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The Phone of Grace

Eric Hart • Feature • December 1, 2010

A moment from the Public Theater’s production of The Book of Grace. Eric Hart’s prop phone is in the upper-right corner.

A moment from the Public Theater’s production of The Book of Grace. Eric Hart’s prop phone is in the upper-right corner.

How we made a breakable, working phone.

 

In February, The Public Theater in New York City (where I am assistant props master) did a production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Book of Grace. Throughout the play, the father uses a phone to check the time. Near the climax, he smashes the phone in a fit of rage. In order to realize this effect we needed to create a phone that was usable, breakable and could be reset quickly—especially on days with both a matinee and evening performance. We decided the best way to do this was to make the base of the phone out of plaster and use a real handset. Here’s how we did it (and how you can, too).

 

To make a mold of a phone, we placed a real base of a phone in a box, and poured silicon rubber over it.

To make a mold of a phone, we placed a real base of a phone in a box, and poured silicon rubber over it.

1 – Make a Mold
First, we needed a mold of the phone we were using. Natalie Hart, one of our artisans (and my wife), made a two-piece mold out of silicone rubber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The silicon rubber mold.

The silicon rubber mold.

 

 

 

 

 

To make a plaster replica, you’ll need plaster, water, and a little bit of brown dye.

To make a plaster replica, you’ll need plaster, water, and a little bit of brown dye.

2 – Mix the Plaster
With that ready, we mixed the plaster. Making a few phones taught us the best amount of water and plaster to use, which we marked on the measuring containers. This allowed Sharika Niles, our props run crew, to quickly and consistently make more phones throughout the run of the show.

 

 

Always mix plaster into the water, and wear a respirator and gloves.

Always mix plaster into the water, and wear a respirator and gloves.

When mixing plaster, it’s important to always wear a particulate respirator (dust mask) and work in a ventilated room. Always mix the plaster into the water. Sift the plaster slowly into the water to ensure no lumps form, and let it sink so it does not pile up on top. When “islands” of plaster form on the surface of the water, you have a good ratio.

We let the mixture soak for three to four minutes before we mixed it. In a small batch like this, it is easiest to mix by hand. You’ll want to mix the plaster for two to five minutes until the mixture is consistent and creamy with no lumps. Another safety precaution: You must wear rubber or nitrile gloves when mixing by hand. Plaster heats up as it sets and will burn your skin. It also pulls moisture from your hands and dries them out.

Let the plaster sink to the bottom of the water. When “islands” of plaster form on the surface, you’re ready to mix.

Let the plaster sink to the bottom of the water. When “islands” of plaster form on the surface, you’re ready to mix.

In testing we realized that if we only painted the final plaster piece to match the phone, when the actor broke it the newly-revealed edges would be bright white. To make sure colors matched throughout we mixed fabric dye in with the wet plaster; a small spoonful of brown gave it a lovely beige color that matched the original phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We found it best to fill the bottom half with plaster then coat the top piece with plaster before joining them.

We found it best to fill the bottom half with plaster then coat the top piece with plaster before joining them.

3 – Cast the Piece
Next we poured the plaster into the mold slowly so it did not splash or create air bubbles. With a two-piece mold, you normally strap the two pieces together and fill it through a hole in the top. Through trial and error, Natalie found the best method for our particular project was filling the bottom half with plaster, then laying the second mold piece on top. She also coated the top mold piece with plaster before putting it on to ensure all the nooks and crannies were filled. It was an inelegant solution to our specific prop, but it worked consistently, which is what matters.

 

The cast phone replica, after drying.

The cast phone replica, after drying.

4 – Dry the Piece

Plaster will set in a few hours. Ideally, it will sit overnight before you take it out of the mold. Then it takes another two to three days to completely dry out. Since we were adhering the phone to its base with hot glue, which would not stick if the plaster was still wet, we had to wait until the phones were completely dry. Luckily, the drying process can be sped up by placing your pieces under a bright lamp or next to a fan.

 

 

We attached the plaster phone to the board with hot glue

We attached the plaster phone to the board with hot glue

5 –  Build a Base
For the base of the phone we mounted bells, chips and wires from a real phone onto a board cut into the shape of the base of the phone. They were attached to the board in such a way so that they would fit underneath the plaster phone as the piece was assembled but would dangle after the phone was broken.

 

 

A piece of white tape around the seam helped create the illusion of a seamless piece.

A piece of white tape around the seam helped create the illusion of a seamless piece.

6 – Attach to the Base
As I said, we stuck the phone onto the base with hot glue. A piece of white tape wrapped around the seam gave the piece a clean look. We finished the whole prop with a coat of paint. As you can see if you watch the video below, our prop worked like a charm! It should for you, too.

 

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