Tag Archives: workshop

New York City 2011 Christmas Windows

New York City retail stores are known for the grand and highly imaginative window displays they unveil every Christmas season. I spent my first two autumns in New York City working on some of them. I did not work on them this year, though some colleagues of mine did. One of my former coworkers shot the following videos. You can find more videos searching on YouTube, but what makes these great is that they start off in the workshop showing the constructing phase, and moves to the inside of the windows showing the assembly before showing the final result.

First up is perhaps the lynchpin of NYC Christmas windows: Macy’s.

Macy’s is certainly the most well-known of the annual Christmas windows in New York City, but Saks Fifth Avenue does a good show as well.

Finally, we have the Lord & Taylor windows.

Real Objects versus Constructed Props

This is the third excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

The maker of properties, although an important aid to theatrical representations, is never seen by the audience; he is of scarcely less value to the stage than the scene-painter, but he is never called before the curtain to be publicly congratulated upon his exploits. His manufactory or workshop is usually in some retired part of the theatre. He lives in a world of his own—a world of shams. His duty is to make the worse appear the better article; to obtain acceptance for forgeries, to create, not realities, but semblances. He does not figure among the dramatis personæ; but what a significant part he plays! Tragedy and comedy, serious ballet and Christmas pantomime, are alike to him. He appears in none of them, but he pervades them all; his unseen presence is felt as a notable influence on every side. He provides the purse of gold with which the rich man relieves the necessities of his poor interlocutor, the bank notes that are stolen, the will that disinherits, the parchments long lost but found at last, which restore the rightful heir to the family possessions. The assassin’s knife, the robber’s pistol, the soldier’s musket, the sailor’s cutlass, the court sword of genteel comedy, the basket-hilted blade that works such havoc in melodrama, all these proceed from his armoury; while from his kitchen, so to speak, issue alike the kingly feasts, consisting usually of wooden apples and Dutch-metal-smeared goblets, and the humbler meals spread in cottage interiors or furnished lodgings, the pseudo legs of mutton, roast fowls or pork chops—to say nothing of those joints of meat, shoals of fish, and pounds of sausages inseparable from what are called the ‘spill and pelt’ scenes of harlequinade.

Of late years, however, our purveyors of theatrical entertainments, moved by much fondness for reality, have shown a disposition to limit the labours of the property-maker, to dispense with his simulacra as much as possible, and to employ instead the actualities he but seeks to mimic and shadow forth. Costly furniture is now often hired or purchased from fashionable upholsterers. Genuine china appears where once pasteboard fabrications did duty—real oak-carvings banish the old substitutes of painted canvas stretched on deal laths and ‘profiled,’ to resort to the technical term, with a small sharp saw. The property-maker, with his boards and battens, his wicker-work and gold leaf, his paints and glue and size, his shams of all kinds, is almost banished from the scene. The stage accessories become so substantial that the actors begin to wear a shadowy look—especially when they are required to represent rather unlife-like characters. Real horses, real dogs, real water, real pumps and washing tubs are now supplemented by real bric-à-brac, bijouterie, and drawing-room knick-knackery.

Faith has been lost, apparently, in the arts of stage illusion; the spectators must be no longer duped, things must be what they seem. But this system of furnishing the stage with actualities, or of combining the real with the imaginary, with a view to enhancing scenic effect, is not absolutely an innovation—at least, some hints may be found of it in Addison’s account of the opera of his time. While allowing that an opera—and entertainments dependent upon spectacle for their success were included in that term—might be extravagantly lavish in its decorations—its only object being ‘to gratify the senses and keep up an indolent attention in the audience’—he urged that common sense should be respected, and that there should be nothing childish and absurd in the scenes and machines. ‘How would the wits of King Charles’s time have laughed to have seen Nicolini exposed to a tempest in robes of ermine, and sailing in an open boat in a sea of pasteboard! What a field of raillery would they have been let into had they been entertained with painted dragons spitting wildfire, enchanted chariots drawn by Flanders mares, and real cascades in artificial landscapes! A little skill in criticism would inform us that shadows and realities ought not to be mixed together in the same piece; and that the scenes which are designed as the representations of nature should be filled with resemblances and not with the things themselves. If one would represent a wide champaign country filled with herds and flocks, it would be ridiculous to draw the country only upon the scenes and to crowd several parts of the stage with sheep and oxen. This is joining together inconsistencies and making the decoration partly real and partly imaginary.’

Pursuing the subject, he relates how sparrows have been purchased for the opera house—’to enter towards the end of the first act and to fly about the stage… to act the part of singing birds in a delightful grove.’ Upon a nearer inquiry, however, he finds that, ‘though they flew in sight, the music proceeded from a concert of flagelets and bird-calls which were planted behind the scenes.’ So many sparrows, however, had been let loose in the opera of ‘Rinaldo,’ that it was feared the house would never get rid of them, and that in other plays they might make their entrance in very improper scenes, so as to be seen flying in a lady’s bed-chamber or perching upon a king’s throne. ‘I am credibly informed,’ he continues, ‘that there was once a design of casting into an opera the story of Whittington and his Cat, and that in order to it there had been got together a great quantity of mice; but Mr. Rich,”the proprietor of the playhouse, very prudently considered that it would be impossible for the cat to kill them all, and that consequently the princes of the stage might be as much infested with mice as the prince of the island was before the cat’s arrival upon it; for which reason he would not permit it to be acted in his house.’ In conclusion, he mentions a proposal to furnish the next performance of the opera with a real orange grove from Messrs. Loudon and Wise, the Queen’s gardeners at this time, and to secure a number of tomtits to personate the singing birds,’ the undertakers being resolved to spare neither pains nor money for the gratification of the audience.’

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 287-289.)

“Going Green in Theatrical Design: Set & Props” Workshop

Updated 12/14/10 – See Below

Last Wednesday, I attended a “Going Green in Theatrical Design: Set & Props” Workshop, organized by the Broadway Green Alliance. As you may infer, the BGA is an initiative to spread information on more environmentally-friendly and less wasteful theatre practices. The workshop featured presentations by several people at Showman Fabricators, Donyale Werle, as well as representatives from companies making greener products for building sets and props, including theatre-specific ones like Rosco and Rose Brand. I absorbed a lot of material, much of which deserves their own articles, but I thought I would present a basic summary of most of my notes first.

The first half was on “reduce, reuse and recycle”. I missed the “reduce” part because my train broke down on the way there. Donyale led the presentation on “reuse”, talking not only about Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but also on Broke-ology. Bloody Bloody is, of course, a cornucopia of reused elements; we gave them our two horses from Kicking a Dead Horse and parts of the body from Bacchae. That’s just a small percentage, as the show also includes a chandelier made of cat food cans, and assemblages of broken umbrellas and jujubees. Our props shop takes advantage of reused materials frequently; I built the furniture in Slave Shack with pieces of the floor from the Brothers/Sister Trilogy, and all of the rehearsal furniture for last summer’s Merchant of Venice was constructed from pieces of the floor from the previous summer’s Bacchae which I had set aside. Finally, of course, a prop stock room itself is a commitment to reuse.

New York City has a number of organizations which collect and redistribute building materials and theatrical sets, such as Build it Green (which I wrote about as well), Materials for the Arts, NYC WasteMatch and Film Biz Recycling. The BGA website has even more links. Like many other theatre professionals, this is the reason I began getting interested in all this; it’s absolutely heart-breaking when you see a show or exhibition close, and all of the set and props head straight to the dumpster, even if the show only lasted a few days. It’s even more heart-breaking if you’ve worked in low-to-no budget theatre where just a tenth of those materials would help you achieve your design.

Showman Fabricators discussed recycling next. I learned the difference between Post-Consumer Recycled content, Post-Industrial (or Pre-Consumer) Recycled content, and Total Recycled content. “Post-Consumer” is when a manufacturer takes items that have been used and reforms them into new material. This is where your bottles, cans and paper goes after you put them in those blue bins. “Post-Industrial” is when a manufacturer takes the scraps and waste from their own processes and turns them into other products. For instance, MDF is made from the sawdust at lumber mills. It’s the “we use all parts of the cow” approach. “Total Recycled” content is the combination of Post-Consumer and Post-Industrial content.

Next, he discussed the embodied energy of materials. Embodied energy is how much energy it took to create a material. Thus lumber has less embodied energy than plywood. To make lumber, you need to cut down a tree, drive it to a sawmill, cut it to size, dry it, and ship it to the store. For plywood, you need to do the same things as lumber, than also cut it into thin strips, glue them up, sandwich them together, cut veneer, and lay that over top. Thus, it takes more energy to create a sheet of plywood than it does to create an equal amount of lumber. We looked at a chart that showed some common theatrical materials and their embodied energy; I didn’t copy it down, but it looked very similar to this one I found online.

The embodied energy is not the only aspect you need to consider. For instance, steel and aluminum are both infinitely recyclable. Wood, on the other hand, is not. Maybe you can turn old wood into particle board, and after that, it might (though rarely) get ground down into some kind of composite material. So while it may have less embodied energy than steel, you have to keep creating more wood and growing more trees, where the same chunk of steel can be used over and over and over again.

The embodied energy chart can also be misleading because it goes by weight. Paint has a high embodied energy, but you only use a thin layer on the outermost portion of your set; a whole set can be painted with just a few cans. You use far more steel and wood by weight to construct your set. You should also remember that different materials have differing strength-to-weight ratios. Aluminum has a higher embodied energy than steel, but a structure constructed out of aluminum would weigh far less than one out of steel while being just as strong. Thus, an aluminum structure could potentially use less embodied energy in its materials. It’s a lot of math on your part though.

They told us of a number of waste management companies in New York City (also found on the BGA website) that will take your set away, recycle and reuse as much as possible, and tell you how much was kept out of a landfill. The idea is that when a show closes, rather than calling for a dumpster, a truck shows up and you load everything in their. In many cases, they can reuse and recycle 80–90% of your garbage, and it can sometimes end up costing less than a dumpster. A green alternative that costs less and doesn’t add additional labor? That’s gold!

The most important lesson is to make it easy. If you place bins for recycling next to all your trash cans, than it’s just as easy for an employee to toss his or her recyclables into the correct receptacle. If, however, you make your employees walk out to the loading dock to throw away their off cuts of steel, then more often than not, they’ll toss them into the regular trash “to save time.”

The second portion of the evening was headed by manufacturers touting their wares. Rose Brand talked about their Repreve yarn polyester fabric, which is made of 100% recycled fabric. Chad Tiller of Rosco (a friend of this blog) talked about their Iddings deep color (soy-based paints) and Roscoleum flooring (made from cork).

The other manufacturers had a whole range of green products typically used in more architectural settings: agri-fiber boards such as Kerei Board, NAUF (no added urea formaldehyde) MDF, Dakota Burl, Wheat Board, Paper Stone (recycled paper thermoset with a phenolic resin) and American Clay, to name a few. These are all interesting products, but for theatrical use, they still remain out of the price-range; a sheet of bamboo plywood costs about $200 as opposed to a comparably-sized sheet of construction ply for around $48. The exception is NAUF MDF, which is becoming more and more commonplace.

Finally, the scenic charge at Showman Fabricators had some closing words of wisdom. She pointed out that it is hard to switch products when time, money, and your reputation are on the line. You need to be able to depend on the materials you use, and you can’t just switch to a new “green” material in the middle of a project. You need to be constantly sourcing, requesting samples and testing new products on a small-scale and in between projects to find the least damaging solutions. One way to do so is to be open and share your solutions and experiments with everyone: your employees, your employees, and other shops. Being green is not proprietary. If you find a great new alternative to some product, tell other shops. It shows you are open to sharing, and if they find an alternative to another product, or a new way of organizing their shop for better “greenliness”, they will share that with you. Read my article “On Sharing and Secret Knowledge” to learn more about this philosophy.

Update – 12/14/10

Bob Usdin of Showman Fabricators, one of the presenters, emailed me and shared what I had missed from the beginning of the workshop:

The only things I would add are from the beginning (which I know you were delayed for):

  • In reality you can never be truly green. Instead, we are making efforts to be greener.
  • The single most useful thing you can do is REDUCE, particularly by optimizing your designs and engineering. If you can do the same scene with less scenery or build the same platform with less structure and still achieve the same effect (and safety), then you are being greener regardless of what materials you are using. I feel that the first “R” is often overlooked.
  • The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) greening advisor is a great resource for getting green tips on a host of subjects. They are also a major supporter of the BGA and its activities and knowledge base.
  • In trying to be greener, it’s important to go beyond just the materials and techniques that go into a show. Looking at the facility and operations and how green those are can be as much of a contributing factor to greening the production. Energy consumption, renewable energy sources, water usage, location and connection to the community, materials, paper consumption, indoor environmental quality, and vehicles can all be a major part in greening the operations.