Reflections on the First USITT Props Lab

by Jay Duckworth
Jay Duckworth works with participants at the USITT Prop Lab
Jay Duckworth works with participants at the USITT Prop Lab

started out as an actor, but I fell in love with props." "Thank you for the Props Lab, this is my first time at USITT, we’re from Canada..." "The fountain pen has a straw filled with blood in it, so you put it on his face and squeeze; it looks like you stabbed his face." "This material is from Worbla." It was like a constant buzz. "I’m a student;" "I’m a graduate;" "I use this for armor in cosplay;" "Is that an Nerf gun made into a cannon?;" "Where do you get these?;" "You can get that cheaper at this site." It was filled with energy and ideas. And then there were all the ah ha moments where presenters let the guests put two and two together and you could see the flash of excitement race across their faces. I’m talking about the first ever Props Lab at the 2018 USITT Conference and Stage Expo.

We were located right on the expo floor; right in the thick of everything. The Props Lab was part of a number of new initiatives from USITT, like the Dark Zone for lighting and the Costume Stage. The participants had a real ownership and involvement in the entire conclave. There was not only rock star talent presenting and supporting the lab, but you would have been amazed at who was in the audience. Representatives from Disney, Yale University, Macy’s, Carnegie Mellon, experiential theater, and theme parks. 

The most gracious feedback was not only from students but also from educators who are asked by their universities to set up a props class at their schools where they get little to no help. They were there to get ideas as well as a better understanding of what fits in the prop world; things beyond just basic techniques. Some of them would see me and say "thank you," to me, and then I had to explain that I was just there in the Props Lab to make sure everything went smoothly. The people who really deserve thanks and kudos are David Grindle, Executive Director of USITT who green lit the project; Ron Procopio USITT Expo Director who worked with vendors and the AV team to get us a sound system and monitor to see, and hear, everyone; Karen Maness, Scenic Art Supervisor from UT Austin, who brought over her students to help with the setup of the lab and her constant checking in; and Casey Kearns, Scenic Designer from the University of Indianapolis for keeping us on track since last September.

Every one of the presenters brought their own unique perspective to their subjects. Adam Daley brought up the moral and economic issue of robots and large format printers taking jobs away from skilled artistic labor and he also spoke about timesaving using LEGOs as a base and a 3D printer to build custom parts to make a prototype of a project. People were sneaking into Michelle Bisbee’s casting session, but it was well worth it to take home a cast soap strawberry and learn the basics of one- and two-part molds. At the top of the class, participants were saying "There is no way I could do that." Then seeing them talk to each other about what they were going to make as soon as they got home was inspiring. Pulling the final products out of the molds is always fun because it empowers people and they then have the proof in hand that they made something amazing. 

Thomas Fiocchi’s Seven Golden Lessons of Props was amazing; that man has more energy than a 12-year-old hopped up on Mountain Dew. The gadgets he built and showed to the classes blew them away! His old classmate Rick Sordelet was on hand to demo blood techniques, teach folks what to watch out for when working with swords and dagger blades, as well as how to be safe in every situation. Eric Hart shared his expertise in working with pneumatics and how to incorporate motion into props.

It wasn’t all goofing around, there was some serious talk about safety and how it’s all of our responsibility to make sure that everyone is protected. We learned what’s the proper ventilation to have when working with adhesives, NEVER LASER CUT REFLECTIVE MATERIAL, how to take apart a sword and see if it has been welded or if it is one long piece of steel, and why that matters. 

One very healthy, and healing, thing that I love about USITT is reconnecting with your teachers and mentors. Last year I saw my college TD and this year I saw old university classmates—two of our presenters—who went to Rutgers together in the '80s; it was great seeing how quickly they reconnected. 

I have to thank the folks at Stage Directions magazine, (and not because I’m contractually obligated), but because they grabbed everyone they could and did interviews and got the stories that always get missed. The stories of us; the stories of the 700 people at the end of the film when the credits roll, or in the back of the program, who make the magic look effortless. That’s the spirit of USITT and the Technicians Art that happened this last week in Fort Lauderdale. We did what we always do so well, we did what moves us to keep creating art—we nurtured the next generation and told great stories.  
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