Words, Words, Words

by Jay Duckworth

Speaking at Maine State Music Theatre this summer, I was asked what my design process was. I said, ‘First off, read the script.’ Holy Cow, I can’t believe the number of people that I’ve worked with that just skim it over to look for ‘he hands him a hammer’. What if the actor must hit someone on the head with that hammer? 

The first time I worked with playwright Arthur Laurents he told me, ‘If you have any questions, look back into the script, and it will tell you everything.’ When I go through a script for the first time, I hit everything that is a prop with a yellow highlighter; everything that is a perishable with a red highlighter, and situational information (year, season, holidays, before and after, financial situation, day of the week, and weather trends) with a blue highlighter. 

Eating Your Words
There are times that actors must literally eat their words. When The Public was doing Measure for Measure, the prisoner that refused to get executed grabbed the execution warrant out of the warden’s hand and ate it; downing it with a frothing ale. In Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, the actor had to rip out pages of the bible and eat them. So how do you feed an actor their lines? Glad you asked:

For the warrant, I bought potato starch paper and black cookie icing from Michael’s crafts. I watered down the icing into a coffee cup and used a fine paint brush to do faux calligraphy onto the paper. I made a stamp out of craft foam and used red cookie icing to make an official looking stamp. 
Edible WarrantFor the pages of the bible, there was a large amount of paper being eaten, and the font size had to match the pages of the bible. We bought an Icinginks printer, which is a printer that prints edible images either on frosting sheets that can be put right onto a cake or wafer sheets that are just like paper. EdiblePrint Ink System

Water Logged Letter
A non-edible letter can still pose a challenge as did the request for The Public’s recent production of Twelfth Night. We had to have Malvolio’s love note be wrecked and wet as if it came just out of the bottom of a Porta-Potty. This was a modern version of the play and instead of locking Malvolio in a prison, he was duct-taped into a Porta-Potty. So, the prop master for the show, Ricola Wille and I asked our intern, BihAn Nguyen to get us a yard of some China silk that was already blue and that matched the Porta-Potty blue color. 

In addition to the silk cloth, you will also need some freezer paper and an iron. [Be sure to use freezer paper, not waxed paper.] The freezer paper is just to give your fabric a stiff backing to get it through the printer cleanly. Cut down the China silk and the freezer paper to an 8.5x11 size. Set your iron on a lower heat setting and test it out by putting your freezer paper down on a flat surface, wax side up. Then put your China silk, or other fabric (depending on the project), as flat as you can on top of the waxed side. Cover both the freezer paper and the China silk with a dish towel or a kitchen towel, something that is nice and thin to prevent the wax from getting on the iron. Also, it won’t heat up the fabric too much [FYI, we found a bath towel was too thick for this to work]. The heat from the iron will melt evenly and adhere your paper and fabric to each other. 

Now it’s time to print on your material. An ink jet printer works just fine for this process. Make sure to set your printer preferences to cardstock and print on the fabric side. Also, a word to the wise—always, always, always do a test run to check your layout. That first run is scary but that test one that you do can be used as a rehearsal item if you need. Once you have the look you want you can go ahead and individually feed the wax paper/fabric sandwich through your printer. We put ours through the manual tray feed just to be the most careful. Wet Distressed Letter Printing on Silk

Once the fabric printing is done, you can pull the freezer paper off and discard it.Peeling away the silk from the paper

As you can see with ours, we distressed it by spraying a bleach/water solution of 1/3 bleach to 2/3 water, on one of the notes to see how it would look. Then we crumpled and dipped another one in the bleach/water mixture. The crumpled and dipped one was a lot subtler and less blotchy. If you do this distressing method with bleach, make sure that after you bleach the fabric, you need to immediately dip the fabric in a mix of half water and half vinegar in bowl. This will halt the bleach leaching the color from the fabric and from doing any damage to your fabric. [The bleach and vinegar process are only necessary if you want your final print to have a mottled effect.] Testing Distressing of Letter

Let me know how it goes with your projects or if you have any other ideas that you have had success with.