Tag Archives: making

Nancy Wagner

Interview with Nancy Wagner

The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.

Nancy Wagner

by Rachael Dahl

Nancy Wagner
Nancy Wagner

When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up Nancy would always answer, “I don’t know… I just want to MAKE things.” But I had no idea where I would go to just make things… odd things… things that may have never existed before or were GREAT BIG GIANT THINGS or littleteenytinythings. Or fairy-tale things, or…” Nancy Wagner would describe herself as a textile freak! While she is not technically a props master she considers herself an artisan in the props world. Continue reading

Friday’s Link List

Friday’s Link List

The DIY movement and small, creative businesses are becoming more and more important to the economy as a whole. Many props people either freelance as their own “business”, or run side businesses making things (such as selling things on Etsy). Save Us. Be Creative! takes a look at this growing trend.

On the other side of the coin, traditional theatre work is still worth fighting over. This past week saw the end of a particularly intense strike by IATSE stagehands at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. This article delves into the reasons behind it and why young theatre technicians spent two weeks outside in the cold and snow to protest their concerns. Coincidentally, the play the theatre was putting on was The Mountaintop, which imagines Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last day as he prepares to address a crowd of striking workers. The company could not find any workers to break the strike, so they tried to run it without any technical elements; this included having an actress sit in a folding chair and read the lighting and sound cues (“Thunder and lightning! Crack!”).

In sadder news, this week legendary makeup artist Stuart Freeborn passed away. Though he has worked on films since before World War II, he is most famously known as the man who created Yoda and Chewbacca. The BBC has a good roundup of his life and career, as well as a very in-depth radio interview they did a few months back. The NY Times has a nice slideshow of his Star Wars work, while The Week has a collection of five stories about Stuart that are not made up. If you have the time, here is a video of Stuart himself talking about his work:

Managing a Mimic World, 1885

The following is an interview given to a Sun reporter by one identified only as a “veteran stage manager” of one of New York’s stock theatres. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 15, 1885, on page 6.

“Five different and entirely distinct departments must work harmoniously and without the slightest hitch or delay,” continued the stage manager. “These are the actors, the musicians, the carpenters, the property men, and the gas men. A trifling failure made by the least of any of these may turn a performance into ridicule. Each of the mechanical departments has its own boss, but all are subject to the stage manager’s orders, and he in turn is responsible to the manager.”

“To the property-man’s department belong all furniture, carpets, curtains, ornaments, and all the small articles used by actors, and known in theatrical parlance as hand or side props. Among these are letters, books, guns, pistols, knives, purses, pocketbooks, money, lamps, candles, cradles, and doll babies. Live props, such as dogs, cats, birds, donkeys, and horses, are also under his charge, and are much disliked, as causing a vast amount of trouble. The side props are taken from the property man every night by the call boy, whose duty is to deliver them to the actors and return them after they have been used to the property room. A good property man is hard to find, for he must be something of a carpenter, an artist, a modeler, and a mechanician [sic].

“Papier-maché has come of late years to be largely used in the manufacture of properties, and nearly all the magnificent vases, the handsome plaques, the graceful statues, and the superb gold and silver plate seen to-day on the stage are made of that material. Some of the imitations of china are so perfectly done and so admirably painted that it is not unusual to see an actor tap them to find out if they are real. In making statues a cast is taken from the clay, and the pulp is then firmly pressed into the moulds. Life-size statues which seem to be of bronze or marble do not weigh more than five or six pounds, look just as well as the genuine, and are easily and quickly handled. For traveling purposes the saving in freight alone is a great economy. Entire suits of armor and fruits of all kinds are made of this useful and inexpensive material. The late Mr. Wallace, the husband of Mme. Ponial, was in his day a celebrated property man. Perhaps the two best now living are the brothers William and George Henry of the Union Square and Madison Square Theatres. Both are really excellent artists, and their salaries are deservedly as large as those of good actors.

“In most New York theatres the property man has one regular assistant and two night aids, who are needed to handle heavy carpets, pianos, and furniture. In the old days carpenters and property men were often prone to dispute about the exact lines which divided their duties, but in well-regulated theatres the departments are now generally willing to help each other. Still, a carpenter or grip is not actually bound to put a finger to a carpet or piece of furniture, nor is a property man, even if not occupied, obliged to help with a scene. Some of the distinctions drawn by custom seem to be singular; thus, a whole tree, if set upon the stage and screwed to it for support, is considered a part of the scene, and, as such, belongs to the carpenters, while a stump upon which a person may sit is in the property man’s department. Again, a flight of stairs is set up by the carpenter, but if a carpet is put on it, that must be done by the property man.”

Acrylic bent at an angle

The Prop Building Guidebook: 75% Done

It’s been an intense two months of writing here as I plowed through the lion’s share of my book, The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film and TV. I am sorry you have to wait until February of next year before you can get your hands on a copy, because it is starting to take shape into something really exciting. Prop building books come along rarely, and having read just about all of them, I can honestly say there has never been a book like this one.

Acrylic bent at an angle
Acrylic bent at an angle

When I first had the germs of the idea for this book way back in 2008, I never knew where it would take me. The paper I presented at the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium discussed a theoretical approach to constructing props. I also knew I wanted my book to have a lot of practical information; not so much a list of “this is how props people do this, and if you do it differently, you’re not a real props person”, but rather, a survey of the numerous materials and methods used by prop makers all over the country working in all kinds of situations (and budgets). As I’ve typed away for the past eight months, I’ve watched these two concepts—the theoretical approach and the practical methods—start to come together into a cohesive whole. I began writing this book to make the kind of book I always wanted to read, and after the batch of chapters I just submitted, it is finally starting to turn into that.

The scenery shop at Monomoy Theatre
The scenery shop at Monomoy Theatre

It is also surprising how much I have been learning while writing this book. I mean, I knew I would have to look up some information and practice some of the crafts I normally do not do, but when it comes to the sheer amount of knowledge that a prop maker can possess, it was like I was starting from scratch. What I didn’t know could literally fill a book—this book. If you come to this blog to learn what I know, imagine what you’ll learn from this book.

Closing up a seam
Closing up a seam

The rest of my book is due at the beginning of June, and then I have a few months to edit the whole thing. By the fall, I should have the website for the book up and running, and I may begin posting some of the videos I am making to complement portions of the text. Hopefully between that and this blog, I can continue serving your prop needs until the book comes out.

Jeremy Lydic making oversized gift boxes for Iron Chef: America
Jeremy Lydic making oversized gift boxes for Iron Chef: America

Prop Makers Must Know a Lot

The following comes from a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse property shop is long gone.

Maker Must Know a Lot

Any one who thinks the making of properties requires only mechanical skill is vastly wrong. The artisan must know much about the art and customs of the time in which the action of the play takes place. If the scene is in Venice, he must not make a vase that looks as if it had come from Grand Rapids, Mich., or some other American manufacturing center. If he has to furnish to a follower of Richard Plantagenet an axe or spear it would never do to make one such as a North American Indian used on the scalps of the early settlers.

When Mr. Morse undetakes to furnish properties for a play, the book of the play is given to him, just as it is to the actor or the scenic artist. He reads not only the play itself, but any books that may gibe him information about the customs and arts of the people and times. He tries to absorb as much of the atmosphere of the play as he can before he begins work on the articles themselves. In short, he does not merely copy. He creates.

He not only molds the properties. He designs them. Before he thinks of forming the final objects he makes a miniature model of the entire scene. If a visitor once sees one of these tiny models he wonders why such things ever should be thrown away. But, as the skilled artisan has told him, they generally are tossed aside when the job for which they were made is finished.