Tag Archives: artisan

Product versus Process

I heard a story awhile back from a fellow props artisan. A large company was in town, putting on the kind of show that required hundreds of specialty props, all created specifically for their production. They started out working with one of the larger prop shops in the area. The shop was good, but they were still not happy with a number of the props; the performers themselves needed to talk directly to the artisan in order to give all the details and needs they were looking for. When the prop was finished, they wanted to be able to use it in rehearsal for a bit, then work with the artisan again to suggest changes and ask for modifications.

The large prop shop wasn’t set up to do business like this. They were used to taking drawings and draftings from a designer, constructing the prop, and delivering it to the theatre. They could certainly deal with the changes and additions that happen in every production, but the kind of individual one-on-one experimentation with props throughout the rehearsal process that these actors wanted was beyond their capabilities. This is where the fellow props artisan comes in. He was able to provide this kind of daily collaboration. He would talk through the prop with the performer, making notes and asking questions, then head to his shop for the rest of the day. The next morning, he would bring a newly constructed prop to the performer who would try it out and then suggest new changes and additions based on what was learned.

This is the difference between props as a product and as a process, and it is one of the reasons why good props artisans will always be needed. In one case, you are “ordering” a custom prop from a prop shop. In some ways, it is just like you would buy some of your props off of eBay or from a catalog. Having this shop continually make changes and modifications becomes expensive, inconvenient, or even downright impossible. Even if all of the props are built by an outside group, you will still need an artisan on hand who can modify and work with the props to make them do what the show needs them to do. Having an artisan on hand also allows the props department to be a bigger part of the whole collaboration. Like a conductor who lowers the volume of the trumpets or speeds up the tempo at certain parts in the music, an artisan can alter the weight or balance of a prop, change the color, or add a secret handle between rehearsals.

I’m not trying to knock commercial prop shops in this post, but rather make a point about the continuing need for artisans in an age where our industry is seeing more and more computerized fabrication. CNC routers and 3D printers are great technologies, and hold even more promise in the future, but they are no replacement for a good props artisan. They create products. They don’t replace the process.

A CNC router can cut an intricate shape out of a piece of plywood with very precise measurements, and it can do it a thousand times with no difference between all the pieces. A props artisan is more than just his ability to cut out a shape drawn on a piece of plywood. A props artisan takes the needs and wants of a prop, balanced with the input of the director, the designer, the actor and the stage manager, and weighs it against the limitations of the theatre, the shop, her skills, and all the resources available to her. She chooses the materials and techniques which best fit all of these requirements to construct the prop. And she does it knowing that it may need to be changed or modified later, or even cut entirely from the show.

A smart props artisan will keep on top of the changes in technology and tools available to him and learn when to integrate them into his process. We’ve integrated computer printers into our manufacturing of paper props. Even with all the amazing things one can do with graphics software, artisans still use a surprising amount of non-computerized techniques to add life to paper props. A good artisan uses all tools and methods available to him rather than altering the prop so it can be manufactured by a certain machine.

Friday, Friday, Friday, Fun, Fun, Fun Links

Welcome to Friday, everyone. I have some fun sites to keep you from getting bored at work today.

In honor of Father’s Day, Make Magazine has a post on 10 Projects to Make with Dad for Kids 10 and Under, as well 10 Projects to Make with Dad for Kids Over 10.

Also at Make is this great interview with food sculptor Ray Villafane. Not only are the pictures incredible, but his explanation of his carving process is very clear and well thought out; it’s helpful even if food is not your medium of choice.

Stephen Ellison talks about using plastics—foam in particular—for theatrical purposes in this Stage Directions article.

Finally, here are some great photographs of intimate spaces of renowned artisans. On a personal note, the first photograph of Henry Mercer’s home is where my wife and I were married. Not right inside his bedroom; it was on the grounds surrounding his home and in the courtyard of his tile factory.

Miracle Materials

Though I’m knee-deep in Shakespeare in the Park at the moment (tech starts next week!), I’ve been looking forward to a slower pace this summer and a chance to experiment. Below is a list of some new materials I’ve come across lately that I’ve been wanting to play around with.

Inventables has a whole smörgÃ¥sbord of strange and interesting materials for props people. Squishy magnets, translucent concrete, aluminum foam, waterproof sand, rubber glass… I can go on and on, but the site begs you to just peruse everything for yourself.

Styrofoam has been a big boon to props artisans, but it brings with it a host of environmental concerns, both in its manufacturing (it is a petroleum-based product) and in its disposal (it will not bio-degrade for thousands of years). I’ve recently come across a foam made from mushrooms and bio-waste (technically, it’s made from the mushroom roots, which don’t contain spores and allergens). It seems promising as a potential replacement for some uses of foam, though I haven’t gotten my hands on a sample yet to test it out. Eben Bayer, one of the inventors and founders of the company, gave a TED Talk called “Are Mushrooms the New Plastics” where he goes into further details.

Along the same lines, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are turning chicken feathers into plastic. It’s still a ways from being a usable product, but you can expect a whole host of non-petroleum-based and biodegradable plastics to be popping up over the next decade.

Shapelock is a new thermoplastic which becomes moldable at low temperatures (150°F). If you’ve ever used Friendly Plastic or Instamorph, this seems like similar stuff.

Finally, Sugru has been getting a lot of buzz lately. It seems similar to epoxy putty in its use and application, but it is a silicone, so it remains flexible, soft and waterproof.

Baby Steps and Jumping In

Where do you get started with making props? Maybe if you have a block of wood and a knife you want to start carving. You can also buy a lump of clay and start trying to shape something. If you want to learn construction techniques, try building a box with some wood and nails. Papier-mâché has been used in prop making for hundreds of years and is an easy and inexpensive method to experiment with. The important thing to do is get started working with your hands. Tools and materials all have their own quirks and characteristics, like a secret inner life. The only way to discover these and begin to familiarize yourself with them is to work with them. All the reading and planning in the world will not bridge the gap between theory and practice.

You may be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t worry; you will. You will not turn out a beautiful pristine prop on your first try. You need to go through all the hours of familiarizing yourself with the materials and methods before your work becomes good. You may feel silly just jumping in; if you just start carving a piece of wood with a knife, surely some more experienced artisan will come along and tell you that you are using the wrong knife, or that the type of wood you have is not very good for carving. You’re probably right. Even the most experienced artisans do not know everything, and when we start working with new materials and processes, there is some learning curve before we find the ideal tools for the job.

In many cases, tool and material choice is a matter of preference, culture, experience and any number of other factors. I’ve read about experienced woodworkers who treat their way of working as gospel, only to run across a seventeenth-century engraving of experienced woodworkers of that time using tools in precisely the opposite way of what should be “right”.

My point is that even experienced artisans do not know everything about everything, not with the sheer amount of crafts, tools, methods, materials and processes which a prop artisan can call upon. You can easily spend your entire life studying under master craftsmen and still not learn it all. While blogs like this one are great because it gets you thinking and spreads information efficiently, you need to jump in and start making things while you learn as well.

Carpentry Then and Now

Carpentry is one of the oldest artisan skills co-opted by the props artisan. Every culture that exists near trees utilizes wood as a construction material in some way. It was inevitable that they would also build their various theatre articles out of wood. Masks, used in early rituals, were often wooden. In medieval Europe, various guilds sponsored plays which were related to their specific trade. For example, the ship builders’ guild would put on a play about Noah’s Ark, and the Bakers’ Guild would provide the accouterments for The Last Supper. Furniture, then, was most likely built by actual craftsmen as needed.

Likewise, France in the time of Moliere saw craftsmen building props. The theatre was controlled by the monarchy, which also controlled the various guilds, who enjoyed monopolies in their industries. Thus, if a play called for a chair or table which could not be borrowed, the specific furniture guild could be called upon to construct what was needed.

From a plate in Andre Roubo’s book on woodworking
From a plate in Andre Roubo’s book on woodworking

Several societal innovations occurred which brought carpentry out of the guilds and more accessible to the average prop master. The industrial revolution brought standardized parts and mass production. This greatly improved the quality and amount of carpentry tools which were available to the general public. Tools such as highly accurate marking devices, truer saws, and mechanically-advantaged drills increased the speed and efficiency of carpentry to the point where a more generally-trained property master could now construct custom props out of wood for a show.

The second innovation, which is really an extension of the first, is the introduction of electrical power tools. Tools which relied on power were certainly available long before electricity; animal, water and steam power could drive a shaft in a large shop, which in turn, drove any number of large power tools. Electricity made it possible to escape the line and bring the tool anywhere. A prop master could now use a table saw or band saw in a basement of a theatre as long as they had an electrical outlet down there. If they needed to bring a tool to another part of the theatre, they could. The great leap forward came not just in the greater speed and efficiency of these tools, but also the ability to set up a shop in nearly any location. This innovation continued with the introduction and improvement of battery-operated power tools. These days, you can perform just about anything on a cordless tool as you can with a corded one.

These innovations should not be overlooked. If you’ve ever ripped multiple pieces from a full-length piece of plywood, imagine having to do the same thing with a handsaw. The sheer amount of carpentry which a props artisan can accomplish in one day is far greater by magnitudes than what was possible in the days before Vaudeville.