I’ve decided to incorporate some book reviews into my blog. Books about props are few and far between, so these won’t be fresh reviews of books hot off the press. I will, however, start with one of the newer books. If I ever actually convince you to purchase a book from Amazon, keep in mind that by using the links in my post, I will get a small kickback from them. The price you pay will be the same, but my happiness will be higher, and isn’t that what really matters?
The Sixth Edition of Theatrical Design and Production, by Michael Gillette was published in 2008. Gillette, a retired professor at the University of Arizona, first published this seminal textbook in 1987. Though pricey (it is a textbook, after all), it has not become the go-to text for stagecraft without earning it.
My examination of it will focus solely on the prop-specific parts, though the book does cover all aspects of technical theatre. It is important to note I am looking at the sixth edition; this version has seen a substantial reworking of the properties chapter through input by Sandra Strawn in particular, and the members of S*P*A*M in general. This gives the book more authority out of any other available books on how many prop shops in American regional and educational theatres are run. Between this and Strawn’s own “Properties Directors Handbook“, you get a good sense of the “standard practices.” This chapter does well as a guide for a college class, either as a section on props in a general stagecraft class, or as a springboard for developing an entire syllabus.
The first half of the chapter deals with the process and organization of propping a show. Most prop books deal mainly with the craft side; Gillette takes the reader through the whole process step-by-step, from the moment you find out what show you are propping, through initial prop lists and planning meetings, on to rehearsals and tech, and into the opening and running of the show, ending finally with strike. Other than Amy Mussman’s The Prop Master and Strawn’s Handbook, few books lay out the process in such a clear fashion, and none have the advantage of incorporating the experience of prop directors from many of our major regional theatres.
The second half focuses on prop craft. Prop furniture construction shows four apparently common wood joints: open and closed dowel, pocket hole, and biscuit. I personally love the pocket hole; the biscuit is indispensable for long end joints, and open doweling is great for repair work, particularly on chairs. I’d like to add to his definition of a jig: “A device used [to] hold pieces together in proper positional relationship.” “Pieces” can mean either the various pieces of material you are using, or it can mean the tools and the material. In other words, a jig can also be used as a guide to keep the tool in a proper positional relationship with the material.
The section on upholstering and drapery is very informative and makes a nice comprehensive introduction to the subject. The remaining section on “crafts” seems to deal mainly with the most toxic and least environmentally-friendly materials and processes one can use in props. There is an interesting mini-tutorial on using spray urethane foam (eg, Great Stuff) to make rigid molds. Though clever, I’ve found spray foam to be finicky to work with. Great Stuff has a Threshold Limit Value of .005, making it 4,000 times more toxic than turpentine, and 100,000 times more toxic than acetone. Likewise, using heat to shape plastic, or working with fiberglass, requires much more attention to safety than Gillette implies, though to be fair, he does implore the reader to seek out proper safety procedures on their own.
He also pushes aside papier-mâché too quickly. In a comment on my post on “Coating Foam”, Mary Robinette Kowal points out that papier-mâché on top of foam can actually be stronger than fiberglass. It is also that rare type of material and process that is both friendlier to the environment and better for your health. The paste is made from wheat, and the paper can be rescued from the trash for reuse. While the wheat-paste is usually laced with rat poison to discourage vermin from eating it, the rest of the ingredients are practically edible (note: please don’t eat papier-mâché). I’m not saying it’s a magic cure-all that can replace all other craft processes; also, I understand that Gillette is describing the current industry as is, rather than proposing a new direction it should take.
Back to the review. Information of interest to the props person can be found in other chapters of the book as well. Chapter 10 has a good introduction to the types of hand tools, power tools, and construction materials found in prop shops and scene shops. With a 2008 publication date, these are probably the most up-to-date descriptions of building materials available to the theatre-maker today, including all the synthetic and engineered products that are so difficult to keep track of. This chapter is also a better source for the safety information that is not included in the chapter on properties, with the assumption being that you would read this chapter first.
The section on fasteners, glues, construction hardware and stage hardware, though not as comprehensive as The Backstage Handbook, is more descriptive, and its use comes in describing the most commonly-used items, rather that every possible iteration. The section on safety equipment is so brief it feels like an afterthought, and does nothing to address the most common areas of concern for a beginner: the difference between impact and chemical-splash goggles, the various types of respirators, and choosing the right kind of glove for working with chemicals. Using this book for a class would certainly require supplementing it with a text like The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater by the tireless Monona Rossol. Learning how to create props without the proper safety precautions is like learning how to drive without learning to use turn signals, checking your mirrors, wearing your seat belt, or reading road signs.
Chapter 11 on scenic production techniques is also useful information for the props artisan. Though we seldom build flats, the techniques used in building flats come in handy for prop carpentry projects. Likewise, the book does a wonderful job of describing welding, soldering, and making construction drawings as well. I particularly relished the section on stressed-skin platforms and look forward to trying some of the techniques in future prop-making.
Gillette also touches on building rocks, trees, and creating objects out of foam, all necessary skills for the well-rounded props artisan. He’s a little incorrect in some of his definitions though. STYROFOAM™ Brand Foam is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company for their extruded polystyrene foam, not expanded as Gillette writes. It is usually sold in blue sheets for insulating buildings and is indeed fire resistant. Different types of Styrofoam insulation can be pink or even white, though still fire resistant. Dow also makes Styrofoam in white and green for the craft and floral market, but I could not discern the fire resistance of these kinds. Disposable foam products, like foam cups, coolers or packaging materials, are not made by Dow, hence not STYROFOAM™ Brand Foam. These are usually made out of expanded polystyrene beads, and is often referred to as “bead foam”. This is what Gillette is talking about when he refers to the course texture left from cutting through foam, or the “foam sawdust” from sawing. You can also by bead foam in large sheets similar to Styrofoam. Though both expanded and extruded polystyrene are generically referred to as “Styrofoam” here in the US, it is important to note that bead foam (expanded polystyrene) is not fire-resistant and can not be used untreated or left exposes on the theatrical stage. The multitude of plastics and synthetic materials available to today’s prop maker is confusing enough without a book as commonly used as Gillette’s muddying up the next generation with erroneous information.
The chapter on scene painting (chapter 12) is also useful for a props artisan, particularly the section on texturing. The chapter on electrical theory and practice (chapter 15), though interesting on its own, does not deal much with the kind of wiring a props person may need to do. Chapter 19 (costume construction) is notable in that it describes many of the same tools, materials and techniques necessary for soft goods work, such as curtains and drapes, Likewise, the information on millinery, costume crafts and masks is very applicable to the crafting of three-dimensional prop pieces, and may be incorporated into a lesson or class on props.
Though I’ve pointed out a few shortcomings and errors in this book, let me reiterate what an incredible resource Gillette has created in the latest edition of his book. As I said at the beginning, the chapter on props can easily become the outline for an entire class.