Tag Archives: blog

This site is four years old

While my new book is one of the most exciting things on the horizon, let’s not forget that this blog continues to deliver lots of fun and free writing about props, and it will do so long after the book comes out. This blog turned four years old last week, and I almost forgot about it! I thought it would be fun to recap what has appeared here, just like I did after the first year, the second year, and the third year. It now contains 585 published posts, with a total of 266,384 words; that’s one and a half times as many in my book!

I’ve written a few little “featurettes” in the past year. I try to discover who the first prop maker was. I show off some photographs of prop artifacts held at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I take a look at prop expenses from 1716. I had a multi-part series of how they built Fafner the dragon at every production of The Ring Cycle which the Metropolitan Opera has done since it was founded (part one, part two, and part three). I explored who invented the jig saw, and looked at whether it should be called a saber saw or a jig saw. I did a story called To Broadway and Back, and looked at where to find summer jobs. I also did a few safety-oriented posts: Weapon Safety is nothing new, and The Nose Knows Not.

I have toured some places and wrote about some events. These include Wesley Cannon’s awesome film prop collection, a visit to Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s School, a visit and lesson at Dick Snow’s blacksmithing shop, the Burlington (North Carolina) Mini Maker Faire, a tour of the Costume Armour facilities in New York, and the NYC Annual Props Summit.

I added some more of my own illustrations, including formal dinner settings, and “Better Proud than Shy“. I have begun shooting a lot more video in the past year, such as adding a flange to PVC pipe, vacuum forming for zero dollars, an exploding cuckoo clock, sculpting in oil clay, making a plaster mold, and sculpting and carving foam.

Of course, I posted pictures and explanations of various props I have built: Furniture for Henry IV and V at Playmakers Rep, a crepe cart at the Santa Fe Opera, a six-foot tall microscope, a dead deer at Shakespeare in the Park, King Roger’s throne at the Santa Fe Opera, twelve candlestick phones for Elon University, a player piano for Elon, various props for Crazy for You at Elon, Milky the Cow, Puppets for Into the Woods, some box elder boxes, and a CNC cast iron bench.

This year, I’ve also published some cool things submitted by other people. First up is Specter Studios building a foam axe prop, followed by the condensed history of their company. Next up is Costume Armour making a disappearing turkey. I also posted the video of Jay Duckworth’s KCACTF keynote speech on being a props master.

Regular readers know I like to dig out old historical writings about props. This year, these included the following: Actors in IATSE (1898), Backstage Views (1900), What Becomes of Stage Scenery (1903), A multi-part reprint of an article on prop maker E.L. Morse (1904): part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, and part 7; The Covetous Property Man (1904), A Factory for Making Plays (1909), Good Furniture and Moving Pictures (1915), How David Belasco shops for props (1919), William Bradley, Property Man (1927), Why Film Prop Men Often Die in Their Youth (1938).

There were also some great illustrations I’ve reprinted here: daggers and poniards of the Christian Middle Ages, an illustration detailing the construction of a table, cooking pots history, 1642-1969, chair back styles, and construction and upholstery of chairs.

Finally, I reviewed Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss. Though not a review, I also did a brief interview with Sandra Strawn about her recently published book, The Properties Director’s Handbook.

So there you have Year Four in a nutshell. I post lots of other links and videos in addition to what I’ve written here. If you don’t want to miss any future posts, you can subscribe to my blog with your favorite blog reader, or sign up to get all articles through email. For even extra prop goodness, you can follow me on Twitter as well.

This blog is three years old today

Dear blog,

What a year it’s been!

But seriously, It’s hard to believe this blog has been running for three years already. I began a tradition where I would sum up the posts from the previous years, starting with the first 162 posts, followed by the next 151 posts. I’m now up to 461 posts, at a grand total of over 218,000 words. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, I would love to hear from you either in the comments or in an email; of course, if you’ve already left a comment in the past few years, feel free to leave another!

Screenshot of Props Agenda during the first year
What this blog looked like in 2009.

Probably the biggest news for me this year was that my book idea was picked up by Focal Press. It will be called The Prop Building Guidebook for Theatre, Film and TV and appear in bookstores in February, 2013. I submitted the first several chapters back in November, and my next partial deadline is this February. The other big news is that I left New York City to move to North Carolina.

I was interviewed by Angela Mitchell at About.com. I had two articles appear in Stage Directions this year. “From Agave to Zeus” was about the dead body and head we created for The Bacchae in 2009. “Intelligent Design” was about the breakaway wall(!) we made for The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

Some of the feature articles I wrote just for this blog include a comparison of recipes for Scenic Dope and Monster Mud; what’s in a Prop Bible; why you should always be photographing; defining the scope of a project with Design Briefs; what is Pepakura; taking baby steps and jumping in; a brief discussion on period props; clearing up some confusions in the world of plastics; how Bad Props make Bad Shows; a union propmaker’s tool kit; product versus process; how your labor is a cost, not a profit; an imaginary conversation on whether the soldiers have swords or guns; how to work with what you have; making a fake newspaper; making fake but edible food; making fake drinks; a case against metric; and finding a job in film (for prop makers). Some of my articles deal with the important issue of safety as well. I wrote about safety goggles, the real dangers of MDF, how you should breathe nothing but air, and what happens when actors drink chemicals instead of fake drinks.

At the end of 2011, I shared what I felt was the top prop news of the year. I wrote about more news that happened, though what I wrote is more of what happens to me personally. Stories included a round-up of USITT 2011 in Charlotte, NC, a fire drill at the Public Theater, some new miracle materials, the 2011 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design, a tour of the Childsplay Theatre shops (see also part 2), Rebecca Akins’ work and speech at the 2011 S*P*A*M conference, how the backstage community helped out on September 11th, 2001, attending Maker Faire, guns seized on the set of Brad Pitt’s latest film project, and a salon discussion on “Being Green” in theatre.

Some of the projects I’ve worked on which I shared this year include a set of Art Deco footlights for Sleep No More, made on a homemade sheet metal brake; a set of chairs for an opera called Tea; food in Timon of Athens which I prop mastered at the Public Theater; letters for a Starbucks scene; Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; a Yoruban ceremonial sword; a new prop (a replica of a French 75mm artillery gun) for Shakespeare in the Park (one of my favorites); the set dressing in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, props in King Lear at the Public Theater, including a fake dead pheasant; a severed hand in Titus Andronicus at the Public Theater, molded from Jay O. Sanders’ hand (one of my other favorites), and a cast iron park bench.

I sometimes make my own illustrations, and this year I shared the parts and types of a hammer, parts of a table, and the parts of a cigar, cigarette, pipe and matchbook. I also shared helpful illustrations by others which included the history of the US flag, analysis of a chair, Ancient Egyptian weapons, Ancient Greek helmets, Ancient Greek weapons, Ancient Roman weapons, theatrical ads from a hundred years ago, and olde time woodworking machines.

I also shared some videos: American Theatre Wing featured the prop master in their “In the Wings” series; the USITT 2011 Tech Olympics; Jim Henson making Muppets in 1969; a screen test video for snake puppets in Stargate SG-1; a Tour of an Animatronic Workshop; John Sanders and The Walking Dead props; Seán McArdle and Faye Armon; Props in True Grit; the NYC Christmas Windows; and the automaton in Hugo.

I continued reviewing books which I find useful for working in props. This year, these included A Guidebook for Creating Three-Dimensional Theatre Art by Ann J. Carnaby; the Backstage Handbook by Paul Carter and George Chiang; Grande Illusions 1 and 2 by Tom Savini; The Business of Theatrical Design by James L. Moody; The Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery by Gary Rogowski; and one of the most important, The Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV and Theater by Monona Rossol.

Finally, I’m always exploring the history of props as it relates to the history of the theatre in general and the rest of the world. This past year, I took a look at the history of women in props, carpentry then and now, the history of props in Kabuki theatre, and more on Ancient Greek theatre props. I also asked some important questions like who invented the hot glue gun?  What is Celastic? Who was Thurston James? I also relayed some biographical information about Joe Lynn, the Tony Award–winning Props Master, and took a look at a man who may have been the first prop master in America. Finally, I shared some old humorous anecdotes about props.

Integral to exploring the history are the reprints of old book excerpts, magazine articles, and news stories from the dusty bins of prop history. This year’s catalog includes Joining a Circus in 1922, Property Resources from 1916, In the Boston Museum’s Prop Room in 1903, The Agonies of a Stage Manager in 1914, Recollections of Dirty Snow from 1916, David Belasco and Set Dressing from 1904, Concerning Stage Viands in 1910, How to be a Great, Not Just Good, Set Decorator (date unknown), A Property Man’s Confession in 1903, the Salaries of US Theatre in 1798, The Old Proproom at the Walnut St. Theatre of 1910, Shams in the Theatre in 1880, A Madman in a Theater from 1893, Rehearsing the “Props” in 1911, How nature is imitated on the stage circa 1885, No Screen for Rehearsal in 1903, Duties of  a Property Man in Utah in 1921, and lastly, a lengthy magazine article from 1878 split up into several parts: Evidence of Elizabethan Props, Props at Drury Lane in 1709 and Theatre Royal in 1776, Real Objects versus Constructed Props, Nineteenth Century Prop Lists, Skulls used in Hamlet, George Frederick Cooke’s Body as a Prop, and Macready and his Deer Skin.

As always, remember that you can subscribe to my blog with your favorite blog reader, or sign up to get all articles through email so you don’t miss anything in the future. I add three posts a week, and as a bonus, the RSS feed and email subscriptions remain advertisement-free.

This blog is two years old today

It’s hard to believe this blog has been running for another year already. Last year, I summed up the first 162 posts. I’m doing the same thing again this year. If you are new to this site, or even if you’ve been checking it out for awhile, you may not know how much stuff is here; I’ve written 313 posts (that’s over 139,000 words). You can subscribe to my blog with your favorite blog reader, or sign up to get all articles through email so you don’t miss anything in the future. I add three posts a week, and as a bonus, the RSS feed and email subscriptions remain advertisement-free. I also have a Twitter feed where I share news and links about props. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, now would be a great time to leave a comment or drop an email if you haven’t yet; and if you have, feel free to leave another.

I had some things going on outside of this blog this past year. Back in September, I was interviewed at TheatreFace, and you can read the transcript at the site. I also had an article in Stage Directions magazine on the breakable phone from The Book of Grace; another article will be appearing in this February’s issue.

I really hit a nerve with the props community when I asked Why is there no Tony Award for Props? My article On sharing and secret knowledge also proved popular. 25 memorable film props was a big hit with the kids. Other feature length articles I’ve written include Challenges in making props lists for Shakespeare, Which classes should I take, Importance of photographing your work, How much should you charge for your work?, A Common Error in Making Cutlists, Buying the Right Tools, Using soft materials to mimic hard details, Building a Prop from a Photograph, applying for a NYC Theatrical Weapons Permit, and the all-important question: Why Make? I shared Some thoughts on brand-name props, Thoughts on green props, and Thoughts on 3D Printing Technology. I shared two shorter pieces On making things and Getting the shape you want,, and finally gave advice on what to do When Nothing is Happening.

I am interested in the definitions of props and the ideas behind what it means to work in props, and so I opined on what the difference is with a prop master vs prop director, how to tell whether something is a Prop or Not? and what it means when a prop is Cut! I also asked Why the term prop master?, gave my theories on the Confusions in the definition of a prop, and listed some Categories of props.

I showed some process shots from some of the projects I and others in the shop have worked on, such as faux oil paintings, a fake deer butt, a paper-tearing jig, fake french fries, a breakaway telephone, a Medusa head, an LED lighter, a fake dead lamb (part one, part two, and three), a steel headboard for In the Wake, a stuffed kitten from recycled fabric, a chandelier from Romeo and Juliet, as well as an overview of the props from The Book of Grace, and the paper props from Capeman. I also documented the process in making a blood sponge bag, how to gold leaf, faking a beer can, making a switchblade, five quick prop fixes, and ways to make crack and snow.

I took a heavier focus on safety this year, with articles on E-cigarettes, choosing the right disposable glove, all the chemicals in the world, blank-firing guns, and “A Label of Love“.

This past year saw “Props Month” at Stage Directions magazine, as well as the launching of the new S*P*A*M website. I attended the S*P*A*M conference in San Francisco, where I also got to take tours of the San Francisco Opera and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre prop shop. I also attended the  Maker Faire 2010, 2010 NYC Props Summit, and the Going Green in Theatrical Design: Set & Props Workshop sponsored by the Broadway Green Alliance.

I began offering reviews of books for props people, and started off with some of the most commonly used texts, including Theatrical Design and Production by Gillette, Careers in Technical Theater by Mike Lawler, The Theater Props Handbook and The Prop Builder’s Molding and Casting Handbook by Thurston James, The Prop Master by Amy Mussman, and Making Stage Props by Andy Wilson.

I made some drawings. This year I drew the parts of a sword hilt, illustrated categories of props, and the parts of a book. I also linked to other helpful illustrations and diagrams across the web, such as an upholstery yardage chart, 36 knots, bends and splices, mechanical sound effects, and Nokia cellphones and Legos.

I also like looking at the history of props and prop-making, and wrote the following pieces: Oldest Surviving Masks; Medieval theatre and trade guilds; Props in Henslowe’s Diary; Props in the time of Moliere; The Gore of Grand Guignol; Pre-war special effects; and A brief history of IATSE.

Finally, I reprint articles and parts of books from other authors which talk about the world of props in all its many forms and incarnations. In chronological order, these are the articles: The Property Department in an opera house in 1851; Behind the scenes at the theatre, 1861; To literally steal the show 1868; The secret regions of the stage, 1874; The End of Making Props 1883; Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Introduction, Constructing a God, Technical Rehearsals, A Singing Dragon, Dangerous Effects; The Influence of Properties upon Dramatic Literature, 1889; A Place to Buy Thunder, 1898; Behind the scenes: The Property Room, 1898; Stage Sounds, 1904; Busy Stage Workers the Public Never Sees, 1910; The Unreality of Stage Realism, 1912; Writing for Vaudeville, 1915; Play production in America, 1916; Props in Movies, 1922; Dressing interior sets for the motion picture camera, 1923; Stage-hands union, 1923.

So keep reading, and keep propping. This next year should be just as exciting!

Monday Blogroll Links

If you’re new to this site, or if you follow it in a blog reader, you should check out the Blogroll links in the sidebar. These are other sites and blogs of prop-makers and prop-masters and general crafty people.  Here’s a sampling of some of the recent posts from these sites to entice you to check them out:

Via Propnomicon, I’ve found this collection of 11 old and grungy film textures. I’m going to use these to make some aged daguerreotype for our upcoming Merchant of Venice.

Speaking of Merchant, Meredith Ries at Malaprops shows how she is making fake books out of real paper for that show.

Jesse Gaffney at Theatre Projects has listed a few of her favorite things; tools and materials which come in handy on nearly any prop challenge.

Volpin Props always features incredible process photography of exquisitely-crafted replica props. The latest post on a light staff from Final Fantasy XI is no exception.

Lost in Schlock has a fun video on how to create fake edible raw meat.

Anna Warren continues to impress with her documentation of all the fake food props she makes at Fake ‘n Bake. One of my favorite recent posts is how to make Roast Beast in gravy.

Instructables is an incredible resource to find information on techniques you want to learn or materials you’ve never used before. Two tutorials I’ve enjoyed are:

  • Casting a Pear – Probably the quickest and grittiest way to cast something I’ve ever seen.
  • Sci-Fi Handgun – There are a lot of Instructables on making or remaking weaponry from science fiction movies. These are a good way of showing how a uniquely shaped prop can be broken down into simpler parts, and how found objects and tiny details can transform a prop from simple parts into a homogoneous object.

Keep readin!

Fake ‘n Bake

I would like to introduce you to the newest blog about props: Fake ‘n Bake. My friend, Anna Warren, details the projects she crafts and constructs at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. She specializes in fake food craftsmanship and casting and molding. Her articles so far are well-documented and chock full of photographs.

TV Dinner
A fake TV Dinner made by Anna Warren

The peas in that picture above? Mardi Gras beads. Check out the Fake ‘n Bake kitchen for how she made the rest. If you leave a comment there, tell her I sent you!