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Answer Box: Tackling a Challenge Head On

Jay Lasnik • Answer BoxMay 2021 • May 12, 2021

This story can be read below or in our May 2021 digitial edition

When one works long enough in prop and costume crafts, you get to a point where you just start seeing the same mistakes over and over. This happens a lot with puppet heads and masks. One wonders why, since the human body hasn’t changed all that much in 50 years; people needed to see, hear, and breathe in their puppet head or mask back then just as they do today. When it comes to items worn on the head especially, I do think there has been a traditionally ‘they’re tough enough’ attitude about dancer’s and acrobat’s health and performer safety. This approach from craft builders must stop. Sure, they can do leaps and throw one another across the stage, do somersaults, but they still deserve to put their head inside of a clean skullcap. They deserve to sweat into a unique, newly washed sweatband. These performers might be tougher than some others, but they still deserve basic standards afforded to others. 

One of my biggest pet peeves in the props and the costume crafts that I come across, (that are not my own builds!), is why, oh why has the question, ‘How is it used?’ not been asked and investigated more? 

In 2010 I had just moved back from Las Vegas, where I was working on a magic show, which obviously had a lot of rabbits in it. Prop rabbits, puppet rabbits, costume craft rabbits. Rabbits, rabbits, everywhere! I learned so much working on that show. Now, settling back in Berkeley, CA I reconnected with my old friend and person that hired me a lot throughout the last 30 years, production manager Dave Coffman. Dave was then at ODC/Dance Company. He asked me to come down and take a look at some animal heads they needed worked on for their annual production of The Velveteen Rabbit.

Analyzing the Situation

ODC/Dance’s dancers were set up in a room and the original heads were there, too. These heads suffered from a multitude of issues: There was unremovable hot-glued upholstery foam inside, there was no top venting, the buckram structure was disintegrating. The head was too hot, too heavy, the ears were catawampus, and it could literally not be cleaned. Just my kind of challenge! 

Some of the needs of a new head were: It needed to be shared by several different dancers and fit them all. It needed to be cleaned inside between performances and outside as needed. It needed to be light and vent heat away from the dancer. I determined that we should use one head, but each dancer would get their own custom skullcap made from Wonderflex. While the thermoplastic material can be shaped with hot steamy water, or a heat gun to make the cap, it can be easily washed in cold water and the shape remains. I also decided that each dancer would have their own specific terry cloth covered foam sweatbands inside the skullcap that simply attached with Velcro. One ear needed to move left-right, the other needed to move front-back. The entire head also needed to be about half as heavy as the original.

Working out the Details

Luckily, we started this project in the summer and I had plenty of time to work with the dancers and the director/choreographer, KT Graham. I got into the rehearsal room with them, so they could try out some mock-ups and I could see and understand the choreography. A successful builder should be in the room. That way I could see how much the restraining grosgrain ribbon or leather strap I needed to add or cut so each ear would operate the way it needed to. I could see when they leaned forward or took a leap across the stage why I needed to add another chinstrap to the head itself in addition to the strap that was now on the inner skullcap.

Another part of my career that was informative to this new build was my running crew experience. Having dressed so many acrobats in large-scale puppets and fit so many supernumeraries, chorus, and principal singers at the opera, I knew that there was another key requirement—make it easy on the running crew. Have as few pieces as possible, build it so it was easily cleanable, make it so it was tough and needed minimal repairs, and what repairs it did need during the run, could be taken care of by the crew.

Building the Head

Mockup and pre-rehearsal done, I got to finishing the patterns from brown paper and transferred that onto Zotefoam, a craft foam often used in cosplay costumes for armor. My assistant and I pulled the show skullcaps, shaped them to each dancer, glued and stitched in the 3” elastic ‘V’ at the nape, and glued on the Velcro. The inner ear structures were built from ½” metal corset boning, much like a trucks’ leaf spring.

I was very happy with the end result, and by all indications, so were the dancers. Now, 10 years after the new rabbit head debuted, ODC/Dance is still using it. 

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