Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Meat Dome

Today I learned that this...

is called a "meat dome" which is why my searches for "covered silver tray" and other variations of those terms, were coming up empty.

I also learned that they are VERY expensive, and I will be making one instead of purchasing one.

Bundt Cake

I made this cake last summer for Miracle on South Division Street at Peninsula Players. I just noticed the photos still on my phone and realized it never made it onto the blog.

I puchased an nice bundt pan for the show to use as set dressing. As a bonus I was able to use the cheap plastic liner for this project. We filled the liner with great-stuff and let it expand overnight. It expanded to overfill the liner, but the foam at the very bottom of the mold (the top of the cake) hadn't cured because no air could get to it.

We removed the cake from the liner, cut off the over-expanded bottom of the cake so it would sit flat, and allowed the top to finish curing. Since it was no longer curing inside a mold the top became a bit more uneven and bubbly, which didn't particularly matter for this project, but is good to remember for next time.

I sprayed the cake with some glossy wood tone for color.
After the paint was dry, I mixed some plaster of paris with brown paint to make an icing. Once the plaster had hit the right consistancy, I carefully poured it over the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. 
 It looked great initially, but after the plaster cured, the plaster looked dull and dry. 

 I added a final coat of clear gloss sealer to the icing to get the final look. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Prop Master- April 8, 2014

It occurred to me yesterday, that while I regularly post about individual projects, I don't regularly post about how I do my work on a daily basis. So yesterday I decided to keep track of everything I did (on a particularly busy, interesting day).
9:00 am- I am working on a big fake food project for my next show, Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche, for which I need 60-80 fake quiches. Since they need to bake, take time to bake, and take up room in the oven, I am trying to do a few every morning. I mixed up some salt dough for the crusts, preheated to oven to 400 degrees, pressed the dough into the pie pans, put them in the oven, and then turned off the oven, closed the door and left them. 

9:30 am- with the quiches all set, I got on my computer to respond to emails, enter in receipts from the past days, put some meetings onto my calendar etc. 
10:00 am- Still on my computer at home, I switched to craigslist to do an initial search for some furniture pieces for Five Lesbians.

 11:00 am- Ten minutes after getting out the door, I stopped by the Jewel (grocery store). I picked up more salt and flour for salt-dough crusts, some eggs for another project (more on that later), and a muffin and some milk for my breakfast (No worries Mom, I pulled over to take this pic).
 11:30 am- I arrived at Michaels. I picked up wax and Model Magic for the quiches, and some egg decor items for the same show. 
 12:00 pm- I went to the Greenhouse Theatre. The building houses four theatres, which are rented out by different companies. I happen to be working on two shows, for different theatre companies, that are both in the Greenhouse right now.
 First, I went upstairs to finish the last note I have on Cicada with Route 66 Theatre Company. There is a scene in the show where a character has been ironing. We needed 10 starched, ironed white collared shirts. The shirts were provided by costumes, because she was being helpful, but starching and ironing them was my job. I did 6 of the shirts the day before, but had to leave to get to another appointment before finishing, so I was back to finish the last 4.
 1:00 pm- After finishing the shirts, and discovering a new respect for wardrobe people, I went downstairs to take care of a last note for Our Class. The show was open, but I had gotten a note from the ASM that the leather on this reinforced suitcase was starting to give. There is a simple wood frame installed inside the suitcase to make it sit-able. I added a few screws to attach the leather case to the wood frame, so it stopped pulling away in strange ways when the case was lifted.
 1:45 pm- After leaving the Greenhouse I headed north toward my 3pm American Dead meeting in Evanston. On the way I stopped into the Good Deal Garage. I wanted to have a few more rehearsal props to drop off at my 5 Lesbians meeting tonight, and knew that they would have the frames I needed for a decent price. I paid, and was out the door in 15 minutes.
 2:00 pm- As I continued up to the Northwestern campus in Evanston I kept an eye out for somewhere to stop for lunch. Hoosier Mama Pie shop was on the way, and I had heard good things about it. I stopped for a rootbeer and a slice of pork-apple-sage savory pie.
 2:50 pm- I arrived a bit early for my American Dead meeting, but found the set designer and director already there. We discussed the layout of the space a bit, and then talked through the rest of the show with the master electrician, production manager and costume designer once they arrived.

4:30 pm- After leaving the meeting, I headed home (and this is when I stopped remembering to take pics...sorry). I stopped by a Salvation Army that was on my route. I was able to find a few more pie plates, and I also picked up an old sauce pan.

5:00 pm- I unloaded some of the days purchases from my car, quickly melted some wax and went to work on quiches. I wanted to have some samples of options ready for the my 6 pm meeting. I was able to pour a yellow wax filling into 2 quiche dishes, and to form the model magic into 4 crusts. As soon as the wax was set, I packed up what I could and was out the door.

6:00 pm- Luckily, the 5 Lesbians meetings take place only 5 minutes from my house. The one hour meeting ended up being mostly about set dressing, props and special effects, so while I felt bad about taking up other people's time, I got lots of important answers to my questions.

7:15 pm- From the meeting I headed back down to the Greenhouse for final dress rehearsal of Cicada. On the way, I stopped by the same Jewel to get more starch for the shirts. I had just enough of the starch I purchased previously to do all ten shirts, but wanted to make sure the ASM had some to touch up the shirts if he needed to during the run. I also picked up a plate of to-go sushi for dinner (it wasn't very good).

7:30 pm- I arrived at final dress a bit late, and snuck in quietly to take a seat in the dark. I took a few notes during the show, but mostly everything was in good shape.

8:30 pm- After the run ended, there was a photo call with the cast onstage, and the production team talked through tech notes, and then we were done.

10:00 pm- I arrived back at home after a long day. I still had those eggs sitting out on the counter though and Warwick, my husband, was showering and shaving. So while I waited for him I decided to get one more note done.
In Pinkolandia, about to open at 16th Street Theatre, I needed 3 hollowed out eggs nightly. I poked holes in them with the end of my beater and then blew out the insides. I did about a dozen eggs, and then was done for the night.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Greenware breakable dishes

It is an old theatrical trick to use "greenware" when plates or other dishes need to be broken onstage. Greenware is essentially un-fired pottery.

I had a bit of trouble tracking some down in Chicago, but was eventually able to speak to a manager of a "paint your own pattery" store, who was able to order them directly from his supplier when he went out for his weekly pickup. I needed enough mugs, plates and bowls to smash one set every show for ten runs (Four perfomances, plus 6 rehearsals).
I was able to get the pieces for $3 each, which was about what I was expecting. For a long running show, this would have been a serious portion of my budget, but for this short run, the price was reasonable.  
It did take much longer than expected to track down the pieces and then to get them from the supplier. Next time I will already have made the contact (if I am here in the city) but I still will make sure to start the process from the moment I have a hint of needing breakable objects, to make sure we have them in plenty of time.
Once we determined that the pieces worked during tech, the biggest problem was that they seemed obvious. As soon as the actor picked up the dish of the shelf you could guess he was going to break it. The simple grey color was begging to be smashed. So we decided to add a pattern. The first thing I tried were some wide artist's markers, but the not-quite-dry clay soaked up the ink, dried out the markers and gummed up the tips. It looked great, but was time consuming and wasteful of the nice markers. 
 I took a trip to Blick Art supplies to find a solution, and the man there recommended I try oil pastels. They worked perfectly. I was able to trace lines smoothly and quickly on the surface of the dishes, and a coat of spray sealer over each dish kept the pastel from rubbing off when I was finished. 
 Best of all, the design achieved the desired effect. From a distance the dishes looked so nicely designed that seeing them smashed was much more shocking. 
 I have very few photos of the smashed dishes. They crumble easily (which is the point), but since the scene continued with 20 more minutes of very physical comedy after the plates were smashed, the pieces onstage were basically dust by the time we hit a break. 
This photo shows the sharpest point I could find on the smashed plate I was able to photograph. I was able to run my finger back and forth across this point without any pain. In fact, the only damage done by rubbing my finger across it, was to the plate, which became more worn down and rounded each time I dragged my finger across. 

One safety concern we did have to consider, as actors continued to walk back and forth on the smashed dishes in the scene, the dust go on their shoes. They tracked that dust around the stage, which caused things to get very slick and slippery. Once we realized the problem, we were able to mostly guard against it, and the stage crew made sure to be extra diligent when they cleaned at intermission, but it is something to be aware of and plan for if you can. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


After having success using modeling clay to make slice-able cheese and sausage last summer, I was excited to try it again for the liverwurst in The Suicide. 
This time the sausage didn't need to be sliced, but it did need to be used for all sorts of "bits" in this very physical comedy. The clay gave the liverwurst a very believable weight without it being dangerous to hit someone with, gently, in scene. 
It was rigid enough to be used as a fake gun in someone's pocket, and could be molded and manipulated by the actors for an endless number of phallic jokes.

The clay did get a bit dirty by the end of rehearsals and the run (which was only one weekend because this was a college show). For a longer run I would have needed to be prepared with backups. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cheap Floral Wreaths

Fake flowers are expensive. Often not as expensive as real flowers, but still not cheap.

*Side note: I learned a while back that not everyone knows the dollar store sells fake floral. It might need some extra glue because the flowers like to fall off their stems, and you'll likely want to fill out your arrangement with some higher quality fake flowers, but for bulk fake floral, the price can't be beat.

I was lucky when working on The Suicide at Roosevelt University, that there was already a stock of flowers and greenery to pull from, but I still needed six wreaths to create my arrangements. The foam wreath forms at the craft store were small and expensive. But these basic wire boxwood wreath forms were cheap and just the right size.
I traced the wire form onto some 1.5" scraps of pink foam, and cut out the foam pieces with a jigsaw. 

 Then I used floral wire to wire the foam onto the form. You can see in this photo that my pieces of foam didn't always fit exactly, but under all the layers and flowers, small inconsistencies like this disappeared.
 and here is a view of the same wiring from the back side. 
 Some of the wreath forms I left pink, and just started adding flowers. On others, like this one, I wrapped the wreath in colored tissue paper and tulle first. The Tissue paper and tulle was thin enough that the wire stems of the flowers could poke right through, and into the foam without much effort. 
 The floral arranging itself was mostly just about finding enough flowers in the right color family to fill the space. 
And here are some of the finished wreaths (we ended up making four and pulling 2 from stock). 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

"Period appropriate" is relative

This last, overdue, post on A Tale of Two Cities at Lifeline Theatre is in not about anything I made. All of this glassware was purchased or pulled from stock.
The interesting challenge here was that the show took place in so many different locations. The disparities between those with money and without is also a huge theme in the show. I needed to have people drinking wine in four different scenes, in four different locations. 
Starting with the richest character in the richest setting, I used cut glass (meant to look like crystal) for the Marquis St Evremonde. Glasses like these would have been a more recent innovation at the time of the show, and only the rich would have owned it. 
One step below the Marquis, would be the Mannettes. I was thrilled to find these etched glasses at a local rental shop. They almost exactly matched some antique period glasses I had in my research. The ones at the time would have been a thicker glass, and not as perfectly matched (as they would have been hand-blown). Not as nice as the crystal, but solidly upper middle-class. 
Next came glasses at the English pub. I wanted to convey that this was a fairly nice place, but logically could not image any pub at the time using hand blown glass wine glasses. That would be far to expensive to purchase in bulk, in a place where they are likely to get broken. I knew found the right balance when I found these glasses made of brown glazed ceramic.  
And finally, the lowest class glasses would have been in the Defarge wine shop. They sold cheap wine to the poorest villagers in their suburb of Paris. The glasses in that shop only needed to be functional, cheap, and easy to replace. These clay mugs were the perfect solution. 
Working through these different wine glasses served as a good reminder of the importance of research. It can be very easy, especially when working on shows set further in the past, to find one or two images research images and move on; "That is what wine glasses looked like in 1790." But class, region and wealth also need to be factored in. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Doug the Dummy

In A Tale of Two Cities, a young boy is supposed to be run down by a carriage and killed in the street. We couldn't cast a seven year old boy to just lay and pretend to be dead nightly. A dummy was needed, and it needed to be good. My cheap duct-tape dummies can be good when no one moves them, but this needed to be carried in and out realistically. When in someone's arms it needed flop convincingly and be articulated correctly.
 I started by building a wooden skeleton. To get the proportions right I measured my own body and then took two-thirds of each measurement (I figure a seven-year-old boy is about two-thirds my size).

For the elbow and knee joints I used small hinges. 
For neck, shoulder, hip and wrist joints I used an screw-eye in each side, and a S-hook between to get a more random natural movement. 
Late in the process I had to go back to these joints to wrap them in strips of muslin. Doug was looking pretty great in rehearsals, but the metallic clicking of these joints completely ruined the illusion. Wrapping the joints allowed them to keep their free natural movement, but muffled the sound considerably. 
Once all the joints were attached together, I started adding some muscle and flesh. I cut strips of quilt batting and wrapped them around each part of his body. 

Once I had added enough batting to fill out the shape I started adding clothing. The costumes department was kind enough to loan me some pieces that they didn't end up using.
We tried to stage the scene so that Doug's face would be hidden as much as possible, but he still needed to have something in case the audience got a glimpse of him. 
At a local costumes store, I bought the cheapest wig I could find, a cheap mask, and a pair of nylons. I attached the mask to Doug's head then pulled the nylons over his whole head. The nylons give the skin a much more natural look than the clearly plastic mask, and help smooth the transition between the mask and the rest of the head. 
And here is Doug fully dressed. He looks pretty convincing in person, and has certainly startled some of the theatre staff when they walk backstage.