Tag Archives: job

Out Like a Lion… with Links!

USITT is in full swing on the other coast, and I am only a few days away from the next deadline on my book. Things are hopping around here! Here are some interesting things from around the web:

Since I couldn’t make it to USITT, I’ve tried using Storify for the first time to cull together some news and tidbits about it. Tell me what you think.

Local man hopes for a leg up to career in the movies! This is the story of a 47 year old man from Northern Ireland who was laid off from his job and decided to switch gears and learn how to make props for movies. Even if you don’t want to read the story, the picture at the top of the page is definitely worth a glance.

Do you like giant woodshops? Do you like Ron Swanson? Nick Offerman, who plays Ron on TV’s Parks and Rec, has an enviable woodshop, which he shows off in this video. Nick learned carpentry by working as a theatrical set carpenter, so he has his shop set up like a scenery shop. The things he builds, though, are a far cry from flats and platforms.

In this interesting article called “The Tool Works at Both Ends“, we learn how your brain adapts and remodels itself depending on what tasks we do throughout the day. If you sit in front of a computer all day, your brain becomes better at absorbing large amounts of text and processing it while multitasking on other thoughts. If you work in a carpentry shop all day, your brain becomes more adept at guiding your hands to use tools and imagining how pieces of wood would look assembled in your head. The article proposes a “mental crossfit” program to condition all the portions of your brain throughout the day. As props people, we probably have one of the best jobs as far as maintaining a good brain balance goes, in that we are constantly switching between tasks such as research, collaborating with team members, hands-on building and crafting, and abstract problem-solving.

Finding a Job in Film (for Prop Makers)

If you ask ten prop makers how they began building props for film, you will get ten different answers. It usually involves some combination of luck, timing, and knowing the right person. While theatre has seasonal employment, apprenticeships and internships which you can find advertised as well as job fairs which feature employers that regularly hire prop people, the world of film has no such thing. You can’t learn about it in a book (believe me—I’ve looked). So how do you get started?

I also want to add that I am writing this as I figure it out; I am pretty much a prop maker for theatre, and my film credits are, well… I haven’t done any film. But this is similar to how I began to get work in the display and exhibition world, and that kept me fairly well employed for a few years. So if any of may readers have advice to add, I’m sure all of us, myself included, will be grateful for it.

To start, find out where the props are being built. Continue reading Finding a Job in Film (for Prop Makers)

Leaving New York City

Today is my last day as the assistant props master at the Public Theater, and on Monday, I’ll be gone from New York City as well. I’ve been planning this for some time; my wife has been teaching scene design down at Elon University for the past year and a half, and when her position became more permanent, I decided to finish up the autumn productions up and move down there with her. A year and a half is long time to be  over five hundred miles apart.

It’s been amazing working at the Public Theater. First of all, it has such a rich history. This is the theatre where Hair and Chorus Line debuted. This has been one of the focal institutions for downtown New York Theatre for half of a century. More important than its history though is its continuing contribution to New York theatre.

I’ve gotten to work with designers like John Lee Beatty, John Conklin, and Eugene Lee; these are designers I studied in college a decade ago. The same is true of writers like Suzan-Lori Parks, Tony Kushner, and Christopher Durang, all of whom were required reading in at least one of my classes. I also got to work with all sorts of up and coming designers, such as Mark Wendland, Donyale Werle and Scott Pask. Of course, I’ve worked on shows with great directors as well, including Daniel Sullivan, David Esbjornson, Michael Greif, JoAnne Akalitis, Alex Timbers, Richard Foreman. The list goes on.

More importantly, my colleagues were an amazing part of my time there. Our artistic director often remarked that we were the “best staff in the American theatre”. I don’t know if I’m qualified to say whether it is the “best” or not, but I can certainly say that the production staff there is one of the great production departments in the world of theatre. It was a blessing and a challenge to be able to work with equals rather than having to be the smartest one in the room (ha ha, I’m very modest).

I also feel that being at the Public has reaffirmed by belief in the necessity of theatre. Theatre is predicated on the fact that there is a performer and there is an audience and they have to be in the same space. You cannot package it, commoditize it and distribute it; you have to be there, you have to put the time in, and you have to listen. It is an art form that acknowledges that we are our relationships with other people, and that storytelling is more than just consuming something on a screen. Much of what the Public does is exciting from the tightly-packed, creaky room where the Belarus Free Theatre performed their heartbreaking work which made them criminals by their totalitarian government, to the palpable electricity caused by 1800 people quieting down as the show begins in the open-air Delacorte Theater in the middle of Central Park.

Of course, I am excited by my new adventure. I will have my own workshop. Though tiny, it is more than I’ve ever had. I am of course, hard at work on my book. After the holidays, I already have a bit of work lined up at PlayMakers Rep building some props for their Shakespeare shows (I’m good at Shakespeare props). This blog will certainly soldier on. I actually began it before I ever worked in the Public Theater’s prop shop! Hard to believe.

Review: The Business of Theatrical Design

The Business of Theatrical Design by James L. Moody
The Business of Theatrical Design

This is the story of The Business of Theatrical Design, by James L. Moody.

Does this book have anything to do with props people? Sure. Though it is geared towards the theatrical designers, both prop masters and artisans working in the freelance world need the advice and information presented within. Further, the job title of “properties designer” is becoming more prevalent in today’s theatrical world.

The first six chapters are on the technical aspects of running a business: accounting, staffing, offices, etc. A lot of this seems out of the realm of the average freelance props person. On the other hand, you will probably need some of the information at least once in your career. Even if you never have a full-time staff (very few freelance prop masters do), you will on occasion have an assistant or need to hire some outside help for some jobs. You may think you do not need an office, but if you have a shop, it might serve the same purpose. The information presented in these chapters is dense, and not meant to be read all at once in one sitting. Rather, it is a great reference to keep close by and refer to as needed.

Perhaps the only main deviation between the business of a theatrical designer and a props artisan is that theatrical design is mostly a service industry (according to Moody) while a props artisan mixes elements of manufacturing and service.

The next few chapters feel more directly applicable to the props freelancer. It deals with marketing yourself, networking, job interviews and dressing for success. Sure, you can find this kind of information elsewhere, but most of it seems geared towards bankers and mid-level managers applying for cattle calls at large corporations. This book deals with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of getting jobs in the world of theatre and entertainment design. It also devotes some time to dealing with the aspects of the job not typically covered in other books about theatre work, such as conflict resolution and group dynamics.

This book does have a few flaws. It is fairly US-centric when dealing with specifics about legal topics, business culture, contracts and unions. Though only written in 2002, it is a touch outdated when it comes to technology and the internet; I don’t think I would suggest to anyone to carry around a CD of your work, especially when thumb drives and jump drives can hold so much more information in a much smaller space and work on nearly every computer (some newer laptops and tablets don’t even come with a CD drive). I also think an internet presence is more of a necessity these days. Employers are incredibly likely to run an internet search on you when you are applying for a job or a gig; even if you do not have a website, you should run an internet search on yourself to see what they would see.

This book fills the gaps in theatre education for the all important considerations of the business side of show business. Maybe your education did not give you the chance to take business classes while enrolled, or maybe you did not find yourself working as a professional freelancer until well after your formal education ended. In any case, The Business of Theatrical Design covers such a broad range of information not found elsewhere that makes this a must-have for anyone wanting to make a living in theatre.

Labor is a cost, not a profit

What does it mean to do a project “at cost”? Simply put, when a client orders a project, you deliver it and charge only enough to compensate what you spent. It differs from a project where you add a markup to the costs or add a profit margin. So the price is the cost plus the markup plus the profit. Sometimes you might not mark up the costs, and other times you do not add in a profit, but in either case, you are charging more than what you spent.

The confusion comes from the “costs”. There’s the cash you spend – materials, shipping, gas money to drive to the store, overhead and maintenance of your shop – and then there is your labor cost. Some may argue that you should not charge for your labor when you are doing a project “at cost”. This is not only erroneous, but it is damaging to our industry, as I shall explain in a bit.

I’ve even heard the suggestion that the cost of your labor should be considered “profit.” This is absolutely absurd! If you get overwhelmed with other jobs and have to hire someone to do the project, you do not get to keep that money; it becomes a labor cost. When a company sends out it’s weekly payroll checks, it does not get that cash back, nor can it count it as profit. Why then should you count your own labor as profit?

The cost of labor is already factored into all the materials and tools you use. The cost of a gallon of silicone rubber includes the cost of the scientists who invented it, the people who manufactured it, the people who packaged it, the drivers who transported it, and the salespeople who sold it. You can’t count any of their labor as a profit; it’s all part of the cost. Why would your labor not also be a cost?

If you make something “at cost” you include the price of your labor. If you don’t know how much that is, you should charge the same amount for your labor as it would take to hire someone else to do that work. You can charge an hourly, daily, or weekly rate, or just set a flat fee for the project as a whole. If you are trying to control the costs of the project, you certainly have some leeway in how much you charge for your labor, but you should never charge too little for it; if your price is still too high for a client and you are trying to do them a favor, you can always add a “discount” to your final price, so you maintain the integrity of your own labor costs.

Prop masters and artisans with experience know that labor is often the most expensive part of a prop. A foam sculpture may only use about $15 in materials, but it can take fifty hours to complete. Even at a very modest $15 an hour, that is still $750 in labor.

Imagine than, a market where some prop makers are saying $15 is “at cost” while others are saying $765 is “at cost”. That kind of disparity drives down the price of props and devalues the labor which goes into it. It is very skilled labor as well, the kind that is frequently at a shortage, even in a large market like New York City. It takes a lot of training, skill and practice to be able to make props. Clients who want the “costs” of a project kept to a minimum will point to the $15 examples, thinking that the $765 estimate is somehow inflating the price or using more expensive materials. Even if you are just an amateur prop maker, your pricing can have ripple effects throughout the industry.

If you want to charge someone just for the materials you use and throw your labor in for free (because it is for a friend, or because you really love the work and would never get paid for it otherwise), that is certainly your right. Everyone does it at some point. But make sure you are saying you are only charging “for materials”, not that you are doing the project “at cost”. It’s a world of difference.