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How to Get a Head: Life Casting Tips

Jay Duckworth • October 2020Technical Insight • September 30, 2020

The stage is a mysterious and wonderful thing. There is so much magic that happens on the stage that theater folks, just like those who plough the sea, are deeply and fervently superstitious. Logic and reason are somehow suspended in this most holy ground. This is the only way I can explain why a person who has used a wineglass most of their adult life does not know how to hold it once they step on stage. Or how an obvious open surface space is somehow cloaked from people with normal eyesight as they claim, “There is no place for me to put down this tray. What should I do?”

The most dreaded supernatural stage effect is the gravity surge. Somehow gravity is stronger in the sacred space on stage than any other place in our solar system. Glasses, ring boxes, plates, books, bags of coins, really anything that is normally second nature to handle and deal with in normal life suddenly falls once an actor opens their hand.

One of these gravity surges taught me a valuable prop lesson. While in school I was asked for a head in a bag, so I just put a basketball in a burlap sack. One of the actors dropped the bag during a run-through I was attending and ‘the head’ bounced on the stage making that distinct ball bouncing sound. I did find it funny when they passed the “head in the bag” between each other like the Harlem Globetrotters. The need for realism even in the things the audience doesn’t see was a good early lesson to learn.

It’s in the Bag

There are different levels of difficulty with supplying a severed human head, in or out of a bag. So here are a few considerations and some tips. First, if your budget is tight you may have to suggest different options. For the base you can use a foam wig form and drill into it to add sand as weight. If the foam head is too small, use spray foam to exaggerate the features, again adding sand or weights to give the head some heft.  You can use a thick canvas bag to hand sew and shape it roughly into a head and face shape. Depending on the weave of the bag holding the ‘canvas’ head inside, in case the light is bright enough that the head can be seen through the bag, you will want to get a fabric that is close to the actor’s skin tone and wrap and sew your head in that fabric. If the actors want to pull the head out, and the face doesn’t need to be seen, you can buy a wig that matches the actor’s hair and green glue it to the fabric head. 

Face the Face

Face casting of actor Anthony Mackie for a production at The Public

At the moment the head is mentioned either in a production meeting or a rehearsal report we, props, are responsible for asking if the actor’s face needs to be seen on the decapitated head. Asking early in the process helps us for budgetary reasons, but also to set a time in the rehearsal schedule when we can cast the head or face of the actor. As some people are not comfortable having their entire head cast, we will need to accommodate them by casting their face only and attaching it to a pre-existing head form.

I have spoken with my buddy Paul J. Barnett about some of his experience at KC Rep [Kansas City Repertory Theatre]. PJ recalled when he was tasked with making a head for The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He had limited molding experience so he watched almost every video on the topic as well as read as many articles as he could get his hands on. That way he could make sure that he had a strong overview of every aspect and didn’t waste time or material, both of which have a cost to them.

When PJ was testing out materials he gained a lot of insight from Cast-Tech Inc., a Kansas-based distributor, and the shop from which he got his material. They even arranged a donation of expiring materials to the theater. PJ used them to teach face casting for a make-up class he was teaching. He also honed his skill doing multiple head casts for the art department. From doing heads over and over he found it best if you use Body Double on the back of the head and Quick Setting Body Double on the front and face. The Body Double has a stronger tensile strength than alginate and alginate shrinks as it loses its moisture content. PJ did find a good technique from an old timer where you pull apart cotton balls and place the fibers in the alginate. This gives it more strength to stay rigid in the plaster mother mold and this helps prevent the inner mold from collapsing or becoming misshapen.

One of the products that was donated to the theater was a 5-gallon kit of EcoFlex, (5 gal of A and 5 gal of B). So he was able to make 3 or 5 solid heads to have in stock. He also decided to make some hands, arms and well just anything he had a mold for he cast. He knew he had to use the material as it was expiring so why not make body parts that he could have ‘on hand’ for future shows. This is a great way to use materials while planning ahead.

Add Some Hair

Actor Patrick DuLaney and prop head

Let’s talk hair for a moment. When applying hair to the form you make there is a method that goes back to Victorian doll making. You take a sewing needle and break the eye in half. That creates a small fork, then you put the hair in the broken eye needle opening and punch the hair into the rubber or foam. This is repeated over and over. You want to keep the hair long since you can always cut it back later on. This is great to do with facial hair, eye brows and to blend a hairline into a wig.

A few extra thoughts: When I have done casting in the past I would first do a test run. Which can also be a good teaching/learning opportunity. I would always bring in any interns from any department that wanted to attend our test session so they could see how it was done and what techniques we used. This also gave our prop interns hands on experience before we do the actual performers head casting. Also, for the actual performer head casting, PJ and I both agree that the lead on the project is the only one talking during that session. That lead will narrate what is going on so your performer feels at ease. Another tip again to help the performer stay at ease, when covering the face with alginate or Body Double try to cover the ears last. People do not mind having their eyes closed but losing both sight and hearing can get a person pretty claustrophobic.

Final, there is one other thing that PJ brought up that I have never thought of but brings to mind an interesting problem. He told me about an Equity actor throwing a fit when he saw his head being used in a show and he was not credited. Once a head has been made and used for a specific show do we have the right to use it again. For us in props we see it as our work, but I also see that the actor’s face and image is their brand. Prop people can more than empathize with this situation. There are so many times a show is packed up and sent off and we are not credited. So as we move forward into even more of a freelance culture we need to fight for the rights of, and credits due, for all of us in the arts. As for the answers regarding the severed heads and re-use, that is something that needs to be worked out with people of a higher pay grade than us in props.  

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