Ashley and Eric discuss some of the dead animals they have made in their careers, as well as some of the body parts they have cast from actors.
Below is a transcript of this episode, edited for readability.
ASHLEY: Hey, welcome back to our podcast Silk Flowers and….
ERIC: Papier Mache Hearts.
ASHLEY: Today we’re going to talk about specifically what props are, and some of the props that Eric and I have made, and some fun stories to go with it.
ERIC: Sounds good. Cool. So what is a prop?
ASHLEY: Oh goodness [laughs], So…
ERIC: Ya know, I — this is kind of funny — I have a definition of props in my book [ASHLEY: Okay.] and now people–people are using that definition, and they’re citing that book, and I’m kind of thinking, did I—did I write a good definition? [ASHLEY: laughs] is this what people— is this what it is? [ASHLEY: [laughs] You’re famous.] Um yeah, but I think you have a pretty good analogy you use.
ASHLEY: Yeah, I like to think of it as, say you just built a house, you haven’t moved in yet, it’s just the–the house. The prop is — or props — is anything someone brings into that house, except for wardrobe. You know, picture frames, rugs, couches, little doilies, candlesticks, food, all of that is prop related in the theater world. In the film industry, a prop is anything an actor touches. Everything else that’s on set is set dressing, which is a completely different department. But yeah, for theatrical props, I like to think of it as whatever you bring in when you move into a brand new house.
ERIC: Mhm. So everything from the furniture, the rugs, the curtains, to everything you carry: your pen, your notebook, your guns and your swords, your weapons, your food — everything that they eat, everything that they drink [ASHLEY: All of it.] Umbrellas…
ASHLEY: And, oddly, outlets. [ERIC: Right, yeah.] I don’t know if that’s at every theater, but I’m like…[laughs]
ERIC: Yeah, light switches, outlets, radiators, so yeah–the-the-the moving into house analogy is pretty good, other than [laughs] light switches [ASHLEY: Other than those items we just said], outlets, and radiators and things like that. But you do have lighting fixtures, anything that’s basically seen as part of the world of the play as opposed to things that are a part of the theater or the front of house or anything like that. And we do — there’s a lot of, um, weird, uh, ya know, boundaries between departments, so I know some places an umbrella will be a prop, while a parasol is a costume? [ASHLEY: Yeah!] And sometimes, like, a wristwatch will be costumes, but a pocket watch will be props. But you also find places where costumes has pocket watches, so they just take care of it. So any sort of actor-driven, actor-worn props—they’re always a grey line. I know some…some props masters like to say, “If the actor does jumping jacks and it falls off of them, it’s a prop, if it stays on them, then it’s a costume.” [Ashley: [laughs] That’s good, that’s good.] Other…other theaters have more hard and fast rules, but it’s basically–it’s the objects that are part of the world, and I just [ASHLEY: I love…] I just heard a great quote that said, “A prop master is the director of the inanimate actors in a show.”
ASHLEY: [laughs] Oh, I like that, [ERIC: yeah] that’s pretty good, that’s pretty good. Yeah, I think my favorite is purses, ya know, it’s always like ‘It’s a costume’ ‘It’s a prop’ ‘It’s a costume.’ And I like to think of–if a costume designer has an opinion on something, it’s a costume piece [ERIC: Right.] and we-we really do that at Yale, where like, you have an opinion, then your going to buy that and your going to deal with that, cause–not, not our thing. [laughs]
ERIC: Mhm, yep. If it’s in the costume designer’s rendering, then it is a costume [ASHLEY: Yes [laughs]]. At my theater, you know, purses — it kind of comes down to– purses are what costumes have in stock, and if you don’t like them, you can look through props bags, and then it’s a prop, ya know. [laughs] It’s whoever you borrow it from, that’s what it is. [ASHLEY: Yep!] It’s like, ‘ah, that’s more of a bag than a purse’–that’s a prop. But those things are usually dealt with on a, you know, a show-by-show basis, a theater-by-theater basis, but there’s a lot of things that are basically always a prop. [ASHLEY: Yeah]. So, this show, we’re gonna talk about some of our favorite props that we’ve built. Some of the most interesting things [ASHLEY: And some fun stories.] Because, you can’t just buy everything. Sometimes you have to make it, and one of things that we always have to make are, uh, body parts [ASHLEY: [laughs] Yes!] Because, most theaters don’t allow you to use real body parts.
ASHLEY: It’s really a shame, I mean, it’d be so much easier, guys.
ERIC: Mhm. So Ashley, you built a..a dead foot.
ASHLEY: [laughs] I did um, this is one of my favorite projects that I’ve ever done. I casted a, um, a foot from one of my friends. I used Smooth-On’s product Body Double. It gets off the skin very nicely, it gets a lot of detail, it’s a silicone. And I filled it with Dragon Skin, which is another Smooth-On product, and I painted–I airbrushed it, which,– it was the first time I ever used an airbrush. I was shocked that it came out well. And then I was like, ‘You know what, this needs to be bloody, this needs to be a severed foot.’ And, so, I’m like, putting all this blood and, like–little bone pieces coming out of the ankle, and it–it was great. It was so much fun. The weird thing, though, was it was very heavy, because I..I filled it with this Dragon Skin, and because of how large it was, it became very, very weighty. And I think if I were to do it again, I would’ve put a foam, an expanding foam, inside just to lighten it up. Cause I think–it wasn’t for a show, it was just a project, and if it was for a show, I think an actor would have said, you know, “This is too heavy, I can’t deal with this.” Which…which happens a lot guys, it happens a lot. [laughs] And so, yeah, and I still have it. I ..I put it out for Halloween, and I take it when I do a workshop. I’m a horrible person and I’ll throw it at friends that come into the house–just like, totally freak them out. But I took it on a subway once [ERIC: laughs] that was good. Oh, that was my favorite moment in life. But, but, yeah, it’s so..it’s so interesting doing body parts and just getting that detail. That’s my favorite part about mold making, and you can do all sorts of things, ya know, there’s a block mold, there’s a glove mold, there’s a 2-part mold, ya know there’s all these ridiculous types of molds you can do, it’s fascinating. And I’ve also done, a few, um, face castings, which has been great. I did ‘Evita’ once in Maine and had to create an Evita body. And, it was actually really funny, because the actress–you know, you always put Vaseline on anywhere that there’s hair, and–just so it comes off a little bit smoother. And she didn’t put enough, um, Vaseline on her eyelashes. [ERIC: Mmhmm.] And I told her, “You need more, you need more.” and she was freaking out, she’s like, “I don’t want much” and I was like, “Okay, that’s gonna be your problem.” [laughs] And we were taking off the mold, and it was getting stuck to the eyelashes, cause she didn’t put enough Vaseline on [ERIC: Right.] — She starts having, like, a panic attack, and she’s like, “I won’t have eyelashes, I don’t have eyelashes.” And she was convinced she had NO eyelashes when that thing came off. And I, like, gave her a mirror, and I was like, “Look, you’re fine, there were like two that came off.” But it was, ohh, it was so funny. But yeah, it’s, it’s a lot of fun doing life casting. [ERIC: Yeah, I…] And you’ve…you’ve done some stuff too, right?
ERIC: I have. I’ve never actually done a face cast, surprisingly, [ASHLEY: Oh, really?!] Um, never done that. But I did–I did do a hand, [ASHLEY: Nice.] very similar to how you did it. This was Jay O. Sanders, he was playing Titus in one of our.. Titus Andronicus at the Public Theater, and so, there’s, ya know– he chops off his hand, and they have a hand, and he was going to put it in his mouth, so it needed to be silicone or something that was like mouth safe. So, they were rehearsing, uh, Uptown, I forget where. It wasn’t the..the 42nd street studios they always use, but it was somewhere in the 30’s or something, and we’re down, ya know, on 8th street at the Public Theater. So, I, I had like a small window during rehearsal where I could take his hand cast. So I gathered up all my supplies — I was gonna use alginate, which is uh,uh, you know, it’s a powder that you mix with water and it sets up–it’s a, I think it’s uh, seaweed based or algae based, or something–seaweed based. [ASHLEY: I think it’s, yeah.] Um, and then, um… so you mix it up, you-you–the actor puts their hand in it for like 5 to 7 minutes and it hardens, and then, uh, you..you have like an hour or two before it starts shrinking, so you kind of have to cast it pretty quick. So I took the supplies up, everything ready to go. All I needed up there was a sink. He came out, he sat down, you know, made him comfortable and then he, ya know, stuck his hand into this warm goo, and sat there for 5 minutes as it kind of hardened around him. And then when it was hard, he, like, pulled it out, and it’s like, “Okay, that’s great, thank you.” And, and so I mixed up some plaster, like, right there in the rehearsal hall, and, and filled the mold with plaster, and then I had to head back down to the Public Theater. So I have this bucket, which is a mold of Jay O. Sanders hand, filled with plaster that is setting up in the subway as I’m riding down, um. And so when I got back to the shop, the plaster was set up, so I now had a plaster version of his hand, and did uh, a silicone mold of that. It was brush-on mold, I think it was Smooth-On Rebound, or whatever their brush-on mold making [ASHLEY: Yeah, Rebound] thing is. And then I had a permanent mold because the alginate, ya know, basically disintegrates after a day or so. And I did Dragon Skin as well, uh, filled that into the brush-on mold, uh, to make his hand, and I have, ya know, some wooden bones inside of there too, so that they could sort of stick out the end. It was kinda like that. The.. silicone itself was tinted when I cast it, so it was kind of vaguely skin color to begin with, and again, just kind of painting it on with their Silc Pigments, um, and I had a little hand. And it was…exciting because it was — they– one of the photographs showed up in the New York Times’ art section on the, the front page of that section, and that was like, the… that was the very last project I did at the Public Theater before moving down to North Carolina, so I got, you know, a picture in the New York Times of one of my props, as [ASHLEY: Nice].. basically like a going away present for myself.
ASHLEY: [laughs] Now, was there a reason you decided to do alginate instead of just using Body Double?
ERIC: I don’t know that I’d worked with Body Double, or even heard of it at that point…. I know, uh, there’s a really great store in New York City called ‘The Compleat Sculptor,’ where you can just walk in and buy any of this stuff, Smooth-On stuff, plasters, alginate– things like that. So you can just go in and you could buy alginate. And I knew it was, um, safe on the skin, I knew it was fast, because I needed, ya know, I needed it to be able to be whipped up fast and that sort of thing. And it’s… you know, it’s pretty clean too. It’s… water based– if it gets anywhere, it’s non-toxic, it’s fine, that sort of thing. But I think, honestly, it was mostly, I just hadn’t heard of Body Double at that point. So I didn’t know that there was a skin-safe silicone.
ASHLEY: Yeah, that makes sense.
ERIC: Mhm. Dead hands! [laughs]
ASHLEY: [laughs] Right?!
ERIC: Dead body parts! [laughs]
ASHLEY: Body parts! [laughs] They’re so good.
ERIC: Um, yeah, I had, uh– we also did a bunch of heads for The Bacchae. This was back in 2009, and that was Dragon Skin. And I was actually, um— I got married in the middle of that show, so I was on my honeymoon when they did the life cast of Anthony Mackie’s face, who now plays Falcon in all the Marvel movies, so I missed being able to take his face cast. But I got to be able to cast his face, and make up all these, these heads, and uh, really great things. I got…them all over my website. But one of the… assistant directors on that show–later on, he needed a head, and so he reached out to me because he knew I did them, and it was a small theater, and… so he said, “How much for a head?” and I gave him this quote, and he’s like, “What can you do for cheaper?” and I [ASHLEY: [laughs]] figured something else out. And he’s like, “What else can you do?” [laughs] So I was like, “Well, I could buy a Halloween mask and paint it skin color and fill it.” [ASHLEY: [laughs]] and he’s like, “I LOVE IT!” So actually, I went out–he– It needed to be a severed head of Medusa, and I went out and I found a Beetlejuice wig, a Beetlejuice mask, [ASHLEY: Yesss.], and a bunch of snakes. And so I filled it with expanding foam, so it became solid, and I painted it skin color, and I, you know, stuck some, like, bloody guts coming out of the neck and wired all these snakes on, gave it to him, and he loved it. Cause it was the-the price he needed it to be at [laughs] so.. [ASHLEY: That’s amazing.] there’s aaaalways more than one way to make a prop. You don’t have to life cast somebody and cast him out of Smooth-On Dragon Skin products. You can always…paint a halloween mask.
ASHLEY: Yeah, that’s so true. I mean, there’s cheap ways to do everything, and, you know– it just depends on, you know– how are you wanting it to look like in the end.
ERIC: Yeah, especially… around Halloween time. I know a lot of shows I’ve done where I needed, like, hands and feet. There’s these cheap Halloween versions that you could buy. And they’re so much cheaper than you’re ever going to be able to make them for, because they’re mass-producing them, so it’s just like, ‘give me a hand, give me a bucket of body parts. That’s what I need.’
ASHLEY: [laughs] It’s good, it’s fun stuff, guys. It’s fun stuff. And do you also— I know I do some faux taxidermy, and I know you’ve done a little bit of taxidermy. But what… kind of favorite projects in that element have you done?
ERIC: Oh, yeah that… dead animals are always tricky. I.. I’ve done some stuff that’s been good, I’ve done some stuff I’ve not been happy with [laughs] [ASHLEY: [laughs]]. I had to do– I was doing… it was Timon of Athens, and they come in from the hunt, and they have these dead rabbits. And..it was very low budget, so I thought what you could do was buy stuffed animal rabbits and treat them to look like real rabbits. So I’m there, I’m, like, trying to shave down the fur, and I’m trying–you know, I’m, like, adding weight to them so their limbs are weighted and things like that. And we get them out on stage in rehearsal, and the director’s like, ‘So are we gonna use stuffed bunnies for the real show?’ [laughs] [ASHLEY: [laughs]]. Like, there was nothing, I mean, there was nothing I could do to make them actually look real. I was kind of deluding myself that I could turn a toy, stuffed rabbit into a real dead rabbit. So that– I never tried that again. [laughs]
ASHLEY: [laughs] I hear ya.
ERIC: It’s just…yeah.. It’s like, the proportions, and the skin, the fur, it’s all completely wrong. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Um, so yeah, I did end up– after I moved down to North Carolina, I went back to New York for a summer, and I did a dead deer for the Shakespeare in the Park, and that was a pretty intense project because it was… we started off with a bit of a taxidermy form, which I kind of chopped up and made flexible, like, added joints in it, that sort of thing. Because they were going to be carrying it around. And we got a few deer hides that I sort of started stitching together to kind of cover this whole thing, uh, you know– like the main part is really easy, but then you have to start wrapping it around the legs and the neck, and figuring out how to make a seam in fur [chuckles] make it look natural. But, um, like–working with a real hide is so much better because there’s all those little variations in terms of like, the direction of the fur, and all the color and how it changes color on the underside, as opposed to the top of it, and that sort of thing, and uh.. We had real deer hooves as well, so it was kinda just like piecing together this whole thing and getting it…all good. And you did a deer as well. How did you do yours?
ASHLEY: I have done a deer. Um, this was my very first very large project, and I had no idea what I was doing. [chuckles] So it didn’t come out amazing. Um, we had a reindeer form in our stock, so I took that, and it was supposed to be a female deer. So I took off the antlers, and I took off all the fur, and of course the joints had to move and everything, so I made that mobility. And the neck had to move as well. And we also bought deer hides, which, um, looking back I don’t think I would do again because that thing shed [ERIC: Mmmmmmhmmm.] soooo badly. I mean, my coworkers today found hair, like a couple years afterwards [ERIC: Oh no.] And they would text me pictures, and they’re like, “Why? Why would you do this?” [ERIC: Mhm.] Um, and like you were saying, there’s all this sewing, and you’re trying to patch it together in the seams, line up the hair lines, but… I had a huge trouble with the… covering the joints and like, the hips and shoulders, so it didn’t really look good. It was more like a flap instead of a very clean, clean cut. [ERIC: Right.] Um.. but the director was so happy, which was good, and the designer was happy, and — it also had to have real blood all over it [ERIC: Mmm, mhm.] And we took some rice and put it on its belly so it looked like little maggots [ERIC: (grossed out) Mmmmnnn.] which was, like, really exciting. But… that poor deer was just destroyed with all the blood it did every night. But, it was definitely a learning experience, and really fun, and started my interest in faux taxidermy. And from then, I started, you know– I’ve been doing a lot of taxidermy since then. I think my favorite project that I’ve done was a dead rooster. Um, it was for a show at Yale.. I have no idea what the name of the show was.. It was a good show. [laughs] [ERIC: [laughs] Memorable show.] Seven Guitars! Seven Guitars! That’s what it was! Um, so they wanted this rooster, and we borrowed a rooster from Julliard when they did the show, and it wasn’t–you know, it was maybe like 12 inches, 14 inches long. And the director said, “I want it a third of the size bigger.” So I’m like, okay. You know, I’m sketching, I’m measuring it out, and I build it, and I get a real…wings and feathers and stuff to put over it. I casted a roosters head that was more rubber, cause it had to fall on the floor and I didn’t want it to break. And I put it together, and I’m like, ‘This is three tiiiimes bigger than what he said.” [laughs] It was so large, but they loved it, and um, what happened in the show is– the actor took a knife and cut off its head, and then poured blood out of it. [ERIC: Right.] So I had a blood packets in its chest and a tube that went up its neck, and the head had a cork in it, that corked the tube [ERIC: [laughs]] and it was just, like– it was very exciting, and I loved it, and–it was funny because the actors were looking at it and they’re like, “This looks really real.” and they were like, “Is this a real..like, feathers?” and I was like, “Yeah, yeah. I got real feathers” [ERIC: [chuckles] Right.] There was this… and I think one of the actors was like a vegan or something [laughs] [ERIC: Oh, no.] She was kind of offended, but I was like, “But it looks so cool!” [ERIC: Yeah.] But yeah, it was.. It was so much fun. It was great. It was a good..good time. [laughs].
ERIC: Mhmm. And were you–did you have to put any of the feathers on individually, or were you able to find like a full hide?
ASHLEY: Yeah, so I found a full hide that was the back and the wings, and I created a muslin body. And I painted it with latex, and then I painted the wings and the back with latex, and stuck it on, because the latex sticks to latex. And then, um, I found some more real feathers that I individually put, you know, over on the legs, and a little bit on the sides, and then I found a fake feather, um, kind of patch that just laid on its belly. Um, so, yeah, and it…held together– I was shocked, I thought for sure it was gonna–like feathers were gonna come off. But, you know, they were rough with it and nothing, nothing happened. It was .. pretty remarkable. I was pretty shocked.
ERIC: Yeah, dead…animals are always tricky.
ASHLEY: Mhm. Especially when they want them to bleed. [ERIC: Mhm.] You know, there’s always blood, they’re like, ‘We need blood in this show.’ and you’re like, ‘We didn’t budget that and it’s a day before tech.’[laughs]
ERIC: Right, [laughs] yeah… I had to do a dead pheasant once, it was very similar, it was like a muslin body, and then I found– I think I found one or two kind of hides, but there was a lot of, like, gluing on–not necessarily individual feathers, I think I found hackle pads, which are used maybe for hats or something like that. They’re little pads that have a few feathers already attached to them. So you kind of, like, put a couple of those on and you don’t have to deal with the individual feathers, and then… you know, it was a pheasant, so really long tail feathers, and that sort of thing. But I also ended up doing, like, just fur around the legs [ASHLEY: Yeah.] instead of trying to deal with these, uh, tiny tiny feathers, it’s like, this looks like it enough. You know, if you’re looking at the pheasant legs in this scene then, the, um–something– there’s a bigger problem with show.
ASHLEY: [chuckles] Very true, very true.
ERIC: Yeah. We also–we had another show. We were doing Arms and the Man, and there was a scene in the library, and they wanted taxidermy everywhere, so I’m trying to find all this taxidermy. It was, like, a giant moose head, or an elk or something, and then just like, a possum, and … all these things, and I was able to find a bunch of it on eBay, ya know, cause you could just buy possum, mounted possum face, and… put it on stage. Um, but one of the things I couldn’t find was a coyote. I don’t know if there’s something about, like, people don’t taxidermy coyotes, or something like that, but I was able to find, um, some small–like a fox skull or something like that–some small canine-like creature skull, and a coyote face [laughs] and I had [ASHLEY: [laughs]] I had my apprentice– this was her first show at this theater, and it kind of her first project, and I’m giving her this skull and this face, and I’m telling her to make a coyote out of it, and I probably, you know– since she didn’t run from that project, I knew she was gonna survive the rest of the year. But we now have this [laughs]..this… weird frankenstein’ed coyote head in our stock [laughs] [ASHLEY: [laughs] Amazing.] It’s always slightly freaky and slightly morbid. But then you know, you find–you find those websites where they have the Victorian taxidermy where they have like, cats playing croquet, and you’re like, ‘Alright, I’m not doing this, so..[laughs] I’m at least ahead of them.’
ASHLEY: [laughs] There’s a part of me that actually wants to make those. [ERIC: [laughs]] [laughs] They’re just so weird!
ERIC: The little mice scenes, mouse domestic scenes [laughing].
ASHLEY: [laughs] They’re so great.
ERIC: Yeah, there’s a lot of morbid stuff, um, in props.
ASHLEY: [laughing] It’s so true, it’s so true.
ERIC: That’s kinda…where the title of our show came from, because you have, um, you know, papier mache hearts but you also have silk flowers, there’s always like — in any given day you could be doing glitter and you could be doing blood. You could be doing, you know, fancy crafts and horrible dead body parts.
ASHLEY: Yeah, you never know what you’re gonna be doing. It’s… crazy. Which I think is what a lot of us love about it. [ERIC: Mhm.] You know, you’re not doing the same thing, you’re not doing like, same kind of concepts, it’s– you never know what’s going to happen. Keeps you on your toes.
ERIC: It’s so true. Yeah. And any time– If you don’t like the show you’re working on, a couple weeks you’ll be working on a different show.
ASHLEY: Yeah, that’s, you know–a lot of people have jobs that they work with people they don’t like, and we’re very lucky to be in the theater world where– you don’t like somebody, a couple weeks later, you’re done with them. [ERIC: Mhm [laughs]] You don’t have to work with them again. You’re like, ‘Byyyye,’ ya know? It’s great.
ERIC: Until.. Until they come back for the next season, and you’re like, “ohhh, hello again…”
ASHLEY: And they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re my best friend’ [ERIC: [laughs]] [laughs]
ERIC: No, usually you forget–by the time the next show runs around–you forget why you didn’t like somebody, you’re like, ‘Okay, this person’s alright, okay’ [laughs]
ASHLEY: [laughs] It’s so true, and then like [hand clap] Bam!, and you’re like, ‘oooooooh, okaaaay’ [laughs].. Alright guys, I think that’s another end to an episode. I hope you enjoyed it… Follow us on twitter @silkmache , and check out our website www.silkflowersandpapiermachehearts.com to get updates, listen to our podcast, and if you have any questions, thoughts, um, ideas or anything–something you want us to cover in props world, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
ERIC: Be sure to subscribe to us on Itunes.
ASHLEY: It’s gonna be great, guys.
ASHLEY: Alright, we’ll see ya next time.
ASHLEY & ERIC [TOGETHER]: Bye!
Transcription by Victoria Ross.