Tag Archives: knowledge

Which Classes Should I Take

It’s that time of year again; summer is winding down and school is about to start. If you’re one of many who are in college or graduate school, you may be wondering what classes you should take to help you be a better props person. Hopefully, I can help.

It should go without saying that if your theatre department offers a class in props, you should take it. If you go to a school that has multiple types of props classes, even better.

Other departments in your theatre program may have classes you can take as well. Mask-making, costume crafts, puppet building, scenic carpentry, etc. Even if you take a regular costume class, you will learn how to sew. You may also discover that you prefer working in costumes rather than in props. Part of going to college is to expose yourself to new experiences and career possibilities; you should keep an open mind and not rationalize your choices based on what you think you should be doing or what others expect of you.

Many props people I know who studied theatre in college focused on scenic design. They continue working in props as a way to pay the bills in between design gigs. Others, such as yours truly, find they actually prefer being a props person rather than a scenic designer. Scenic design classes are very helpful for a props person. First, the scenic designer is the main person a props master deals with on a show, so knowing how they work and how they arrive at their choices will help you deal with your designer better; it will give you a common vocabulary to speak with. Second, a designer comes up with a concept, and works out the details based on that concept and overall look. As a props person, you continue filling in the gaps of the design down to the tiniest details. Being able to think like a designer will help you take in the design as a whole and use it to decide what magnets to put on the refrigerator, or what color to stain the end table. If the designer wants a lamp, it is more efficient if the props master presents three options which fit the design of the play, rather than three completely random choices.

If your school offers a technical direction class, that is good for a props person as well; you can learn the project management skills which will help you as a props master and the ability to develop construction drawings from a designer’s drafting, which can assist you as a prop artisan.

The fine arts department is another place where you can find classes to take. Many arts departments are very particular about who takes their classes; in fact, if you are a junior or senior and not an art major or minor, they might not let you take any of their classes. But if you do manage to work your way in, classes in sculpting, mold-making, metal-work, mixed-media and found-object assemblage and the like will behoove you greatly.

In addition to practical arts classes, art history is an excellent class to broaden your prop knowledge. In fact, any sort of design history or theatre history classes will expand your knowledge base.

If you attend a liberal arts school, do not give up the opportunity that your general education classes may present. Rather than taking easy or basic courses in the other departments, look for the ones which are secret prop-classes in disguise. Classes in sociology, anthropology and history which focus on domestic life or the objects used by various cultures in the past or present. In my own undergraduate years, I fulfilled one of my humanities requirements with a class entitled, “Japanese Anthropology through Film,” which gave me a great crash course in contemporary Japanese life and pop culture, as well as some great reference books which will come in handy when I do a play set in Japan.

Remember: a props person is always learning, and every experience can enrich not just our vocation, but our lives as well. Have a good school year, and stay classy.

Choosing the right disposable glove

First, I wish to offer a caveat; I don’t write much about safety, because it’s a highly complex area, especially once you start talking about safety around chemicals. I’m not an expert, and if you are in a workplace situation, there are actual regulations, standards and laws that need to be followed. The last thing I want is someone’s sum total of knowledge about safety coming from “Eric Hart’s Props Blog.” Still, the home hobbyist may not know where to look for information, and the prop shop employee may not know what questions to ask their employer, or what their employer is responsible for providing. Thus, what follows is not a guide for choosing the right disposable glove; rather, it is a guide to what questions to ask and what information to look up to learn which disposable gloves are best for each situation. All the safety data in the world is useless if we don’t know what information we are trying to find, or even that we need to find certain kinds of information. Often, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Dozens of companies make disposable gloves, offering hundreds of combinations of materials, thicknesses and liners. You need to find the permeation data for the specific gloves you are using. This will tell you how long it takes for specific chemicals to work their way through the glove and onto your skin.

No single glove will protect you against every chemical. There were approximately 50,000,000 chemicals registered by the CAS on September 7, 2009, with more being added at the rate of twenty-five per minute. Luckily in theatre, we only use a small percentage of those chemicals. If you work at a theatre or shop in the USA that employs ten or more people (that’s counting the whole theatre, not just the prop shop), then it is subject to OSHA regulations, and your employer is required to inform you of any toxic chemicals you may be using.

As a general rule of thumb, you should be wary of rules of thumb when it comes to safety. But a good rule of thumb to follow in safety is “don’t get stuff on you, and don’t breathe anything that isn’t air.” Choosing the right glove falls under the “don’t get stuff on you” part of the rule. Gloves are necessary because many chemicals can be absorbed through the skin. Chemicals commonly used in prop shops that can be absorbed through the skin include solvents and epoxies. Solvents don’t just include pure solvents like acetone, xylol and mineral spirits, but also any product that includes solvents: spray paints, cleaners, adhesives, etc.

Another good rule of thumb is that latex gloves don’t stop any chemicals. They can keep your hands dry, and they’re great for keeping blood and other bodily fluids from getting on your hands. They’re also useful for the reverse: keeping your own sweat and oils from getting onto your work surface. But as far as working with any sort of industrial or household chemicals, they may as well be invisible.

Notice how I mentioned household chemicals above. Just because you can buy something in a grocery or drug store doesn’t make it safe to work with without proper protection. For example, many cleaners like Windex, 409 and Simple Green use a chemical called 2-Butoxyethanol. The toxic exposure level of 2-Butoxyethanol is less than that of acetone and hexane, placing it in the category of “highly toxic” chemicals. When you start looking at permeation charts for popular glove brands, you see a trend; latex gives you no protection, while neoprene and vinyl will offer only several minutes before exposure begins. If you are using anything other than nitrile, you are exposing yourself to a highly toxic chemical.

If you are using a glove and the substance is splashing or spilling onto your bare arm, it defeats the purpose. Make sure you are wearing sleeves that offer similar chemical protection, or use longer gloves.

Many chemicals we use for prop making are toxic through skin absorption. An example is any of the two-part epoxies we use: sticks of epoxy putty, five-minute epoxy glue, epoxy coatings for fiberglass and carbon fiber, epoxy resin for casting. Epoxy is a sensitizer, which means our bodies do not react to it on the first exposure. Rather, it is on the second or subsequent exposures where we develop what is essentially an allergic reaction. It can even be after decades of using a product before one reacts to it. But reaction can be severe. Here is a chilling but not uncommon description of a reaction:

Open, oozing, and itching insanity hives virtually all over my body and my eyes literally were swollen shut for a week on two separate occasions. Recovery, each time, took better than a month.

Once developed, it is not reversible, and occupational physicians may advise you to not only never use epoxy again, but none of the “two-part” chemicals in that category. No more Smooth-On products, Great Stuff, A-B foam, etc. If you make your living as a props artisan, you pretty much have to do all your molding and casting out of plaster.

It is important to note that permeation data charts tell how long it takes for a chemical to permeate through a glove. This implies that no glove will offer permanent protection; they are called “disposable” for a reason. In fact, the most a glove gets tested is for 6 hours. If you use a pair of gloves all day, don’t set them aside for the next day. In fact, you should throw the gloves away. Trying to stretch the use of a pair of gloves to save money may seem thrifty, but it is actually counter-intuitive. The same is true of any safety measures and products you use. If you use or reuse them improperly, you get the worst of both worlds; you are spending money but not keeping yourself safe. If you feel you are spending to much money on safety equipment to make props, the best solution is to stop making props. You don’t go scuba diving without an air tank. We often get in situations where the easiest solution seems to be to continue on and finish a prop; it’s late and you’ve run out of gloves, and all the hardware stores are closed, and all you need to do is get one more coat of epoxy on so it can cure by the morning and they can use the prop in rehearsal. When you get to those situations, remember this: Your goal in life is not to finish that single prop. Your goal in life is to build props for the rest of your life. Taking shortcuts now will affect your health later on. No prop in the existence of humankind has ever been more important than your health.

A good shop foreman will be consistent in his or her purchasing of disposable gloves, so you don’t have to hunt down the permeation data every time he or she buys a new brand.

In conclusion, don’t get stuff on yourself. You should know what is present in any material or substance you are working with. If it includes chemicals that can be absorbed through your skin, you need to find out what glove will offer protection from that chemical, and how long it will offer that protection. Remember that gloves from different companies may differ in their permeation data, even if all the stats on the box seem the same.

On sharing and secret knowledge

We do not invent things whole cloth out of the depths of our brains. Every idea we have is formed by making connections with all the experiences we have absorbed. Every book we read, play we watch, conversation we have, event we witness, song we hear – all of this fills our head and swirls around, sometimes for years, before getting regurgitated as a new flash of inspiration. We are seldom cognizant of how this works. The bizarre surreality of our dreams are a testament to that. But even dreams are simply what we already know, broken into tiny pieces and stitched back together in the most arbitrary fashion.

This is how our knowledge is built. Nothing springs forth from inside us. Rather, the knowledge already exists outside of us. It is our ability to use this knowledge and make new connections and discoveries with it that makes us useful. Some may argue it is the knowledge itself that keeps us employed. It’s true that some who jeaulously guard their tricks and formulas, methods and materials can keep a small monopoly on their services. But as the majority of knowledge can be discovered from other sources, the usefulness of these people disappears once someone with the same knowledge comes along. This is not to say knowledge is not important. Obviously, a prop maker needs a large base of knowledge. They take the time to learn all that is needed for their craft and seek out information which others may not care to discover. But that is merely the first step; what makes a successful prop maker is how they use that knowledge, how they experiment and integrate the various nuggets of information they hold to form new discoveries and inventions.

We should not think of our brains as fortresses, jealously guarding our secrets until the day a coworker spills them all and renders us useless. Rather, we should think of the sum of human knowledge as something we can all draw from and contribute to.

Consider this. You find a map which leads to a treasure. It takes you ten years to reach the point marked on it. Once there, you discover another map. You can keep this information to yourself; while you follow the path on the second map, anyone who wants to undertake the same quest must first take ten years following the first map just to reach the same point you have already reached. If you had revealed the second map at the beginning, that person could have spent those same ten years helping you follow the second path, perhaps even finding a shorter route than you would have found on your own.

Some may argue that it is more important to seek knowledge on your own than have it handed to you. This is of course true; the ability to seek and understand is great indeed. What matters less is what knowledge we are seeking. The information we start with is often taken for granted. The truths we take for granted were hard won before our time. We have the benefit of accessing all the discoveries acquired before our birth. Should not the next generation have that same benefit, even if it includes our own discoveries? Discoveries which we may have spent most of our lives on? Should we spend our most passionate and fruitful years learning which plants are poison and which are edible? Or should we spend them inventing delightful recipes to make with them? And should our children reinvent the same recipes, or spend the time creating cheaper and healthier versions of these recipes? The virtue comes not from discovering the same knowledge that our forefathers discovered, but rather from discovering any knowledge at all. We should never egotistically assume we have learned all there is to learn about our craft. Rather, by arming the next generation with our discoveries, we allow them to spend their passionate and fruitful years making new discoveries. More often than not, we work long enough that we can still benefit in our own lives with some of their discoveries.

When something has already been figured out, isn’t it inefficient to spend more of our limited time on earth figuring it out again? There is so much more that needs to be figured out on this world, and desperately so.