Tag Archives: book

Prop News and Views

Some of you already saw this yesterday, but I began a quick little survey on how your theatre uses fire and pyrotechnics. Please take a moment to fill it out; it will only take 3 to 5 minutes. Even if your theatre bans all types of fire down to the smallest candle, that information will still be useful.

Take a listen to this podcast with Ellen Freund, a prop master in film and television for 35 years. Her credits include Mad MenMasters of the UniverseNight at the MuseumTwilight (no, not that Twilight), Twilight Saga: New Moon (yes, that Twilight), and so many more.

Karestin Harrison and Tammy Honesty are working on a recipe book of fake food due out in early 2018. Rosco has a few sample recipes up on their blog. It’s a much needed and much anticipated book for many prop builders, and one more step for Routledge in creating the ultimate prop library.

Collectors Weekly consistently publishes the most in-depth and interesting articles, and this one on the history of Holiday windows is no exception. After reading the article, take a moment to go through the photo gallery showing Holiday windows dating as far back as the 1800s.

Finally, in angrier news, the UC San Diego Department of Theatre and Dance and La Jolla Playhouse recently laid off 21 production employees, and then “invited” them to reapply for their jobs at a severe pay cut. These employees include most of the department heads of the various production departments, including the props master. Read this article on Broadway World for the specifics of how and why this happened, then head on over to the UCSD Theatre & Dance – Help Save Our Jobs! Facebook Group to see what you can do to help and to continue following the story.

Friday Rehearsal Notes

6 Theatre Workers You Should Know – American Theatre just picked Karin Rabe Vance as one of this month’s theatre workers. Karin is the props master at the Alley Theatre, which just had a major renovation done to their production facilities. Her shop produces some enviable work, and as a fellow S*P*A*M member, she is a great help to the props community.

Designer Lez Brotherston claims boom in theatre admin jobs has taken toll on technical roles – I once walked the facilities of a theatre company which had gone out of business and were auctioning off their building and assets. The admin office was filled with rows and rows of desks; they probably had 30 people working in there. But they had no production or technical workers on staff, and produced only one show a year. I’m sure other reasons exist for their bankruptcy, but I can’t see how a setup like that could ever be successful, even with a constant infusion of cash. Anecdotally too, it seems more and more young theatre artists want to get into the admin side of things, and fewer want to do any of the hands-on work. But ultimately, you can’t get a show in front of an audience by sitting in front of a computer all day or by talking in a meeting. You have to physically build, paint, sew, wire, and source every last bit, and then heft it through the theatre door.

Free Download for Halloween: The Coffin Chapter – Just in time for Halloween, or perhaps for your remount of Christmas Carol, comes this free chapter from one of Lost Art Press’ books. It’s a lot of hand woodworking, but you can easily adapt the instructions to build one with power tools. I’m dying to try this out.

The Humble Book Bundle: Cosplay – If you haven’t heard of “Humble Bundles”, they take a bunch of products and let you buy them all for however much you want to pay, with all the money going to charity. From now until October 28th, they have a bundle of cosplay books, which feature a lot of stuff that prop builders will find interesting. They are all e-books, but it’s very high quality stuff; some of the books have been reviewed here before, and others are by well-known prop builders whose work has been featured on this blog. Check it out before it’s too late!

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

Four Fun Friday Links

The Force Awakens Blog has posted photographs of 50 weapons and helmets from Star Wars: The Force Awakens in stunning high-resolution. It would be fun to make some of these in anticipation of the movie’s release (though most theatre chains have banned replica guns from their screenings).

I wrote a review of The Theatrical Firearms Handbook for the latest issue of Theatre Design and Technology. It’s an invaluable book for everything gun-related in theatre and film. If you are ever involved with a firearm on stage, you should own this book.

The New York Times has restored designer’s names to reviews of shows in their paper. This is very good news to anyone who has been following this story. Meanwhile, props people consider it a victory to be listed in the back of the program next to the brand of carpeting used in the lobby.

Eyeballs Studio makes a pretty stunning Dwarven Axe using mostly closed-cell foam and PVC pipe. It is amazing what you can accomplish with such cheap and readily-available materials.