Working in the Theatre: Specialty Props

[music] The theatre has to be magic, right? So you can never show your hand. You want to surprise people. It’s all about surprising people. You want them to say how is that happening. You want them to wonder. I mean, I know I want to wonder, when I’m
watching a show. I mean, props can be very specific to a story. It supports all the action and they also drive the story. The thing about props is they are everything
that is not scenery. What I love about the work that I do is that
it is all problem solving. Everything you’re doing is a prototype. Something might have been done that is similar
to what you’re doing but never exactly the same as what you’re doing, and that’s
why you have to create it from scratch. You have to create patterns, have to do maquettes. For me, that’s really the fun part of it. And you’re in this bigger collaboration
say, when you do a show or a movie there may be multiple shops involved, multiple people,
and it all has to look like it’s done by the same hand. None of this happens because of one person. I have dual background in art and theater. So, I’ve always studied both concurrently and have always worked in both components. I used to actually think they were separate
things, but now I realized that some time ago that it’s all part of the same package. All the art that I make is the same, whether
it’s for money or whether its my personal art. There’s never any downtime when I’m doing
something that doesn’t contribute to some kind of creative acumens, skill-building. I thought, “Why not reach into these other
areas of problem-solving?” I was a pretty good sculptor and I could jump
off from there and kind of got more excited. It seemed like the next reasonable step, like
a way to continue the growth in problem-solving and growth in fulfillment. This is Hamilton. There are these candle-carts that are a pretty big project. And there are 109 candles. We have to replace the inside flicker part,
the electronic part. They all tend to be very flexible in the shop. I would say start with training, but even
thought I was trained in welding and woodworking and I studied technical theater in college,
I had a concentration in painting but I found if I opened my mind and I decided I wasn’t
necessarily going to limit myself, that I could learn a lot more. …this is a tiny little plug, and this is
attached to a big little… A specialty prop customarily has a purpose
that goes beyond set dressing or a chair or a simple utensil or something that’s a simple
hand prop like a basket. Once fake food has to be eaten, that would
become a specialty. We had to make a turkey that you could physically
carve, right, and take a piece of meat out of, but that closed up into a completely believable
whole turkey, before the slices were made. So, I would say that’s a specialty prop,
because it has a special goal. We made a chicken, and you had to be able
to twist the head of the chicken and blood came out of that. Okay, so that’s a special effect within
a specialty prop. …it’s mixed into the silicone as part
of the casting. See, that’s why it looks so natural. This prop is in process, it’s for the touring
production of Come From Away, and we usually do if we can do a full-scale drawing. Sometimes if something is sculptural, it really
gets everybody on the same page if you can draw it up in actual size. This is what is going to go on the inside. It gets weighted. When they pick it up, we want it to act like
a fish, right? Like, not some kind of stiff carved taxidermy
thing, this one has to be real. [music] If you don’t know how to read a play, you
know you really don’t know what the props are for. They have to keep the show moving. They have to add to it, and not distract from it. If you really don’t know anything about
theater, you may not get that, because if you can’t interpret the play, you’re not
going to be a great designer or builder. You have to get what it is that the prop is
for, and I think that that theater background and having read a lot of plays and dissecting
them in class really helps if you’re going to be building props. I was very lucky, I feel, in my career because
when I first got to New York I ended up working in some of the best craft studios. There’s a wonderful couple: Janet Harper
and Fred Nida, Harper/Nida Studio. And if you could say that you had worked in
their studio, their quality was so high that anybody would hire you. They would do whole Broadway show, what we
call a Broadway package: where you do all every single prop in the show, which can be
a few hundred pieces. We did Les Mis, we did Phantom, we did a lot
of shows but you did anything from a distressed leather shoulder bag to a dead body which
was sort of my specialty then- I actually was sort of the dead-body-lady of Broadway
for quite a while, I did about 40 of them. I’m one of I think 3 studios that actually
has a contract on the props for the show Hamilton. I do all the documents, some of them are folded
and sealed with wax, and I do portfolios, and then I do flasks. A lot of the things that I do now I just learned
over the years by trial and error, and also from working with other people. The collaboration can be really fun. Although, most of the time I am working alone now. I didn’t have my own shop until about 11
years ago, and it’s because everyone had moved on and was no longer running a studio. I hadn’t really planned on it, I really
enjoyed working in other studios, but the only way to keep working was to basically
hire myself. Because I can sculpt and also sew, as well
as work on a band-saw and other tools, a lot of what I do is patterned foam. These are flexible foams. The foam I work in the most is called EVA. It’s very light, so you don’t often need
to do any boning or ribbing, and I create especially animal costumes or animal props with that. Often costume shops don’t want to do the
more sculptural pieces, so that’s what I tend to get. So I often don’t do the body. The head is the most interesting part for
me to build because the eyes are everything. I could spend a couple of hours just playing
with the placement of the eyes and how the lids are because all the expression comes
through the face, as opposed to the body. So, this piece actually has just over 50 pattern
pieces, this is a fairly complicated one. Horses have this bone ridge here, and I wanted
that to be really sharp. And then this is what you end up with. This is a half-a-head. It was a two-man dancing horse. We often use these little mannequins because
they’re the perfect human proportions. There would have been a person in the back
bent over holding onto the waist of the person in front. Then, the horse head sat on top of that. In a Broadway show right that has- god-knows,
up to 400 performances, say, first consideration is how the specialty prop or otherwise is being used. The props have to be extremely durable. As Mary says, we have to make beautiful gym
equipment because one of the biggest challenges of the stage is not only does it have to work,
it has to work 400 times a year. The design has to be boiled down to something
that can be repaired very quickly, if not overnight. So, you have to have access. And all of that is part of that problem solving,
which makes this a really interesting thing to do. Somewhat nerve-wracking, sometimes, but ultimately
really interesting thing to do I think. And then, on top of that, it’s deadline driven. There’s no time to be wasted, so you’re
constantly trying to figure out where are we, where do we need to be, what needs to
get done today, so we can do this tomorrow? You’ve spent all this time on something,
and you’ve really made it work and work well and it’s eliminated. You come to realize that what really matters
is what’s seen on that stage. This piece is for Meteor Shower, and there
were two costumes for this, one of them is already in the show. So it’s supposed to look like a meteor came
through his back. It works, I’m working on the remote controlled
wireless trigger for it. Here’s the mold. We lay the silicone in here. The silicone is fairly translucent so you
can see the little lights but we also want to opaque it continues to look like a hole. The lighting and the fog are triggered from
the lighting console and the water is controlled by the performer, which worked better because
he’s actually doing the motion of taking a drink, so it made more sense for the performer
to control it directly. It is a fascinating project, just because
it has little bits of everything. It’s a costume, with special effects- So you’re adding texture. -built into that, and lighting with fog effects
and water effects, kind of practical effects. All packed into the smallest space we could possibly. One of the hardest parts is hiding all of
this under a jacket or a polo-shirt. Really good directors really know how to use
props, so it’s always kind of a thrill when you see how funny it can be. When you see it in context, once they actually
perform it- That’s the payoff. And you’re also just relieved that everything
looks good and does what it’s supposed to do and you can see the LEDs above the stage
lights and nothing is leaking and everything seems to fit, that the actors comfortable. So it’s a payoff more than the actual commission obviously. The Broadway show they develop over a period of
a year or more, and you usually have about 2-3-4 months, to build everything that you’re
going to need to build, but that could be 100 pieces. So, you really do need the time. Most of the theater I do is Broadway shows. I’ve done 50 to date. I will get a request from a production prop master to bid on certain items. Sometimes, you go to a bid session where you
competing against several other studios and they will have a bible- what we call a bible-
which will have all the various props for the shows that have been designed by the production designer. And you’ll go through all of those, page
by page with the entire group, and anyone can ask any technical questions they’d like
so everyone gets the same answers and information at the same time. Then, they send you home with a bible, with
all of that and you are given anywhere from 2 days to maybe a week to come up with a bid. Most studios won’t bid on everything because
not everything is their specialty. There might be pyrotechnics, there might be
soft-goods which are sewn pieces- you would only bid on the things that interest you or
that are the type of thing that you do. The awards will go out, and they will give
you a date when it all has to be completed by. So, then you start your lists of what you
need to shop, you’ll do research for materials, some of which you’ve already done during
the bidding process because you need to know what your costs are going to be. Because you could be laying out hundreds of
thousands of dollars of materials and you don’t want to underbid and not have that paid back. When you’re working on Broadway if you’re
doing props, most of the time you’re dealing with the assistant designer. Or, often in my case, the production prop master. Production prop master oversees all of the
props and getting all of the props made. She isn’t actually building anything, she’s
actually overseeing the various studios who are doing the building. She’ll check-up on them and make sure that
they’re coming in on schedule. So, you may meet the designer briefly, possibly
at the bid session, but most of the time you’re really not working with the designer directly. It’s almost anti-climactic when you finish
it and deliver it because all of a sudden it’s just done and it goes out the door,
but I actually like the process a lot. [music] Australian silky-terrier. So I think once we get this even longer, because
they don’t look so big anymore. He doesn’t look so crazy. The puppet is for Mean Girls, it’s pretty
much an interim puppet, we are covering the rehearsal dog to see if this is actually the
kind of dog they want to use. Technology isn’t always the answer, especially
if you’re- it depends on the direction and the flavor of the production. If you have a very limited stage picture,
but people are really using some simple props ingeniously, for me that can be as entertaining
or fascinating as a prop that’s got all these animatronic motors in it and is flying
across stage. You know, I understand that we have the technology
to make that happen but sometimes ingenuity really still sells me. A studio like this, we tend to do things that
are more complicated. Or at least, people see us as being able to
maybe take those kinds of things on. It’s not by rote, it’s not an assembly
line, and I think it’s a lab. I think that you’re experimenting. I think that you’re trying to move the art forward. I’ve been doing this long enough to see
the technology change that we’ve used greatly. And material science has changed, and you
have to stay up with that just like any lab would You have to stay in the moment. Now, you have digital painting, so not everything
is hand-painted. Now you have 3D printing so now people are
actually using 3D printers to do things. I personally have not gotten into that because
at this point in my career, it’s a little difficult because kids coming up are weaned
on computers and people on my generation were not. So, there’s no way I can really compete
with people who are doing things on the computer and actually I don’t want to sit at a desk
all day programming. I would rather do things by hand, and actually
it’s almost to my benefit because so few people know how to work with their hands anymore
that my skills are in demand. I’ve tried to hire young people sometimes
to assist, but I’ve actually had to teach 30 year olds how to use scissors properly
because they can keyboard but they can’t do a lot else so my skills have taken me a long way. One thing that I’ve really enjoyed over
the past several years is going as a guest artist to various universities. It’s kind of nice to pass on what you’ve
learned, especially because I’m not going to be doing this forever and you want the
next generation to know some of the things you went through but also some of the techniques,
the hand techniques you’ve developed, because it’s maybe not something they’re learning in school. My advice to someone who wanted to design
and create props for the theatre would be not to limit yourself, to make yourself indispensable,
work hard, listen, ask good questions, and practice. Learn how to sew, learn how to pattern, learn
how to work with tools, but truly don’t limit yourself or pigeonhole yourself into
one corner because you could be a shoe-maker and you could be a tree-maker.


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