The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Kelly Mangan: Prop Master/Scenic Designer & Artist
by Corey Umlauf
Kelly Wiegant Mangan has had a wide range of experience as a prop master and scenic designer. She has worked as a resident scenic designer and prop master for Stage One, The Louisville Children’s Theatre (where she worked on over 120 productions), two national videos, and one Broadway residency with The Great Gilly Hopkins. She has served as the Prop Master for various groups including Shakespeare Santa Cruz and The Utah Shakespearean Festival in the Randall Theatre. She has also served as Scenic Designer for the Mount Holyoke Summer Theatre Festival in Massachusetts and The Western Stage in Salinas, California. She was a scenic artist for The Chicago Historical Society, Chicago Scenic, Scenic View, Tamara Backdrops, and Funkouser Backdrops in Chicago. Kelly has also worked as a scenic artist on the film “The Insider.” She took time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions for me about her career in props. Continue reading →
I recently came upon the 1903-1904 academic catalog for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. At that time, it was a two-year program for young men aged sixteen to seventeen. The school still exists, granting two-year associates degrees to aspiring actors.
All students at the time were given introductory lectures in the various technical departments on stage. The lecture on props has a bullet-point list of all the topic covered, which I have reprinted below. It is fascinating to see the list of what a props person was responsible for and what skills they were required to have from over 110 years ago, and compare it to today.
The lectures were given by a Mr. Wilfred Buckland, with assistance by Mr. Edgar J. M. Hart (no relation) and Miss Louise Musson. The topics of the lectures are as follows:
The Property Man’s Work in Preparing a Production:
The Stan Winston School offers classes out in California for a number of crafts. Stan Winston Studios is, of course, famous for many of its movie creatures and animatronics, such as the Terminators, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the aliens from Alien, and many more. The classes they offer fit their specialties, such as sculpting, creature design, large-scale puppetry, painting and so on.
For those who can’t afford to head out to California and attend monster-making school, they have hours and hours of videos on their website. They offer a number of options for viewing the videos; everything from subscribing for a year of unlimited video watching ($300) to buying a DVD of a single lesson ($40). Previews of all the lessons are available for free viewing so you can check them all out. Below is a pretty fun one of foam fabrication, where Ted Haines constructs a Tyrannosaurus out of upholstery foam.
It seems like a great option to augment your skills since these kinds of classes usually aren’t offered at the local Learning Annex.
Okay, you can’t read my whole book online. But I do have two whole chapters you can check out on The Prop Building Guidebook’s companion website.
What are these chapters, you may ask? Well, as you can imagine, prop making covers a vast amount of information, and choosing what to put in and what to leave out was one of my biggest challenges. We could have made the book longer, but that would have pushed the price up, which we didn’t want to do. We could have made the pictures smaller, but that would not be good either. In the end, we decided to take the last two chapters and put them up on the website for free. This way, the book can remain affordable, the pictures can remain a decent size, and you get a sneak peek at some of the book. These chapters have been edited and proofed just like everything else in the book, they just appear online rather than in print.
The two chapters are called “Formal Training” and “Maintaining a Portfolio”. The first digs through the tricky question of what kind of training or schooling you may wish to pursue to become a better prop maker. Vocational classes, colleges and universities, graduate schools and more are talked about here. I also look at the various types of jobs and work one can get. I present information useful whether you wish to be a prop maker for film, television, theatre or any of the related industries, and whether you wish to pursue a full-time job or work as a freelancer on different gigs. It can be a tricky field to navigate, so I try to present as much information as I’ve gleaned along the way.
The second chapter gives an introduction on creating and maintaining a portfolio of all the work you do. I discuss both online sites and paper portfolios; though paper portfolios have become far less prevalent these days, I’ve still used them in the last couple of years, both in applying for work and in hiring people. This chapter also discusses photography and how to take better pictures of your work. A bad picture of a good prop can make it look like a bad prop.
Last Saturday, I went with The Alamance Makers Guild to the Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, NC. The Makers Guild is a group I discovered down here which is interested in many of the same things I am; woodworking, sculpting, fabrication, blacksmithing, science and art. Some of the members have begun designing a human-powered lathe, so the trip to the Woodwright’s School was kind of a research trip to see some of the antique human-powered tools which they have refurbished.
For those who don’t know, the School is run by Roy Underhill, host of the Woodwright’s Shop on PBS, which has been on the air since 1981. He showed us some of the original catalogs of these various treadle and pedal powered machines.
In the photo above, Roy is using a foot-pedal-powered spindle cutter. We might recognize the modern-day equivalent of a router table or shaper; the tool has a rotating blade which cuts a shaped profile along the edge of a board of wood. The blade in the machine was a bit dull, so the end of the cut got a little wonky.
My wife tried out the foot-pedal-powered lathe. She just bought her own lathe at school a few days prior to this. The foot-powered one was tricky for both of us because you have to sit down to pedal. We are used to standing up and using our hips to brace the tools and our whole body to move it along the cut. This one requires you to do all the bracing and moving with just your hands, which feels awkward at first. Nonetheless, it makes some nice cuts, and it is a lot quieter than any electrically-powered machine.
We also watched Roy demonstrate this foot-powered mortising machine. It essentially has a sharp chisel connected to a lever which you push down with your foot; several linkages give it quite a bit of mechanical advantage so the chisel just plows right through the wood like butter.
Roy set up a boring machine outside that we all tried out. Though it was a large auger and a fairly thick plank of wood, boring through it was no problem. All of these hand and human-powered tools reminded me that if your bits and blades are sharp, it does not actually take that much effort to cut and bore. You get a good workout as well.
Above the school is the antique tool shop where all the tools which they find and refurbish are offered for sale. Planes, saws, calipers, folding rules, router planes, augers, mallets and many more varieties of tools known and unknown were on display.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies