Stage Directions magazine has a great feature on Faye Armon-Troncoso this month. In “The Actor’s Propmaster“, we get a look at how she got started, some of the show’s she has worked on, and what she has learned. I got to work with Faye a bit when I lived in New York City, including assisting her in the production of Merchant of Venice mentioned in the article.
I love this visit to the Fiberglass Animal Farm. FAST Corp in Wisconsin is responsible for most of the giant animals and other roadside attractions you see around the US. If you pass a giant ear of corn on the side of the road, it was probably made by them.
You may have noticed a distinct lack of posts this week. Between tech, a minor flood at the theatre, and personal challenges, I did not have any time to write this week. But have no fear, the Internet is here, with stories about props of all shapes and sizes:
First off, the Chicago theatre community has an annual props, sets and costume give-away amongst all the professional theatre companies. The Sun-Times Media has a nice write-up, including video and photographs of some of the theatre’s storage spaces. It is also a great exploration on how local theatre communities share resources with each other.
Dave Lowe, the props master at Hallmark Channel’s “Home and Family”, makes custom trophies for the winner of a game segment on the show. When Florence Henderson guest-starred, he set out to create a replica of the cursed tiki from when the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii.
The majority of my time this past autumn was spent working on puppets for Triad Stage’s production of “Snow Queen”. The play is an original retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, set in the Appalachian Mountains with bluegrass music.
The animals (other than the two birds) were designed to look like they were constructed from cut and folded paper. Bill Brewer, the puppet designer, came up with the range of motions he wanted the puppets to have. Each puppet only had one puppeteer to operate it, which is tricky when the puppets are this large and manipulated by actors rather than trained puppeteers. We worked together to distill their movements down to the simplest motions so their moments on stage would be evocative and magical.
The stag had the most logistical challenges, so I began work on him first. The main challenge was that the lead actress rides him around on stage, so it needed to support her weight and remain comfortable for the operator to carry her while still working the puppet. I used a marching band snare drum harness to attach the puppet to the operator. We used these out at the Santa Fe Opera this past summer for a similar purpose, so I already knew it was the best option for comfortably distributing the weight over the operator’s body while keeping a strong and stiff connection to the puppet.
You can watch the evolution of the skeleton and mechanisms in the video below:
It took me about a month and a half to get the movement right (I was working on the other puppets at this time as well, and we produced a whole other show within that time frame as well). My goal was to have this skeleton ready for the first week of rehearsal so the actors could begin working with it and discovering what it could do.
When the puppets were not being used in rehearsal, I took them back to start adding the three-dimensional bodies. It was vital that the actors used the puppets in rehearsal; the evolution of the puppet scenes was shaped dramatically by the discoveries of how the puppets moved and reacted.
For the solid parts, I attached chunks of EPS foam and carved them into shape.
To get the “folded paper” appearance, I laid some pieces of Wonderflex over top of the foam. Wonderflex is a plastic sheet which becomes formable at a very low temperature; you can let it drape or fold it like fabric, and when it cools, it retains that shape.
For the neck, I needed a much more flexible material, and after some experimentation, found a type of fabric which matched the appearance of the rest of the stag, but would allow the puppet to retain its full range of motion.
The head itself was carved by Brewer. We played around with a few designs for antlers, and ended up making them out of several interlocking segments. The ears were cut and shaped from more Wonderflex.
By that point, we were already loading into the theater, so the long task of filling, sanding and priming was done there. After base-coating the puppets to a uniform white color, they were shaded with grey and silver paint to accentuate the flat plains and folds. Most of this was done by Howard Jones, the scenic designer on the show.
The following is a Letter to the Editor which appeared in a 1947 issue of Life Magazine:
Concerning your recent article on armadillos (LIFE, Oct. 6), we feverishly urge any readers entertaining notions of employing such a creature for theatrical purposes that it is not a good thing.
One of our more romantic prop women assured us that for our Youngstown Players production of The Royal Family an armadillo would be very fetching lugged across the stage in the third act. The critter arrived and was snugly ensconced in an orange crate by the furnace. Several times it disappeared and was discovered perched among the coals…
On opening night he was whisked across the stage so quickly that it was impossible for the audience to divine whether what we had in the gaily colored birdcage was an armadillo or George Jean Nathan. Several in the audience asked where we got a seal so small. When we brightly informed them it was an armadillo and did they know what an armadillo was, they said no and they didn’t want to know. It looked, they said, vomitous. After the first performance, to our delight, it up and died…
James Priddy, Youngstown, Ohio.
Originally printed in Life, October 27, 1947, pg 22, 25.
In my last post, I detailed the build of a “Milky-White” puppet for Into the Woods. I made some smaller puppets for that production as well, including two birds and the hen that lays golden eggs.
For the birds, I began experimenting with various ways with how they could be carried and flap their wings. The production team liked one where the bird was held aloft on a pole, and their wings flapped by moving a piece of PVC pipe up and down over the pole. Bamboo lashed with twine created the mechanism, and more twine was used as the “hinge” to connect the wings to the body.
I covered the wings with leaves to continue with the concept of using “natural” materials to create the puppets. If you remember from the last post, the goal was not to make realistic animals, but to make items that appeared distinctly hand made from materials one might find in a forest.
I brainstormed awhile on the hen, trying to come up with a look that was interesting and distinct from the other puppets. The designers had provided me with some research of horse sculptures constructed of driftwood, so I decided to have a go at a driftwood hen.
I began with a full-scale reference sketch of a hen, and began mixing and matching pieces of driftwood until I got an assemblage that looked like a hen. I drilled tiny holes in the pieces so I could wire them together (later reinforcing some of the joints with hot glue).
The director wanted the hen to be on “wheels” and pushed out with a stick. The stick is later removed and the hen is carried around. I built some rustic-looking wheels, and drilled a hole in the back so a stick could be added and removed. He also got some small eyes glued on.
After a few rehearsals, the team wanted a hen with some more presence on stage. I added some bright orange raffia along the top, some brown moss along the bottom, and a bright orange leaf for a wattle. I also painted the eye black and the beak yellow to help distinguish the parts a bit better.
Overall, it was a fun challenge to build “puppets”, since I’ve worked with them a lot in the past, but never had the chance to build my own. It was also interesting to work with various materials I’ve never worked with before.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies