I spent the early part of the summer back in New York City working on the first show for Shakespeare in the Park. As You Like It, directed by Daniel Sullivan and designed by John Lee Beatty, required a dead deer corpse that could be carried around the stage.
Jay and Sara had already purchased a urethane taxidermy deer form, which was waiting for me when I arrived. I proceeded to chop it apart at the joints and reattach them with fabric hinges (using left-over canvas from the tents we made for last year’s All’s Well That Ends Well).
The spine needed a bit more flexibility. The deer was going to appear on stage as if it had just been shot, and then one actor was going to hoist it over his shoulders and carry it around fireman’s style. I used several pieces of rope to give a semi-flexible span between the front and back half of the deer, while a big piece of upholstery foam was added to help it maintain some shape and volume.
I also carved the neck out of upholstery foam. I wrapped the foam in fabric, sewed it shut and glued it to the rest of the body.
The photograph above shows the deer all jointed and floppy and ready to be covered in fabric. Yes, that is pantyhose on the legs; I added them to give further support to the legs while maintaining full flexibility.
It took three separate deer hides to completely cover the whole body. I arranged them as best I could around the deer so the fur coloring, direction and length would match the hide of a real deer. Real fur has so many variations throughout, whereas fake fur would just make the whole thing look like a giant stuffed toy. Jay bought me a bottle of “Tear Mender”, which is a latex-based adhesive designed for fabric and leather. As the back of the hide is essentially leather and the body was covered in fabric, the glue made a really strong but flexible connection.
The hooves were also purchased from the taxidermy supplier. I had to drill out the bone a bit on top so I could slide them onto the threaded rod which ran through the urethane foam cast legs.
We also had some glass eyes for the head as well as plastic ears from the taxidermy supplier. I patterned some fur over these ears, but they were deemed “too stiff” after the deer’s first rehearsal. Luckily, I just had to reopen the seams and pull the plastic parts out; the fur maintained the shape pretty well on its own.
The deer also got a nice open head wound. We had a separate set of antlers that the actors danced around with, and the scene opened with the antlers already removed. I mixed various colors of acrylic mixed with epoxy to give it a permanent “wet” look.
I had Raphael, one of the other prop artisans, pose while holding the deer. He moved fairly decently, though the joints between the legs and the body were a bit stiff-looking. Some of the transitions between the different hides I pieced together were a bit rough when viewed up close, but on stage under the lights, he looked amazing.
Last week, I showed the beginning stages of a French 75mm field gun I was building for this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park. You can see the construction of most of the structure in that post. Today I’ll continue with the addition of detail, painting and finishing touches.
Tonight and tomorrow night finally see the official openings of our two Shakespeare in the Park shows done in repertory: A Winter’s Tale and Merchant of Venice. I’ve been working on these shows since February, so it’s a bit strange at the moment to think of them as “done”.
A spotlighted ticker-tape machine sits commandingly center stage as the play begins, right across from a manual exchange board.
That ticker-tape was made by the very talented Natalie Hart. The body was re-purposed from the inside of the gramophone machine which also appears on stage; the plastic dome had to be custom made by a plastics company she found. It seems one company in America used to make acrylic bell jars like the one we needed; I remember buying one for a ticker-tape machine I had to build back in 2002. When Natalie contacted them and told them it was for a theatre show, the owner asked, “Is it for Beauty and the Beast“? It would seem many productions of that show eventually find this same company. Unfortunately, they have ceased manufacturing them, and the only options these days is to have one custom-built like we did, find a used one, or go with the dangerous option of using a glass one on stage.
I’ll be remiss if I don’t thank all the other artisans, shoppers and interns who worked so hard on these two shows and helped create something so wonderful and amazing. I’ll be sure to go into more depth of what I’ve experienced and learned from these once I get some rest and some photographs.
Later this month, I’ll be attending my first S*P*A*M conference in the Bay Area. S*P*A*M (The Society of Properties Artisan Managers) includes the heads of properties departments at most of the countries regional theatres, educational theatre programs, and many other theatres of comparable size. Every year they have a conference to network, share stories and experiences, and take part in some activities. This is my first time going since I’ve joined, and I’m really excited to both meet so many people I’ve heard about and communicated with through email, and to visit San Francisco for my first time.
We will be touring the prop shops of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and American Conservatory Theater, as well as the Pixar Studios. In addition, we will be participating in a workshop by Monona Rossol, the President and founder of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, Inc. Those of you who’ve spent a summer at the Santa Fe Opera know her from the annual Safety Day which all artisans and employees are required to attend every two years. I’ve been through her seminar twice as a properties carpenter; it will be interesting to attend as a properties master.
On a final note, if you visit this website regularly, you may notice it undergoing various tweaking and modifying. If you have any comments or suggestions on how to make it more useful in terms of organization, or more pretty in terms of… prettiness, please feel free to share them with me.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies