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Theater Science: Learning from Old & New

Jay Duckworth • June 2021Theater Science • May 25, 2021

This story can be read by clicking the image above, or reading below, or in our June 2021 digitial edition

You can read a menu all you want, but it will not make you full. Reading about theater, and practicing it, are two very different things. When I lecture about props, I always talk about the three circles of consciousness. The individual themselves, the world that they occupy, and the greater world around them. The reason for that is the great effects that the world has on how information is passed on to us by the social mores reflecting what the times deem as important.

Similarly, because of the algorithms of search engines, a website sees what you like and generates information to you. This usually gets you to some pretty odd, or even cool, life hacks. I know as makers we love these. They are all over the net and we tend to save them in some folder for later use. That’s great to have. This is information much like what used to be passed down from a more seasoned person in the shop to a person who was learning the ropes.

I remember at my very first summer stock back in the 1980s when I was just out of high school. I was assigned to work with a retiree who came to the shop once a week to work. My honest first thought was ‘Great, they got some old man that I have to work with who is gonna slow me down.’ We were tasked with making some escape steps, nothing high art. I grabbed a jig saw and he grabbed a circular saw. I said, “You’re not gonna be able to make any turns with that circ saw sir.” He responded, “TURNS? Son, we are gonna plunge cut these.” He took that saw, lined it up over the line, got it going full speed and pushed it right through that board. The cuts were clean, and my jaw dropped. He looked back at me and said, “You might wanna close your mouth or you’re gonna get a lot of sawdust in there.”

In school we learn the skeleton of the body. It is when we do hands-on that we add the muscle and skin. But the most important part, the nuances are added when we learn from the seasoned experts. Unlike life hacks we learn at random on the net as they are dumped on us, when you learn from the Old Guard or OG, it is a lesson that is fixing the situation in front of you. These are often the lessons that stay with us and we learn the nuances of the solution—the whys, the why nots, the when this works, when that won’t, aspect of the skill, trick or hack. 

We live in a world where both sets of information are able to live hand-in-hand. Where you are able to learn the steps and tricks with minimized chance for failure. We have the chance to learn through both worlds and I suggest you expand that to the same idea when using the net. Don’t discount the OG you find on the net. You will see, while some of the sites on this page are new, some of the suggestions I’m making as resources to start with may seem to be a bit dated but the information in them is just gold. So look at the old and the new, because we need the Popular Mechanics info as much as the newest tech info. All offer gadgets and tech that we can embrace to make our work so much better. And remember, like I said at the top, ‘You can’t get full reading a menu’, so beyond web research, I still advocate learning the art from someone who has been working the craft for a long time. Still in the meantime, when you can’t fish, you can work on the nets.  

Hack A Day is a site that not only has instructions for makers it also has some great blogs about tech and gadgets.

Instructables is a site that I’m sure many of you know but I would get a lot of emails if I didn’t include it. It covers so many topics with a wide range of how-tos within each, including Arduino, art, craft, gardening, LEDs, and so much more.

Make: has a wealth of information so of course I have to include Make here.

C. Keith Wilbur has great books on historic living and construction techniques. As a props person it’s great to have these on hand as reference for period shows.

Popular Mechanics has an archive of 106 years of issues packed with science, technology, and DIY. They have information from complex jigs to ‘using a coffee cup to hold pencils’. Exploring this archive is equivalent of that wonderful coffee can full of nails and bolts feeling you get from your grandparents’ garage full of unexpected discoveries.


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