Tag Archives: techniques

Salon on Being Green

Yesterday at Wingspace Theatrical Design I attended their salon on “Being Green.” The featured guests included set designer Donyale Werle (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Broke-ology), as well as Annie Jacobs and Jenny Stanjeski from Showman Fabricators.

A lot of the facts which were presented are better summed up in my post on a previous workshop I attended called “Going Green in Theatrical Design.” I did see something that was new though (new to me, that is): UC Berkeley’s Material and Chemical Handbook which presents some of the materials we commonly use in prop making, along with disposal instructions and safety notices. It’s specific to their college, but it is a good starting point for developing your own.

Since I didn’t take notes, what follows is more of a highlight of various points made in the discussion as I remember them:

“Being green is not black or white”; it is not an either/or proposition. Rather, every day you try to make better choices, and every show you try to do a little greener. It takes a lot of experimentation, a lot of analysis, and a lot of effort.

Do not do bad “green” design and art; it’s worse than no design. The goal is to make good design, and the goal of sustainable theatre is to do it a little greener each time.

As theatre people, we already come from a culture of sustainability and recycling. We reuse and repaint flats and drops. We take the lumber from one show and use it on the next. We borrow and barter the costumes and props from other people doing the same. But as our careers progress and the shows get bigger, we get away from that. Maybe it’s because you get to work with bigger budgets, or maybe it’s because you want to push your work to have higher production standards. Making sustainable theatre is a conscious choice and takes a concerted effort.

One of the problems, someone pointed out, was in trying to do a green production with a designer who was still in the old mindset—the mindset that everything has to be new and bought just for that show. What is the new mindset? It may mean a design which evolves from the available materials, rather than a design which starts on paper and then requires the purchasing of all new materials. Maybe it just means less design, though as Donyale pointed out, she likes a lot of “stuff” in her designs:

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Thinking about more sustainable options means taking more time out of your already busy schedule, and asking others to take more time as well. Donyale pointed out that if you can do case studies on what you’re spending versus what you would spend in a more traditional production, you can convince the producers; for Peter and the Starcatcher, she calculated that they saved $40000 in materials by using recycled, salvaged and upcycled materials, but that the labor cost was a third more due to all the sourcing and processing of this material. Still, it was an overall savings; the extra labor cost was offset by the reduced materials cost. Producers like to see savings. It is also, for a lot of us, morally preferable to have more of the money to go to human labor (which is sustainable) than to the purchase of materials shipped from across the globe which will end up in the trash once the show is finished.

For artisans and production people, as opposed to designers, using more sustainable techniques means taking time to do your own experimentation and comparison of materials and techniques to arrive at better solutions. If you can come up with concrete alternatives to show your designers, it becomes easier to convince them to trust you. An example the ladies from Showman gave was using carved homasote, which is made from recycled newspaper and non-VOC adhesives, to make faux brick and stone facades, rather than vacuum-formed plastic panels. Not only is the plastic a petroleum-based product shipped from overseas, but it releases toxic fumes when heated in the vacuum former. Homasote comes from a company in New Jersey, so it only has to travel a few miles. The results look the same, and the costs are comparable. By showing the designers what they can achieve with more sustainable and less toxic materials, it makes it easier to convince them to accept them.

Product versus Process

I heard a story awhile back from a fellow props artisan. A large company was in town, putting on the kind of show that required hundreds of specialty props, all created specifically for their production. They started out working with one of the larger prop shops in the area. The shop was good, but they were still not happy with a number of the props; the performers themselves needed to talk directly to the artisan in order to give all the details and needs they were looking for. When the prop was finished, they wanted to be able to use it in rehearsal for a bit, then work with the artisan again to suggest changes and ask for modifications.

The large prop shop wasn’t set up to do business like this. They were used to taking drawings and draftings from a designer, constructing the prop, and delivering it to the theatre. They could certainly deal with the changes and additions that happen in every production, but the kind of individual one-on-one experimentation with props throughout the rehearsal process that these actors wanted was beyond their capabilities. This is where the fellow props artisan comes in. He was able to provide this kind of daily collaboration. He would talk through the prop with the performer, making notes and asking questions, then head to his shop for the rest of the day. The next morning, he would bring a newly constructed prop to the performer who would try it out and then suggest new changes and additions based on what was learned.

This is the difference between props as a product and as a process, and it is one of the reasons why good props artisans will always be needed. In one case, you are “ordering” a custom prop from a prop shop. In some ways, it is just like you would buy some of your props off of eBay or from a catalog. Having this shop continually make changes and modifications becomes expensive, inconvenient, or even downright impossible. Even if all of the props are built by an outside group, you will still need an artisan on hand who can modify and work with the props to make them do what the show needs them to do. Having an artisan on hand also allows the props department to be a bigger part of the whole collaboration. Like a conductor who lowers the volume of the trumpets or speeds up the tempo at certain parts in the music, an artisan can alter the weight or balance of a prop, change the color, or add a secret handle between rehearsals.

I’m not trying to knock commercial prop shops in this post, but rather make a point about the continuing need for artisans in an age where our industry is seeing more and more computerized fabrication. CNC routers and 3D printers are great technologies, and hold even more promise in the future, but they are no replacement for a good props artisan. They create products. They don’t replace the process.

A CNC router can cut an intricate shape out of a piece of plywood with very precise measurements, and it can do it a thousand times with no difference between all the pieces. A props artisan is more than just his ability to cut out a shape drawn on a piece of plywood. A props artisan takes the needs and wants of a prop, balanced with the input of the director, the designer, the actor and the stage manager, and weighs it against the limitations of the theatre, the shop, her skills, and all the resources available to her. She chooses the materials and techniques which best fit all of these requirements to construct the prop. And she does it knowing that it may need to be changed or modified later, or even cut entirely from the show.

A smart props artisan will keep on top of the changes in technology and tools available to him and learn when to integrate them into his process. We’ve integrated computer printers into our manufacturing of paper props. Even with all the amazing things one can do with graphics software, artisans still use a surprising amount of non-computerized techniques to add life to paper props. A good artisan uses all tools and methods available to him rather than altering the prop so it can be manufactured by a certain machine.

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.

Review: Making Stage Props by Andy Wilson

Making Stage Props - Andy Wilson
Making Stage Props - Andy Wilson

This is a story about Making Stage Props: A Practical Guide. A very good story indeed.

This book is tailor-made to anyone who works as a props artisan. In many ways, it is the book I wish I had when I first started out as a props carpenter. It does not talk about shopping, or organizing a prop list, or talking with directors. It is not a collection of tips and tricks used by props people, such as breakable glasses, blood knives, or fake food. Quite simply, it deals with how to construct props the way a professional prop shop constructs props. For the most part, that means furniture, though it also includes examples of large decorative pieces, masks, and some weaponry.

Because it deals with more tried-and-techniques (and it was written in 2003), it is one of the most up-to-date books about making stage props you can find.

Wilson divides the chapters by material and/or process: wood, steel, modelling, making moulds, casting and laminating, expanded polystyrene, upholstery, and paints and finishes. So while you can read the book from cover-to-cover, it works just as well as a reference which you can refer back to over and over again, depending on what your next project is. I would, however, recommend reading the introduction first. I had a strong sense of déjà vu the first time I read it; the way Wilson describes approaching a project is similar to what I wrote in my paper for the SETC Theatre Symposium. Guess that means I’m on to something

As you may have noticed from his spelling of “moulds” above, Wilson is British. The book is still highly useful even with a few linguistic and cultural differences—20mm plywood instead of 3/4″, for example.

The photographs, though all black-and-white, are very clear. He also includes a lot of diagrams and illustrations. Obviously, a book on prop-making can never hope to contain all the materials and processes one can ever use; he does, however, cover the most common ones which can be used to build probably 90% of the props you will ever build for the stage. Some of the information he includes can be oddly specific; for example, in the chapter on “wood”, he includes a diagram for a lathe, with all the parts listed. This is the only tool that gets such a diagram in that chapter. Why? I’m not sure.

Overall, the amount of information Wilson packs into this compact book is amazing, and it has something for prop-makers of all skills, whether new to the field, or experienced artisans. I feel strongly that it is one of the few “necessary” books for prop-makers, and even for prop people in general.

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.