Tag Archives: twelfth night


The fake dead lamb I made for The Little Foxes was cut.

Fake Dead Lamb
Fake Dead Lamb

It wasn’t because they didn’t like it. In fact, they never even looked at it. They had decided the scene would play better without the actors eating a lamb. So they cut it.

As a props artisan, you cannot take it personally. When a prop is cut, it is cut because the play works better without it. If a director (or writer or producer) tries to keep everything in a play just because they spent a lot of money on it or someone spent a lot of time it would quickly bog the production down. Theatre history is filled with the stories of monumental failures like these, where so much money has been spent and so many famous names are attached, but the production seems to crumble under its own weight. They fail because no one was willing to make the cuts or edit away the extraneous elements.

The lamb is amongst the more spectacular of my props to be cut, but there are certainly plenty of others. Remember this guy?

wooden ratchet noise-maker
wooden ratchet noise-maker

I first made him for the 2009 production of Twelfth Night. Director Dan Sullivan wanted some period noise-makers, and we did not have much in stock. We sent this to rehearsal, but they rejected it. Again, it wasn’t because they disliked it or did not appreciate it; rather the entire “bit” where they would use period noise-makers was re-staged to be something else.

The following year, Dan Sullivan was back to direct our production of The Merchant of Venice. In one of the rehearsal reports, they requested “period noise-makers”. Not to be outdone, I dug this wooden ratchet out of our props stock and sent it up to rehearsal. It again failed to make it into the show. So despite my pride in the construction of this prop, it was cut from two separate productions.

chair from tea
Chair from Tea

I made this chair for the 2007 production of Tea: A Mirror of Soul at the Santa Fe Opera. There were actually going to be nine of these chairs; I prototyped the construction process on the first three, and then I was going to teach our two apprentices how to build them so they could make the remaining six between them both. I solved a lot of structural and design challenges in my prototype. Besides making the splat appear to be both floating and structural, you will notice that the back uprights are offset from the back legs. Usually, they are one long piece running from top to bottom, which gives chairs most of their strength. So I solved these problems and actually had the first three of these chairs built, when I found out they were cut. They hadn’t even made it into rehearsal. The reason? Most scenic designers design past their budget. They know that some elements or pieces will be cut from their design to bring the budget down. The more crafty (or sneaky, depending on your point of view) designers will actually design things that are extraneous just to have pieces to cut later on. It makes them appear like they’re willing to compromise without actually compromising the design they want. It turns out these chairs were one such element, and the designer did not realize I would build them before they were cut. I guess I’m just too fast and efficient in my work.

Please remember: it is inevitable, if you work in props for long enough, that a prop you adore will be cut from the show. Keep in mind that you are working to make the show better.

Funerary Urn Trick

For Twelfth Night, the director wanted a funerary urn trick. When the actor knocks it over, he wanted the lid to fall off and a puff of ashes to fly out. I decided on a pneumatic solution.

The Funerary Urn in Action
The Funerary Urn in Action

Early on, we decided the urn should be on a base which was hinged to the floor, which would keep the urn from rolling down the hill into the audience, and also have it fall in a consistent manner during every show.

Air Tank and Valve
Air Tank and Valve

This trick is actually extremely simple in concept, and pulling it off only requires a minimum amount of research to find the right parts.

The idea behind it is the same as filling a straw with corn starch and blowing it out. Instead of a person blowing it out, I have a tank of air which is filled before hand. And instead of a person deciding when to blow, I have an electric valve which is triggered when the urn hits the ground.

The tank of air is just a soda bottle. I fitted a tire valve onto the cap; I got it from an old tire, though you can buy them new if you wanted. A hose runs out the back of the bottle into the valve, which then runs to a hole in the stage which holds the corn starch. The valve runs off of eight AA batteries, though it can be changed to be plugged into the wall. Finally, I wired in a button between the valve and the batteries, which is on the stage floor where it can be pressed by the urn when it hits the ground.

Here is a video of it in action:

How to make a wooden ratchet

I published my first Instructable. It’s for a wooden ratchet noise maker I made for the upcoming production of Twelfth Night at the Public Theatre’s “Shakespeare in the Park.”

Here is the research image I was given to work from. The tutorial follows below. Don’t worry, it’s not a movie; sound isn’t going to start blaring if you push “play”.

Wooden Ratchet Noise MakerMore DIY How To Projects

Instructables just began allowing you to embed your projects in other websites. You can look at the whole thing above. Personally, I think it looks weird, but you can follow the link to the actual page for the best experience. Once there, you can also download the whole thing as a PDF.

If you’ve never been to Instructables before, now’s a great time to check it out. If you’ve never made an Instructable before, I highly recommend it; it’s such a great and intuitive way to share tutorials. Finally, if you’ve made an Instructable you think would be of interest to props people, let me know and I’ll share it on this blog.