When the Actors Are Students, and They’re Armed – In this climate of daily school shootings, how do high school theater departments deal with plays and musicals that feature guns? The New York Times is on it. They showcase a number of schools who take different approaches; some use abstract props to represent the guns, while others use as realistic a prop as possible. As a prop master, you need to be in on the conversation early whenever your production will include firearms.
Adding Smoke F/X to Toys Using E-Cigarettes – Make Magazine rounds up some tutorials on using e-cigarettes to add smoke effects to toys (or props). Remember, if you are working on an Equity show, there are guidelines on how much smoke you can use, and the levels need to be tested. There are a few brands you can use without the need for testing, but they cannot be hacked or modified.
I have a new book, The Prop Effects Guidebook, being published this February. It will show you how to do all sorts of magical effects, like the fire effect in the video below.
I first saw this effect in a video from another theater (I forget which one, I’m dreadfully sorry). Our technical director at the time, Chris Simpson, recreated it and we’ve used it in several productions since then. It works best inside of a fireplace or another semi-enclosed area where you can hide all the equipment.
I recently put out a survey to see how various theaters and other live venues deal with open flame and pyrotechnic effects.
I received a total of 118 responses. The chart below shows the breakdown by country.
Responses from outside the USA came from Canada, the UK, and Australia, as well as from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Finland.
The responses were from a healthy mix of companies, from the largest regional theaters to the smallest community theaters. There were responses from Broadway and off-Broadway houses, as well as theme parks, opera companies, and educational programs.
The meat of the survey was a series of questions asking about the requirements for using various items. The items included open flame devices like candles and matches, pyrotechnic devices like squibs and sparklers, and heating elements like stoves.
Every answer has at least some variety. Perhaps the closest ones with any sort of “consensus” were burning paper and a hot plate. But it goes to show just how different every venue could be. Even within the venues, the requirements could change on a show-to-show basis. A lot of what is “allowed” comes down to the fire marshal’s approval, and that can change depending on which fire marshal visits your theatre, or even how you present the effect to the fire marshal.
I also wanted to point out one interesting distinction between “Bic-style” and “Zippo-style” lighters. You can see in the chart above that a Zippo-style lighter is more likely to require a flame permit than a Bic-style lighter. Not all lighters are the same!
The use of cigarettes is not just dependent on the fire marshal; you also have to contend with tobacco and smoking regulations. I asked a question about what types of smoking products are allowed:
I was actually surprised at the percentage of theaters that could still use real cigarettes. From talking with other props masters, it sounded like they were all but completely banned by this point. But apparently a few places can still use them, usually citing free speech as their defense.
Looking at the individual responses, I found another surprise. In some venues, real and herbal cigarettes were allowed, while e-cigarettes were not. Usually, though, it is more likely to be the case that e-cigarettes were the only option where all others were banned.
The last graph shows whether theaters have a licensed pyrotechnician on staff.
Having someone on the theater’s payroll makes a big difference with what types of effects they use regularly. Using flash paper on stage gets a whole lot more expensive if you have to hire an additional crew member. If you ever wondered how some companies can afford to use a lot of pyro, this may be the answer.
The final question of the survey asked for additional comments on the use of flame and pyro effects. Many responses discussed the safety procedures they had to follow, such as maintaining a fire watch or flameproofing all the surrounding scenery. A few places mentioned they are only allowed to light and extinguish candles and matches on stage, not off.
A couple of responses reiterated just how arbitrary the rulings of a fire marshal can be. In one case, effects which followed national and state guidelines were banned simply because of city politics. Every theatre and every show is different, and you should never assume you can do certain effects just because you saw another theatre do them.
The following comes from a 1906 master’s thesis by Allie V. Parks titled, “Stage Properties, Costumes, Scenery and Music of the English Miracle Plays” (see part 1 here). These were religious pageants performed in England from the 10th to the 16th centuries. I’ve reformatted the text a bit to make it a little more readable, since it is already challenging trying to decipher the Middle English text:
In regard to the use of fire on the Mystery stage, Mr. L. W. Cushman in “The Devil And The Vice,” says on page 24, “None of the great Mystery-cycles contain, in the stage directions, any mention of the use of fire. Sharp found in the account books only one entry for fire in hell-mouth and that of a late date; 1557, “Item payd for keeping of fyre at hell mouth iiijd.”
In the ‘York Plays,’ however, Lucifer complains at the time of his fall, of intollerable heat, “alyke hat,” 5/97 and again, he complains of the heat and smoke, which rolls up from below, “ye smore me in smoke, 5/117.” This statement may easily be disproved by the following stage directions, in the ‘Abraham and Isaac Play’ already quoted, p. 65, Heare Abraham taketh a sworde and fire, shows that fire was used on the stage.
On page 391 of Mediaeval Plays, Chambers gives stage directions of a very early play, at Cornwall, “Lucifer voydeth & goeth downe to hell apareled fowle with fyre about hem turning to hell and every degre of devylls of lether & spirytis on cordis runing into ye playne and so remayne ther.” In the stage directions of the Chester cycle by the Early English Text Society, p. 42, Then a flame shall Descende upon the sacrifice of abell.
If your production is permitted to use live flame, a match can be one of the most frustrating props to get right. In real life, we barely notice when it takes a few attempts to light a match, but on stage, we want the match to light up on the first stroke. First we need to know about the two main types of matches: safety vs strike anywhere.
What is the difference between safety matches and strike-anywhere matches? A match requires a mix of chemicals in order to ignite, including phosphorus. On a strike-anywhere match, all the chemicals are contained in the head. On a safety match, the phosphorus is not on the match head, but rather on a special striking surface. It is only when you draw the match against that surface that you have the correct combination of ingredients. A strike-anywhere match can be lit against any surface with enough friction; a safety match needs a strike plate containing phosphorus.
The above picture shows the visual difference between the two. The head on a safety match (top) is a solid color; usually red or blue, though newer ones can be green. The head of a strike anywhere match is red with a white tip; the white tip is the phosphorus.
In theatre, we want consistency, and most productions opt for the strike-anywhere match. You can light it off of a sheet of sandpaper; I found 300 grit is pretty good. A lot of shows will tape small rectangles of sandpaper on various hard surfaces around the set so the actor can light the match wherever they are. With a safety match, the chemicals on the striking plate are consumable, so the matches get progressively harder to light unless you switch out a fresh strike plate every so often.
Using strike anywhere matches takes some foresight, since it has gotten nearly impossible to just run out to a store and buy them. You probably need to order them online. They are not difficult to find, but they may take a few days to ship because of regulations against sending them by air.
You can buy in bulk, though they tend to lose their effectiveness over time. For optimum storing, keep them in an airtight container or bag along with a pack of silica gel desiccant.
As far as the historical accuracy of matches, both types appeared at basically the same time. The nineteenth century saw a lot of change and evolution in matches. You can find a lot of information online, but be careful with what you read; many sites will have interesting trivia about matches, but will neglect to tell you which matches were widely used and which were expensive novelties.
Basic archetypal wood matches using white phosphorus were widely used between 1830 and 1890. Many nineteenth century match boxes did not contain a striking surface, but rather had a loose piece of sandpaper inside that one used to light it. They also needed to be kept in an airtight container, so you would not see piles of loose matches out in the open.
The strike anywhere match as we know it came around the beginning of the twentieth century, as the use of white phosphorus was banned around the world and alternatives were found.
Safety matches began appearing around the middle of the nineteenth century.
Besides keeping your matches dry and making sure you have the correct striking surface, the other way to help your actors light a match is to use matches with a larger head and a sturdy shaft. Kitchen matches will often use thicker wood for their body than “standard” matches. Camping matches are typically beefier too; however, if they are “windproof”, it will be harder to blow them out, which can be dangerous onstage. Fireplace matches have some of the biggest heads; their shafts can often be nine inches or longer, but you can cut them down to whatever length you need.
One final disclaimer: the use of live flame onstage should only be done when you have the approval of the venue and the local fire marshal. Many jurisdictions will not allow any fire at all, even a single match. You need to take all possible precautions, including having someone backstage on “fire watch”, standing ready with a fire extinguisher. Wherever the actor disposes of the match, whether an ashtray or other container, you should fill with a bit of water, non-flammable gel (like Vaseline), or sand. The proper flameproofing of all props, scenery, and costumes around the match is also vital.
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