Tag Archives: shop

Costume Armour

This past weekend I made a trip up to Cornwall, NY, to visit Costume Armour. Brian Wolfe, the general manager, happily showed me around the shop, storage areas and all the pieces they have on display. Costume Armour was founded over 50 years ago by Peter and Katherine Feller, and later purchased by theatrical sculptor Nino Novellino in 1976, and has produced pieces for nearly every Broadway show since then.

Knight of the Mirrors from "Man of La Mancha"
Knight of the Mirrors from "Man of La Mancha"

The piece that kind of began Costume Armour is the armor from the original Broadway production of The Man of La Mancha. Before then, armor was either leather, felt or heavy metal. They solved many problems by vacuum forming a suit of armor from newly sculpted molds based off of historical research. Though the suit itself predates the company, Novellino made it while working with Peter Feller on the vacuum forming machines built by Feller to construct the Vatican pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Costume Armour still has those machines, and they are part of what makes their company extraordinary. The vacuum tank is over 1000 gallons, and they can produce pieces from sheets of plastic as large as 52″ by 12′-0″.


The shop was in the midst of a big order for the Disney Jedi Training Academy, Star Wars Weekends and Celebration, which they have been doing since 2004.


I was interested to learn that the shop still uses Celastic quite a bit for many of their sculptures. The original brand-named Celastic has long ceased being manufactured, though they did have a few rolls stock-piled for those extra-special projects (pictured above). The modern equivalents are a bit thicker, but act the same; the cloth is saturated with acetone, than draped or molded over a form or sculpture, and when the acetone evaporates, you are left with a rigid and rock hard surface. Brian explained that it is unrivaled for making realistically-sculpted drapes and clothes on statues.

So I stand corrected on my earlier article on Celastic, in which I claimed that it is rarely used and that there are less toxic alternatives that can do the same thing. Of course, using it requires the proper safeguards for dealing with large buckets of acetone, but working with most materials in the props shop requires understanding and protecting yourself against any potential hazards and toxins.

Jesus and C-3PO
Jesus and C-3PO

While I saw something cool around every corner, I thought I would point out the above picture. They cast a head based off of a scan and model of the Shroud of Turin, so what you have here is what many believe to be the real head of Jesus. He is, of course, on a shelf next to a C-3PO mask.

See you later!
See you later!

The statue pictured above was produced was was sculpted in foam, molded in silicone and cast in fiberglass . Though larger than me, I could easily pick it up off the ground; most of the weight, in fact, came from the plywood base, and not the statue itself.

Novellino was featured in the American Theatre Wing’s In the Wings series; watch the video to learn more about the company and to see the vacuum forming machines in action.

Friday Notes

Things continue chugging along here. King Lear began previews. I’m furiously preparing the first four chapters of The Prop Building Guidebook to submit to my publisher at the end of the month. Yet I still have time to find fun things on the internet.

Here’s an interesting story on how a film prop (technically, a mask) became a real-life prop used in protests around the world. This article on the V for Vendetta masks shows who is behind them and how this all came about.

Christopher Schwartz, former editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine and current founder of Lost Art Press, has published 14 principles of shop setup which he has developed over 20 years of woodworking.

In the same vein, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of Mythbusters’ fame have 15 DIY Workshop Tips, including an ingenious nesting work table and indispensable tools to have.

In our current production of King Lear, we needed to provide them with a paper bag. Not just any paper bag. Only a specific size would do. I eventually found a place online we could order a close-enough size, provided we cut a few inches off the top. So I thought this history of the paper bag posted on the MoMA site was particularly apropos to the situation.

I don’t mean to nerd out, but did you know there’s a whole club of people who build R2-D2 replicas? I haven’t signed up to view the forums, but you can still browse the galleries, and read a few issues of the online magazine they publish.

Childsplay Theatre part 2

Previously, I showed photographs of our tour of the Childsplay props shop. Today, I will show photos from our tour of the rest of their facilities.

The dye room, located next to the costume shop, also had a spray booth which was shared with the props department.

Spray booth

The costume shop itself was clean and well-organized. I love shelves full of labelled boxes.

Costume shop storage

Someone was working on a bunch of tails for a giant mouse costume.

Mouse tails

I enjoyed the copious number of power cords hanging from the ceiling.

Ceiling power cords

We also toured the administrative offices of Childsplay. Old props and bits of artwork appeared everywhere. Here, Jim Luther, the prop master, shows us one of his creations.

Snap, Crackle, Pop

We saw many of Childsplay’s awards they’ve won over their 35 year history.

Jim Guy looking at awards

These puppets are delightful.


Below is a portrait of Sybil B. Harrington, namesake of the Sybil B. Harrington Campus for Imagination and Wonder, which is where all these shops and offices are located.

Sybil B. Harrington

My wife, Natalie, found her long-lost twin sitting on one of the desks.

Natalie's friend

I hope you enjoyed sharing my tour of Childsplay Theatre in Arizona. Enjoy the weekend, and stay tuned for more information from this year’s S*P*A*M conference.

When nothing is happening

It happens. It’s rare, but it happens. You get to work or your studio, and nothing is happening. You have no upcoming projects, the phone isn’t ringing, your emails are all answered, and you have no meetings. It is especially prevalent this time of the year, when half the country seems to be out of town or hunkered down in their homes for the holidays. You can spend all day watching Netflix, or you can take advantage of the downtime with some things you never have time for but which will improve your shop and skills in the long run. Here are some of my favorites.

Clean. I know you clean your shop every day (right?). And you probably do a big clean every week (when you have time). Still, there always seems to be something dirty in your shop no matter how often you clean, so here’s your chance to empty the vacuum cleaner, scrape the paint traps, and dust the tops of the chandeliers.

Maintenance. I’m talking about sharpening the chisels and oiling the pneumatic staplers. All tools require some maintenance, even if it’s only needed once or twice a year. If you don’t know the current state of your tools, now is a good time to check each one and make a list of what needs fixing and what needs replacing. It’s also a good time to get rid of those random tool parts from tools you no longer have that every shop somehow accumulates (or put them in your big bin of “found objects to use as prop parts”).

Organize. I don’t mean to imply that your shop isn’t already the paragon of proper organization. It doesn’t hurt to check all your bins of bolts to make sure they only contain the right sizes and cull out all the random bits that have found their way into the wrong drawers. While you’re at it, make sure you can close all the drawers; if one seems to be constantly overflowing, now is a good time to think of a way to divide up the contents and reorganize your hardware. It is also a good chance to take stock of how your supplies are faring and whether you need to order anything new (if your shop doesn’t have someone who does that).

Learn a new skill. This is one of my favorites. No matter how advanced you are, there is always something in the world of props that you’ve never quite mastered. Maybe it’s an artisan skill, such as welding or fabric draping, or maybe you just want to brush up on Excel or CAD. It’s your choice whether you want to just practice or if you want to take on a whole project utilizing your new skill so you have something to show for it at the end. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you can undertake an improvement to your shop, such as building new shelves using a saw you haven’t used before.

Tinker. Closely related to learning a new skill is tinkering. Maybe you want to experiment with different ways to pull of an effect which didn’t quite work in your last show, or maybe you just want to check out some new blood recipes you found on the internet. The world of props has a whole host of tricks and effects which can always use improving. Perhaps you can finally solve the problem of making a cell phone ring on cue.

Read. If you know what shows are coming up in your season, you can get a jump on them by reading the scripts now. When we’re in the thick of it, it can be hard to read a script for fun without stressing over every prop that is mentioned in it (all the needles just fell off the Christmas tree at once! How am I going to pull that off?). Alternatively, you can peruse the books on your shelf or look up information in other places about the time period of your upcoming plays to make yourself more informed about the context. Even if you don’t have any shows you want to prepare for, the prop master has an endless supply of reading material which can inform his or her profession. And hey, if you’re really bored, why not look through the archives of my blog to catch up on any articles you may have missed?

Scout new sources. Maybe being in the shop is the last thing you want to do when there is nothing going on. If you don’t have to be there, now is a great time to check out stores, flea markets and other suppliers that you otherwise haven’t had the chance to. It is especially nice this time of the year, as the throngs of holiday shoppers have gone home and discounts can be found.

Portfolios. A props person should always have an up-to-date portfolio, even if one is not actively seeking employment. A lull between shows is a good time to make sure of this.The least you can do is gather all the photographs you can find of past shows. Portfolios aren’t just for individual artisans; it’s a good idea to have a “shop” portfolio as well.You can show off what your shop has done in the past to tours which come through, or in presentations to groups, or at conferences such as USITT. It also doesn’t hurt to brag on your accomplishments to your bosses and the higher-ups every once in awhile. Even if you can’t think of a specific reason to keep a portfolio, you don’t want to be caught in a situation where someone asks to see examples of your shop’s work and all you have is a dusty photograph from a 1982 production of Christmas Carol.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre prop shop

During the 2010 S*P*A*M Conference, we visited the Berkeley Rep prop shop. Even if you’re not familiar with the Berkeley Rep, you’ve probably heard of some of the shows that came from there: American Idiot and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) are two of the more recent shows which have come to New York City. Ashley Dawn, the prop master at Berkeley Rep and one of the hosts of the Conference, graciously gave us a tour of their prop shop.

BRT prop shop
BRT prop shop

The prop shop is located within the same building as the theatre. Notice all the dust collection hoses. Also, the shop is very clean, and every nook and cranny has some form of boxes, bins, drawers or shelves for storage. Though hectic at first glance, it was actually very clean and well-organized, and once you knew your way around, it seemed it would be easy to quickly locate whatever you needed.

BRT prop shop
BRT prop shop

Berkeley Rep is fairly similar to the Public Theatre in terms of the size and number of shows produced in a season. In fact, many shows we do are co-productions. It was inspiring to see how they’ve organized their limited space to handle the demands of their shows, particularly because our own shop is larger. It would appear one can always squeeze more use out of a space, no matter how small.

Sign over the BRT prop shop
Sign over the BRT prop shop

They have a separate area for welding and working with metal, which is also shared by the scene shop when they are at the theatre loading in a show. During the rest of the time, the scenery is built and painted at a much larger building a few miles away. In the near future, they are getting a new facility where scenery, props and costumes are all housed together; the prop shop I just showed you will soon be no more.