The Right Material for the Job... Unless you are a Prop Builder

by Michelle A. Bisbee
Q2Q Comic #210 Written & Drawn by Steve Younkins
Q2Q Comic #210 Written & Drawn by Steve Younkins

Props people are the MacGyvers of the theater and movie industry. Hopefully many, if not all of you, have seen the amazing Q2Q Comics #210 The Hardware Store. What makes this one so painfully funny is how truthful it is. I know I am preaching to the choir when I say this, though there are many items that can be easily purchased, it is how we use these items and thus how they need to be constructed that differs from the ordinary person… that and an individual’s budget for a single item compared to that same dollar amount for an entire show as Jay Duckworth recently discussed in the Answer Box article Order Up! A Working Ziosk Prop in the August issue of Stage Directions.

To quote poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy: We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams. Our number one weapon in our arsenal is our imagination. We look at things in a different way—we look at elements, overall shape, texture, and potential. In class, whether teaching model making or props, I ask students to push and surpass the limits of their imagination. 

The first time I ever taught props and crafts, I walked back into the stock and supply areas of the properties shop and asked my students to look for overall shape and content for their final—fake food. One of my students picked up a bag of white hot dog trays and her eyes lit up—I knew she had found it! She cut and shaped the first one, not quite right… modified it… again… one last time with a fresh one and it was gold! She had her base for oysters on the half shell. Another year I had one student who cut circles out of acrylic and painted them to preserve the translucency for cucumbers, and another who utilized the rough texture of bead foam for the core of a cut muskmelon. A few of my personal construction favorites of fake food (even one edible) is using boxed mashed potatoes for scoop-able ice cream onstage, upholstery foam for cinnamon rolls, and spring rolls made from vellum, crepe paper, printer paper, and Polycrylic. 

Some of the more challenging items are ones that are electrical, ones that actors sit on, and ones that actors have to manipulate. My first year of graduate school at the University of Arizona, I worked with props master, Tim Smith on Dracula, adapted by William McNulty from Bram Stoker’s novel. The character Mina needed to be staked in a coffin and have blood fly as if truly being staked. Working with Peter Beudert, the scenic designer, we created a foot-controlled pump and reservoir using a Nalgene water bottle, clear plastic tubing, and a bellows foot pump. The Nalgene bottle allowed for quick and easy filling of the blood serum and the foot pump allowed for complete control by the actress to time the blood spurts with the stake hits. I quickly realized I was in like-minded company!  

Not too long after that, I was asked to make a staff for Into the Woods—one that could shoot smoke and was control by the witch. This staff needed to be lightweight, be able to withstand being pounded on the ground, and house a ‘mini-fogger’ type mechanism. I had previous experience using mini foggers, but those cost around $1,300, nearly three times our properties budget. What we did happen to have in the props cabinet was a magical item I had never seen before—[Reel EFX’s Diffusion] Cloud in a Can! I found a thin-walled PVC pipe that had a large enough inner diameter to house the aerosol can. I created a long shaft out of ¼” pencil rod that I threaded and attached to a push/pull toggle; on the other end was a flat shelf that nested into the bottom for the aerosol ‘cloud’. The biggest challenge came with how the ‘cloud’ is released from the can—it is a spray that comes straight up and out of the can when compressed. Walking around the local hardware store I looked at window screen, both plastic and metal, I looked at faucet aerators, and other miscellaneous plumbing and kitchen items; but all of the screens were webbing that was too small and would create a post nasal drip effect. Then I found it! A replacement circular drain cover—easily removable since it threaded into my PVC tube which allowed for changing of cans, was made for liquids, had large enough openings to allow for maximum flow of ‘cloud’, and was small enough to keep it from falling through! But alas, the smoking staff was not meant to be for this production. The mechanism worked perfectly, the actress had no trouble manipulating it, but, the director wanted it to be completely silent, not a hiss… and this smoking staff was disassembled and parted out for other projects, but the how-to… the manual, was put in my mental file cabinet for a future use… or just a great memory to share. 

There are never any failures in what we do—sometimes it’s just not the correct answer for the question we are currently asking… so we file those schematics into our memory banks for a future project where it will be the perfect fit.