Category Archives: News

Props in the news

USITT Props Lab 2018

At this year’s USITT Conference, we will be conducting the first ever Props Lab on the Stage Expo floor. Jay Duckworth, last year’s Early Career Honors speaker, has organized a dynamite team of props experts and myself to provide demonstrations and hands-on activities. A lot of these sessions have already filled up, so sign up quickly!

Thursday, March 15

11:00am-1:00pm

Welcoming Our Robot Overlords with Adam Daley, support by Karen Rabe

Overcoming fear of new technology and integrating it into our work with robots and quick Prototype. Hands-on with 3D printer, Rapid Prototyping 3D Printing/Robot Making for Props. Learn how to use this equipment, when you need to build a model at ¼” scale, idea exchange.

1:00pm-2:30 pm

Welcoming Our Robot Overlords with Adam Daley, support by Karen Rabe

2:45pm-4:00 pm

Small Food Casting – “Berries” with Michelle Bisbee, support by Abbey Plankey.

Learn fast and effective casting process using Smooth-On OOMOO 30 Fast Set. Take home your very own freshly cast berries!

4:00pm-5:30pm

Small Food Casting – “Berries” with Michelle Bisbee, support by Abbey Plankey.

Friday, March 16

11:00am-1:00pm

Prop Gizmology Pew, Pew! with Thomas Fiocchi, support by Liz Hastings

How to design and execute cosplay weapon props without stinking up the place. Learn a seven-step process going from research, design, scaling, to engineering, constructing, and finishing your prop weaponry. We will discuss different methods, materials, and techniques to create world-class props in your budget and time frame. Woodworking, foam working, steel techniques, creative gizmology, it is all in this session!!!

1:00 pm-2:30 pm

Prop Gizmology Pew, Pew! with Thomas Fiocchi, support by Liz Hastings

2:45 pm-4:00 pm

Prop Gizmology Pew, Pew! with Thomas Fiocchi, support by Liz Hastings

4:00pm-5:30pm

Small Food Casting – “Berries” with Michelle Bisbee, support by Abbey Plankey.

Saturday, March 17

9:30am-11:00am 

Stage Combat and Safe Weapons with stage combat specialist Rick Sordelet, support by Jay Duckworth.

Safe stage combat and weaponry. Don’t end up a horrible statistic.

11:00am-12:30pm

Blood Pack Demos with stage combat expert Rick Sordelet, support by Jay Duckworth.

Tricks with blood bags with stage combat expert.

12:30pm-2:00pm 

Simple Pneumatics with Eric Hart, support by Jay Duckworth

Eric will introduce the principles of pneumatic prop design and demonstrate everything from simple puffs of dust to more complex movement using pneumatic cylinders and solenoid valves.

About the presenters

Adam Daley is a Mechanical Engineer turned Prop Master who has worked for companies ranging from Pacific Coast Theatre Festival to Utah Shakespeare Festival. In his free time, he mentors for FRC First Robotics and builds electric guitars.

Michelle Bisbee is an active member of S*P*A*M and a pillar of the props community.

Thomas Fiocchi has been the Props Technologist at Ohio University, training future props artisans, since 1997.  He worked for a decade as a props artisan at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC, and at McCarter Theater in NJ.  He operates Fiocchi Sword and Prop, doing custom stage combat weaponry and freelance props out of Athens Ohio.

Rick Sordelet is the top Fight Director in the country. He has 54 Broadway shows to his credit. He has staged all of Disney Theatrical productions, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, Aida, and The Little Mermaid.

Eric Hart is the props master at Triad Stage and visiting professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He is the author of “The Prop Building Guidebook: for Theater, Film, and TV” and “The Prop Effects Guidebook.” He has built props for numerous theatres on and off Broadway and throughout the United States.

USITT Props Lab
USITT Props Lab

Props and Fine Art From Movies, Television and Theatre

The following is the press release for an exhibition I am a part of:

Props and Fine Art From Movies, Television & Theatre and Working Objects: Props by Ross MacDonald Open at The Beard & Weil Galleries, Wheaton College, Norton, MA
March 1 – April 13, 2018

In film, television and theatre, a hero prop is any item intended to be held or used by one of the main actors. Examples of hero props might include Shylock’s money box, as used by Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice at New York’s Public Theater; the Red Apple Tobacco tin used in Quentin Tarantino’s film Hateful Eight; or the Mendl’s chocolate box from the film The Grand Budapest Hotel.

All of these objects, plus watercolors from La La Land, sketches from Moonrise Kingdom and other beautiful works of art, appear in Props and Fine Art from Movies, Television and Theater and Working Objects: Props by Ross MacDonald, opening in the Beard & Weil Galleries at Wheaton College in Norton MA, March 1 through April 13, 2018.

On March 1 from 5:00 to 6:00 pm, Haas Visiting Artist Ross MacDonald will give a talk about his work, followed by an opening for both exhibitions from 6:00 to 8:00. The public is invited to attend.

Curator Elizabeth Keithline commented that “prop makers are required to make objects that integrate perfectly into the action, both historically and aesthetically. Prop makers often have deep background knowledge on their subject, yet to create something that would take audience attention away from the action would be the worst kind of mistake. Hidden in plain sight, the props and artwork in this show often remained unnoticed by the audience, yet they drove plot completely.”

Props from the television show Boardwalk Empire by Ross MacDonald
Props from the television show Boardwalk Empire by Ross MacDonald

In the Weil Gallery, Working Objects

Ross MacDonald illustrates for Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, Spy and Rolling Stone. He has authored and illustrated 4 children’s books, as well as the adult humor books In and Out with Dick and Jane, (with co-author James Victore) and What Would Jesus Craft?. MacDonald recently designed the bandana worn by Justin Timberlake in the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show.

Yet all the while he has led a secret double life designing and fabricating props for over 40 movies and television series. He has made everything from the book Bradley Cooper’s character throws out the window in Silver Linings Playbook, to the titular Book of Secrets for the second National Treasure movie; Jennifer Lawrence’s mop patents for Joy; baby’s favorite book in Baby’s Day Out; Nucky Thompson’s checkbook and Arnold Rothstein’s calling card for Boardwalk Empire; the morgue toe-tags in The Knick; the Pawnee town charter for Parks and Recreation; the Red Apple Tobacco tin in Tarantino’s Hateful Eight; Versace’s book in the latest season of American Crime Story and thousands of other props. For more information: https://www.ross-macdonald.com/.

Mendl's Chocolate box from the movie Grand Budapest Hotel by Annie Atkins
Mendl’s Chocolate box from the movie Grand Budapest Hotel by Annie Atkins

In the Beard Gallery, Props and Fine Art from Movies, Television and Theater

Annie Atkins specializes in graphics for filmmaking, which means that she makes any graphic pieces outlined by a period film script—like postage stamps and banknotes to help create Wes Anderson’s fictional State of Zubrowka in the Grand Budapest Hotel; or shopfront signs and fake passports for Steven Spielberg’s New York as depicted in Bridge of Spies. Other films she has worked on include Box Trolls, Wonderstruck and Isle of Dogs. For the Mendl’s chocolate box exhibited at Wheaton, Ms. Atkins also credits the artists Wes Anderson, Liliana Lambriev, Jan Jericho and prop master Robin Miller.

Buist Bickley – According to Crains New York Business, “Bickley is one of the most in-demand prop supervisors on Broadway.” Current productions include Spongebob Squarepants, Frozen, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dear Evan Hansen and Fun Home. In the February 4 Playbill, Bickley was quoted as saying “Picture frames, rugs, chandeliers, sconces, any picture on the wall—those are all props… I always say that the ceiling, the floor, and the walls are sets. Everything that makes it what it is, is a prop.”

Krabby Patty from SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical provided by Buist Bickley
Krabby Patty from SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical provided by Buist Bickley

Jay Duckworth is props master at the Public Theater in NYC. In over three decades in theatre he has worked from an old Mule Barn up to Prop Master on Hamilton. He’s founded the Prop Summit for all properties people to meet, network and learn; given keynote speeches for KCACTF and USITT. He is currently curating the first Props Lab at USITT’s National conference, he is a contributor to Stage Directions Magazine and is a Professor at Pace University. Jay’s website, the Proptologist, can be explored here: https://www.proptologist.com/.

Eric Hart has been building props for theatre, opera, retail display and other industries since 2003. He is currently the props master at Triad Stage in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. His props were built for theatres both on and off-Broadway, New York’s “Shakespeare in the Park”, the Santa Fe Opera, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, among others.

Eric also writes about building props and other things. He is the author of The Prop Building Guidebook: for Theatre, Film, and TV, and The Prop Effects Guidebook and writes regularly for his blog The Prop Agenda: https://www.props.eric-hart.com/.

Randy Lutz is the Properties Director for the Santa Fe Opera, where he has held various positions since 1979. Lutz often presents workshops at regional and national theatre festivals and conferences. Lutz serves as a responder for allied crafts and prop construction and design for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

Under Randy’s direction, the heads on loan from the Santa Fe Opera were created by Anna Warren, Hannah Shoemaker, Robin Lu Payne, Eileen Garcia, C. David Russell, Chastity Collins and Nancy Allen.

Carl Sprague is a designer working for film and stage as well as special, site-specific projects. Career highlights include art direction on The Royal Tenenbaums, concept illustration for Academy Award Winners The Grand Budapest Hotel and Twelve Years A Slave. Carl is currently developing a feature adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1916 classic Summer.

Visit the Wheaton College event page for more details.

Top Prop Stories of 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, let us take a look back at the top news stories that affected our industry.

Robby the Robot Is Now the Most Valuable Movie Prop Sold at Auction – The famous Forbidden Planet creation recently sold for $5,375,000.

Alley Theatre Suffers Damage From Hurricane Harvey – One of the United States’ largest regional theaters suffered a devastating blow as flood waters destroyed a major portion of their hand props. They were able to bounce back quickly and resume putting on shows, but this loss will surely be felt for years to come.

Fake cosplay guns, real security problems at Comic Cons – Though cosplay continues to gain in popularity, more and more fan conventions are limiting the use of realistic prop guns, or even banning prop weapons altogether. Expect this story to continue to unfold over the next few years.

20 Years of the 501st Legion: How the Star Wars Costuming Group Became a Force for Good – Speaking of cosplay, the world-famous group of Stormtrooper enthusiasts celebrated their twentieth anniversary this year.

San Diego Opera to Sell Studio to Help Stabilize Finances – The company announced its plan to sell off its scene shop as a way to balance their budget. They will continue to rent a portion of it to build sets, and they pulled this off without any layoffs, so it may end up being a positive thing.

Jay Duckworth at USITT 2017 – One of the keynotes at 2017’s USITT conference was a props person. Jay Duckworth, props director at The Public Theater, spoke about his career and the artist’s “bug out bag.”

Inside Syfy’s Cosplay Melee Workshop – The Syfy Channel introduced a new reality show this year called Cosplay Melee. Tested took us into their workshop to see what the contestants had to work with.

Off-Broadway Producers and United Scenic Artists Create First Ever Agreement for Off-Broadway Designers – In an historic move, designers on Off-Broadway productions will now be covered by the USA union. I do not know what this means for prop designers, who can be found all over Off-Broadway but are almost non-existent in venues already covered by USA.

The Prop Building Guidebook second edition – Finally, the second edition to my book was released this year. I like to think this is news-worthy. Be on the lookout for an all-new book from me, The Prop Effects Guidebook, which will be out in early 2018!

Alley Theatre Suffers Damage from Hurricane Harvey

This week saw a particularly devastating hurricane hit Houston. Many theaters were damaged, but perhaps none as severely as The Alley. The Alley is one of the three oldest resident theaters in the US. I visited their shops and performing spaces just last month, when they were fresh off a recent renovation that updated their entire theater.

American Theatre magazine posted some videos and photos as the storm hit. The Neuhaus theater and lobby were completely submerged. The hand prop storage in the basement was also completely underwater. The props team has not been able to get down there yet to survey the damage, but it could potentially be a total loss. The Alley has operated for over fifty years, and their stock had evolved into one of the best in the country; they frequently lend unique items to theaters all over the US.

The storm hit during rehearsals of a new play by Rajiv Joseph. They have already made plans to continue with the show at an alternate venue.

I have been following this story on the Facebook page of The Alley’s properties master, Karin Rabe Vance. She has posted a list of local charities if you wanted to donate to help Houston. If you wanted to directly help the theater, you can also donate to the Alley Theatre Employee Flood Assistance Fund, or to the rebuilding campaign for the Alley Theatre itself.

I am certainly glad the employees are all currently safe, and I am sure the theater will be able to rebuild over time. Nonetheless, this kind of loss is devastating to a props shop. A prop stock is part of our livelihood, and a stock like The Alley’s represented the careful accumulation of items over many decades. That kind of collection cannot simply be repurchased, and may never be replicated. It will be a great shift in how they prop shows for many years to come.

(Watch a video to see more images of Harvey’s impact on The Alley).