Tag Archives: properties

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Building a prop Victorian gramophone

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People who have experience in the field of properties for the stage may be familiar with a dilemma I’ve run into in producing the Mrs. Hawking plays. Sometimes, your script will call for a specific prop that expensive or difficult to acquire that is needed for only a scene or two, but is integral enough to the plot that it can’t be changed or cut. That means you’re stuck investing in getting or making the damn thing, even though it’s going to be a lot of effort for not a ton of use.

In Vivat Regina, that one prop was the service trolley. It was called for only once in the opening scene, but the action of the scene absolutely depended on it to unfold. Unfortunately, a trolley with the right look for a fancy Victorian party was a pretty specific order, and even at the low end those things don’t come cheap. After a lot of research, the most affordable appropriate one we could find ended up being the single most expensive piece bought for that play.

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For Base Instruments, we’ve talked about the challenges of one specific setting. But the showpiece prop in that one will be the gramophone. The device is important in two scenes, the first when listening to the score of La Bayadere helps Mrs. Hawking determine where certain players would have been at a specific time, and the second when it is used to keep the pace of events during the reconstruction of the crime scene.

Invented in 1877, the phonograph would be a pretty hot new piece of technology for our gang in 1883. At that time, only wealthy households might own one. It may be that Mrs. Hawking went out and bought one specifically in the process of working this case. At the time the device operated not with vinyl discs like later models, but instead with the needle running along the grooves in wax cylinders. There’s a brief reference to one in Vivat Regina when Frau Gerhard offers to play Nathaniel the music from Die Fledermaus.

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Actual antique phonographs are pretty far out of our budget, we are forced to get creative and build a prop version! The important features are the wooden cabinet, the horn, the crank, and the mechanism with the cylinders. We may be able to get away with obscuring the mechanism by implying that it’s hidden inside a lid, but the others are pretty essential. The current plan is to get a lidded wooden box that can be stained to look fancy, an ornate funnel-shaped piece to stand for the horn, and a brass crack to attach to the side. If need be, the carriage of a typewriter might be made to look like the needle mechanism, but that might be difficult and expensive to get a hold of. In that case, a candle could easily stand in for the wax cylinder.

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This will probably be an pricey and perhaps even technically challenging project, but if made correctly it has the potential to be a beautiful and unique piece of stagecraft. Wish me luck putting one together!

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Challenges of staging Base Instruments

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Categories: base instruments, performance, Tags: , ,

This fall we’re going to be going into rehearsals for Base Instruments, the third installment of the Hawking series. I’m extremely excited. Not only is Base Instruments the first true mystery of the series, in my opinion, each installment is better than the last, and so this most recent one is the best story yet. I can’t wait to bring that our audiences at Arisia 2017 next winter. But in moving on to this show, we’re definitely inviting new challenges in the staging process!

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First of all, Base Instruments is longer than either of the previous stories. It’s a result of having built up a cast of recurring characters, including not just our three heroes, but also the return of Clara Hawking and Arthur Swann, on top of all the new cast. That will require more rehearsal time, and a different use of our performance time slot. Do we need an intermission this time, for example? But the advantage is that now we can tell multiple story threads at once, switching between the various journeys. It’s actually easier on the cast to have entire scenes to execute their costume changes and other transitions.

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There’s also some new design and technical demands. We’re lucky in that we can reuse much of the set and costuming that we’ve put together up to this point, but Base Instruments needs a few new properties in addition. With the Victorian convention of changing for dinner, most of our new characters need a day and an evening look. Here’s hoping I can pull together enough gowns and tuxedo jackets! The great challenge will be in the scenic department— the scene where Mary and Mrs. Hawking investigate the scene of the crime takes place in a dressing room devastated by a fire. We’re still figuring out what the best way to convey that onstage is. Ideally we’ll come across something representational that can be quick and easy to switch on and offstage, but that will take some creativity and engineering to put together.

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Lastly, there’s the question of how to block the climax. Unlike the previous two installments, Base Instruments does not have an “action climax,” but instead a scene where the heroes reenact the crime in order to solve it. It’s an information-heavy scene, without some of the flashy action of the highest points of the previous pieces that involved showy fight choreography. The challenge there is to block the reenactment in such a way as to convey the urgency of all the pieces of the puzzle falling into place, so that the audience is on the edge of their seat to finally reach the solution. It is a scene that might benefit from some higher theatricality, which is not always the typical style of our shows. But figuring out exactly how to make it look right, exciting but not over the top, and consistent with the tone of the rest of the show, could have some awesome results.

I’m really excited to get going. I love that the stories have only gotten stronger as they’ve gone on, and that we have the opportunity to bring the third part to life. Wish us luck navigating our way through!

Vivat Regina and Base Instruments by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 13th-15th at the Boston Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2017.

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The new portrait of the Colonel

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Categories: performance, vivat regina, Tags: , , ,

You may remember that for last year’s Mrs. Hawking productions we made this portrait to serve as the framed photograph of the Colonel that hangs above the mantlepiece in the Hawking parlor.

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I liked this portrait because it was a genuine Victorian image, with a sort of quiet sadness in the look in the gentleman’s eyes. But now we are not only performing Mrs. Hawking, but also Vivat Regina, which you may have noted contains explicit reference to what that portrait looks like. Specifically, it’s a significant moment when Mrs. Hawking expresses her discomfort with Nathaniel’s resemblance to her late husband. With that resemblance being pointed out in the dialogue, it doesn’t really serve to have just any old person’s image hanging there for all the audience to see.

To that end, we made a new picture to go inside the portrait frame. This meant we temporarily had to cast the character of Colonel Reginald Hawking— with Jeremiah O’Sullivan, our actor playing the role of Nathaniel.

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We dressed Jeremiah in a military-style jacket and a costume mustache with spirit gum— after all, Mrs. Hawking says the Colonel has “whiskers” in that picture. This not only ensures the resemblance, it’s a nice hinting at stories to come. The Colonel is set to appear in part four of Mrs. Hawking, back before he was the Colonel, in flashbacks juxtaposed with a present-day story. I thought it would be cool to double cast Nathaniel and the Colonel in that piece, to convey not just their similarities, but to drive home to the audience how hard it is for Mrs. Hawking to see anyone but the Colonel when she looks at her nephew.

Mrs. Hawking by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 15th at 8PM and January 16th at 4PM and Vivat Regina by Phoebe Roberts January 17th at 1PM at the Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2016.

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Touches of steampunk

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The art design of a production is an important means to establish a show’s feel and personality. Mrs. Hawking is a steampunk superhero play, so we want that slick, high-action, slightly stylized feel from all our artistic choices. Those range from big things, like what the set looks like and how the actors move and speak, to small things, what individual props we choose to use.

I wasn’t totally happy with the gun we used in our first production. It was your basic cowboy-style six-shooter toy that I gave a coat of paint to make it look a little more realistic. So for this one I did more research and purchased one that I thought would make a little more of an impact, and looked a lot more steampunk.

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It has an unusually long barrel, in addition to the cool scrollwork design in the brass finish. It definitely doesn’t look like an ordinary gun in a strictly realistic Victorian story. In that way it’s similar to another weapon prop we use, the Bowie knife that serves as the utility blade Mrs. Hawking was left by the Colonel. In person, the knife seems almost absurdly huge. But interestingly, while on the stage, it seems exactly the right size.

In theater, the action exists at a remove from the audience, who is sitting many feet away from everything that happens. There’s no benefit of a camera lens that can pull in close and show you details if necessary. That means that things often have to be a little bit bigger, a little bit more broadly drawn, in order for them to read to the audience. Touches that are bigger, more ornate, more exaggerated have a better chance of getting the message across.

That, I find, is a great way for us to utilize the steampunk aesthetic. It isn’t only for adding character and texture to our play. Because hallmarks of steampunk include more ornateness and exaggeration, it also helps broadcast ideas and meanings to the audience across the distance.

Mrs. Hawking by Phoebe Roberts will be performed on Saturday, May 9th at 2PM and 6PM at the Center for Digital Arts at 274 Moody Street, Waltham as part of the 2015 Watch City Steampunk Festival.

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The set for Mrs. Hawking at Arisia 2015

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Building the set for this show may have been the most difficult aspect of producing it. I wanted a real set for it, not only to elevate the production values, but because the plot demanded that Mrs. Hawking physically scale it. I got a lot of heat for that when I was writing it in grad school, but it was very necessary for the spectacle of the piece— we should see what a gymnast Mrs. Hawking is –so I stuck to my guns on it. Unfortunately, that meant a pretty demanding standard for the building of the set. But because of our limited budget, getting shop space was unfortunately not possible. That meant we were forced to build the set in my backyard. If it had been May, that might not have been such a big deal, but we had a week in a Boston January.

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Because of our time and resource limitations, I tried to design the set to require as little build as possible to stand up and be weight-bearing. That was where my idea to adapt a wooden children’s jungle gym into a structural set. We used the tower section to create a climbable freestanding piece that we attached the flat with the fireplace, and then the monkey bar section to create a window with the wall flat. I was incredibly pleased to see that this idea not only worked but also reduced our workload. It might not have been possible otherwise.

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The mantlepiece is particularly special, made by set consultant Carolyn Daitch. She made this gorgeous piece for us out of wood with a special styrofoam panel in the shelf of it, so that Mrs. Hawking can stab it with her knives. The worked BEAUTIFULLY, and allowed for the awesome image of her plunging the Colonel’s Bowie knife into it, leaving it stuck there in mute testament to her rage in that moment. The black and gold color scheme on it was thanks to Samantha LeVangie, who was scenic charge in addition to playing the role of Mary.

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We painted everything as the snow was actively falling down. I was terrified that the paint was freezing rather than drying, and would slough off in a torrent when we got it into a warmer space, but thankfully it managed to hold up. It also made it possible to visually incorporate the playground structures into the Victorian parlor look. Add a couple of gas lamps, curtains, and the portrait of the Colonel, and we were there. We chose red and gold for the colors to give it the warm period appearance.

We actually impressed some people with the quality and extensiveness of the set. It came in looking beautiful, and we put it up quickly and efficiently, thanks to our excellent team. Arisia is apparently not used to full sets, and it was gratifying to hear we turned a few heads. Not to mention that we got Mrs. Hawking in the air, just like we set out to!

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The set’s existence is primarily thanks to the work of Bernie Gabin, our technical director, my frequent collaborator, and my boyfriend. His experience in all aspects of technical theater, not to mention his fierce determination through adversity, made it possible to have any actual build occur. I am also incredibly grateful for the hard work of Eboracum Richter-Dahl, our stage manager, Frances Kimpel, our Mrs. Hawking, Matthew Kamm, our Sir Walter, and Samantha LeVangie, our Mary and our scenic charge. Their toiling out in the snow and freezing temperatures with this was very much above and beyond the call of duty.

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Here is the final product. You’d never think to look at it that it was built in the snow in five days, would you? Next time someone suggests I cannot do something, I will remember this build. It was incredibly grueling at times, but it came out so beautifully that I believe it was worth it.

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Lord Brockton’s walking stick

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Check out this cool walking stick prop I put together for Cedric Brockton to use!

Cedric Brockton Lord Brockton is something of a dandy; it is part of his bulletproof persona that he is always impeccably dressed. A slick walking stick, purely a fashion accessory, seemed like a perfect fit. But as we’re on a tight budget, I didn’t just want to spend money on one. So I got a little creative!

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I got a fancy curtain rod from a dollar store, with that big round crystal on each end. I took it apart and used the longer half. On the open end I glued a doorstop from the hardware store, the kind that you attach to the back of a door so it bounces off the wall. It’s a nice touch to add both style and a bit of length, plus the rubbery end gives it a little traction. On the crystal end, I taped off the orb as well as the rod beneath the little collar, and sprayed that collar with some metallic silver paint.

It’s a little crude up close, but I think from the stage it will read as understatedly elegant. That will make for a perfect prop.

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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Prop gas lamps for the Mrs. Hawking set

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I made these neat gas lamp props to dress the set of Mrs. Hawking at Arisia!

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They’re made of two kinds of candle holders, the brass wall-mounted kind and the glass tumbler kind. I joined them together with hot glue. I think I will try to get a hold of those little battery-operated electric tea lights to put inside them for a glow. They’re not exactly like any actual Victorian interior gas lamps I could find pictures of, but they are reasonable approximations given the features of the ones I did see.

I like them a lot! I think they will look neat on the set.

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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We have a portrait for the Colonel!

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Just a quick peek at the portrait for Colonel Reginald Prescott Hawking! GAZE UPON THE LOOMING SYMBOL OF OUR HERO’S OPPRESSION.

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I had a poster printed up at Staples of the image I found depicting a Victorian-era soldier in colonel’s regalia. I found this frame at the dollar store with the right sort of baroque aesthetic. Truth be told, blowing up the image has left it a bit pixellated up close, but I don’t think it’s noticeable from a distance. That’s the beauty of the stage! If it can’t be seen from thirty feet away, it doesn’t exist! Honestly, the more I look at him, the more pleased I am that I went with this picture. Even if he doesn’t look quite like how I imagined the Colonel, he has a kind of sadness in his eyes that I think is exactly right.

I think I’ll hang it up at the read through, so the actors can get used to him watching them all the time. :-)

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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The Colonel’s portrait for the set

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A prominent feature of the Mrs. Hawking set is the portrait of the Colonel that hangs over the mantlepiece in the parlor. I always liked the idea of this detail, as it gives a physical representation to how the Colonel’s presence hangs over the play, and the entirety of Mrs. Hawking’s life.

There isn’t much in the way of detail about it in the text, neither about what it looks like or how it got there. I originally thought of it as a painting, but that would imply that the Colonel sat for it, and I don’t really see that. So now I’m inclined to think of it as a cabinet portrait, a daguerrotype, taken with the elaborate frame cameras of the day.

I also don’t see the Colonel as a man vain enough to live every day with a huge picture of himself in his living room, and of course Mrs. Hawking herself would never want to put it there. So I think it was a gift, and it was kept somewhere out of the way until he passed. After his death, somebody, quite possibly Nathaniel, brought it out to hang over the mantle. Mrs. Hawking felt like she couldn’t protest, so there it has remained in the year and one month since when the first play begins.

To represent it in the Arisia ’15 production, I decided to find an appropriate image. I did a Google search under various related terms, finding it difficult to find something that was exactly what I wanted. I needed something that looked like a daguerrotype of a gentleman in a Victorian’s colonel’s dress regalia, and I knew I wanted it to be of a handsome man. There were not a lot that fit those criteria, but I narrowed it down to these three options.

 

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The first one is of a good-looking man with whiskers, but he seems a touch young for when I think the picture would have been taken, and he is also in civilian dress. The third has the necessary regalia, and I like his beard and the way the colorized image would lend a pop of brightness to the set, but the look of the man isn’t quite right. So I think I’m planning on using the middle one, as I believe it has the best balance of costume, facial hair, age, and handsomeness. None of them really look like quite what I imagine Colonel Reginald Prescott Hawking to look like, but I think that one will serve.

I plan on having a large version printed, and put into a frame. That will then be hung on the set of Mrs. Hawking’s parlor, to distinguish the location and flesh out the world.

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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Set-building cleverness

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There are many challenges involved in bringing a theatrical production into being. A lot of elements need to be handled before the story becomes a reality that require a high investment of time and effort. One of those elements is figuring out how to put together a set.

While I don’t feel it’s necessary for it to be a literal representation of the Victorian parlors and gentlemen’s clubs specified in the text, there are least has to be some sort of physical structure for our hero to climb on. Mrs. Hawking’s ninja-spy skills on display is a major part of the spectacle of the story, and I think you’d lose a lot if there was no way to show it.

That means that to put this on at Arisia, I’ll need to have a climbable structure for this set. Not only that, it has to be strong enough to support the weight of the actress, possible to be transported to the performance space, and of course within my budget. That’s a pretty tall order.

But desperation can motivate one to be very creative. I got an idea to secure some kind of found structure that could form the bones, at least, of the set. A little research onto Craigslist led me to find a wooden swing set jungle gym sort of thing that was being given away for free. It has the advantage of being lightweight, modular, and sufficiently well-built that I can trust an actor to it. I’m not sure it would be possible for me to so quickly and cheaply build something that structurally reliable.

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So I rented a truck– a lesser expense than buying materials, tools, and shop space –and enlisted the help of some very capable and generous friends, John Brewer, Nat Budin, Michael Hyde, and Eboracum Richter-Dahl. It was so good of them to lend their time and effort to helping me collect this. I definitely could not have done it without them. We got the thing broken down, loaded up, and taken away in just a few hours. It’s even weather-proof, so I don’t need to worry about damaging it!

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of work left to do to get it in performance-ready shape. We will be dressing it up somehow, to give it the features necessary to properly represent the environments in the play. I still have to consult with my set designers on the best way to do that. But I am pleased that we managed to find a shortcut on building! It certainly cuts down the work, money, and expertise we’ll need to finish.

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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