I recently finished some work on a production of Into the Woods at Elon University. The students hired me to build the animals (some may call them puppets). Milky the Cow is one of the main animals, appearing in many of the scenes. I began by sculpting a cow head in white foam.
I gave the head a coating of papier-mâché. The design of the show used a lot of found object and natural material arranged to suggest a forest, rather than attempting a realistic portrayal of one. So the construction of the head proceeded in a manner to highlight the fact that it was a handmade object, rather than attempting to completely mimic an actual cow’s head.
The body was a separate piece; it was just the torso, tail and udder, without any legs. They were basing their design off of the Regent’s Park production (which transferred to the Public Theater this past summer, though I left just before it came).
I started with a structure made of a cardboard tube “spine” and some bent PVC pipe to define the shape. I than began wrapping vines around to create the outer surface. Everything was wired in place, but I also added some twine to make it appear as though it was lashed together.
Next for the head were some ears. I patterned and sewed them out of muslin, with a piece of styrene inside to give it some stiffness. Once the ears were on the head, I heated them with a hot air gun so I could curl and shape them. When cool, the styrene retained that shape.
The head got a coat of grey primer, followed by a dry brush of off-white over top. I glued a dowel coming out of the back of the head so the handler could hold onto it and manipulate it around.
The udder was a few pieces of red fabric which I patterned, sewed, and stuffed with polyester batting. I lined the inside of the body with some screen material so the actors could throw objects inside as Milky “ate” them, and they would be easy to retrieve after the show. I added some raffia to beef out the body since the vines did not give enough coverage on their own.
I’ve been checking out the site Make it and Mend it lately. It does have a lot of “I turned this coffee can into a piggy bank”–type projects, but if you dig around, you can find some great and useful ideas for repurposed materials and doing things on the cheap. Even if you don’t find anything that will help you in work, it can help you in your life too, since props people don’t get paid nearly enough for what we do.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
I feel almost silly reviewing the Backstage Handbook: An Illustrated Almanac of Technical Information by Paul Carter and George Chiang; it is already so well-known and ubiquitous in the theatre world, I don’t know that I have anything to add. Nonetheless, every time I pick it up, it’s like I’m rediscovering how much useful information it has in it for the props professional. If you haven’t gotten this book because you think it’s aimed solely at the carpenter, electrician, stagehand or stage manager, think again.
Inside, you can find illustrations differentiating the type of moulding we use, parts of a window and wood joints. You can find lists and illustrations of the common hand and power tools you would find in a prop shop, as well as all the hardware and fasteners you will come across. It also includes definitions and descriptions of the various fabrics at our disposal, the multitude of adhesives we use (along with their ingredients) and the different types of rope and cord you can choose from. Along the way, you can also learn how to tie the most common types of theatre knots, how to draw a variety of geometric shapes (like pentagons and hexagons) and how to build a flat. Of course, you can also find all sorts of general theatre knowledge, such as the parts of a stage and the types of curtains we use.
So really, this isn’t much of a review; it’s more of a reminder that if you work in technical theatre (or film for that matter), you should own this book. Case closed.
Every once in a while you come across some curved or otherwise intricate detail on a prop you wish to recreate that seems far too intense and labor-intensive to undertake by hand. Take, for instance, the curved ridges running along the front of the arm in the picture below (the parts in grey).
Rather than spending two weeks carving these out by hand, I made them out of Ethafoam. Ethafoam is a actually a trademark of DOW Chemical for their spongy, cushiony polyethylene foam used for packaging and wrapping pipes. It’s great for theatre because it also comes in rods, which can be cut in half to make flexible half-round molding.
Now, this is not an article about the wonders of Ethafoam, but rather the idea of using soft and flexible materials to simulate hard and rigid objects. Ethafoam is just one of the many materials used in theatre for such purposes. You can see another example in the photograph below.
You can also see yarn used at the very bottom. This was a replica of a cast iron bench I made for the Santa Fe Opera a few years back. The research called for a very ornate and detailed-looking bench, and the short time-frame I had to build it meant I had to use a lot of found objects and unconventional materials to pull off the look.
On closer inspection, you can see more materials, such as fabric fringe were used. Once it was artfully painted, the illusion was pretty convincing, especially under stage lighting and seen from a distance. The painting of soft materials like Ethafoam or fabric can be one of the trickiest parts of this process. Either they soak up all the paint or the paint simply will not stick to it. You usually need to coat it with something first, though that can be tricky as well; because the material is flexible, you need to use a coating which also remains flexible, otherwise it may chip and flake away. Brushing on watered-down PVA glue or a coating of something like Jaxsan is usually sufficient.
When you look through older texts dealing with props, you can find numerous examples of using industrial felt, upholstery trim, or any number of other fabrics and soft materials to mimic solid decorations. If you ask prop artisans about it, you will get some mixed responses. Some love the versatility it gives them, especially on a budget. Others abhor it as an amateurish “proppy-prop” trick. In my own opinion, I try to avoid it if I am making a prop that gets handled by an actor. Nothing looks sillier than when an actor picks up a supposedly marble vase only to have the decorative ridges squish under his hands. It also threatens to break the actor out of character even if it is not noticeable by the audience. If, on the other hand, you need to add ornamentation on set dressing or on the parts of a prop that are unlikely to be touched during the performance, than it’s a great trick to use, especially when you are on a tight budget or tight deadline.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies