The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Props in the Desert: Randy Lutz and the Santa Fe Opera
by Sam Weisberg
In the middle of the desert, The Santa Fe Opera puts on world-renowned productions of new operas and standards from the traditional repertoire, and at the center of their props division is Randy Lutz, the company’s Properties Director, keeping singers supplied with top-of-the-line stage properties to be used in rehearsal and performance. Continue reading →
All props people have their own tools they bring to work. Some of the tools are basic necessities that one should never be without, while others are specialty items that you rarely find at any shop. But if you are just starting out, what tools do you need? The Santa Fe Opera provides their incoming apprentices with a list of tools which they are required to bring. Obviously, their shop is well-equipped; these are just the personal tools which every props person should have. Think of it as a base-line set that you bring to every job, regardless of where it is or what you are doing.
The Opera has two different lists, one for the carpenters (who build the furniture and other fabricated items out of wood and metal) and the crafts persons (who do soft goods, casting and molding, and all other crafts). I’ve paraphrased them below.
For the carpenters:
architect’s scale rule
drill and driver bits
end cutting pliers
slip joint pliers
diagonal cutting pliers
combination square or speed square
3/4″ wood chisel
For the crafts persons:
In addition, though the shop has some of the following tools, they are so commonly used that they recommend bringing your own if you have them:
precision cutting knife (X-Acto® knife)
snap-off blade knife (Olfa® knife)
ratchet and socket set (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
box wrenches (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
Finally, while their shop has some safety gear, it is always a good idea to own a personal set of the following:
respirator with organic vapor cartridges
Again, these are the tools required by the Santa Fe Opera, and other work sites may require a slightly different set of tools. However, if you are just starting to build up your own personal tool kit, it is a good guide to refer to for the most commonly-used tools in a props shop.
This past summer, our production of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at the Santa Fe Opera had a lot of tricks. Like… a lot of them. One trick I worked on was a set of magically-appearing flags. The set had seven flag poles along one wall, and during one big moment of pomp and circumstance, the design team wanted flags to suddenly appear on them. The idea is kind of like those “bang” flags that pop out of guns in the cartoons.
The basic mechanism behind the trick is that each flagpole has a second pole which sleeves inside. The two poles have slightly less than half of their surface notched out, as you can see in the photo above. The outer pole is fixed in place on the set, while the inner pole can spin around inside. So you can spin the inner pole to a position where the whole flag pole looks like a solid rod, and the flag is trapped inside. Then when you spin the inner pole around so the notches line up, the flag is free to drop down.
You can watch it all in action in the video below. The video also shows how I rigged the tubes so they could be activated by pulling a string off-stage, since there was no room on set to activate them directly.
Our final opera at this past season of the Santa Fe Opera was “Oscar”, a world premiere based on Oscar Wilde. I made a bench for it. It was a simple bench, and the legs were purchased rather than made by us, but it was all solid alder wood, and the end result was quite attractive.
I picked up a truckload of alder from the local lumber store, and planed and jointed some boards for the seat. The seat was a full inch thick, so it was quite hefty. After gluing them together, I rounded off the corners and routed a round-over along the whole circumference.
The trickiest part were the bars on either side which stood on top of the seat. I turned them out of the same alder I had bought. I then constructed a jig for drilling the holes. The jig allowed me to drill the hole exactly perpendicular to the bar, as well as to place the hole directly in the center (width-wise) of the bar. I also marked the bars so I could drill both holes along the same line.
Next, I had to line up the holes on the bars with the holes on the seat. The dowels connecting the bars to the bench were also turned by me out of alder. They ran through the top into the legs, so you could pick the bench up by the bars very securely.
For an extra touch, I fabricated the half-round molding along the bottom of the apron from the same alder I used on the rest of the bench. Since the legs we bought were also alder, this meant the entire bench was solid alder, and it would have a consistent appearance when stained.
The final bench was stained by our paint department; I had actually constructed two (the one above and a much longer one), but the second one was cut. Again, it was fairly simple, and the legs were not turned by me, but working in solid wood is always fun and interesting.
The main beams of the bases were cut out of plywood. I drew out a full-scale pattern for one of them and cut it out, then transferred it to all the pieces of plywood and cut those out to match. The bottom needed a square notch to hold the axle assembly, and it needed to be in the exact same location on all the pieces so the wheels would sit straight, so I attached all the pieces together and cut the notch out on all of them at once.
Next I built a jig to hold the beams. They sat at an angle and tapered out at the top. While in place, I measured and cut the cross pieces to fit exactly. This part took awhile to get perfectly correct, but once I had the pieces for one of them, I could just duplicate them for the other three carriages.
The carriages wanted to look like cast iron, so I faced all the edges with some strips of wood that were a little wider than the bases and rounded over on the ends. This gave it that look you might find on I-beams or similar pieces of metal. The photograph above shows a trick I read about that I wanted to try out: clamping a long strip of wood using rubber bands and spring clamps. It was not as effortless as I thought it would be, but it was a better clamping method than anything else I’ve used in the past.
With the major structure in place, I began adding details, like bolt heads and plates. These were all applied pieces; I cut and shaped the larger bolt heads out of MDF, while the smaller bolt heads were just short lag bolts that I screwed in.
The wheels we used were bought from a place that makes wooden carriage wheels; I’ve made wheels in the past, but it’s very time-consuming, and hard to make them as strong as a legit wooden wheel. I attached a pipe to each of the wheels as an axle, and found a slightly larger pipe that could sleeve over them. I welded this larger pipe to some plates so I could bolt it to the carriage. In the photo above, you can see the axle pipe is in two sections. When building a carriage like this, you need the wheels to be able to spin independently of each other, because when you make turns, they spin at different speeds. The long aluminum pipe going through both larger pipes in the photograph was used to line them up with each other while attaching them.
The whole thing got a pretty interesting paint treatment by the paint crew. Overall, it was a very fun project that saw a lot of stage time during the performance. It was also interesting to compare it to the previous cannon I have built, which could not be more different than this one both in appearance and in methods of construction.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies