Talking Props at USITT with Jay Duckworth

by Stage Directions
in Props

Last year at USITT 2018, SD contributor and proptologist Jay Duckworth, resident properties master at The Public Theater, hosted the first ever Prop Lab on the USITT Stage Expo floor. While there we invited him to interview a few of his fellow props masters, who he had invited to join him teaching prop workshops. Here are three of Jay's USITT Conversations with Adam Daley, Eric Hart, & Michelle Bisbee.

 

Adam Daley is currently a properties carpenter at Barter Theatre. Daley started school as a mechanical engineer but quickly transitioned to be a props master. He’s worked everywhere from the plastics industry to PCPA Theatrefest in central California as a properties artisan. He has a strong background in robotics and a deep knowledge of 3D printing. 

What got you into props?
I watched Adam Savage on MythBusters, and they would do super detailed builds; I was like ‘this is awesome!’ Then he went to a channel on YouTube called Tested.com, where he does builds of every single movie prop that he has. Like he just replicates the Blade Runner pistol.

Or the Maltese Falcon that he obsessed over, because whatever he cast, the mold got smaller, so he had to cast it 10% bigger. You have to admire someone who is that precise. Tell me why that attention to precision, why does that matter to you as an artist? 
There’s a discipline behind it. Like I look at Japanese woodworking, and Japanese carpentry, because the precision in it is incredible. It just comes with a discipline. The American thing is like, measure twice cut once. I just don’t understand that; I don’t understand using a tape measure when we have calipers. I don’t understand that kind of thing. 

Yeah, in Japan you have training where you learn under a master and it’s not about just that measurement. It’s about whether your joints fit precisely and how intricate those are. 
It treats the whole thing as an art form. Making a flat is an artistic expression of myself. 

I have a philosophy that you should make everything you do art. Even if you’re washing a dish, focus on that one thing, and then make that your thing. I saw that in in your work, it is that same thing. 
That is what inspires me. I see Tom Sachs’ video of sweeping. It’s a three-minute video on how to sweep and it’s like this beautiful piece of art. It changed the way I think about even basic things like that. 

Going back to the Japanese carpentry, they have contests of just planing. 
Yeah, I literally just heard about that in my wood sculpting class like three days ago. It’s unbelievable. 

It’s amazing. I think that we get caught up in the end product. When I’m teaching, my students want to finish the goal, but I think we lose something very important in that approach. I think the journey is the planing. It’s every act you do, that should be art. 
I always see it that way. I think the clearest way to think about it is that the product you have in your mind, and the product you end with are always completely different. And I think that’s the process; why I can imagine one thing, and end up with a totally different thing. 

You say first ideas, you throw them away, right?
Oh yeah, throw every first idea out, period.

Eric Hart is currently the props master at Triad Stage in Greensboro, NC. He’s also a visiting professor in the stage properties program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He is the author of The Prop Building Guidebook and The Prop Effects Guidebook, and runs the Prop Agenda blog. 

So, your newest book is The Prop Effects Guidebook. This one is mainly for theater, right?
Yes, mostly theater, because in film and TV you do special effects; you’re not building props that do the effects. You know, prop effects for live performance are actually a lot more difficult than film and television. In film and television, you have like 12 guys off camera, and they’re doing multiple takes, and cutaways with the camera, switching out the magic prop. In theater, you have got to do it live in front of the audience, and then reset it for the evening show, and do it again eight times a week. 

You are also famous for your blog, Prop Agenda. Did you ever think you would have this much of an impact on the industry?
I didn’t, no. I started the blog nine years ago now, so 2019 will be the 10th anniversary. I didn’t really have that clear of a picture when I started, except I just knew there was a lot of information about props, and stories about props that are in danger of just being lost to time. So I wanted to just start writing that down. When I started the blog it was because I couldn’t find anything to read, basically, it was a way to write the things I wanted to read. Then I realized, luckily, that there were a lot of other people who wanted to read the same things. 

One of the cool things I love about your blog is those links, the histories.
Yes, as props people, we have to be aware of all these things that have happened in history. We have to know what kind of curtains they had in the Victorian era, and what kind of machines they had back then. But, I always thought it was such a shame we weren’t applying that to our own history. We don’t know how prop masters worked back in the 1800’s, or what props people in Shakespeare’s time were doing. That was, you know, a large part of why I wrote the book, and why I started writing the blog, it was just to have this written record of what we do.

I loved that one about Hamlet with the skull, when they had to go to a…
Oh yeah. He knocked on a doctor’s door in the middle of the night to borrow his skeleton model.

That’s crazy. And now you’re now not only working at Triad, but you’re a professor at North Carolina School of the Arts, right?
Yes, I teach two classes a semester. 

And the beautiful thing is now we can say, Eric Hart has class!

Michelle Bisbee, currently an assistant professor scenic design at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, has worked in roles such as scenic designer, properties master and artisan, and scenic artist. She also worked for Cirque du Soleil as assistant head of props on the Beatles LOVE and properties & puppets technician on KA.

Michelle you came all the way from Hawaii, tell us why did you get into props?
I got into props because I’m crafty. I love turning something that people consider nothing into something that’s spectacular. One of the most amazing things about props is taking something that somebody’s either thrown away, or they think that’s not worthwhile, and shining, and polishing, and making it amazing. Taking an old couch that looks like nothing, and re-upholstering and giving it a facelift. Giving it new padding. Turning a coffee filter lid into a period microphone. 

What? Wait, a coffee lid, you could do that?
Yes, I did that. We’re working on a production and I took one of the flat plastic lids with the little flip top. It’s remarkably shaped like an old period microphone. And so if you cut off the little tab, and you give it some highlight and shadow, make it look metallic. Then put it on a nice base with some springs, stretched out springs suspending it in a circle.

Around the circle of the lid.
Yeah. And it looks like a suspended period microphone. 

That’s cool. Okay, so that’s something that we connect on, I love looking at things and seeing what the parts are made out of. Looking at it’s shape. I like then creating something else out of them. Like the microphone. What’s another example of that? Where you had people saying, ‘Are you kidding me, that’s what that is?!’
That’s a really tough question, because there’s been quite a few. So trying to think of one of the most obscure, I think the coffee lid microphone is the one that makes people do double takes. Oh, I know. I did a production, Betty Blue Eyes, and on that production I was actually told, ‘We need sausage links to dance with.’ I said, ‘Excuse me?’ They said, ‘We need sausage links to dance with. That can hold a straight line, but that can also be bent and formed into circles.’ I thought, my goodness, bending sausage. Certainly, I never thought I’d be asked for dancing with sausages. But I ended up using pipe insulation. The black foam stuff you find at hardware stores. I cinched it with zip ties to create the look of links. Then I used nylons stretched and twisted along it, to give it a little bit more of a binding agent. So that it would have that spring of bending and stretching. And then we just shaded it to give it that authentic color. But yes, dancing sausages made out of foam. 

Dancing Sausage, that’s the wurst! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.