Tag Archives: papier-mache

Concerning Stage Viands, 1910

The following originally appeared in a 1910 article by Algernon Tassin.

The rule of the drama, then, seems to be that though all may occasionally hunger, only the comedian may eat. But the gilded épergne heaped high with untempting fruit as the chief furniture of the festive board still remains to be accounted for. The official reason is simplicity itself. Nothing is so apparent as fruit, especially when in high-piled charactry. Since even if the pile were to be ravaged, none of it would there be eaten (and all providers have from time immemorial objected to fruit being taken from the table!), why not have a permanent pile? Thus the épergne and its fruit are one and indivisible, now and forever—they are papier maché. It is naught but the money-saving device of the manager and the labour-saving device of the property boy to escape the nightly marketing. When the Standard Edibles Syndicate is able to get Congress to pass a law prohibiting papier maché on stage-tables, one may be confident that the Associated Order of Stage Mechanics will be powerful enough to get it rescinded. For in the matter of food the second fundamental law of the drama is the Property Boy.

The disquieting trend toward realism begun by Herne and other obsessed disturbers of his peace, he has at least been able to check by ingenious shifts of well-nigh the longevity of papier maché. I recall a banquet table in a ducal hall whereon the perennial épergne which sufficed for our fathers was deemed by some objector in the audience inadequate to the growing demand for actuality. There must be some food capable of being toyed with if such silly people were to be silenced, and the manager thought a light salad of the escarolle pattern would be just the thing. This the property boy proceeded to mix as follows. Purchasing several yards of imperishable Bologna sausage, he minced a few slices at each performance and served them garnished with excelsior. These in individual plates with the communal and lordly épergne in the centre decked the table bountifully. The property boy surveyed the results of his ingenuity with satisfaction well merited; for the salad needed only dusting to be nightly serviceable, and when travelling the épergne and the sausage went together snugly packed in the excelsior. This banquet—although three of the characters on the stage upon being graciously summoned to supper by the duchess loudly proclaimed their hunger—sufficed unrenewed the season through. The star (not being a comedian) failed to be distressed by the languid appetite of her guests, but upon being reproached once more by some captious realist in the audience for the lack of verisimilitude, insisted that at least one of the actors eat of her generous fare. Whereupon the fertile property boy served the designated actor with three dried prunes, of which he afterward kept a bag in stock (which was simple enough, as it travelled also with the salad), all ready for just such centres of culture where exacting critics might reside. “You can cut these up,” he explained, “and they might be anything.” It was true, for the beneficent prune has boundless powers of assimilation: upon the arrogant table of Camille it may become the mushroom and the truffle, or at the board of Louise it may simulate the humble goulash. But the property boy is not constantly engrossed in calculating how he may save his labour and his food allowance; he has his careless and his genial hours. I once beheld upon the stage three intrepid and clinking dragoons toss off a forbidden bumper to an exiled king. When the foremost, with a magnificent flourish, dashed down upon the floor his drained glass and the others followed suit, it was a spirited moment. But when he precipitately dashed himself from the room the effect was somewhat marred. The others held their ground, indeed, but they visibly contended with surprising emotions which they sought to contain. Long afterward the secret of their eccentric behaviour was made plain; by accident or sportiveness the property boy had flavoured their cold-tea with varnish.

Thus either from the nature of Art or the nature of the Property Boy, the theatrical appetite is destined to be thwarted. The question then arises, Why in this regard should not dramatists write with an eye upon the stage? Why should we not have in the theatre jam yesterday and jam to-morrow, but never jam to-day? As the actor (unless intentionally comic) must ever like Jealousy mock the meat he feeds on, why give him food at all? “Each heart hath its sealed chamber,” says a heroine, and why not the stage? Let the dining-room door be barred, for when we enter it we leave illusion behind. If food must be, let it be laid out in the next room. Or if the table be needed for the setting of the stage, let the actors fall to only as the curtain falls; or—for the épergne is always there to lend atmosphere—let the meal be terminated by a messenger boy before ever the soup or even the useful celery. For this or any other coup de grace before meat all lovers of illusion will be truly thankful. Anything is better than the eternal listlessness of apparently healthy people in face of food.

“I do not believe,” says Joseph Jefferson —who was by no means a lover of realism —”that the introduction of cabbage and potatoes in the banquet scene of Macbeth would make the play one bit more interesting.” But the unfair illustration is not even pertinent. At the banquet in Macbeth no one is required to eat—it is interrupted before it really begins. The illusion is entirely preserved by the épergne as a coming event which throws its shadow before, and the guests depart ere its perfidy is disclosed. In his increasing dalliance with real life and common sense, let the modern playwright beware of banquets or even lunch baskets. They are but Barmecidal. Since no one may eat but the comedian—whose crammed cheeks do not provide an inextinguishable delight except in vaudeville—let him even reform food altogether, save that which can with reasonableness be nibbled. The food problem on the stage can only be settled by universal boycott.

Written by Algernon Tassin. First appeared in The Bookman, Volume 31, published by Dodd, Mead and Co., 1910.

Review: The Prop Builder’s Molding and Casting Handbook

The Prop Builders Molding and Casting Handbook
The Prop Builder's Molding and Casting Handbook

In Thurston James’ second book, he tackles the subject of molding and casting for prop makers in more detail. The Prop Builder’s Molding & Casting Handbook guides you through the most common materials and methods used in many prop shops. Because of its specific focus (and better organization), this book is far more successful than his previous Theatre Props Handbook, which, as I mentioned in my review, meandered through disparate topics with no way to quickly find information.

Though written in 1989, the methods described in this book still hold true today. Though the range of materials we can use today have grown dramatically, they remain improvements and new formulations to older materials whose predecessors can be found in this book.

It remains one of the most widely recommended books for molding and casting props because of the unique niche it fills. It describes the most common materials and methods used in props shops and by hobbyists; these materials are used because of their cost, ease of use, availability, and proven results. Books on molding and casting for manufacturing and industry are more focused on specific or specialized materials, and they aim for a level of consistency and cost efficiency which the prop artisan would never possibly need. Shaving a tenth of a cent off the cost of a casting makes a difference if you are casting ten thousand pieces, but it will be impossible to notice if you are only making ten.

James seems to have had an epiphany in shop safety between this book and the last, as he now presents clear and accurate safety precautions in the beginning of the book, and continues to reiterate them throughout. In his Theatre Props Handbook, safety precautions were nearly nonexistent.

The book does a good job of covering the generalities of mold making and casting. It discusses the model and its preparation, and defines a number of necessary terms, such as undercuts, release agents, mother molds and the like. It describes the considerations of making a mold of your specific piece, and breaks the various molding materials and casting agents into categories. In a way, it describes the process of choosing your materials in an almost flowchart-like manner. If you know what your model looks like, and you know what kind of properties and appearance your castings need, then you can narrow your choices of mold material and casting material down to a few choices. In the book, he describes over thirty of these material choices.

The bulk of the book is used to guide you through the specifics of working with each of these materials. Specifically, he talks about plaster, alginate, latex rubber, and silicone rubber (RTV) mold-making. The casting materials he describes include latex, neoprene, papier-mâché, Celastic, fiberglass (GRP), hot melts (such as wax, plasticine, hot melt glue and hot melt rubber, breakaway glass, thermosets (specifically polyester resin), water-extendable polyester, and urethane. He also has a section on casting with hardware store products, like caulk, autobody filler, water putty, and several others. Finally, the last section of the book describes vacuum forming and how to construct a vacuum forming machine.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: A Singing Dragon

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts on technical rehearsals, constructing a giant “Talepulka” idol and introducting the series when you are finished here!

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

It is noteworthy in connection with this circumstance that the apparatus was devised by an Englishman and that Wagner employed an English property-master to design and make the dragon for the “Siegfried” performances at Baireuth. The English pantomime productions, which involve the manufacture of numerous mechanical and trick properties, have sharpened the ingenuity of English property-masters until they have come to be acknowledged at the head of their profession. “Siegfried” never having been given in England by any but a German company whose scenery and properties were brought from Germany, the combat with the dragon remained as ludicrous a feature of the performances of this work as it was conceded to have been at Baireuth, until the production of “Siegfried” at the Metropolitan Opera-House. For this a dragon was designed and manufactured which the German artists declare to be the most practical and impressive monster they have seen.

The singing dragon from "Siegfried"
The singing dragon from "Siegfried"

The head of this dragon is of papier-mache. The body, thirty feet long, is of thin wire covered with curled leather scales, which are bronzed and painted. This monster, in spite of its size, is worked by a boy who is the dragon’s front legs. He is dressed in a suit of canvas painted the color of the dragon’s hide and having curled leather scales on the trousers below the knees, his shoes being the huge clawed feet. He gets into the dragon behind its head, which conceals him from the waist up, his legs being the dragon’s front legs. With his hands he opens and closes its huge mouth and shoves its eyelids over its eyes when it expires. The steam which it breathes out is supplied through an elastic pipe which, entering at the tail, runs through to the throat. The scene lasts about forty minutes and is very exhausting to the front legs. In Germany the artist who sings the dragon’s part is inside the hide and sings through a speaking trumpet. At the Metropolitan Opera-House the artist sits under the raised bridge upon which the dragon is placed and sings through a speaking trumpet. His music is on a stand, a stage-hand throws the light of a lamp upon it, and the solo répétiteur gives him his cues from the wings. The voice sounds as though it issued from the dragon’s throat. The advantage of this arrangement is that it places in the monster a person whose attention is concentrated upon working this mechanical property in the best possible manner. The dragon when not in commission is stabled in mid-air under the paint-bridge. The day of the performance it is lowered by ropes, thoroughly groomed, and then allowed to stretch itself out upon the floor against the rear wall and lie there until the end of the first act.

Grooming the Dragon
Grooming the Dragon

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Constructing a God

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpt when you are finished here! The following details the construction of a large idol for the Met’s 1888 production of “Ferdinand Cortez”. As an added bonus, you can read the original New York Times’ review of that production.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

[T]he property-master had made out a list of the articles to be manufactured in his department. He had not been hampered by the problem of historical accuracy. He found drawings of Mexican antiquities from which he made sketches of the Mexican implements of war and peace to be used in the opera, and from a genuine Mexican relic of that period, seen by chance in the show window of a store, he obtained his scheme for the principal property in the work, the image of the god Talepulka. He found he could have all these historically correct, except that he did not think it necessary to go to the length of decorating the idol with a paste made from a mixture of grain with human blood. A problem arose, however, when he considered the construction of the idol. He ascertained from the libretto that the idol and the back wall of the temple are shattered by an explosion, and that, just before the catastrophe, flames flash from the idol’s eyes and mouth. He consulted with the gas-engineer, who had already considered the matter, and concluded that it would be most practical to produce the flames by means of gas supplied through a hose running from the wings.

The property-master then made the following note in his plot book: “Flames leap up high from the heathen image—the gas-hose must be detached and drawn into the wings immediately afterward so as not to be visible when the image has fallen apart.” The necessity of having the gas-hose detached determined the method of shattering the idol. It is a theatrical principle that a mechanical property should be so constructed that it can be worked by the smallest possible number of men. This principle was kept in view when the method of shattering Talepulka was determined upon. The god was divided from top to bottom into two irregular pieces. These were held together by a line, invisible from the audience, which was tied around the image near the pedestal. Another line, leading into the wings, was attached to the side of the top of one of the pieces. At the first report of the explosion a man concealed behind the pedestal, whose duty it also is to detach the gas-hose, cuts the line fastened around the idol, and the pieces slightly separate, so that the image seems to have cracked in two jagged pieces. At the next report a man in the wings pulls at the other line and the two pieces fall apart.

The manner in which the effect of flames flashing from the eyes and the mouth of Talepulka was produced was only outlined in the statement that it was accomplished by gas supplied through a hose. The complete device of the gas-engineer, a functionary who in a modern theatrical establishment of the first rank must also be an electrician, was as follows: Behind the image the flow of gas was divided into two channels by a T. One stream fed concealed gas-jets near the eyes and mouth, which were lighted before the curtain rose and played over large sprinkler burners in the eyes and mouth. These burners were attached to a pipe fed by the second stream. When the time arrived for the fire to flash, the man behind the pedestal turned on the second stream of gas, which, as soon as it issued from the sprinkler-burners, was ignited by the jets. By freeing and checking this stream of gas the man caused the image to flash fire at brief intervals. Thus only two men were required to work this important property.

Constructing the "Talepulka" prop
Constructing the "Talepulka" prop

The idol was but one of four hundred and fifty-six properties which were manufactured on the premises for the production of “Ferdinand Cortez,” and when it is considered that the average number of properties required for an opera or music-drama is three hundred and fifty, it will be understood that the yearly manufacture of these for an opera-house which every season adds some three works to its repertoire is an industry of great magnitude. For instance, one ton and a half of clay was needed for modelling the Mexican idol, and that property represents three months’ work. It was first sketched in miniature, then ”scaled”—that is, projected full size on a huge drawing-board—next modelled in clay, and then cast in plaster. The modelling and casting of properties are done in a room in the basement of the building, on the o-p-side [Eric: opposite-prompt side, in this case, stage-left] of the stage. The idol was cast in twenty pieces. These were transferred from the modelling-room to the property workshop on the third floor of the building, prompt side, where are also several other rooms in which properties are made, the two armories, the scenic artist’s studio, and the property-master’s office. In the workshop the properties are finished in papier-maché, the casts being used as moulds. They are not filled with pulp, which is one method of making papier-maché, but with layers of paper. The first layer is of white paper, moistened so that it will adapt itself to the shape of the cast. Layer after layer of brown paper is then pasted over it. The cast having been thus filled is placed in an oven heated by alcohol, and baked until the layers of paper form one coherent mass the shape of the cast. Properties thus manufactured have the desirable qualities of strength and lightness.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

Monday Click-a-Link

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson closed last night, Merchant of Venice froze last Thursday, and Winter’s Tale freezes tonight. For the first time since January, I’m not working on more than one show at once. Whew, that was a long year. I’ll be making more in-depth articles for this blog now that I have my nights and weekends free again. Until then, here are some great links to keep you busy:

  • Go Make Something – 160 how-to articles about paper crafts and altered art
  • Ask a Crafter – Pretty self-explanatory. Lots of questions and answers about adhesives, fabrics, sealants and any other materials related to crafting.
  • Thistledown Puppets – A lot of studio and process shots of this foam puppet-maker’s projects.
  • Gourmet Paper Mache – Dan the Monster Man has lots of videos and photographs of the papier-mâché creatures he creates.
  • Dark Side Creations – Lots of tutorials, tips and tricks of this DIY prop and monster-maker