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Fast, Cheap and Under Control

Eric Hart • Feature • June 1, 2013

A 9-foot-tall combat robot for War is F**king Awesome at Ohio University  was made possible by introducing  prototypes to the actor throughout  the rehearsal process.

A 9-foot-tall combat robot for War is F**king Awesome at Ohio University was made possible by introducing prototypes to the actor throughout the rehearsal process.

When it comes to making the utterly new, utterly bizarre prop, you need to innovate and communicate

Ten dead horses, hanging from the fly loft, in forced perspective. A vacuum cleaner that moves around the stage on its own. A giant robot that fights with actors. Sometimes, a props master does not even know where to begin.

How do you build something that has never been built before? I talked to three props professionals for their perspective. Lori Harrison is the properties director at San Francisco Opera, where she is in charge of 16 employees. Tom Fiocchi is the properties instructor at Ohio University. He needs to get the props ready using only student labor, and he needs to make sure the students are learning at the same time. And Seán McArdle is a freelance prop maker based in Minneapolis. He needs to tell each client what a project will cost, and if he spends more than that, he can put himself in personal financial trouble. All three work in very different situations with different resources and different parameters.

So how do they start building a prop that they do not know how to build?

Tom Fiocchi establishes all the parameters first. “Figure out what you need. It’s got to be information gathering.”  Seán McArdle has a similar opening move. “Break down what the challenge is.” Lori Harrison relies on her team. Once she has her information, she tries to get a group together to come up with ideas. “The folks who are doing the building have great ideas. Most of the things that come out of the shop are brainstormed.”

Make It Fast

One of Tom Fiocchi’s students learns metal working at the Ohio University props shop.

One of Tom Fiocchi’s students learns metal working at the Ohio University props shop.

Fiocchi emphasizes getting a prototype as early as possible. When the actor can start using it in rehearsal, you can modify it as problems arise or as discoveries are made. You often run into problems you could not foresee in the beginning. Sometimes, you may need to scrap a whole prototype and start over; if you begin early enough, you have time to work on something else. Prototypes are especially great when you are asked to create something you do not know whether you can deliver. Fiocchi tells the director, “This is what I think I can give you. I can’t promise anything, but we’ll get you a prototype.”

In a new show called War is F**king Awesome, Fiocchi’s prop shop had to create a giant, fighting robot. “He had to be able to punch with his arm. He was 9 feet tall; we had to find a way to use his arms and be light,” says Fiocchi. He adds, “And he had to be super cheap.” Working with the actor early on, they were able to develop a counterweight system that let him easily manipulate all the weight. The actors were perfectly comfortable with the large prop by the time technical rehearsals came around. Fiocchi works closely with the actors to make sure the prop is foolproof. “The actors have so much on their minds, if they really have to think about the prop, it can take them right out of what they have to do.”

Harrison values the experimental phase in the beginning because it gives three or four paths to choose from. If one of those paths is not working, you have other paths to pursue. She also likes her team to experiment with several things simultaneously. “We don’t take apart the experiments, because we may find ourselves going back to one when another path fails.” She recalls a jumping frog they made for Das Rheingold. One version was robotic; when the show moved to Washington, DC, the wireless headsets interfered with the radio control frequency of the frog, and it did not work. A second version used
air pistons, but that failed as well. They finally returned to one of the earliest experiments. “It was a ‘frog on a stick,’ like a puppet.” Simple, but it worked every time.

McArdle values prototypes whenever his props have direct contact with actors. He goes to rehearsals as early as possible to see how they are using them. He comes up with a few samples that he presents to the actor.

“I ask, ’Which one do you prefer?’”

Keep Talking, Keep Listening

Samples are important when working with designers as well. Just as scenic artists create paint samples to show designers the results of using specific products and techniques, so too will prop masters show designers what different experiments yield. For Harrison, because the designers are rarely in San Francisco, she will send them photographs, or even FedEx physical samples. “You can go way off on a wrong tangent if you don’t have designers’ input.”

McArdle takes on a lot of remote jobs where the designers and clients are in other cities. In those cases, the job “is all about communication,” he says. To help that along he likes to do video chats and Google Hangouts. For larger scale projects, he will often make scale models using the actual materials to show the clients. The scale models are also useful for his own purposes. He can practice the techniques and pick up on any unforeseen variables before he commits hundreds of dollars in materials to the full-scale version.

I asked how they come up with some of the ideas that they decide to experiment with. Often, they begin by speaking with their colleagues. When McArdle needed to work with silicone, he called up the Guthrie Theater, because he knew they recently used silicone. Harrison finds the Society of Properties Artisan Managers (SPAM) a great resource. Just in the last year, someone suggested modifying taxidermy forms to create dead animals; she found herself using that tip to create some of the 10 dead horses she needed for a production of Appomattox.

“We found a taxidermy company with forms. Not 10 of them, not in forced perspective, not hanging, but at least it was a horse,” she recalls. “There was still a lot of carving, but at least we weren’t starting from scratch.”

She spends a fair amount of time browsing the aisles of stores. She goes to fabric stores, for instance, to feel different textiles, or upholstery shops to see what foam rubbers they have to offer. Sometimes, she buys materials even when there is nothing to use it for, just to have samples for future projects.

Ask for Help


This giant two-headed snake built at the San Francisco Opera required a lot of experimentation early on to allow it to be easily manipulated by the crew. It was designed by Jun Kaneko for a production of The Magic Flute.

This giant two-headed snake built at the San Francisco Opera required a lot of experimentation early on to allow it to be easily manipulated by the crew. It was designed by Jun Kaneko for a production of The Magic Flute.

Exploration can lead to less-traditional stores. Harrison was trying to find the perfect skin for a giant two-headed snake, but had no success with regular fabric dealers. “San Francisco has a lot of fetish shops,” she says. “We lucked out when we found these bright red and yellow wet-look vinyls.”


She also works closely with vendors. “We have Douglass and Sturgess in our backyard,” she says. “Whenever we need to try something out, we ask them.” She recalls once calling Smooth-On with some questions about their products. “They couldn’t answer the questions, so they actually did the experimentation for us.”

McArdle spends a lot of time talking with vendors as well. He attends tradeshows, particularly USITT, to see what new products are on tap. For particularly tricky challenges, he finds the closest analog in the real world, then talks to the people who do that. For a recent project, he needed to have a vacuum cleaner drive itself around on stage. He went to an RC car shop, and explained the problem to the employees. It took about 10 minutes to “get past the weird factor,” but once they understood the problem, all the employees in the store were chipping in with ideas of which parts to use and what modifications to make.

Another of his standard practices is crowdsourcing the Internet. When he has to create a new blood effect, for instance, he will check websites (one of his favorites is Instructables) where he can find someone who has already built something similar and has documented the process.

Fiocchi finds DIY websites invaluable as well. He recently had to replicate some moving tank treads; he went online and found some remote control tank enthusiasts who came up with a method of screwing plywood boards to the treadmills from gym machines.

I asked Fiocchi if this process of prototyping, experimentation and continual research can be taught. He is not sure. “Some people just naturally have the mind to look at stuff; not everybody has that.”

When he gives a project to a student, he first lets them figure it out on their own. They bring their ideas back to him, and he offers suggestions. Whether they take his suggestions is up to them; he is not afraid to let them fail. “We are a school, so we can fail,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s just better to make a
decision and go with that. Otherwise you’re paralyzed thinking about it.” Even if the student does not listen to Fiocchi, and chooses a different approach, “nine times out of 10, it will not be a complete disaster.”

On some occasions, a student may even come up with a better idea than Fiocchi. “I’m always willing to say your idea’s better. But most of the time, I just have a lot more experience. I’ve seen a lot of things.”

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