Tag Archives: training

USITT Props Lab 2018

At this year’s USITT Conference, we will be conducting the first ever Props Lab on the Stage Expo floor. Jay Duckworth, last year’s Early Career Honors speaker, has organized a dynamite team of props experts and myself to provide demonstrations and hands-on activities. A lot of these sessions have already filled up, so sign up quickly!

Thursday, March 15

11:00am-1:00pm

Welcoming Our Robot Overlords with Adam Daley, support by Karen Rabe

Overcoming fear of new technology and integrating it into our work with robots and quick Prototype. Hands-on with 3D printer, Rapid Prototyping 3D Printing/Robot Making for Props. Learn how to use this equipment, when you need to build a model at ¼” scale, idea exchange.

1:00pm-2:30 pm

Welcoming Our Robot Overlords with Adam Daley, support by Karen Rabe

2:45pm-4:00 pm

Small Food Casting – “Berries” with Michelle Bisbee, support by Abbey Plankey.

Learn fast and effective casting process using Smooth-On OOMOO 30 Fast Set. Take home your very own freshly cast berries!

4:00pm-5:30pm

Small Food Casting – “Berries” with Michelle Bisbee, support by Abbey Plankey.

Friday, March 16

11:00am-1:00pm

Prop Gizmology Pew, Pew! with Thomas Fiocchi, support by Liz Hastings

How to design and execute cosplay weapon props without stinking up the place. Learn a seven-step process going from research, design, scaling, to engineering, constructing, and finishing your prop weaponry. We will discuss different methods, materials, and techniques to create world-class props in your budget and time frame. Woodworking, foam working, steel techniques, creative gizmology, it is all in this session!!!

1:00 pm-2:30 pm

Prop Gizmology Pew, Pew! with Thomas Fiocchi, support by Liz Hastings

2:45 pm-4:00 pm

Prop Gizmology Pew, Pew! with Thomas Fiocchi, support by Liz Hastings

4:00pm-5:30pm

Small Food Casting – “Berries” with Michelle Bisbee, support by Abbey Plankey.

Saturday, March 17

9:30am-11:00am 

Stage Combat and Safe Weapons with stage combat specialist Rick Sordelet, support by Jay Duckworth.

Safe stage combat and weaponry. Don’t end up a horrible statistic.

11:00am-12:30pm

Blood Pack Demos with stage combat expert Rick Sordelet, support by Jay Duckworth.

Tricks with blood bags with stage combat expert.

12:30pm-2:00pm 

Simple Pneumatics with Eric Hart, support by Jay Duckworth

Eric will introduce the principles of pneumatic prop design and demonstrate everything from simple puffs of dust to more complex movement using pneumatic cylinders and solenoid valves.

About the presenters

Adam Daley is a Mechanical Engineer turned Prop Master who has worked for companies ranging from Pacific Coast Theatre Festival to Utah Shakespeare Festival. In his free time, he mentors for FRC First Robotics and builds electric guitars.

Michelle Bisbee is an active member of S*P*A*M and a pillar of the props community.

Thomas Fiocchi has been the Props Technologist at Ohio University, training future props artisans, since 1997.  He worked for a decade as a props artisan at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC, and at McCarter Theater in NJ.  He operates Fiocchi Sword and Prop, doing custom stage combat weaponry and freelance props out of Athens Ohio.

Rick Sordelet is the top Fight Director in the country. He has 54 Broadway shows to his credit. He has staged all of Disney Theatrical productions, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, Aida, and The Little Mermaid.

Eric Hart is the props master at Triad Stage and visiting professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He is the author of “The Prop Building Guidebook: for Theater, Film, and TV” and “The Prop Effects Guidebook.” He has built props for numerous theatres on and off Broadway and throughout the United States.

USITT Props Lab
USITT Props Lab

Props Reading for the Weekend

The Stage reminds us that an army of craftspeople exist to make theatre: “While there is no such thing as a job for life in the theatre, and many of these craft jobs are now freelance, except with the very big theatre and opera companies, if you are good at what you do you’ll find an abundance of work that even the best actor or director would struggle to manage.” They talk about how to get started, and even give a list of training programs in the UK.

San Diego Comic Con is happening right now, and with it come tons of displays and sneak peeks at the props and costumes of upcoming films. Io9 has a quick video of the absolute coolest things on the convention floor, such as Batman’s new weapons, or vehicles from the upcoming Star Wars. The Original Prop Blog is also there posting updates, such as this collection of photos capturing all the details of the proton packs from the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot.

Make Magazine has a helpful primer (or a reminder for those of us that should know better) on what to wear to work safely in a shop. They cover gloves, clothes and shoes, as well as pointing out what not to wear.

Most of us have heard the story making the rounds of the audience member who jumped up on the stage of a Broadway show to charge his phone on a (non-functioning) outlet on the set. Vanity Fair has a nice profile on Beowulf Boritt, the set designer responsible for coming up with the realistic church basement for that show, Hand to God.

Know What Chemicals You Are Working With

This past week, we learned that Gordon Billings, a UK props master, died from exposure to asbestos. Billings had suffered from shortness of breath and coughing for awhile, and passed away from lung cancer this past August. It was not until last week that the coroner issued his ruling that Billings’ death was due to asbestos exposure.

As a props master, Billings worked on films such as Empire of the Sun and TV series like The Sweeney. Part of his job was sweeping dust and debris from derelict buildings used as sets. Before his death, he had made a witness statement that he was not aware he was being exposed to asbestos.

As props people, we may be exposed to toxins, poisons and harmful chemicals on a daily basis. We may not even be aware of what we are exposing ourselves to. The harm from some of these chemicals may not manifest themselves for years, or even decades, after being exposed.

We may be smart about the particularly nasty chemicals; the ones that smell really bad and that have warnings all over their labels. But those chemicals that we only use once or twice a year may not cause as much harm as those which we subject ourselves to every day. Many harmful chemicals do not even have an odor, or give an indication that we are being exposed. As with Billings, you cannot tell whether you are breathing asbestos or whether you are just inhaling dust. The two-part polyurethanes we use in molding and casting have little to no odor, yet can be some of the more toxic chemicals you come into contact with in a props shop. Cleaners such as Simple Green or any of the “natural” cleaners which have “Orange” in the name can actually contain chemicals which cause reproductive problems, organ damage and even cancer, if you use them without gloves or adequate ventilation. The list goes on.

Protecting yourself from harmful exposure to chemicals is one area of safety where you cannot rely on assumptions or so-called “common sense”. Adequate protection can only come from gathering as much information about the products you use, and building the correct safety infrastructure to deal with them.

For every product in your props shop, you should have an MSDS which lists all hazardous ingredients and what safeguards should be taken. You can also find MSDS for the individual ingredients if you wanted more information. Websites such as the Chemical Abstracts Service and Toxipedia can guide you to more information about various chemicals. And, of course, Monona Rossol’s book, The Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater is a must-read for anyone working in our industry.

It is one of the great downfalls of our industry that this kind of information is not taught as consistently or in-depth as it needs to be. Even when the desire to have a safe workplace is there, the knowledge of what that means, or the funds to make that happen are often lacking. A visit from OSHA can certainly point out all the dangers in a shop space, but the fear is that the company will be hit with steep fines or even shut down. One of my dreams is to have some kind of funded organization that could audit shop spaces for their safety infrastructure without fear of being reported, and train employees in proper safety procedures. The larger companies can already do this, as can areas with strong union presences, but there still exists so many smaller theatres and ad hoc film production companies with practically no knowledge of safety. Colleges and universities also suffer greatly from a lack of proper precautions, and these are training the next generation of technicians and managers.

Until that happens, it is up to each of us to protect ourselves. Know what chemicals and hazards you are dealing with. You do not want to devote your entire life working like Gordon Billings, only to spend your last years on Earth suffering from health problems.

How I Became a Prop Maker

Put ten prop makers in a room and you’ll get ten different stories of how they became a prop maker (you’d also get one hell of a party). I thought I would share my own convoluted path of how I have gotten here.

My parents are both artists: potters by trade. They fed my brother and I a steady diet of art supplies growing up. We would transform all sorts of boxes and other random objects into vehicles and machines for our stuffed animals to use. One of our favorite toys was He-Man. I remember desperately wanting the Castle Grayskull playset when it first came out. Of course, a toy that large was far too expensive; nonetheless, we kept pleading. Finally, my dad started building his own version of Castle Grayskull for us. I think he used chicken wire over a wooden base, coated with a mix of papier-mâché and plaster.

They often gave us bits of clay to sculpt and shape on our own. When I got old enough and wanted a job, my dad put me to work making production molds for his cast pieces, and then casting the pieces.

In junior high school, we still had this class called “Industrial Arts”, in which twelve-year-old children are allowed to cut wood on a bandsaw and squirt hot plastic into injection molds. I remember the feeling that was awakened in me when I cut a fancy letter “E” out of a piece of pine in that class. It was a two-part revelation; first, I discovered how these wooden objects were created, and second, that I possessed the ability to create them. I also cast a piece of iron in green sand, doing every part of it except the actual pouring of the molten metal. It gives a kid a lot of confidence to have a cast iron object and be able to say “I made that.”

In my first year of high school, after choosing all the necessary classes for my preparation to be a college student, I found one free period. A buddy and I convinced each other to take wood shop. During the first half of the year we studied and practiced drafting. The second half, we built a bookcase. From scratch. We had to draft the piece out and make a cut-list, select and buy our lumber, plane the surfaces, join the edges, cut the pieces to size, make the joinery, assemble it, and apply the finish. It was all pine wood, with no plywood or MDF; the back was made with a whole bunch of boards tongue-and-grooved together. I still have that bookcase.

I began my undergraduate career as an engineer, but grew bored with the lack of hands-on work I thought it would entail. I was living and working with a lot of the theatre and film kids. We had a film club, which consisted of a bunch of us running around filming goofy things with a camera. I thought some theatre classes would help me make better films. Along the way, I grew to appreciate theatre more than film, and ended up graduating with a degree in theatre and an emphasis in scenic design.

After a few years of working as a stagehand, carpenter and electrician, I went back to graduate school for scenic design. After the first year, I got a summer job at the Santa Fe Opera as a props carpenter, building furniture and other large items. That was when it kind of clicked in my head that making props was what I really loved. It was the combination of technical skills and creative thinking in the context of a collaborative art form that really drew me in. The variety of daily tasks kept me engaged in a way that a job where I built the same thing over and over again would leave me bored.