Happy Friday the 13th, everybody. Here are some great prop-related stories from around the internet.
The production team at the Clarice in Maryland recently recreated Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne statue using a mix of CNC routing, 3D printing, and theatre ingenuity. Watch this video to see how they did it.
For your third video of the day, you can learn about Shawn Thorsson, the superhero of cosplay. You’ve seen some of his work before on this blog; now you can watch him at work in his shop and check out more of the pieces he has constructed.
Mythbusters is ending its fourteen-season run this January. This week was the final day of filming for them, and Adam Savage live-tweeted the entire day. It’s a sad day for television, since it was one of the few shows that got close to showing what we do in props. Thankfully, Adam is still busy as ever building props over at Tested.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This vase shows Telephus threatening Orestes. Though several Ancient Greek plays dramatize this scene, modern scholars believe this vase depicts Aristophanes’ parody of Euripides’ version. More importantly, this vase is one of the rare examples of an illustration of an actual theatrical performance. We see the “baby” which is held is actually a wine skin with Persian booties tied on the bottom. It is filled with wine so it could “bleed” as it is cut open.
Note this is not a “special effect”, at least in this context. In the play, Mnesilochus believes he is about to kill a baby, but as he unwraps its clothing, he realizes it is actually a wine skin. As the play is a parody, this may actually be describing a well-known prop trick. Our modern comedies have many examples of when a character realizes he or she is actually in a movie (or play) and the objects being used are merely “props”, ie cheap or poorly-made imitations.
In addition to the scenery in the background the stage was of course decorated with such objects and properties as were required by the particular play. Aeschylus is said to have been the first to adorn the stage in this manner (Vit. Aesch. p. 6 Dindf.). If the scene was a palace or a temple, statues of the gods were generally placed in front of it, and are frequently referred to in the course of the drama. For instance there was the statue of Athene in front of her temple in the Eumenides, and the statues of the tutelary deities before the palace of the Atreidae in the Electra of Sophocles. In the Hippolytus there were two statues in front of the palace of Theseus, one of Artemis the huntress, and the other of Cypris the goddess of love. When Hippolytus returns from the hunt, he offers a garland of flowers to the statue of Artemis, but refuses to pay the slightest homage to the statue of Cypris, in spite of the remonstrances of his attendant. Again, in the country region depicted in the Oedipus Coloneus the statue of the hero Colonus stood in a conspicuous position (Aesch. Eum. 242; Soph. Electr. 1373, O.C. 59; Eur. Hipp. 70–106.). Other examples of the practice of decorating the stage with statues are frequently to be met with both in tragedy and in comedy.
The book next speaks of altars, obelisks, tombs and benches. Again, these items may fall under other departments, such as scenery. The point is not to quibble over the “prop-iness” of these objects, but rather to provide a catalog of the various objects which may have been found in an Ancient Greek production.
Altars again were very common objects upon the Greek stage. In the Supplices of Aeschylus the fugitive maidens take refuge round an altar. The Oedipus Tyrannus opens with the spectacle of a group of Thebans kneeling in supplication before the altar of Apollo (Aesch. Suppl. 188–200; Soph. O.R. 1–3, 142.). Another very ordinary feature in the stage-decoration was the stone obelisk in honour of Apollo of the Highways. It was an ordinary practice among the Greeks to place such obelisks in front of their houses. Their presence upon the stage is frequently referred to both in tragedy and in comedy (Poll.iv. 123; Aesch. Agam. 1080 ff.; Schol. Eur. Phoen. 631; Arist. Vesp. 875.). Various other objects were occasionally required by particular plays. There was the tomb of Darius in front of the palace of Xerxes in the Persae, and the tomb of Agamemnon in front of the palace of the Atreidae in the Choephori. In the Oedipus Coloneus a rocky ledge was required for Oedipus to rest himself upon. In the Acharnians and the Knights a few benches must have been erected upon the stage to serve as a rude imitation of the Pnyx. Walls, watch-towers, and beacon-towers are mentioned by Pollux; and the presence of other similar decorations and erections can be inferred from the extant tragedies and comedies (Aesch. Pers. 684. Choeph. 4; Soph. O.C. 19; Poll. iv. 127.).
Finally, this text discusses chariots and animals. I’ve given my opinion about whether an animal is a prop or not; a chariot, on the other hand, most certainly is.
There was one piece of realism which the Greeks were not averse to, and that was the presence of horses and chariots upon the stage. There are many instances in tragedy of per sons from a distance arriving in a chariot drawn by horses or mules. The vast size of the Greek theatre, and the length and narrowness of the stage, made it peculiarly suitable for displays of this character. In the Agamemnon of Aeschylus Agamemnon and Cassandra approach the palace in a chariot; Agamemnon remains seated there for a considerable time, while he converses with Clytaemnestra; he then dismounts and enters the palace, leaving Cassandra still in the chariot. In the Prometheus the chorus of the Oceanidae enter the stage in a car. In the Electra of Euripides, when Clytaemnestra comes to visit her daughter at the country cottage, she arrives in a chariot, accompanied by Trojan maidens, who assist her to dismount. Several other instances might be mentioned. Animals for riding were also introduced upon the stage. In the Prometheus there is the winged steed upon which Prometheus makes his entrance; and finally in the Frogs of Aristophanes Xanthias rides in upon a donkey (Aesch. Agam. 782–1054, Prom. 135, 279, 284; Eur. Elecr. 998, 999; Arist. Ran. 27.).
A week and a half ago, I wrote about the set props for Slave Shack, a show I prop-mastered at the Algonquin Theatre. Now that the show has closed, I can talk about the hand props (the hand props give away several key plot points, which is why I held off until the show closed). There were several interesting challenges with the hand props for Slave Shack
The “handcuffs” actually needed to be leg-cuffs, as you can see in the first photograph. They also needed to be trick cuffs, with the ability to come apart without a key at any time. We couldn’t find any leg cuffs with that ability, so we had to invent them. The first thing we tried was grinding down the teeth; this would allow Candice LaGia Lenoir, the actress who played Janice, to pull the handcuffs apart as easily as they could be pushed together.
During the play, however, Janice jumps out of her seat a couple of times. When she did this, the handcuffs would pop open. My first idea was to rig some sort of latch on the handcuffs, which could hold the handcuff jaws together. This created more problems than it solved, as Candice needed to undo the handcuffs in the dark and get off stage at the end of Act One. It introduced a whole lot of fumbling whenever the handcuffs needed to come on or off.
I got another set of cuffs which still had un-ground teeth. I put the key in the hole and covered the slot so the key remained inside permanently. I then cut the end of the key off and replaced it with a less visible lever to operate it. Basically, I turned the leg-cuffs into a set of trick cuffs. This seemed to work for the most part.
The play called for a large sofa in the middle of the office. Jack handcuffs Janice’s leg to one of the sofa’s legs. There is a line about the sofa being so heavy “it took five guys to carry it up here.” The implication is that Janice cannot simply lift the sofa and slide the cuff out from underneath to free herself.
Unfortunately, the stage at the Algonquin is 12′ by 15′, and a sofa of any significant size would fill the entire set. Natalie (the set designer, and my wife) designed a swivel chair with a heavy pedestal as pictured above. Unfortunately, such a thing does not exist; the only chairs close are designer mid-century pieces which cost thousands of dollars.
We found the top part of the chair on Craigslist, and was able to get it delivered. It originally had a rolling base. I removed that and replaced it with the base you see above, which was taken from an outdoor pedestal table. It was extremely heavy, which was good, since we needed to sell the idea that Janice could not simply sneak off with the entire chair, and also so the chair would not tip over during the violent scufflings which occurred throughout the performance.
One of the major plot points of Slave Shack involves a racist monkey cartoon which appeared on a company brochure to depict Africa. Jack Blake, the main character was held responsible for it and forced to retire. During the play, Warren, his underling, gives Jack a going-away present – a stuffed toy which resembles the racist monkey cartoon described earlier. Debra Whitfield, the director, wanted something creepy-looking, like the cymbal monkey toys from the 1950s.
I found a significantly creepy version of this toy on eBay; it was fairly cheap, as the moving parts were broken. I removed the clothes and added a grass skirt, feather headdress, a bone in its nose, and some decor around his neck.
I had to add some additional fur as removing the clothes revealed the metal skeleton underneath.
You may recall my earlier post on how to make a breakable glass. When we tested it in the space, it was still too dangerous. The space is so small that any breakable item had the potential of throwing shards into the audience. The space was also completely enclosed, so no matter how you blocked the action, the pieces would eventually ricochet off a wall and head toward the audience.
The only safe alternative on our budget (short of cutting the moment) was a wooden statue which could be pre-broken and reassembled with hot glue every night. Once again, Natalie decided to carve one herself rather than buy one. Though more labor-intensive, this gave us one distinct advantage. We cut the block of wood into five pieces and reassembled it with hot glue before carving it. This gave us nearly invisible break lines. If we cut a statue that had already been carved, the kerf, or thickness of the cutting blade, would have kept the seams from lining up completely.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies