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Ask a Prop Manager Anything

Ask a Prop Manager Anything S*P*A*Minar!

If you’ve ever had a question you wanted to ask a Prop Manager, here’s your chance! It’s our first ever prop manager AMA!

Join us Sunday, February 21st, 2021, 8pm EST. Register now!

Panelists will be

  • Lori Harrison, Prop Master, San Francisco Opera
  • Ben Hohman, Properties Director, Utah Shakespeare Festival
  • Nikki Kulas, Prop Master, First Stage
  • Jen McClure, Properties Supervisor for the Yale Repertory Theatre and Yale School of Drama

The S*P*A*Minar will be moderated by: Karin Rabe Vance, Freelance Properties Manager

Stay tuned this week for spotlights on each of our panelists!

We are once again requesting pay-what-you-can donations to support this S*P*A*Minar programming. All money collected will be used to offset webinar operation costs with additional funds going to our annual grant program for early career prop people. Suggested donation amount is $3.

Donations can be made via PayPal Money Pool

REGISTER for the webinar

Registration will remain open until 6PM EST on February 21st and a link to the Zoom S*P*A*Minar session will be sent out to all registered attendees 1 hour before the start of the webinar.

All S*P*A*Minars will be recorded and video will be shared on the S*P*A*M YouTube channel. You can check out all previous S*P*A*Minars at the channel as well!

Umbrella Gun

The umbrella gun scene in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the most visually memorable in the play. George, tired of his wife Martha’s insults in front of their guests, exits offstage. He sneaks back wielding a shotgun aimed at her head. The guests see him and scream as he pulls the trigger. Instead of the loud report of a bullet, though, a brightly-colored umbrella emerges from the barrel. Hilarious, right?

The original production was written to use a trick umbrella they already had in stock, but every production since has given the props master a headache as they try to figure out the gag. I initially checked with other theaters who had done this show, but theirs had either broken or been disassembled. The rental options out there were either too expensive or looked unrealistic. I decided I needed to build my own.

Drawing the stock and fore-end
Drawing the stock and fore-end

I needed a pretty thick barrel to fit an umbrella inside. It would look out-of-proportion if I just stuck it on a regular shotgun body. I scaled up the stock and fore-end to cut and shape out of oak.

Chainsaw disc shaping the wood
Chainsaw disc shaping the wood

I bought a chainsaw grinding disc for this project because I had always wanted to try one. It was amazing; it acted like a wood eraser. I just pointed it to the wood I didn’t need and it made it disappear. I will never attempt wood carving without one of these again.

Scaling the receiver to match the stock
Scaling the receiver to match the stock

The receiver would need to hold all the parts of the shotgun together and hide all the mechanisms inside of it I cut out several pieces of flat steel stock to weld a hollow container.

Welding the receiver from steel
Welding the receiver from steel

With just a welder, angle grinder, and belt sander, I was able to fabricate a decent looking receiver.

Spring mechanism for umbrella
Spring mechanism for umbrella

I took an existing umbrella from stock which had its own spring mechanism to make it pop open. I cut off the handle but left the hollow shaft in place. I welded a steel rod to the shotgun that the umbrella could sleeve onto and travel back and forth. To minimize binding, I put a bit of UHMW rod on the end of the umbrella that was slightly smaller than the inner diameter of the copper tube I was using for the barrel. I used copper tube because it was the most rigid tube I could find with the thinnest walls.

Pieces of the trigger mechanism
Pieces of the trigger mechanism

I drew up a full scale trigger mechanism in cardstock to figure out what would fit within what I had built. It was just two pieces: a trigger that rotated on a pin, and a long lever with a latch on the end that held the umbrella against a spring until the trigger was pulled. I traced the pieces to steel and cut them out. I slipped a small piece of spring into the fore-end to return the trigger after it is pulled. I slid a long spring over the metal rod in the barrel to actually propel the umbrella after the trigger is pulled.

Finished trick shotgun
Finished trick shotgun

I painted the barrel to match the receiver and stained the wood pieces darker before sealing them. I coated all the static pieces of interior and exterior steel with shellac to prevent rust. Any pieces of steel which moved against another part was coated with dry lube. I built the gun for easy disassembly in case any future users needed to fix or replace a part.

Umbrella Gun

I have a video which shows all the parts as they are assembled. You can see the various inner mechanisms in more detail if you are interested in how it all works, and if you wanted to see it actually fire.





These Props Links Will Blow You Away

It’s the middle of a hurricane here in North Carolina, as well as Opening Night for my first show of the season, but I still found some great stories and videos on props that you can check out:

Broadway’s Biggest Debut: King Kong – Ugh, this puppet is so amazing. It is controlled by 14 puppeteers and it contains a ton of animatronics as well. Be sure to see some of the videos of Kong in motion.

TAIT Take Over – Karla Ramsey – Scenic artists at TAIT Towers create the proscenium arch for the Elton John concert. It is a combination of foam carving and clay sculpting, with everything molded and cast for the final piece. A few of my friends and colleagues spent the summer up here working on this, and the results are spectacular.

Cosplay Shines At DragonCon – Make Magazine has a great round-up of cosplay photographs from the recent DragonCon in Atlanta, GA. Yes, there is a whole convention just for dragons.

Modeling and 3D-Printing Wonder Woman’s Tiara for Cosplay! – Darrell Maloney made this video to show us how he modeled a digital version of Wonder Woman’s tiara from the recent film. He then 3D printed it, and shows us how he finished and painted it as well.

Submit Your Role Call-ers! – American Theatre Magazine has a regular segment where they highlight theatre workers that more people should know about. This December, they will be profiling twenty folks that should be known outside their discipline. You can nominate people you think they should highlight; let’s see some props people up in there!

Special Saturday Prop Links

Behind the scenes: designing the props for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Pierre Bohanna talks about some of the fantastic props he was tasked to create for JK Rowling’s latest foray into the Harry Potter universe. He also details some of the biggest challenges; surprisingly, recreating 1926 New York was more difficult than finding fantastic beasts.

Props: Fur, Foam & Focus – Zoë Morsette talks with Stage Directions magazine about her career and some of the favorite props she built. She discusses some great specifics about materials, techniques, and tools used on some recognizable props. She also gives helpful advice for the early career prop professional.

Floating Worlds: The Santa Fe Opera Scene Shop – This article brings us some beautiful photographs and in-depth interviews with Scott Schreck and Mike Ortiz, the technical director and associate technical director of the Santa Fe Opera. Find out how they build scenery for operas that travel all over the world.

Our Favorite Movie Props at Comic-Con 2018! – The Prop Store is getting ready for a big auction of rare and iconic movie props. They recently brought a bunch of them to San Diego Comic Con. This fifteen-minute video looks at their collection during this brief opportunity to see all these famous props in one location.

Faberge Caravan – The Prop Solve is back after a brief hiatus, but she returns with a fantastic post showing a Faberge egg she made in the style of a 1970s caravan trailer. There are lots of great tips and photos showing how she modeled tiny benches and appliances to fit the curves of an egg-shaped vehicle.

Friday Prop Stories

Disney Dream Job: Walt Disney Imagineer Prop Master – In this video segment, 11-year-old Adam spends a day learning about how to become a Walt Disney Theme Park Prop Master. He visits with the people who design the attractions, tours the shops where the props are fabricated, and browses the warehouse where pieces are stored. It’s not only a great look behind-the-scenes at the park, but it’s also refreshing to see a young kid like Adam who is so passionate about props.

Creative Lives — Prop maker, set stylist and textile homeware designer Mariel Osborn on the joys of physical making – “Lecture in Progress” sits down with Mariel Osborn, a freelance prop maker and set stylist in Manchester, England. They talk about her work, her daily routine, and how she wound up with such a fascinating career.

“Danger, Will Robinson!” See How the Artists at Spectral Motion Built the Incredible Robot for the New Netflix Series, ‘Lost in Space.’ –  Like the title says, you can discover how the iconic robot was reinvented for the new television show. The entire suit was sculpted and crafted by hand because the team did not have enough time to use 3D printing. The show uses the practical suit about 85% of the time, with digital effects being used mostly to enhance the scenes.

Light Up Leather Arm Braces – Make Magazine has this great project that marries the old-school techniques of working with leather with the state-of-the-art techniques of blinking lights.

10 Famous Props And The Actors Who Stole Them – I question the authenticity of some of these stories; the iconic props for major franchises are tracked and cataloged so carefully, that I really doubt Chris Hemsworth just ‘walked off’ the set with a Thor hammer. These antics are usually allowed to happen to generate further publicity for a film. That being said, I definitely believe that Hugh Bonneville walked off with a letter from the set of Downton Abbey.