Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Props, by Eleanor Margolies

Books that deal with the philosophical aspect of props are few and far between. Certainly you can find a few scholarly articles here and there; Theatre Symposium devoted an issue of their journal to props back in 2009 (I presented a paper at that conference). But the last book of this nature would probably be Andrew Sofer’s The Stage Life of Props.

This lack of scholarly interest should come as no surprise. Universities rarely devote time to props as it is, and when they do, it is purely for practical reasons. The study of technical theatre from a historical perspective is growing in popularity, but that remains mostly devoted to scenery, lighting, and perhaps some costuming here and there. So when a book like Props (Readings in Theatre Practice), by Eleanor Margolies, comes along, I take notice.

Margolies begins the book with some usual thoughts about props; how they become text in a performance, the differences between a prop and a regular object, and how audiences perceive the life of a prop.

However, she also delves into the practical side of props, which highlights the importance of studying both. One cannot talk about how props are used in performances without discussing how they get there. It is the limitations of objects, both found and constructed specifically for the theater, that determines how and when they get used. She devotes some time to specific theater troupes and performances which are dependent on props to create a visual world. She also digs back into historical uses of props in various forms of traditional theater. The process by which props and physical materials can be introduced into rehearsals and modified during the process affects what an audience ultimately witnesses.

You will not find a recipe for papier-mache in this book; it is not a handbook for people who need to construct props. However, you will learn about the history of papier-mache and how it influenced the construction of props historically; currently, it is associated with the cheap nature of amateur theater, and has become a cultural metaphor for fakery and imitation. Other practical topics covered include breakaways, consumables, and fake blood.

Margolies’ Props provides a context for further study and discussion about props. You do not need to already be familiar with Veltruský’s work on affordances to be able to follow this book. For me, at least, it left me filled with so many more questions I wanted to explore and areas I wished to research; it was like opening up a dam of ideas that spilled out of my mind. Hopefully, it will provide a renewed interest in the study of props beyond that of its practitioners.

Props by Eleanor Margolies
Props by Eleanor Margolies

Review: Cast Like Magic

If you follow the world of cosplay props, you have probably run across the work of Folkenstal Armory. This Swiss cosplayer is known for her fantasy daggers and armor from games like Elder Scrolls and Skyrim.

She recently released an e-book, Cast like Magic: A Beginner’s Guide to Mold Making and Resin Casting. Only the original German edition is available in print.

She wrote this in response to the lack of books on silicone mold-making and resin casting. While it’s true you can find a variety of books that have a section on silicone molds and resin casting, none are solely devoted to the individual prop maker. And though you can find a plethora of tutorials online, most are for specific projects, and none give a comprehensive overview of the entire process like this book does.

Cast Like Magic covers one-part silicone molds, cut silicone molds, two-part silicone molds, brush on molds, and rotation casting. What really sets this book apart are the illustrated diagrams for each process giving a cut-away view of what is going on. Mold making and casting can be difficult processes to photograph because everything is happening inside or underneath the opaque material. Her diagrams give a clear picture of what we cannot see.

The photographs are bright, colorful, and extremely clear. The pictures of her own work are especially wonderful, giving an up close view of all the exquisite detail she adds.

Cast Like Magic has chapters on mold boxes and registration keys as well, two topics which are frequently glossed over in discussions on mold making.

A good chunk of the beginning of the book is spent discussing materials used. Besides the various silicones and resins, she also discusses mold releases, thickeners and thinners. You also see various resin additives in action, from metal powders to UV colorants.

She uses Smooth-On products almost exclusively. At times, it almost feels like you are reading one of their catalogs. While they remain one of the more accessible suppliers for beginners, keep in mind that many other companies and products exist.

This is a very well-informed book, providing proper safety precautions where necessary and giving just the right amount of technical information.

So if you’ve been waiting to take the plunge into silicone mold-making and resin casting, this book will help you make sense of the whole thing. If you have already made a few molds and casts, this book will fill in the gaps of your knowledge and show you a few new tips and tricks. At only $8.50, it’s a heck of a deal, too.

Cast Like Magic by Folkenstal
Cast Like Magic by Folkenstal

Review: Blue-Collar Broadway, by Timothy R. White

I just finished reading Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater by Timothy R. White. It is a thoroughly fantastic read for anyone interested in the history of technical theatre and Broadway. Rather than another history of shows and stars, White lays out the history of scenery studios, prop shops, costume shops, lighting rental houses, rehearsal studios, and more. While many audiences (and producers) think that a show is just conjured up through imagination, White understands that imagination only becomes reality when you can hire skilled craftspeople and give them the space and tools to make it happen.

This is not just about Broadway. As any theatre technician can attest, Broadway is more of a brand than a location. Shows are built out in the regional theatres and shipped to New York. Tours have their technical rehearsals in performing arts centers far from Manhattan. As we learn in this book, it was really only the heart of the twentieth century when Broadway shows were built, rehearsed, and performed solely in the area around Times Square.

Prior to that, the work was done all over. White profiles one business, Armbruster Scenic, which provided painted drops to companies all over the country, despite its location in Columbus, Ohio. In the early half of the nineteenth century, every town had its share of stock theatre companies giving regular performances.

Yet, as White carefully details, it wasn’t film, television or Broadway that decimated the local theatre industry as many of us typically assume. It was the railroad. Once this network of rails sprung up around the country, all the stuff of theatre (as well as the actors) could be shipped from city to city. It created the idea of a “national” theatre, and how could the little stock companies compete when national stars were performing just down the street? It was still a few more decades before Broadway positioned itself to be the center of American theatre, and by then, the blue-collar theatre jobs around the country had shriveled to a percentage of what they used to be.

White does a fantastic job of digging into all the details to paint a picture of the technical theatre industry at various points in time. He includes a number of maps showing where scenic studios, costume shops and footwear rental stores were located throughout the city. He focuses on two shows in particular, Oklahoma! and Evita, to highlight the state of Broadway at their respective times, and to contrast the drastic changes that occurred in just a few decades. And he maintains perspective with the larger trends in history to show how Broadway’s history was not happening in a bubble.

Blue-Collar Broadway also gives a history of some of the larger regional theatres which began appearing in the 1950s and 1960s. After all, if blue-collar theatre workers were leaving the city to work at the Guthrie, it only makes sense to explain why. The regional theatres marked a new era in American Theatre history, when all the physical production elements could be built in one facility.

Though a lot of this history seems so long ago, most of it is fairly recent in perspective. Dazian Fabrics, which opened its doors in 1842, long before the golden age of Broadway, is still selling fabric to the performing arts industry. Nino Novellino, mentioned in this book for his work on the original Evita, is still building props in the same upstate New York building as he was back then. He’s still using the same machines that his predecessor, Peter Feller, built to make armor for The Man of La Mancha.  Feller’s father worked as a stagehand at the Metropolitan Opera, probably around the same time Edward Siedle was the technical director there. And Siedle was touring the US as a props hand before Broadway was Broadway. So we’re not very far from the beginning of Broadway’s history.

One aspect I missed from the book was any talk of opera, or other performing arts outside of theatre. The rise of the Metropolitan Opera as a national institution was simultaneous with the rise of Broadway, and many theatre technicians flow back and forth between the two. When talking about where all the scenery, costumes and props come from, and what keeps stagehands employed, surely the Met could warrant a mention. I’m sure there just wasn’t room in a book already overflowing with information.

Blue-Collar Broadway offers so many other avenues to explore in our collective history. It is truly a one-of-a-kind book for any worker in the performing art who wants to know what our predecessors did. It’s also a fine read for anyone who needs to convince the higher-ups of the validity and necessity of our work. As White writes, “While plenty of show ideas have sprung from inscrutable seeds of divine inspiration, the mundane reality of the finished Broadway show is far less glamorous. Every single show to have raised its curtain on Broadway was crafted through a long, sometimes painstaking process of rehearsal and construction within workshops and rehearsal studios. Even the most well-conceived show must be built to exist, and it must be built by craftspeople.”

Blue-Collar Broadway by Timothy R. White
Blue-Collar Broadway by Timothy R. White

Review: Foamsmith, by Bill Doran

Anyone who reads this blog (or really, any blog about props) probably recognizes the name of Bill Doran. You’ve either marveled at his prop work over at Punished Props, watched his how-to videos, or followed his live chats with other prop makers.

One thing you pick up about him is how much he loves teaching and demonstrating everything he learns. Not only is he an enthusiastic teacher, but his knowledge comes tested from building countless costumes for numerous conventions, and regularly talking with other cosplayers. It’s a great recipe for making a book, and a book is exactly what he made.

Foamsmith is all about building a suit of armor out of EVA foam. He began with a series of e-books on different foamsmithing techniques, and has now collected them into a single print volume. Even if you’ve never worked with foam before, you can have a full suit of armor built by the time you’re done with this book.

Foamsmith by Bill Doran
Foamsmith by Bill Doran

The book is gorgeous. Full color pictures and easy-to-read layouts meet you on every page. Websites and e-books are certainly a great resource for learning how to make things, but there’s something about a physical book that makes the information so clear and accessible. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the words and pictures suddenly disappearing like when a website goes down.

Doran covers the basics, from patterning, cutting and shaping your foam, to carving, texturing and adding other details. He delves a lot into the specifics of wearing a full suit of armor, like designing it to be easy to take on and off, adding pockets to hide your cell phone, and making sure you can go to the bathroom while wearing it.

Even if you never intend to walk around a convention in a suit of sci-fi armor, this book still has a lot to offer. EVA foam is a wonderful material to build many things out of, and Doran has lots of specific tips and tricks for getting the most out of it. He has built entire props just from foam; I’ve used it for puppet-making in the past as well. His instructions on sealing and painting the foam are very useful, and his chapter on LEDs and wiring are helpful even if you are not working with foam at all.

If you’ve ever watched Doran’s videos, you know he has a cheeky sense of humor, and his personality is all over the book as well. You get the sense that this is a lot of fun for him, and he wants to share everything he knows with us so we can have fun too. It’s not distracting though; his instructions are clear, and he does a wonderful job of matching photographs to his text to further reinforce what he is describing.

I wish he had a few more photographs of his completed projects. He has a few, and I know you can find them online, but it would be nice for the book to show the culmination of his processes. The tutorials throughout the book show bits and pieces of some of the suits he built, and you just think, “wow, that little wrist gauntlet looks awesome, I wonder what the whole costume looked like?”

There are very few Bill Dorans in the world, and it is exciting to see him put his experience into book form. Prop making and cosplay still suffer from a lack of books and learning materials, so I’m glad to see more people contributing to this vast field.

Foamsmith is sold exclusively on the Punished Props website. It is 184 pages with over 400 color photographs.


Book Review: Hollywood From Below the Line: A Prop Master’s Perspective

When I was writing my Prop Building Guidebook, I gathered together all the other books I could find that dealt with the world of props. I looked at everything from antique books to self-published pamphlets. While I could find many books on theatrical props, I found nothing written about film or television props. Sure, there were books showing pictures of the props, or maybe a bit of “behind-the-scenes” stuff tucked into a “making-of” book about a specific movie, but no books existed that were written by a film props master or for a film props master. So when I heard Steven M. Levine was publishing a book about his life as a Hollywood props master, I pre-ordered it and eagerly awaited its arrival. Continue reading Book Review: Hollywood From Below the Line: A Prop Master’s Perspective