So one of my favorite things on twitter is to tweet exactly what I’m doing, without giving any context. Usually this is something that I just said at work. So… for the people who have forgotten that I’m a puppeteer, here are a sampling of things said at work.
What we said.
Do you know if the blood is still in the mini-fridge?
It’s good in there. Warm, soft… padded rod.
Can I stick my hand in him and feel him?
Stop! Don’t go past the bunnies. Oh god. Whatever you do, don’t pass the bunnies.
I’m about to put the ass of the dog through the sewing machine.
What it really means:
Stage blood has a lot of sugar in it so we keep it in the fridge to discourage bugs.
I’d just installed a rod in a puppet and the padding was still warm from the hot glue.
My colleague wanted to test a puppet.
I was shopping for a taxidermied animal and stumbled on a page that had pre-taxidermy animals. It was all fine until a series of horrific pictures after a set of very cute bunnies.
Exactly what it sounds like, except the dog is made of cloth.
Have you ever had this nagging thing that you knew was wrong, but you couldn’t figure out what? For the last two years, I’ve known that the props work wasn’t satisfying, but I didn’t realize how much I missed the world of puppetry until coming down here this weekend. Some of it was performing, but more of it was hanging out with puppeteers.
We had dinner last night with twelve puppeteers, only three of whom spoke English as a native language. It was this great wide ranging conversation about art and connection.
Today we performed twice, which went well. I got to see the short film series Heather Henson curates, Handmade Puppet Dreams which I’ve been wanting to see for a couple of years now. Here’s one of the pieces, Incubus by Lyon Hill.
Before you watch this, you need to know that these are puppets and are being performed in real time. I tell you this, because otherwise it looks like animation or photoshop. No. Puppets.
See! Totally inspiring.
Afterwards we went out to dinner and I just…I’ve really missed this. Puppeteers talk about their in ways that writers don’t. I mean, we’ll sit around and say, “I’m thinking about doing this one man show…” and everyone will join in this collaborative discussion without (most people) without ever trampling on the other person’s vision. I love writing, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve missed collaboration.
For the film shoot last week I needed furniture to represent ten different scenic locations, all shot on greenscreen. Besides dealing with the usual greenscreen parameter of avoiding reflective surfaces I also had a fairly tight budget. This meant that some of the rental furniture I picked up wasn’t in stellar condition. You’ll notice that this table, which has a very nice form, has gaping cracks which were repaired with gorilla glue, leaving nasty white scars all over it.
This particular rental house doesn’t mind if I give their furniture “a little love” so the white scars were acceptable. Most rental houses don’t want you to do anything to their props. Rightly so.
While we were renting out the Little Shop of Horrors puppets, the number of times they came back with horrendous “repairs” or “enhancements” that took a lot of labor to undo.
Just a note: When renting props, unless you have specific permission in writing from the prop house, don’t do anything to the props that you can’t completely undo. And make sure you undo it before returning the prop.
For this, since the practical antique value of the piece is gone, I was able to take the easy route. I mixed up two tones of paint to match the wood tone. Using a stiff bristle brush, I worked it into the gorilla glue, taking some care to match the grain of the wood.
Once I finished that, I gave it a once over with furniture polish and voila. A table that looks rustic, but not trashed.
I signed up to do props for a film this week. It was only two days of work and looked like a fairly light load. I did a half day on Tuesday lining up furniture and planned another half day on Wednesday to pick up the hand props. Unfortunately, things imploded when the verbal bid I got on furniture came back as a paper bid that was ten times higher than the phone quote.
So, all my Tuesday work was undone and it meant that Wednesday became about finding furniture. To make things crazier, one of the prop rental houses was in New Jersey and normally only an hour and a half away. It took me three hours to get there. Upon arriving, my vehicle wasn’t large enough and I had to make two trips. I got about half an hour of sleep all told.
Thursday was the day of the shoot and I somehow managed to actually have everything there. Largely because I hired Emily DeCola to be a runner and do last minute shopping in the morning. It was an insane and brutal schedule that I don’t recommend.
Well worth reading for the view of theater in the early 1900s.
(from The vaudeville theatre, building, operation, management, by Edward Renton, 1918)
“Resourcefulness” should be the middle name of the individual who is competent to occupy the position of property-man in a theatre. There are other important qualifications, but this one is essential. He may be called upon to supply anything from an Egyptian mummy to a three week-old child, upon a moment’s notice. He must be a bit of a carpenter, something of an artist, a great deal of a diplomat, and he must be “on the job” from the rising of the sun to considerably after the setting thereof-in other words, this is not the place for a lazy or a shiftless man.
For the show, Night Sky, I was brought into the project very late, after the original propmaster had to depart. We had a tight budget and very little time to find furniture, which meant that I was shopping for shape, knowing that I could adjust the color later. The designer was very particular about wanting all the furniture to have the same chocolate brown finish.
As you see, this chair is honey maple. Now, if I had time and were going to do this right, I’d have stripped off the varnish at this point. But I found these piece the day tech started, so time was not my friend. I also don’t need it to look good forever.
What you see here is a test of some different color palettes. The one on the right side of the chair (bottom of the photo) is mostly burnt umber. The darker stripe is about half burnt umber and half mars black. I also tried a spray and a rag treatment, neither of which I liked.
For the final chair, I used a fluid satin acrylic “varnish” or medium to create a glaze. This allowed some of the original wood to show through for richness. That, combined with the brush strokes give a fairly convincing tightgrained wood. One of the tricks is to use a wide brush — in this case a three inch chinese brush for doing ink work — and long brush strokes. Any time you start or stop the brush it shows as a grain variation, so you have to either continue the stroke off the furniture or lift very smoothly.
The downside to this treatment is that it does scratch easily because it’s basically sitting on plastic. We’ve got a paint kit to do touchups, which is fairly easy, but it’s not something I’d recommend for a long run. With a long running show, taking the time to deal with the original finish would have been significantly more worthwhile. Or if this wasn’t a piece that was going to get a lot of wear, I could get away with this.
My dad said he thought a dull day for me was more interesting than most people’s day jobs. As an experiment, I used twitter to record the minutia of today. There are big silent stretches, unfortunately, where I’m in the theater without a signal to the outside world.
10:22 Picked up a zipcar at 10 and am going to get a table and chairs for Night Sky. #
10:40 Astonishing. Parking in front of the building. #
10:40 The very nice French student and her father helped me get the table & chairs into the car. Now, to the theater. #
11:16 I have arrived at the theater and am not dead. Again, there is parking in front of the building. This is not normal. #
11:36 Dropped off the furntiture, extended the Zipcar res. And heading out for next load. #
11:42 Also sending designer reference photos while stopped at traffic lights, of which there are many. #
12:06 Ah ha. Now is the driving in circles looking for a spot, as expected. #
I was at the theater today and one of the folks I’m working with commented on my website. He asked why it doesn’t say anything about props.
Truly? Because unless I’m building something interesting, the job is deadly boring. My posts would consist of, “Today I went shopping for paper, a box and a copy of King Lear.” At best. More likely they would say, “Today I went shopping and didn’t find anything on my list.”
The other reason is that when I’m really in full swing, as I’m about to be this week, I don’t have time to post at all. So it doesn’t say anything about the props ’cause I just don’t have time. Like, I’m heading into tech week starting tomorrow and I won’t surface again for another week.
And the last reason is that I don’t self-identify as a props master. I am one, but I identify as a puppeteer and more recently as an SF writer. The props thing feels like just a dayjob.
Sure, I have to research props for stage, but I also have to research them for fiction too. For instance my upcoming story in Talebones, is set in England in the 1920s. I needed to find out if cigarette lighters existed by then. Yes, but hand held ones were still a couple of years away.
While researching champagne for stage, I stumbled across this 1906 article from the NY Times. It’s a fun read if you’re a theater geek like me.
EATING and drinking on the stage,” remarked the chronic theatregoer the other night, “always bores me when I have dined well and tantalizes me when I haven’t; but whenever I go to a theatre nowadays I am sure to find the people across the footlights either enjoying a big meal or pouring down tea or champagne early and often.”
My newest gig is doing props and “specialty items” for a play up at Barnard College. The specialty items consist of a series of crow puppets and a box of entrails. When the director called me, she said, “So, do you have any ideas on how we can make a box of entrails? [1. side note: I just realized that I already had a tag for intestines. There’s something vaguely wrong about that.]
“Yeah.” I continued to fold laundry as we chatted,because this was pretty simple stuff. “A box of unlubricated condoms, KY jelly, food coloring, saran wrap and a little stage blood.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone and then she said, “Oh. I thought this would be a longer conversation.” Another beat of silence. “I take it you’ve done entrails?”
“Oh, yeah.” I tucked the last pair of socks into the drawer. “Had to do a disemboweling for a show. Fun stuff.”
The crows now. That’s going to be a much longer conversation.
(Tor Books – July 14 2020) Mary Robinette Kowal continues her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Lady Astronaut series, following The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon. The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and […]