Props Evaluation

By Mitchell, Kevin M. | Stage Directions, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Props Evaluation


Mitchell, Kevin M., Stage Directions


From food to silicone, to lights where you least expect it

Years ago, Sean Dane was told something by the eminent set designer Herb Camburn that he still believes holds true today: You can put an actor on stage with no set, very little lighting, but with just the right prop he or she can communicate everything to an authence that needs to be told.

Dane's job is to get the right prop in the hands of the actors who grace the stage at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and he takes great pride in doing that job well. "Authence members love to pick things apart," he notes. "We did Carter's Way, which takes place in the early 1920s and required a period microphone. Those things are expensive, like $3,000, so we just built one and we did our best to replicate it. After one of the shows, a guy who was an audio engineer all his life asked if he could look at it up close - we chuckled! And he was blown away at how exact it was."

He says this is an example of why good props are so critical in plays. In films, when a camera pans over a living room from the 1 950s and there's a glimpse of a stack of magazines, that's one thing. But in a theatre, people are starring at the stage for two hours and at least one person is eventually going to go, "hey, is that Oprah on that magazine?"

Bringing 3D Props to Life

At Demand Products, where they create the tools that bring 3D props to life, David Young says their Viper Robotic 3D Themeing system has advanced prop possibilities significantly. Today they are shaping or cutting foam props in completely new ways.

"First a maquette can be scanned with our relatively inexpensive 3D scanner, or sourced from file or created in a 3D program," he explains. "Next, the same item can be reproduced at almost any size with incredible accuracy and speed." The speed and accuracy of reproduction exceeds what can be done by hand with a hot knife and hand finishing and multiple copies can be output without the differences that handwork often produces.

Many might not realize that Demand's manual equipment has been used by the theatre industry for more than a quarter of a century. "We realize that Robotic CNC milling might not be for the average theatre company, but our manual foam cutting equipment and new hand-held Hot Knives offer endless possibilities for the prop designers and fabricators." Affordable pricing and product reliability are part of every Demand Products tool, he adds.

"If a prop is made of foam. Demand Products has a tool to cut, shape or coat it," he says. "Foam has many advantages. It is light in weight, easy to cut and shape, can be painted with water-based paints and can be used over and over. If it needs to be stronger and exceptionally long lived, many coatings are available to strengthen the foam prop by creating a hard shell surface."

The Art of Sculpt or Coat

"I've led numerous workshops over the years showing people how to construct almost anything you can think of using Sculpt or Coat and cheap filler materials like toilet paper, newspaper or scrap fabrics," says John Saari of Sculptural Arts Coating. Recently he led a workshop about creating food properties at the United States Institute of Theatre Technology, Southeast Section.

Saari is also a professor of the Design and Technical Theatre at Greensboro College, Greensboro, N. C, and has given talks about for the Society of Property Artisan Managers (SPAM) where members have shared about the variety of props Sculpt or Coat has helped them create - in Little Shop of Horrors, for example, both for the Audrey Il puppet and the dentist gas mask. For Grease, theatres are turning to Sculpt or Coat to create the Greased Lightning car chassis and simulated vinyl fabrics for booths.

He's also noticed an increase in rental properties for productions in the past couple years/The trend seems to be theatres sharing properties with one another," he observes.

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