The San Francisco Opera goes behind the scenes into the prop shop with prop master Lori Harrison in this video. Find out how they make fake weapons and giant cotton candy, the hallmarks of any good opera.
Not too much going on this week. Everyone seems to be transitioning from regular seasons/school to summer work. Still, there were some interesting things on the Internet in the past couple of days:
My latest article for Stage Directions Magazine is up. “Fast, Cheap and Under Control” takes a look at how you build a prop when that prop has never been built before. I interviewed several props people for their perspectives on this particularly perplexing problem; Tom Fiocchi, props instructor at Ohio University; Lori Harrison, props director at San Francisco Opera; and Seán McArdle, worldwide freelance prop maker.
Speaking of Stage Directions, I interviewed Kacie Hultgren in an earlier article about 3D printing for theatre. Make Magazine has revisited Kacie to see what she has been up to lately.
Joshua Meltzer, prop master on the show Dexter, shares 14 bloodthirsty secrets from the “Dexter” set. Some of the shocking secrets? They don’t actually cut the actors with knives.
Finally, do you know the proper way to chuck a drill bit?
The weekend is upon us again. It’s a holiday weekend; for those of us in the theatre, that means we have to go to work despite all the stores and banks being closed. It is also the unofficial end of summer. But don’t worry; I have some fun links below!
Curtains without Borders is a fascinating-looking project. It aims to record and restore all those hand painted theatre curtains found in town halls, grange halls, theaters and opera houses. It is mostly preserving those painted between 1890 through 1940. The site itself has some photographs (albeit of a small size) from across the country showcasing these valuable pieces of our theatrical history.
The San Francisco Gate has an article about Lori Harrison, the prop master at the San Francisco Opera. Lori gave us a tour of the opera back in 2010 when SPAM held its conference out there.
LA Weekly has a short blog asking “what do you do when your gun doesn’t go off onstage?” Most prop masters know to incorporate backup plans whenever dealing with firing blanks on stage, but if you don’t, this article is a good reminder that you should.
The National Park Service just completed a huge project. Thousands of images from their collections across the country are searchable and viewable online. These objects and specimens give a wide range of information from America’s history and are great for research.
Here are some pretty cool vintage ammo boxes. Unfortunately, none of the images are dated, but the enterprising prop master might be able to use them for further research. And while we’re at it, the whole Accidental Mysteries blog where this came from is filled with interesting vintage stuff and historic oddities.
First of all, tomorrow is Propmaster Day, so mark your calendar. At last year’s S*P*A*M conference, the office of the Mayor of Louisville presented the attendees with a plaque proclaiming July 24th to be Propmaster Day. I say we celebrate it every year. More importantly, that we keep Propmaster Day in our hearts all year ’round.
As part of this year’s conference, we were given a tour of the San Francisco Opera by Lori Harrison, their master of properties. First of all, the stage is huge.
They do their entire season in repertory, sometimes having two changeovers a day when a matinée and evening show are different. Ms. Harrison told us they have about sixteen people in the properties department during the season. Even though more and more operas are being brought in from other shops and opera houses, they still have a lot of work in the props department. Frequently, shops do not understand the rigors and particulars of opera, and furniture pieces need to be rebuilt. Even when props have been built for other operas, the San Francisco Opera has its own unique characteristics that may require rebuilding or adaptation to make the props fit through all the openings and passageways in the path from storage to stage. Finally, as many of us know, a bulk of the props in a show spring forth from the rehearsal process. Even an opera that was “set in stone” at another opera house will have additions and changes to the props before it is performed at the San Francisco Opera.
You have to hand it to the San Francisco Opera; they have a lot of work to do and not a lot of room to do it in. Props are stored throughout the catwalks and on shelves tucked in every little nook and cranny. There is also a small hand props room for common and reusable items on another floor; in addition, they have a warehouse off-site to store larger furniture pieces.
In one of these hidden corners, we came across one of the Opera’s original wind machines dating back to 1932. The fan was about six feet (1.8m) in diameter, and in place of blades were lengths of rubber tubing. They also stored an old-fashioned thunder machine, but it was inside a box and hanging from the ceiling.
Perhaps most striking was the props shop itself; it was much smaller than the props shop at the Public Theatre, and they probably build a lot more large props from scratch, and employ a lot more artisans than us. It just goes to show that there’s always a more efficient way to use the space you’re given.
I found a great article on the making of an opera from 1999 in the San Francisco Weekly. If you read through to the second page, it starts talking about props, and Lori Harrison has a lot of great insights into the process. She says one thing in particular though that I really want to point out:
As the first woman to run the San Francisco Opera prop shop, Harrison, who’s now in her second season in that position, says that it took awhile for some people to get used to the idea of having her in charge. “And some are still getting used to it,” she admits. But while she was prepared for a certain amount of prejudice, there was one particular issue when she first started that caught her off guard. “The question asked was would I rather be called a ‘prop master’ or a ‘prop mistress,'” she says.
“I think ‘master’ works a little better. It expresses mastery over something.”
Hear, hear. To all the prop masters of the world, male or female, have a Happy Propmasters Day tomorrow.