Present To Past

by Lisa Mulcahy
Joe Wilson Jr. as Lancelot in Trinity Repertory Company’s Camelot Credit: Mark Turek/Trinity Rep
Joe Wilson Jr. as Lancelot in Trinity Repertory Company’s Camelot Credit: Mark Turek/Trinity Rep
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Natalie Kearns has made a name for herself as one historically savvy propmaster. She has honed her craft while working as an assistant and artisian at Trinity Rep in Providence, RI, as well as working with the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA. She’s currently head of props for the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, Canada. 

Natalie Kearns
She originally thought she would be a designer but, “When I got to college, at Emerson in Boston, I found that my skills and passions were much better suited to theater craft rather than theater design,” Kearns explains. “So I switched my focus to props. Props combines my love of making things and problem-solving with my love of history and storytelling. Each prop is chosen to tell you things about the setting and the character using it. It must be accurate to the time period of the play, and it must be well-crafted to withstand the rigors of a show.”

She also notes that you have to find the right balance of look and function, “I often tell people that propmasters must be good diplomats, because we’re working under two different bosses. The director is telling us how a prop is to be used, and a scenic designer is telling us how a prop should look, and it is our job to marry those two ideals while keeping both sides happy.”

Lancelot Rides a Truly Custom Motorbike
Kearns skills at building one-of-a-kind period pieces and specializing in found object renovation came together when Propmaster Michael Getz, who she was assisting at Trinity Rep, assigned her to create a working replica of a World War II Army motorbike. The resulting motorbike brought together a built back electric bicycle, a plastic child’s motocycle, and even a water canteen.

She walked SD through the build:

When I was working at Trinity Rep, one of the first shows we produced was Lerner and Lowe’s classic musical Camelot, but re-envisioned as performed by a group trapped in a London Underground bomb shelter during the Blitz of World WarII. Scenic designer Eugene Lee had seen a real-life photo of a theater group performing on a platform during that very time, with the audience standing on the tracks below in the photo, and had suggested it as a concept for the entire production. One of the fun changes to the show was Lancelot’s entrance. Mr. Lee had purchased a green electric bicycle during his tech for a production of Wicked in China, and brought the bike back to Rhode Island. He tasked us with changing it into a WWII era army motorbike for Lancelot’s trusty steed.

After some tests, I discovered that the bike could be operated in two ways: by pedaling manually or by using the handlebars to engage the electric motor. When the electric drive was in use, the pedals didn’t spin. Therefore, I could remove them to help give the bike a more realistic motorcycle profile. 

Next, I started to plan out the additions to the frame to bulk it out and create a motorbike silhouette. The bike had a large battery pack behind the seat that needed to remain accessible for charging, so I built a simple wood box around it on which to attach some parts.

A co-worker suggested that we investigate purchasing a kid’s ride-on plastic motorcycle (like those driveable Barbie Dream Jeeps) and stripping the molded plastic shell for parts. We found a perfect bike for cheap on Craigslist and I used the molded plastic frame and pipes to form the gas tank of the bike and the exhaust pipe. 

Then, I added on some found objects like a water canteen and PVC pipe parts to fill out the rest of the structure. On the front tire mud shield, I added a piece of galvanized sheet metal for the bike registration number.

The director had requested we add a passenger seat to the rear of the bike. Using the bike’s existing rear rack, I built a padded seat and added steel bike pegs from a stunt BMX bike to the rear wheels to act as foot rests.

To illuminate the way, I added a single car headlamp to the front and ran cabling back to a battery hidden inside the plastic tank. A simple switch mounted to the top turned the light on.

With everything mounted in place, I masked the tires, handlebar grips, and light with painter’s tape and based the whole bike with a spray primer. When the primer dried, I coated the bike with an army green spray paint.

The final touch involved adding stencils for the bike registration number and the initials “RA”—for Royal Army.

Scroll through the gallery below to see inprogress images:

25,15,0,50,2
1,600,60,0,5000,1000,25,2000
100,100,0,50,12,25,50,2,70,12,2,50,2,0,0,5000
0,0,0,0,0,16,0,0,4,0,1,0,0,1
Bike Conversion
Bike Conversion
Bike 2
Bike 2
Bike Complete
Bike Complete

The bike was a big hit and went on to be used in two other MFA productions at the affiliated Brown/Trinity MFA program.