Tag Archives: texture

Beginnings of the structure and shape

King Roger’s Throne

While in New York City this summer, I got word from the Santa Fe Opera that they needed an extra props carpenter for a few weeks. Though I had a lot of editing on my book to do, I jumped at the chance to head out there.

Beginnings of the structure and shape
Beginnings of the structure and shape.

One of the main projects I worked on was a throne for King Roger, a Polish(!) opera from 1926. The throne was meant to look like it was carved out of stone. It was also going to be on stage the entire show and the artists would be climbing and leaning all over it, so it needed to be strong.

Front view
Front view.

Perhaps the trickiest challenge was the back. The whole back had a curve to it, and the top of the back was also shaped in a curve. To top it off, the top surface was also beveled. A bevel on a compound curve is not really something you can do on a machine. I measured, marked and cut what I could, but most of it needed to be shaped by eye with a portable belt sander.

Back view
Back view.

All the sculpted and textured bits were going to be applied after the throne was built. I constructed it so everything had a surface to be attached to, than applied strips of different thicknesses to build up all the framing and molding.

Diapering the panels
Diapering the panels.

The photograph above has some of the textured panels as they are fit in. I had to cut all the pieces before hand so they could be painted separately from the throne itself. The larger panels would receive custom sculpted pieces, which were being made by Anna Warren (who runs the Fake ‘n Bake blog).

Lace as detail
Lace as detail.

Some of the panels were switched to pieces of stiffened lace to add variety. I also attached some cast resin balls to the tops of the front legs.

Final throne.
Final throne. Photo by Michael Chemycz.

I actually had to leave Santa Fe before King Roger opened, but Michael Chemycz, one of the other prop carpenters, snapped some great photos of the throne on stage during the dress rehearsal. Jest to dość ozdobny tron!

First Links of Winter

Okay, so it’s still a few days until winter, but the sudden temperature drop makes it feel like it’s already here. I am driving down to North Carolina today; enjoy these links and websites in the meantime.

Stage Directions magazine shows how props artisan Jay Tollefsen improved the “baby-in-a-bag” trick for the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s annual production of Dracula in this article titled, “Baby’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

Hirst Arts Fantasy Architecture has compiled a nice tutorial with lots of helpful hints on casting small resin pieces in silicone molds.

This fascinating post looks at the history of imagined books as props in theatre. One example is the first use of a prop book in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the script mentions Prospero’s book; what would they have used as a prop in those earliest of performances. The article talks about far more; like I said, it’s pretty fascinating.

The Educational Theatre Association has a nice how-to on adding texture to hard scenery; it’s great for using on props as well.

By 1974, the EPA had produced over 80,000 photographs showing how America interacted with the environment. The National Archives has begun making them online, and the Atlantic has posted a fine selection of some of these slice-of-life images of America in the 1970s.

Future Fossils is a collection of technological items from the near-past, such as 8mm cameras and Atari joysticks, which have been molded and cast in concrete so they look like archaeological relics from bygone days. You can buy them as well, but really, I just thought they looked cool.

Friday’s Rehearsal Report

Through some bizarre set of circumstances, we find ourselves here at the Public Theater in technical rehearsals for three different productions within the same week. I sometimes wish all the theatre that is made from September to November could be spread out over the entire year. Until then, we keep on moving and keep on working. And we keep on reading this blog, because I have some excellent links for you!

Yours truly has an article in this month’s issue of Stage Directions magazine, in which I detail our shop’s process for creating a break-away wall for The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. So head on over and read it, and maybe leave a comment.

This has to be seen to be believed. Gabriel Suranyi spent 19 years creating a scratch built model of the USS Enterprise naval aircraft carrier. The site has dozens of photographs showing off the astounding level of detail.

Thanks to Seán McArdle for pointing me to this fantastic arrangement of nearly a hundred vintage spraypaint cans.

Paint-Sculpt has a nice little tutorial on sculpting realistic skin texture. They have a few other helpful tutorials as well.

Fake Food: Making Edible Replicas

They used to solve this problem in the breakfast scene of “The Duke of Killiekrankie” by having the food made of candy which would melt rapidly in the mouth, and so not interfere with enunciation. The hashed brown potatoes, for example, were nothing but spun sugar, browned, which looked substantial enough to the audience, but melted away almost as soon as they touched the tongue.

– The New York Times, April 1, 1906.

I have previously written about making inedible fake food. A props person may also have to make edible fake food. What is edible fake food? Say a character needs to eat a peanut butter sandwich, but the actress playing that character is allergic to nuts; you need an edible replica of peanut butter that contains no nuts.

Props people make edible replicas for a variety of reasons. Most common is the above-mentioned allergy issue; before planning a meal, you (or your stage manager) needs to find out what the actors are allergic to, and any special dietary needs. An actor may be vegetarian or keeps kosher. Besides allergies and diet, actors avoid other types of food while on stage; milk and cheese, or sugary drinks, tend to affect the vocal chords in ways which many actors dislike. A prop master’s greatest challenge is when he or she needs to serve a massive edible banquet, and an actor is vegetarian, allergic to gluten, and lactose-intolerant.

Another reason to make edible fake food is cost. Characters on stage may chow down on what appears to be hundreds of dollars of caviar in a single scene. You need a more cost-effective solution if you want to keep your budget under control. In a similar vein, certain foods may be time-consuming or complicated to prepare. Remember, your running crew needs to prepare the food before each show in addition to their other pre-show duties, and if your production has matinées, they may have an even tighter schedule between the two shows. It’s usually better to microwave a turkey substitute for thirty seconds than to roast a real turkey for four hours.

Third, the food on stage may require special properties which the real deal does not possess. A common example is when a director wants the characters to eat ice cream, but does not want to see the ice cream melt during the scene. It’s a tricky feat to pull off under those hot stage lights.

Finally, an actor may need to eat something which is normally not edible. Edible flowers are commonly called for, as well as paper notes. Be prepared for anything.

It is important to keep the food preparation area clean, which means separate from any work areas. If you keep a stock of preparation dishes and utensils, these should be kept separate from your regular stock of kitchen props; you don’t want to prepare your food in a dish that was painted with a toxic paint for the previous show. Likewise, the food needs to be stored properly in between shows, especially if you buy a whole bunch at once for multiple performances. It should also go without saying that you should not attempt to reuse uneaten food from one performance for the next one.

Creating edible food is a little bit sculpture, a little bit painting, and a whole lot of creativity. It’s good to develop a sort of “base” of materials which are readily available, easy to work with, and can mimic a great deal of foods. Bananas, breads, and food coloring have been some of the more popular bases for props artisans for well over a century.

Bananas can be mashed to imitate a great number of foods, such as cream or ice cream. With the right coloring and toppings, it can even substitute for meat or fish. When sliced lengthwise, you have a decent white meat substitute for chicken. Yogurt and cottage cheese work in a similar vein, but because of the milk content, they are less-commonly used.

Bread can take on a variety of shapes. Brown bread with the crusts removed and cut to the proper shape can simulate chops and roast meat. I saw the head of properties at the Walnut Street Theatre create a very convincing Salisbury steak each night with just a slice of pumpernickel covered in cold canned gravy. Switch the gravy with fruit glaze or some other red jelly and you have a slab of raw meat. A whole loaf with the crusts removed can be shaped into a number of different forms. If you use a loaf that is at least a day old, you can even carve it somewhat.

Tofu is another kind of base which can be built on for any number of fake edibles. It has the advantage of being vegan, and in some cases, gluten-free, so it’s a great choice for tricky eaters.

Food coloring adds greatly to your repertoire of faux food creation tools. It can be tricky to match the color and opacity of your intended goal; luckily, everything is edible, so you can eat your tests and samples. Specialty baking shops will stock a greater range of colors and sizes, so you don’t have to try to create every single color with those tiny bottles of red, yellow, blue and green. You can also find culinary colors in spray cans, which are a boon for the more artistically inclined.

Fruits are a friendly substitute for many foods, and can be tastier for the actors than old bread covered in cold gravy. I used a fresh grape and a dried apricot for my appetizers in Timon of Athens. I’ve also heard of shows which used half an apricot for an egg yolk and a pared apple for a raw turnip. Watermelon with some brown food coloring makes a convincingly juicy slab of raw meat. Dried fruits such as prunes and apricots can be cut up, shaped and squished to resemble a variety of things, and are especially handy when you have that large banquet scene that requires a variety of edible colors and textures to appear sumptuous.

Sausages and other imperishable meats serve a similar purpose as dried fruits. With the skin removed, they can be sliced and carved to mimic all sorts of appetizers and side dishes.

Fake edible food is a great exercise for students and interns because it forces them to distill an item (the real food) to its most recognizable characteristics, and then come up with a simple and economical replication of those characteristics. It makes them think about the constraints of a show, such as preparation time, cost per show, shopping time, etc. Finally, most people do not create fake food in their spare time, so they can’t fall back on familiar materials and methods, such as carpentry or foam carving.

A knowledge of cooking, baking, and food preparation is helpful, as it can help you learn how to thicken or thin various sauces and liquids, or give you clues how to cut and shape different foods. A trip to a culinary or baking store is great as well, as you can find all sorts of icing bags, cookie cutters and food-safe molds to help you out. I read about a production in 1906 which used a mold of a chicken to bake a sponge cake that could be carved and consumed on stage. Now that’s a tasty trick!

Link-o-Rama

This is great: Michael Fichtenmayer experimented with a number of available art products to create copper finishes and showed off his results. It’s incredibly helpful to see them all together so you can do a quick comparison.

Here is a tutorial to build a homemade plastic bender. Now, remember to do this only with adequate ventilation; heating plastics can release all sorts of chemicals. No one really knows what we’re breathing. The MSDS for the plastic won’t tell you either, because they only have to disclose what the plastic is made of, not what it turns into with the application of heat.

Haunt Forum has a great thread on making a rusty and crusty texture with sand and oatmeal.

Prop Phone is an app that allows you to trigger an iPhone or iPod Touch to ring over WiFi or Bluetooth. They have a video up showing how to make sure the phone can’t receive calls during a performance; I didn’t realize you could out an iPhone in Airplane mode and then turn WiFi back on; I know, I’m practically Amish.

Check out this documentary about the company that made Scar Stuff, Vampire Blood, and Evil Teeth. Yeah, props people rarely use those drug store blood kits, but it’s a fascinating story nonetheless. I love the part where they discover a store has discounted their product as a loss leader, so they buy it all up and resell it to the stores.