friday, at 4:30 pm. The book is a great complement to my own; Sandy was also the technical editor on my book.

The Society of Properties Artisan Managers (S*P*A*M) has a booth at the Expo; I will be behind the counter on Saturday morning from 9:30-11am. Come check it out at table 670, in front of the USITT Booth & Marketplace, and right across from IATSE Local One’s booth.

If you go to the New Product Showcase (often called “Swag and Brag”, held Thursday night from 7-9pm), keep your eyes and ears open for Stagebitz. They will be giving away copies of my book, as well as copies of The Properties Directors Handbook. Check out their booth as well, #1260 in the far corner diagonally opposite from Stage Directions’.

A few panels devoted to props have caught my eye this year:

  • On Wednesday morning at 8am (yikes!) is “3D printing for the Stage”. One of the presenters, Owen Collins, was featured in my own article on 3D printing, “Printing a Set“.
  • Wednesday at 1pm is a session on stage firearm safety called “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!” Despite the accidents that have happened in the past, I still hear horror stories of dangerous practices with firearms on stage, so this should be a very useful session for any prop master dealing with weapons.
  • At 6pm on Wednesday is “Wireless Light and Motion for Props Masters”. The presenters include the guys at RC4 Wireless, who make small wireless dimmers and radio control devices intended for theatre.
  • Thursday morning at 9:30am is “Reimagining Theatre with Green Ideals”. While it’s not specifically geared toward props, it does involve set design and production, so props people may get something out of it.
  • On Friday at 2:30pm is perhaps one of the most promising sessions on props: “Grave Matters.” With discussions about stage gore, severed limbs and dead bodies, it should be a bloody good time. With my former instructor Tom Fiocchi as one of the presenters, it should be fairly high-energy as well.
  • Saturday has another 8am session (bleh) called “Preparing Props People”. While it is focused on what educators should be teaching future props masters, students and early career props people may find it useful to see if their own education is complete enough.
  • At 2pm on Saturday, Donyale Werle will be discussing the art of green scenery. Donyale won the Tony last year for Peter and the Starcatcher, as well as a Lucille Lortel Award for the off-Broadway production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (which I was assistant props master on). Her talks on using recycled materials for sets and props are always enlightening.

Tony Awards 2012

Congratulations to Donyale Werle for her Tony Award win last night! The whole design team of Peter and the Starcatcher came away with Tonys as well. Congratulations to the whole team as well, including Paper Mâché Monkey, as well as the Broadway Green Alliance. I’ve written about all these people and groups here in the past because I’ve worked with them previously, and I love what they do. Here is Donyale’s acceptance speech from the 2012 Tonys:

Here is a video showing the set for Peter and the Starcatcher as it is built in the shop:

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.

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.