Two Sides of the Coin...that you made!

by Jay Duckworth
in Props

Props Master; Props Teacher
There comes a time in a prop person’s career where they have to show an actor how to pull off a trick. It’s sometimes very simple like drawing a sword properly or not using the sword as a cane by leaning on it. These may sound like common sense points, but they all fall under a blanket of teaching. As technicians, we sometimes assume the people know skills that we use every day, but actors who do ask questions about replicating the actions of a skill are being honest with us because they want to know how to do this correctly as if they are someone who’s had that skill all their life. 

One example was for Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures where the son (Steven Pasquale) breaks a hole in a wall and the wall has to be replaced in the second act. The actor asked us what tools he would you use, what measurements he would he take, and how would be the best way to use sheetrock to replace the hole in the wall. Kushner did his research and knew that you had to bust the wall open a little bit more to reach the studs to screw into the wall. As the son breaks apart the plaster, he finds a suitcase with documents inside over a hundred years old. Again, as technicians we’ve all done some home repair, and this is second nature to us, but the actor has to make sure that it looks like it is something they do all the time.

It takes a lot for a person to say that they don’t know something, or for a designer to say that to you; they’re opening themselves up. The last thing you want to do is critique, criticize, or laugh at someone when they are being vulnerable. We are here to support each other and this is a collaborative effort; we are hired because we have special knowledge. So, when people open themselves up to you, keep in mind it may be very hard for them to admit that they just don’t know something. I couldn’t tell you anything about lighting, balancing a room for sound or house music but from 1066 to the Victorian age — I’m your person.

You also have to learn so you can teach. I learned to spin wool when I was working on As You Like It with director Dan Sullivan, and I had to teach one of the actresses how to spin wool. I had to learn the process myself in order to teach the actor. I kept up spinning as a hobby because it was so relaxing, and I was able to knit in tech without making any noise. This skill also came in handy when we were doing Mother of the Maid and I had to teach Glenn Close how to spin wool. I hate to admit it, but I went to YouTube videos to refresh my memory of the terms that were used in spinning wool and also because I’ve been spinning for so long it’s become second nature, so it was hard for me to break apart the steps to teach someone starting new. When you are teaching someone remember patience and remember to actively listen. Listen to the words they ask you. You have to be patient and understanding. It reminds me of when my mother used to say, “you have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth for a reason. So, observe and listen twice as much as you talk.” It is important to observe the steps so you can explain them. It is important to notice if the actor is getting confused, teach at their pace so they understand the process of what they need to do. Remember, the obvious to you is all new to them. 

Earlier in October, I was able to speak at Humboldt University in Northern California. The talk was mostly about blood, blood knives, and weapon safety. Even though I’ve done master classes like this a lot, I have to remember that this is the first time some of these young people are dealing with blood, knives, or blood packs. So, I go back to my notes in my little Moleskine notebook, and ask myself basic questions about what I would want to learn if I was being exposed to this for the first time. In this way, I’m mentally prepared for the questions and I don’t freeze up when being asked the same question I’ve been asked a thousand times. Everyone deserves to learn in their own time and as a teacher you get to see that spark of discovery for the very first time.

Recently, I was speaking with a friend of mine, who had just started teaching music at an elementary school that uses the Reggio Emilia approach. They explained this approach, “We don’t teach letters or numbers, but the kids come by them through association.” I used some rather colorful language in questions about the approach, but I started to realize that is the same way that I tend to teach. 

The greatest thing for me about teaching is being able to present two very different things that the students are familiar with. Two things that stand on their own and then I present a couple of leading questions and urge them to an answer. The magical moment is when you see that spark in their eye once they figure it out! For me, that is the payoff. It’s not because they just put two and two together; it’s because their mind is forever changed. They can no longer look at those two different things the same again, AND—and this is the cool part—the curious ones seek out connecting information.

The same excitement comes over the students when they are given the encouragement to fail. Yep fail. We are so obsessed with success that we are trepidatious when it deals with just beginning a process. We have bound ourselves up with so many choices that we are scared to choose one because we are so scared of being wrong in front of our peers. So, on the first day that I’m with my students I have them repeat that ‘perfection kills art’. 

On the second day of class I walk in and say "The house is open, and we have a half hour. The actor who plays Kent, in our King Lear, left his bag of coins at home because they weren’t rehearsing in costume and he changed before he came back to the theater for opening night. So, you all have a half hour to make a 10th Century drawstring bag." The only requirement is that it has to be complete in 30 minutes, look period, and be tossed 15 feet from one person to another. With such a tight timeframe, it narrows their options and takes them out of form and goes right to function. 

The students sewed, hot glued and one used a stapler to make the bags. Some looked good and some not so much, they all passed the test of getting tossed across the room. I waited and picked Elijah, a sound design student, last because I saw him stick a bunch of washers into his bag. When he threw it you could hear the ‘coins’ inside. I thanked him and explained that that noise that came from the prop sold the idea. He had included audio to the other senses rounding out the prop more fully.

Oh the spinning, well... it was cut. They still start off the show cleaning out the wool but Glenn wanted to try a couple of other medieval tasks. In the end she wound up repairing an old leather pouch, funny enough it’s the pouch that I made for John Lithgow when he played Lear. He wanted something with character and was durable that way it wouldn’t bust open and spill coins everywhere if Kent couldn’t catch it when tossed to him.