Berkeley Rep Blog

Category archive: Prop shop

Sneak peek: The Chinglish set

posted by Karen McKevitt on Tue, Aug 21, 2012
in Our shows , Prop shop , Scene shop

David Henry Hwang's Chinglish, a comedy of cross-cultural errors, begins Friday. Here's a sneak peek of the set, which was trucked in from New York a few months ago and has been awaiting new life in our scene shop.  


Production manager Tom Pearl takes a closer look. 




 And here's a view of it in the Roda Theatre last week.


 A couple of bins of props in the Roda lobby, awaiting load-in.


All photos by Mary Kay Hickox.

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The fate of the Red canvases

posted by Karen McKevitt on Tue, Mar 20, 2012
in Our shows , Prop shop , Scene shop

Red previews have only just begun, and already people are buzzing about the paintings onstage. What will happen to those canvases? What will happen to the fabric the actors are stretching and priming?

The canvases are the handiwork of the scenic art shop. Preview audience members have suggested that we auction off the canvases (signed by the actors) at the end of the run, which would be really fun. But -- bummer -- we’re required by contract to destroy the Rothko-like work after the show closes.

David Chandler (right) as Rothko, along with John Brummer. Photo by

But the fabric is another story. The prop shop preps a week’s worth every Monday, and by the end of the run -- 53 performances -- we’ll have used 190 yards of 144-inch fabric. But don’t worry, it’s not ending up in a landfill. We’ll be donating it to local artists. And leftover paint will go to the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland.

Want to get involved and donate art supplies to local artists and teachers? Bring those items to the show! We have a bin in the lobby all set up for the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. 

You can read more about how the scenic art and prop shops tackled the challenge of creating Rothko-like canvases in our Red program -- and we'll be giving you more behind-the-scenes peeks in future posts. 


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Fabric origami with Chris Palmer

posted by Karen McKevitt on Tue, Jan 24, 2012
in Costume shop , Prop shop , Scene shop

Berkeley Rep's shops are filled with pretty awesome, talented artisans who are always curious and ready to learn new things (and build some awesome things too). That tradition continued last Friday when the costume shop hosted an in-house fabric origami workshop taught by the amazing artist Chris Palmer, author of Shadowfolds. He taught members of the costume, prop, and scenic shops his method of folding fabric to make three-dimensional geometric designs.


Kitty Muntzel, the costume shop's draper, instigated this post -- and pointed me to a terrific blog post by our Scenic Charge Artist Lisa Lazar, who allowed me to repost it (with some slight changes) here.

 I could a tale unfold...


On Friday I had the great fortune to participate in a workshop with artist Chris Palmer.


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Candle, candle, burning bright

posted by Karen McKevitt on Fri, Apr 29, 2011
in Our shows , Prop shop

When you come to Three Sisters, you may eventually catch a slight whiff of a particular scent in the air. Yes, that’s the scent of a candle lit by a real flame. These days, flames are often faked with electric light, but director Les Waters and the creative team wanted the authenticity of a real candle flame, often carried by Emily Kitchens, who plays Natasha. But what does it take to have fire on stage?

Emilywithcandle Emily Kitchens in Three Sisters. Photo courtesy of

Well, it usually depends on what fire effect the play demands, notes Berkeley Rep’s properties manager. For The Glass Menagerie in 2006, the props team had to cut the candles to size so they burned out by the end of a scene. This was no small feat as air currents and temperature in the theatre all affect the length of time it takes a candle to burn. But Three Sisters has no special burning-time requirement, so getting a flame on stage mostly came down to bureaucracy.

Whenever you use fire on stage you must get a permit from the city. Permits vary depending on the type of the fire effect. Pyrotechnics like in this season’s Great Game required a fire permit, hiring a specialist, and obtaining an additional license. But for Emily to carry a candle across stage in Three Sisters, we just needed to submit a ground plan that shows the movement and locations of the flame to the city of Berkeley and to pay a nominal fee once the city approved the plan. If the blocking changes -- as blocking often does in tech the week before previews -- an amendment needs to be filed.

Of course, additional safety procedures are in place. Even for an effect as small as a candle flame, someone is nearby (usually in the wings) with a fire extinguisher. If the matches are extinguished on stage, the props team puts gel activator in the ashtrays to ensure the match really goes out.

Sure, it’s easier to use a fake candle with an electric flame, but for me at least, the real candle enhances the setting and feel of the play. I may have only peripherally noticed both the organic movement of the real flame, as opposed to an oddly static electric flame, and the subtle scent of a real candle, but suddenly I felt as though I were really in that old house. After all, we often associate a place -- especially home -- with a specific scent, be it mom’s cooking or, in this case, the faint scent of wax and flame.

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Conceptual Cargo construction

posted by Kate Vangeloff on Thu, Feb 10, 2011
in Our shows , Prop shop , Scene shop

Cargo 015
So just how did they build the set for The Last Cargo Cult? How does it stay together? Where do the boxes go while Steve Jobs is being performed? Who owns the contents of the "iPig" box?

Excellent questions, my friends.  

Being unsure myself, I felt it was time to do some set-inspired sleuthing. I began my inspection by performing some very scientific data-gathering methods such as "sneaking into the theatre" and "gently poking the boxes to see what would happen." 

MD_CC4_lr (I think it is important to note at this point that this research is confidential, so please don't disclose my methods to Mike Daisey or Jean-Michele Gregory...or stage management...or anyone for that matter.)

Not much knowledge was gleaned from this first attempt other than the fact that sneaking into a theatre and gently poking cardboard boxes makes one feel like a bit of an idiot, so I decided to dig deeper. I had heard a whisper of a rumor that although I had previously enjoyed imagining that the Cargo Cult boxes spent their week off sight-seeing, carousing, and generally making merry, that the boxes were actually kept inside the now somewhat-abandoned prop shop at Addison Street. I accosted a hapless facilities crew member and convinced them to let me into the prop shop which, I might add, was ominously locked.

On the breathless verge of discovery, I slowly opened the heavy, creaking door. After a tense moment fumbling to find the light switch -- behold! Six mounds of corrugated consumerism materialized before my eyes along with the truth I was so desperately seeking. Why hadn't I seen it before? But of course: Box Tetris!  

Cargo 002 Let me explain. Each individual box is part of one of six larger units of boxes fastened together with hot glue. These “playing pieces” are stacked on large crates to add height and fitted together in a Tetris-like fashion to create the illusion of the mountain of materialism looming over Mike Daisey.

Case closed.

Now if I could only figure out who owns the iPig and why...

Photo of Mike Daisey in The Last Cargo Cult by

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Breaking news: The composer is dead!

posted by Karen McKevitt on Mon, Nov 29, 2010
in Backstage buzz , Costume shop , Our shows , Prop shop

CDpre2_lr  Have you seen the two features about Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead that came out over the weekend? Robert Hurwitt at the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko of Phantom Limb, who created the puppets, while Jackie Burrell at the Contra Costa Times conducted an irreverent interview with author Lemony Snicket’s stand-in, Daniel Handler.

I myself have been absolutely fascinated with the orchestra of marionettes in Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead, and during tech week, I managed to catch up with Erik as well as the costume shop staff to talk about how they designed and costumed these marionettes.

The show is based on the book by the celebrated author of A Series of Unfortunate Events. At the top of the story, a composer turns up dead, and everyone in the orchestra is a suspect. But, these aren’t your everyday everyones.

“The Inspector interrogates the instruments,” says Erik, “not the musicians.” In fact, the musicians and instruments are essentially one and the same.

Erik’s marionettes are elegant human/instrument hybrids. Put simply, they’re instruments with faces, arms and hands, but Erik was careful not to “Disneyfy” them. The violins, for example, have an austere bone structure that’s not at all cartoonish. Erik created the heads and hands using Celluclay. “No one over age 8 uses it,” Erik says, laughing. “But I don’t use synthetics in my work.” The Berkeley Rep props department cast all the instruments over the summer.

While the marionettes were being made, the costume shop started working on their elaborate wardrobe. The fabric that makes up the brass section’s pinstripe suits is printed with the actual score from the show. Three different dye vats were used to create the parchment-colored clothes for the oboes. The violins wear corsets that form their body, while the ruffled fronts are the strings. “They’re my favorite,” says Kitty Muntzel, a draper in our shop. “They’re very girly.”

I asked Kitty how costuming marionettes is different from costuming actors. “Well,” she says, “you can stitch the costumes directly to the puppets!” We laugh. Another plus is that there’s hardly any tailoring and no intricate facing like functioning pockets.

One of the costume shop’s biggest considerations was the marionettes’ range of motion and where the strings are located. They also had to consider that the marionette’s bodies are fabric as well, so the costumes don’t slide over them the same way clothes slide when an actor raises his arm. Erik noted that the resistance of fabric against fabric was actually helpful when the puppeteers started working with the marionettes.

Most of the marionettes were dressed in rehearsal – after they had already been strung. So almost every morning, the costume department would arrive early to costume a section of instruments. Each section had to be unstrung, and the costumers had to dress each marionette in the quarters of their orchestra pit.

One of the biggest challenges in rehearsal was getting groups of marionettes, like all the violins, to stand up and sit down as a group. Each marionette is individually strung, so it takes an elaborate network of pulleys and expert puppeteers to make them all move the same way simultaneously while still being able to move individually.

The result, judging from the dress rehearsal I saw last week, is visually stunning. And we’re all looking forward to sharing it with you, so purchase your seats now before it’s too late!

Photo of Geoff Hoyle by

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Trash = Treasure

posted by prop shop on Wed, Jul 15, 2009
in Prop shop

Food packaging

Timing is everything. Someone else's trash is our treasure. We're a week into the process of finding props for American Idiot and already are hitting a small wall. There's no place to buy what we are looking for. (Yes, I've tried Craigslist, Ebay, Freecycle...and lots of driving around looking on the street...!)

We've made a good start, but I'm hoping some of our avid blog readers might be interested in helping us out. I can even provide an incentive...

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More from the pacifist...

posted by prop shop on Fri, Feb 20, 2009
in Prop shop

Today Steve Tolin came to town to do the initial head casts of two of the company members for Lieutenant of Inishmore. He definitely lived up to his reputation, and I'm excited to be working with him on this show. The sheer number of times he's done this production and his enthusiasm to make each one an improvement upon the last, is inspiring. Luckily we were having a slow enough day that the crew got a chance to watch his process on the first actor. I thought I'd share these images with you. (Click each image for a larger version.)

AH 014 This is the first step using Alginate, which is what dentists use to do teeth impressions.  Note the actor's mouth is open for extra excitement.

AH 031After making a mother mold around the alginate, the actor is freed.

AH 039 Here, Steve preps the cast for travel back to his studio. He's filled it with clay and armature, but will do the final mold and latex head, including painting, gunshots, and hair.

This was far more fun than ordering guns, which I'm still working on...

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But I'm a pacifist...

posted by prop shop on Fri, Feb 13, 2009
in Prop shop

You know that precious few minutes of sleep you get when you hit snooze or set the alarm for another half an hour before going to work...ahh...  And do you know when it goes horribly wrong and you have a mini-nightmare, only to wake up ten minutes later wondering why didn't you just wake up when you were supposed to...??  Now you haven't gone to the gym and are stressed out before the day has even begun...  Well that happened to me on the morning we opened In the Next Room.  No, I wasn't having anxiety dreams about vibrators (or nice snoozy dreams either!) 

In fact, I had already mentally moved on beyond all the hard work that went into producing that show, and beyond the show presently in rehearsal, Crime and Punishment, which, although it caused me to suffer as a teenager (in the way that good books draw you into a different mental state while you read them), was not causing me to loose sleep yet, ax murder aside. 

I was dreaming, quite elaborately, about buying guns for The Lieutenant of Inishmore


Slr 466

So I decided it was time for me to really focus on acquiring these guns. I forced myself to spend the better part of the day researching and reading through all the information I had on the guns for this show (after a last-minute vibrator repair, of course).   

I've actually always tried to be as hands off as possible when it comes to stage weapons. Inevitably, I have to get them, but I leave it to the fight directors and backstage crew to deal with handling them. I don't like guns, real or fake, and I admit, I'm not excited about doing a show that is all about guns and blood. That said, I have known since this summer that I would have to suck it up and get in gear for this show (that is to say, I had no choice). I had half-heartedly started this process then, but not with the focus I needed to spend to get over my mental block against dealing with the weapons.  

I've talked a number of times to Jim Guy at Milwaukee Rep, who in the theater prop world is the Prop Weapons Guru. I think I talk to/email with him every time I use a weapon on stage. He's awesome and incredibly knowledgeable--and one of those guys who is a natural teacher and a great storyteller (so, fun to chat up anyway). So of course, this summer at S*P*A*M*, the annual prop masters conference (yes, we have a conference too, which maybe I've mentioned in previous blog posts?), I chatted him up, as well as a lot of my counterparts around the country who have worked on other versions of this show, and whom all had great advice

Everyone had something to say about the process and had information to email me. Props people are really giving, interesting, creative, and intelligent folks (which makes me sometimes wonder how I've stayed in this business so long...?). Nathan at The Alley was super-helpful and entertaining. And Kelly at St.Louis Rep was amazing. She was budgeting the show at the time and had all her paperwork with her to work on in the spare moments we weren't conferencing. St. Louis Rep did the show a few months ago, and I was able to go see their version. She arranged for me to watch the show from the audience and also from backstage. I took pages of notes and hundreds of pictures. And, most importantly, my fear of blood and guns had been mildly relieved. What I thought to be the impossible can actually be staged live. 

I also came back with a glowing review of Steve Tolin, the special-effects person they hired (and whom we will, thankfully, be using even though we could do this in-house--there is so much to do, and he has his process down to a science). Les Waters, who will be directing our version, also went to see the show at St. Louis, and Tom, our production manager, had already seen The Alley's production and taken pictures as well.  So we all knew what craziness we are getting ourselves into....

I then spent a few months getting caught up in all of the giant, prop-heavy shows we have been putting on here at Berkeley Rep...until the morning of the opening of In the Next Room, when I realized that I do indeed have to actually acquire weapons for our production. My dream didn't include background checks or firearms permits which we do have to get, even to use fake weapons. 

"Fake" guns have been re-manufactured only to take "blank" charges--fake bullets, but still incredibly loud and potentially damaging at close range: the "charge" shoots out of the top, not the barrel. So there is still a fair amount of caution to take when handling and shooting these guns, and I don't take this lightly at all.  I've actually spend a lot of mental energy on this since the summer.  I have been reading up on gun safety while waiting in line at the permit office and in various airports. 

Obviously, I'm in favor of gun-control laws even if it means we have to take a few weeks to get these permits and jump through various hoops to rent the guns we need. I am trying to get the most reliable, safest ones possible. Even with the permits and special procedures, there are always terrible news stories about freak theatre or film accidents that have happened which other prop people share with our group email list. I read these even though I don't want to. Knowledge is important, but sensationalism isn't what I'm after. And if you are one of those like to watch the train wreck sorts, I'm sure you could find all these awful stories on-line, but I won't link to them here.   

These stories fill me with dread that people can actually get seriously hurt playing with guns even if they are fake. Theatre is not worth dying, or even being injured for--it s the worst thing that could possibly happen, and why I'm terrified of the responsibility of even renting prop guns. I have wanted to avoid having our theater actually own fireable guns. I won't even get into all the bad things that can happen if the weapons aren't properly locked up...But today I ordered half the guns and continued on the process of renting the other half, though that is the harder, permit-requiring part. And, I'm sure the show will be just great.

I much prefer prop dead bodies to live ammo. I'm looking forward to meeting Steve in person when he comes in next week to do the life casting of a few of the actors, which you know I will definitely be blogging about, so stay tuned...

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Winter Wonderland

posted by prop shop on Wed, Dec 31, 2008
in Prop shop

Santa's workshop

It’s ironic that right before the holidays that our shop looks like a Santa’s workshop of sorts. We even acquired some “elves” to come help us out. The set, designed by Annie Smart, for In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) has a winter garden, which she designed to look like paper cut-outs with burnt edges.

Initially we thought we would build these out of foam, but then it turned out that Russell Champa, the lighting designer, wanted to light them from below, so Annie wanted them to be translucent. We experimented with different materials to find the perfect blend of transparency, thickness, stiffness, and of course, cost. We went from talking about inch-thick soft foam, to hard, thin plexiglass…but actually ended up finding that felt was the best and fortunately, cheapest, solution.

After the assembly process began, I realized we could be making foliage until the show opened if we didn’t get some help. I solicited the staff and the board of trustees, and got a few volunteers (the “elves”).

Our Elves

And ultimately I hired on a few more people, playing my overhire card sooner than I would have liked.


Since we don’t start rehearsing until the end of December and so much of what we do in props comes out of rehearsal, I’d prefer to hire extra help when we get into the crunch time before the show opens. But, as I said, this project ended up being more labor-intensive than I had hoped…Thanks so much to Esther, Sharon, Dale, Kira, Rachel, and Sheri who came and bailed us out. We’re still not done, but at least we have all the pieces and a huge bag of scraps to donate to the Depot!

Once the rest of the crew gets back from visiting family on the East Coast, we’ll begin actually building the props for this huge show. It will be another crazy Victorian beauty for sure.


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