Tag Archives: method

Rebecca Akins: Surviving Forty Years of Making Props

On the second full day of this year’s S*P*A*M conference, we watched a presentation by Rebecca Akins. Ms. Akins has designed costumes for Childsplay Theatre (our host in Arizona) for the past twenty-five years, and has been constructing costumes, puppets, costume props and masks for at least that long as well. She divided her presentation in two parts. The first was on materials and methods she’s used in the past which she now knows to be hazardous to your health. The second was on “new good things”, which are less-toxic replacements for these.

A puppet couple by Rebecca Akins
A puppet couple by Rebecca Akins

One of her earlier shows was a production of Devils in 1971. She created latex masks, Celastic armor, and sprayed the costumes with aniline dyes. Anyone who has worn latex knows it does not allow the skin to breathe, and the latex masks were very uncomfortable to the actors with the heat and build-up of sweat underneath. Aniline dyes are extremely toxic, and spraying them is a great way to fill your lungs with poison, especially with little ventilation and no respirator.

Ms. Akins used Celastic a lot in those days, starting with Celastic mitres, crowns and wigs for The Balcony in 1969, through at least 1981 with masks for a production of The Pied Piper. For those who are unfamiliar, Celastic is a fabric impregnated with plastic. When you soak it in a solvent, it becomes soft and flexible, hardening to a stiff but lightweight shell when the solvent evaporates. The toxic part is not the Celastic itself, but the solvent used to soften it; common choices include acetone and methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). All solvents are harmful to humans, and can enter the body through the skin, lungs, stomach or eyes. Not all gloves will protect against them, and not all respirators are designed to filter out their vapors.

She mentioned a material I had never heard of called “blue mud cement”. It is a powdery mixture of asbestos fibers and “spackle-y” binders; when mixed with water, the paste will dry hard and lightweight (it was originally developed for plumbing pipe insulation). For a 1974 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she created forms in chicken wire, wrapped them in plaster bandages, and coated the whole thing with blue mud cement. It sounds like a mix between Bondo and chopped fiberglass, except that it’s, you know, asbestos.

Cutting and carving Styrofoam with a hot knife or wire is another technique she described; the fumes created when Styrofoam melts are fairly toxic.

In 1984, Ms. Akins worked with fiberglass for the first time to create a mascot head for a Phoenix sports team. Fiberglass creates strong and lightweight shells, but she found the individual particles got into her skin and clothes and irritated her immensely, and the resins used give off a lot of fumes while curing; it is also an inhalation hazard when sanding the hardened fiberglass. She used fiberglass again in 2002 with more adequate protection (ventilation, a respirator and thick sleeves), but decided it was too much of a hassle to continue working with it.

The second half of her presentation dealt with “new good things”, that is, newer materials which attempt similar results with less toxicity. Examples include Fosshape, Thermaflex (or Wonderflex), leather, fabric, paper and silicone casting gels.

Paper, used in papier-mâché, is one of the oldest prop-making materials. Indeed, Ms. Akins has been using it since at least 1973 for a production of The Bacchae. She continues using it even today. She showed us a number of masks and puppet heads she has constructed over the years, many of them made with a mix of paper pulp, sawdust, and PVA glue. This gives her a material which she can sculpt and form like clay, but which dries to a lightweight and sturdy piece which is paintable and sandable. The fact that some of these pieces have been on tour since the mid-90s is a testament to their durability.

Fabric is another less-toxic material. She uses soft sculpture a lot for puppets; fabric, thread, fiber fill (stuffing) and paint are the only materials needed to make three-dimensional shapes.

soft sculpture

She showed us a number of examples of “found objects as materials”. An old leather handbag became a dog mask, a group of woven baskets transformed into a camel, and dryer hoses turned into snakes and an elephant’s trunk. Though using found objects has long been a staple of propmaking, Ms. Akins reminded us it remains a fairly non-toxic–and environmentally friendly–method, even today. Below is a photograph of a dog mask made out of wooden bowls.

dog mask made of wooden bowls

In 2004, she began using Fosshape to make a head for a production of Big Friendly Giant. Like Themaflex and Wonderflex, Fosshape is a plastic-impregnated fabric which becomes soft and pliable when heated, and retains its shape when cooled. In many ways, it is similar to Celastic, except you use boiling water or a heat gun to soften it, rather than a bucket full of solvents.

Big Friendly Giant mask

Finally, she described her first forays into using silicone mold materials. She would make a model in clay, mold it in silicone, and then cast it in resin. In one case, she mixed resin and Bondo together to make a puppet head; this gave her a translucent pinkish head which looked a lot like skin.

At the end of her presentation, Ms. Akins reminded us that whatever materials and methods you choose, you should endeavor to make the prop with as much care as possible. She left us with these closing words: “The more gorgeous a thing is, the more respect it is treated with.”

Baby Steps and Jumping In

Where do you get started with making props? Maybe if you have a block of wood and a knife you want to start carving. You can also buy a lump of clay and start trying to shape something. If you want to learn construction techniques, try building a box with some wood and nails. Papier-mâché has been used in prop making for hundreds of years and is an easy and inexpensive method to experiment with. The important thing to do is get started working with your hands. Tools and materials all have their own quirks and characteristics, like a secret inner life. The only way to discover these and begin to familiarize yourself with them is to work with them. All the reading and planning in the world will not bridge the gap between theory and practice.

You may be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t worry; you will. You will not turn out a beautiful pristine prop on your first try. You need to go through all the hours of familiarizing yourself with the materials and methods before your work becomes good. You may feel silly just jumping in; if you just start carving a piece of wood with a knife, surely some more experienced artisan will come along and tell you that you are using the wrong knife, or that the type of wood you have is not very good for carving. You’re probably right. Even the most experienced artisans do not know everything, and when we start working with new materials and processes, there is some learning curve before we find the ideal tools for the job.

In many cases, tool and material choice is a matter of preference, culture, experience and any number of other factors. I’ve read about experienced woodworkers who treat their way of working as gospel, only to run across a seventeenth-century engraving of experienced woodworkers of that time using tools in precisely the opposite way of what should be “right”.

My point is that even experienced artisans do not know everything about everything, not with the sheer amount of crafts, tools, methods, materials and processes which a prop artisan can call upon. You can easily spend your entire life studying under master craftsmen and still not learn it all. While blogs like this one are great because it gets you thinking and spreads information efficiently, you need to jump in and start making things while you learn as well.

How do I make a…?

“How do I make this?”

It’s the question faced by the props artisan on a daily basis. Whether you work in theatre, television, or film, you will be asked to build an infinite variety of objects for an infinite variety of uses. Props are found in many other places as well, such as advertising, photography shoots, commercial displays and exhibitions. You may also wish to build props for your own personal uses, such as holiday decoration or hobbies. Whatever your reason, you are reading this because you want to know how to build anything and everything.

Sometimes the answers are self-evident. If the scenic designer wants a wooden chair, you build a chair out of wood. But what if the director wants the chair to be broken during every performance? What if the designer wants a prop from a historical period where the techniques and materials used are no longer available to us? Most commonly, what if the production calls for props which have no counterpart in the real world?

The men and women who build props come from the most diverse backgrounds imaginable, and are skilled in an endless number of techniques and processes. They approach the construction of a prop from a variety of angles, honed over years of experience and trial-and-error. The “why” of props construction is often based on which materials they are most comfortable using, or by asking questions from those who have been in the business longer than they.

Is there a way to more clearly define this approach? Is there a “scientific method”, as it were, to apply to every prop whose construction is not self-evident?

If you have any time over this Thanksgiving, leave a comment with any insights on your own process; what informs your decision on how to construct a prop?