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Category archive: Prop shop

Plunging into In the Next Room

posted by prop shop on Tue, Dec 2, 2008
in Prop shop

Vibe 1a

It’s always nice to have a show up and running and get a chance to clean up, maybe take some time off (we work crazy hours putting up a show), and then start to work on the next one.

However the day we opened The Arabian Nights, I had to make time to meet with Annie Smart, the set designer of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), to talk through the props in the play--especially the period vibrators we’ll be building.

I was motivated by our marketing department’s program deadline—they have to write the stories for the program before we even start building the shows, so our downtime is, unfortunately, their crunch time. And of course, they want to write a story on how we go about creating the period vibrators for this next show.

Luckily I started doing some research at the end of the summer, since I knew we would need to get a head start—and because I knew how crazy our schedule would be at this point. I contacted the obvious local collectors (again, as with that great local rope spinner I previously blogged about, there’s nothing like living in the Bay Area for finding alternative niche markets!), and emailed with Rachel Maines, the author of The Technology of Orgasm, the book that inspired the play.

Most of my leads were good starting places, but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, that I really pushed to get more information, motivated by that marketing deadline

That Friday, on my supposed day off, I went into San Francisco to see the collection at the Center for Sex and Culture, which was started by Carol Queen, PhD, and which turned out to be in a location shared by an acquaintance of mine’s performance space, Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory.

Vibe2 I didn’t get to meet Carol in person (we had previously exchanged emails), but Robert was extremely helpful and knowledgeable about the vibrators and the collection. He let me rummage through boxes of vintage vibes and photograph the ones that were the most useful to our show. This is the part of my job that I truly love (and why I was excited to spend my day off doing research). He then sent me to Good Vibrations on Polk St. to see the rest of their collection displayed in the store. So I rode over there and took some more pictures. And of course, I had to wander the store examining the differences between then and now (my favorite new item being the NaughtiNano—ingenious!).

Robert told me that today’s vibes are cheaper and more efficient than those created at the turn of last century (well, yeah), though I actually found one modern vibe that had attachments very similar to the old-fashioned ones, and made note of its name on my very official notebook, because I was there purely for research.

I had time to kill in SF, so I wandered across the street to the hardware store (I love hardware stores) to see what kind of parts I could find for this project. After seeing the real objects in person, I felt like they weren’t that far-off from machines and bits I deal with daily. I definitely found some parts that also look like the old vibe attachments—little rubber feet, shower attachments, hoses…I felt pretty confident we could recreate the vibes. My work done for the day, so I thought...

But the rest of my day continued to reflect my job. I guess I do what I like and I like what I do…so it’s inescapable. After leaving Good Vibes, I noticed a few Moroccan restaurants, and since we used many Moroccan things for The Arabian Nights (some of the lanterns and the throne were Moroccan imports), I thought I’d go in one and check it out. I had a great lunch and did see some pretty décor. Then I cruised up through Japan Town, where I have had many a prop shopping trip, and saw the perfect coffee pot for Joe Turner—it always happens that whenever I’m shopping for a show, I find what I couldn’t find for a previous show in some unexpected place (I love that hardware store in particular).

I then went through the neighborhood where I met with the artisan who spun our silk rope for Joe Turner, past some Russian stores that I shopped at for Slavs way back when, and then checked out an art opening of kinetic sculpture of this artist I admire, and to whom I was introduced at about the same time I met Sarah, who now works in our shop. Sarah is also an amazing sculptor and is working with us while she finishes her graduate thesis (which we have been doing an excellent job of distracting her from finishing).

Wheelchair Then I headed across town to the Mission, saw some more (DIY) art, and happened past a store, BellJar, which had in the window what looked like the perfect pram for In the Next Room, so I ran inside to check it out. It turned out to be a wheelchair and not a pram, and way too expensive for us to buy to re-configure, though I really wanted to!

I ended up chatting with the salesperson about her interest in working in the theatre, and about their interesting collection of things (prop people are always looking for and collecting things).

By that point I was running late to see a show at Theatre Rhinoceros that an ex-Berkeley Rep prop person, Jon, was directing a piece in. Yes, I do go see theatre when I’m not working. And I seem to work when I’m not working most of the time…What can I say, it was a good day, and so much nicer to be biking about the city than sitting in front of a computer.

Now I’m really taking some much-needed time off, if I don’t keep getting distracted…

More vibrator research photos can be found here.

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Prop make-over, part II

posted by prop shop on Tue, Nov 18, 2008
in Prop shop

So, yesterday, we talked about the living room in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Today, our journey begins in the kitchen.

We found this lovely item on Craigslist which Gretta transformed into a built-in kitchen unit by taking off the feet, building cabinets around it, and adjusting the top "warming oven" to be larger and taller.

Stove - original

There’s a lot of action with making the biscuits in the upper "warming oven" section, but the rest never gets used. Gretta also changed the backsplash shape to allow the kitchen tile wall to show through, and of course painted the whole thing.

Stove - final

It’s super-sweet and cozy now, even without real wood burning inside. (And yes, the actors are eating real biscuits and grits, made in the real kitchen backstage).

The sink was actually one of the hardest pieces we had to deal with on this show. It was extremely hard to locate a sink that had the basin on the left hand side and the drain board on the right. Scott’s design would not work in the opposite configuration, unfortunately. After much searching we found this one, which wasn’t Scott’s ideal size or shape, but it was an acceptable option. We added the plumbing, faucets, and base to this New Jersey salvage yard sink (I won’t tell you how much this project cost, but it might be the most expensive thing on stage). It’s a hollow cast-iron sink, and still incredibly heavy. This picture shows where Jill added back and bottom pieces to join the sink to its legs.

Sink - original

And then she built the little period-appropriate refrigerator and counter to match. With help from the scene shop, she installed real plumbing to the faucets, as well as fake pipes that go up and into the window. (The actors wash their hands and dishes throughout the play.)

Sink - final

There are many more items in this set which we built from scratch. Ultimately, nothing was untouched by us, whether it was painted or reinforced or re-manufactured. It’s a pretty stunning set overall, and the props really add to it, if I do say so myself.

Set - final

The Arabian Nights opens tonight…and, while I’m not sure I should tell you all our tricks before it opens, maybe I’ll give you a little sample of things to look for that won’t look like what you see here:

We purchased some beautiful umbrellas that will look nothing like this by the time you see them in the show. They've been totally transformed to the world of sari fabric and gilded trim of Mara’s costume design.

Umbrellas - original

This is Dan, the set designer, figuring out how to make a glorious throne out of a Moroccan import chair. It will be absolutely fabulous...

Dan Ostling 1

And this is one of many sad pillows from our stock that gets a total make-over. It’s actually pretty unrecognizable in its new form:

Moroccan pillow - original 

AN - pillow - final 
After (see what I mean?)

Lastly, we got these "ottomans" from Lookingglass Theatre, who originally produced the play (they’re also Mary’s home base). Sarah from our shop worked with the new scene shop C&C router (such a glorious addition to our arsenal of cool tools) and the scenic art department to make these look even more exciting than they do here.

One original ottoman

Mike Fink 
Our scenic art intern, Mike, re-painting one of the inset tabletops

We repaired all of them, and Jill built one more from scratch. These ottomans are integral to all the action in the show--they create spaces in the way scenery usually does, so they're more than just furniture on the set. One even becomes a flying carpet...!

Arabian nights cast

This is another totally lovely show. Both of these set designers are ones we thoroughly enjoy working with, and they come up with such pretty stuff. It really makes the effort worth it.

All photos here courtesy of brtpropshop.

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Prop make-over

posted by prop shop on Mon, Nov 17, 2008
in Prop shop

Being in Berkeley (and because people know me as a recycling freak), I often get asked if we reuse props in shows. Of course we do, but no designer is going to use something exactly the way some other designer did. Even when we buy something specifically for a show, it's rarely put on stage looking as it was bought, no matter how simple the object is. And sometimes it's so far from the original that we wonder why we bought the item in the first place!

So, I thought I’d share some examples of transformations that have happened in two shows we've been working on simultaneously…Let me give you a little tour of the furniture before and after.

For Joe Turner’s Come and Gone we created a beautiful parlor and kitchen on the set from various real items.

Here we have a chair we borrowed from our friends at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in San Francisco. Scott Bradley, the set designer, saw this chair in their inventory catalogue and fell in love.

Chair 1

But when we went to pick it up, we realized it had been used in one of their recent productions and had been transformed to this not-so-period-appropriate version, which was definitely not in Scott’s color scheme:

Joe Turner chair, redux

Since this chair had been painted silver, the only real way to get it back to looking like its original wood was to strip it down and start from scratch. We took it to a furniture stripper after getting it this far ourselves.

Chair - stripped 

Since we had to re-upholster the chair, as well as a settee we had in our stock (which we'd received as a donation a while ago--we love donations, by the way), Scott chose a fabric for them both, and Bruce re-covered them. This settee wasn’t a simple recovering job either. Its sprung seat got completely replaced and we gave it a height enhancement

Here, you can see Bruce adding to the wood on the legs, after which he carefully painted it to match the original wood of the settee.

Bruce and the setee

Scott also asked that we have some wood showing on the front edge, so we refinished the wood interior piece and changed the upholstery point to be higher than it was in the original version. It’s a subtle difference, but quite nice and slimming. Overall, the actors sit more firmly and higher up on this settee than they would have originally, which helps them project their voices as well as be seen better.

Joe Turner settee - original 

Joe Turner settee - re-covered 

To finish off the parlor, Sarah (Miss SupertyDooperino) created the lighting fixture from a mix of parts ordered from our now-favorite online lighting store, Rejuvenation (they are the nicest, fastest vendor I have found), from random found parts, and even stolen pieces of lamps we had in stock (one of which we had bought/created for another Scott-designed show).

 Sarah with lamp  

Paint it all brass and it looks as if it was born this way! Then some careful masking and spray paint on the shade to tie it into the color scheme...and here’s our finished parlor (at right, you can also see the final version of the macrame curtain):

Final parlor

Stay tuned for tomorrow--the Joe Turner kitchen, and a quick look at The Arabian Nights.

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It's curtains

posted by Megan Wygant on Wed, Oct 29, 2008
in Prop shop

This post is on behalf of Prop Shop, who's in tech for Joe Turner and on deadline for The Arabian Nights at the moment.

If you flip through a Sears and Roebuck catalogue from the early 1900’s you actually can find a good portion of what you see on the set for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. If only we could still shop from those catalogues and get things at those prices! You’d also be surprised how little some things have changed and how impossible other things are to find today. This is one of the great challenges of my job. If we can’t buy or borrow something, we build it.


When I saw scenic designer Scott Bradley’s drawings of the set, I was pretty overwhelmed by the level of detail he put into all of the prop drawings. He knows what he wants and he actually draws it into his scenery draftings -- not something every designer does (most tend to have a loose idea and we see what we can find). So, I asked Scott what the piece that appeared to be a lace curtain in the main archway was, and he said it was actually macraméd. Okay, that’s not something I had even heard of; to make it that much more difficult, he wanted the rope to be ¾” thick and magenta. You certainly can’t buy something that specific.

Curtain elevation

After searching all the local fabric stores, and on the web for a while with no luck on any cording that thick other than stiff marine rope (which would be a good color or something we could dye), I called a couple of big theatrical supply houses to see if they carried something like this rope. One flat-out said no. The other said they could shop in LA for me and call back in a week. I was super-excited, gave them all the important information, and thought I had it solved. The woman I talked to left for vacation in the meantime, leaving my info with her LA shopper. A week later she calls me to get the information again. And then a week later she sends me a couple of samples that are the wrong color and the wrong size and some tassels that were also the wrong size (because of course I need matching tassels for this thing too, and the tassels are of varying sizes as well). I believe this is the eighth time Scott has designed a version of this set, so I didn’t doubt this problem had been solved before...And I was wishing I could just borrow this thing from someone who had done it! I actually sent out a plea to the email list of prop managers across the country with no luck.

Defeated, I told Scott I couldn’t find anything like what he wanted. He was surprised and said that 20 years ago, when he did the show in NYC, there was tons of silk rope. And this sparked a thought in me—I hadn’t searched for “silk rope,” though I had thought I came up with every possible Google combination for braided cording. And, of course, the first link if you Google “silk rope” is a San Francisco-based artisan, Madame Butterfly, who hand-spins silk rope to specified sizes and colors. I should have known I would find a niche market for handmade rope in SF!

I was ecstatic. This was the beginning of a series of emails, snail mails, and drives to coffee shops in SF, in which we exchanged rope and dye samples. I soon found out that though silk rope was the key word I was missing, silk didn’t have that silky sheen we would have expected. However Madame Butterfly also spins rayon, which has the same softness and draping quality, takes dye, and is shiny.

Let me also say that Scott lives in New York, so most of our communication is via email and pictures and Fed-Exing samples. So there was a lot of back-and-forth through the whole process of creating this piece. Once we got the size and color approved by Scott, she made us some lengths of the rope.

Tassel sample In the meantime, I called Bruce Busby, who is an amazing local artisan, to work on this project -- which is a perfect fit for his talents. He just happened to be available while his wife was taking maternity leave and could look after their first daughter. He worked with the sample pieces while MB was creating the rope from scratch to figure out the layout of the curtain, how to make the knots look and work correctly, and how to make tassels out of the same material and integrate them into the rope. Bruce realized that we would need more fibers for the tassels than the ends of the rope created to get enough fullness for Scott’s liking. I went back to MB to get a roll of just the fibers dyed, and Bruce strategically added these into the knots of the tassels and created fringe out of them for the side pieces. 

Final lay out2 When he was done, the tassels actually had this really cool-looking tie-dyed quality because the rope had been dyed after it was spun, so the insides were still white. We knew this was going to happen and had already arranged for MB to re-dye the finished curtain once it was completely built. We were all optimistic it would turn out evenly colored. I took the finished curtain to be re-dyed the morning Bruce’s wife went into labor with their second daughter -- he finished it just in time! It only took a little more tweaking and tassel conditioning after getting it back, and we were able to make those adjustments without him.

So, many hours of work later, we have a beautiful macramé curtain in the set’s archway. There was one moment my heart sunk when the lighting designer asked if we could shorten the curtain so it wouldn’t cast shadows on the actors...but luckily, there were other solutions to that problem (and I didn’t have to go in a corner and cry!). I’m not sure, all-told, how many hours and how much money went into this (I might get a chance to figure this out once we actually open this show and The Arabian Nights, which is right on its heels).

I often wonder if people notice details like this curtain, and if they stop to think where it might have come from...though, really if something takes too much attention then we haven’t really done our job well. It should all look natural and the actors should look comfortable in their surroundings.

All photos courtesy of brtpropshop.

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What I did on my summer vocation...

posted by prop shop on Thu, Sep 11, 2008
in Prop shop

In the past few days, the weather has made it very clear that summer is over for everyone in the Bay Area. But, it's actually been over for those of us at Berkeley Rep for a while. In the production department, every season ends with the build of the last show--usually in May--and begins again in late July as we start working on the new season. Some might think we get a break over the summer, but really it’s a chance to recoup from the last season and prepare for the next--and, of course, I never really feel like there is enough time to do both.

My big summer project has been organizing our prop stock, since we moved out of our warehouse across the street from the Theatre (future home of the Freight and Salvage) into a new and wonderful off-site space. It’s a work in progress, but I’m happy to say that we have catalogued and photographed all of our props (we have over 1,000 pieces catalogued, not including many shelves of small hand props). This is incredibly useful for us since most of our set designers live and work outside the Bay Area, and they can see if we have a good option in stock before choosing to build, buy, or borrow something. If you want a peek at this daunting task, check it out here, on Flickr. I’m hoping to get everything up by the end of next summer--a girl has to have her goals...!

SOT in process1But what I really enjoy about summer at the Theatre is the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre summer theatre camp. This is my second year teaching tech classes for the camp, and I have to admit I love doing it. The campers are incredibly enthusiastic and creative. Teaching a prop class is challenging, because our options are so broad. Anything an actor handles is a prop, so that could be anything from a pencil to furniture on the set. We also usually handle special effects (like guns and blood, which always catch the kids' attention), and any food the actors eat. We also deal with things that decorate the set like lamps, curtains, items in bookshelves...anything that is not the actual set walls or the costumes. I always struggle with defining my job to whomever asks, but it’s even more of a struggle to find something to teach that would seem inherently "proppy" and, for the kids, not just another arts and crafts class.

Beautiful, but inedibleThe warehouse move last summer gave me the opportunity to weed through all of our storage and find some gems to sacrifice to the campers, who had a great time playing “junkyard wars” props-style. This summer I challenged them to make fake food with whatever they could find in our shop’s various boxes of craft supplies. The campers came up with some really creative solutions and fairly realistic looking “food” items. They dove right into their projects and finished them within the first class meeting. The second class they created props for the shows they were producing as part of the camp.

Here's just some of what they created in less than two hours:

The final products

I was certainly impressed. Even though they all came to explore acting, I can hope that I inspired some future prop builders. I definitely was re-inspired by their creative energy to be a prop person. It was the kick I needed to start the season right.

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Yellowjackets' Jacket

posted by prop shop on Thu, Sep 4, 2008
in Prop shop

One of The Jacket's many iterationsThere have been a number of times in my prop career that I have had to come up with a “period” newspaper. And I have come up with several ways of doing these depending on the action or look of the scene. Approaching the play Yellowjackets, I knew that we had to make a completely realistic newspaper, because for a prop person, it’s a play about a newspaper (and, well, furniture that can move on and off stage quickly...!).

The newspapers come up in numerous scenes and in different formats. The actors make layouts of pages, have printed proofs, read from pages, and have stacks of these newspapers all as props.

Craig Piaget reads The Jacket

We couldn’t get away with glued-together pages or faking a front page and filling the rest with some other newspaper. And there was no way we would individually print them knowing how many were used in the show, even though we can print large format on our plotter--it’s too time-consuming, too inaccurate, and would take too much ink to be an affordable option.

I was initially afraid that we would have to recreate all the articles from scratch, and actually talked to the Theatre's art director about fonts and vendors in case we had to do that. Even he was shocked we would take the time to make something so realistic, but this is the nature of what we do--we make things look real and effortless when really they take considerable time and skill to produce. Luckily Itamar Moses, the playwright, was able to give us a copy of The Berkeley High Jacket he had saved from his time at Berkeley High School.

One of our multi-talented prop artisans, Sarah Lowe, was able to scan his original and recreate the paper on the computer. She changed the cover pages and various articles to serve the text of the play. We ended up producing two separate and complete versions of the paper for the show, and used the printing press that the actual Jacket is printed on. We don’t always use outside vendors because of the nature of our job (things in prop-land tend to happen or change at the last minute), but Fricke Parks Press was phenomenal to work with. They were able to print the papers for us the week we started technical rehearsals for the show, and now we have enough fake newspapers to last the run of our production and beyond.

Above: Actor Craig Piaget reads one of the prop papers during rehearsal.

Below: Two of the final front pages designed for Yellowjackets.

All photos courtesy of brtpropshop

Jacket front page 1 Jacket front page 2

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