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Posts Tagged ‘play dough’

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Making food props for any theatre company has its own unique challenges, but making them for a high school adds another handful (and another unique, while we’re at it).

I’m in the middle of a run of Les Miserables, the much-loved opera with an unusually high body count. Most of its characters don’t make it to curtain call. I told the actors we could easily hand out pens with playbills and have the audience cross out characters throughout the play. When only Marius and Cosette are left, the French Revolution is over and so is the show.

Despite the loss and poverty depicted, there is also great wealth. When the above characters marry, they have a lavish wedding and cake. I asked what side of the stage the wedding cake will enter from, and when the director said stage right, I knew it couldn’t be too tall; that side of the stage has only shelves on which to store props. He agreed to a layer cake, so I made one (above) with three batches of homemade play dough, cake tins, mini tart tins, and paint applied with a piping bag and tips as if it were buttercream. Young Zak found a gold bead somewhere and pushed it into the cake. I’m not sure why. Being a freshman might have something to do with it.

But when I brought the cake in, the director said it was too low, and that if I built a taller one, we could store it somewhere off stage and bring it on just for the wedding.

Would that I had known this before.

So yesterday I built the below with three storage boxes from AC Moore stacked and glued together with wood glue, and painted using the same technique as above. My crew let me know that young David, who plays a police officer in the show, opened the lid of the top box to peer inside. I said if they see him doing that again to tell him Marisa is going to hide his billy club and he will never find it in a million years.

The cake is tall, and one of the young musicians saw me walk past with it and gasped, ‘Is that real?’ so my work is done.

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Actually, my job with food for this show isn’t entirely done; I have to feed four loaves of bread per night to the cast, who eats it on stage behind the barricade. I don’t want it to be stale, so I buy it fresh every day. The girls who bring it on from stage left eat most of it while they’re waiting to go on.

When I first brought bread to rehearsal last week the director skipped that scene, so I told Cristian, who plays Enjolras, to take the bread for his side of the stage downstairs to share.

Teenagers of every stripe don’t stop eating. It’s fascinating and almost eerie to witness. They always have their hands in a box of Cheez-Its. But this is a boarding school, which means the kids are even hungrier; and this was a sophomore boy I was talking to. He gaped at me and shouted, ‘We can have the whole thing?!’ When I said yes, he almost bit my hand off.

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Its hours are numbered.

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Another day, another popover.

There’s feeding them offstage, as in cookies or brownies, in which case they’re generally very easy to please. Onstage is a different matter. Often a script will call for actors eating (what we call practical food), and in my work as a prop master, it’s my job to procure it. Sometimes I buy it; other times that’s impossible or just plain inconvenient, and I have to make it for each performance. Below I offer a menu of my most unforgettable experiences in working with actor palates.

My Fair Lady

Calls for a tea service with strawberry tarts; I also added shortbread—a proper British cookie—and iced tea stood in for hot tea. The character Pickering is supposed to eat unabashedly throughout the scene, every night, and the actor who played him quite enjoyed himself. Pickering also consumes a great deal of port in every show. Since alcohol is not something that benefits actors performing just above an orchestra pit, I provided a decanter of cranberry juice instead. And I told the actor that if he happened to have a urinary tract infection, we were about to clear it right up.

Little Women

Calls for impractical ice cream and pastries, which I made of homemade play-dough, and practical popovers, which I baked fresh every night. The character Amy loves them, but not so much the young actress who played her. She’d leave the popover in the same place on the prop table every night with one bite missing, and I’d finish it.

Arms and the Man (or was it Chekov’s Three Sisters?)

Forgive me; this was college, in 1989. There is a party scene in one of these shows for which I set a few practical pastries on a little dish, and dozens more on a platter the size of a manhole cover. Then I told the actors that the ones on the giant platter were for the show and warned them not to eat them. They ignored me and tucked in every single day. I didn’t yell. I just got there earlier one day, hit the whole platter with spray polyurethane, and didn’t tell them.

Some say of all of life’s utterances, the most rewarding to hear is ‘I love you.’ I say it’s the 1.7 seconds after an actor spits a synthetic, combustible pastry into his hand and yells, ‘God-DAMMIT.’

Does this mean I’m not a romantic?

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

The script doesn’t actually call for practical food, but one director thought it would be fun to have the character Jacob munching on something during one scene. She settled on pasta. It got a laugh, and the Italian actor who played him was all in. Every night I brought him linguine tossed in olive oil, cracked black pepper, and Parmesan. He loved it.

Shrek

Shrek offers his crush, Fiona, a traditional ogre treat: a freshly killed beastie of some sort, plus odds and ends from the forest, in a sandwich. I used raffia, moss, bark, silk leaves, and my squirrel puppet. The script calls it a s’nother; personally, I called it an RLT (roadkill, lettuce, and tomato). Shrek and Fiona had to be able to munch on something from the sandwich, so I bought them gummy worms and tucked them into the edges. Fiona was impressed.

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Because anyone can send flowers.

And my favorite:

Jesus Christ Superstar

Top of Act 2, Jesus and the apostles are gathered for the Last Supper and are supposed to share and eat bread. I feel badly for the person who actually served the original 13 (whom I will forever picture as Mel Brooks), because it was a bear trying to get all of these guys to agree on what kind of bread they’d eat without complaint. I tried everything—matzoh, of course; Wonder bread; croissants (Mon Dieu! En Israel?); rolls. The actors all gave maudlin little coughs and said, ‘I can’t eat this; I can’t sing.’ Finally I got them all to agree on something. But I’m sure I’ve relinquished my place in heaven for serving Jesus and the disciples KFC biscuits.

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‘A few trifles’ is a quote from the stage drama Little Women, and the food you see here is what I made for the show, which is going on all this month in Holmdel, NJ. As prop goddess, it’s my job to rent, buy or make (not to mention schlep, maintain and track down from actors) everything that’s brought on and off stage. I often have to provide real (what we call ‘practical’) food for shows that call for actors to eat on stage. But the director for this production decided all of the Christmas Day treats that old Mr. Laurence next door sends over to the March family will be impractical—just for looks. I’m a stickler for authenticity on stage, and the theatre space is small, with the audience just feet away from the onstage action, so this took some doing.

The script describes the spread: chocolates, ice cream, fruitcake and cream puffs. I thought about buying most of it and polyurethaning the crap out of it so it would last the run of the show (and so the actors and mice wouldn’t eat it).* But I couldn’t find puffs that weren’t already filled with cream (which would spoil); fruitcake is tough to find in April; and ice cream wouldn’t survive beyond Act I Scene I.

Plan B, which I went with, was to make a bunch of homemade play dough and form it the way I do marzipan. Click on the photos to take a better look. This is my first go with shaping play dough for stage. Everything pictured here, except for the holly sprig on the cake, is made of play dough.

To make it: I combined 3 cups flour, 1.5 cups salt, and 6 teaspoons cream of tartar in one bowl and 3 cups water and 1/3 cup cooking oil in another. You can also add food coloring to the liquid. Then I added dry and liquid together and poured it into a heavy-bottomed pan over medium low heat. I stirred frequently until the mixture got thick and rubbery and lost its sheen. Then I took it off the heat to cool. Once it is, you can shape it into anything you want. Here’s what I did.

For the chocolates in the top tier of the epergne above: I shaped quarter-sized balls, flattened them, and let them dry out for a few days. Then I painted them with brown acrylic** paint and let that dry. I topped them with white acrylic paint in peaks, as if it were buttercream. Once that was dry, I covered them with polyurethane.

For the cream puffs: I shaped balls about 2″ in diameter and topped them with balls about 1″ in diameter, which looks very much the way choux pastry looks when piped, before it’s baked. Then I brushed on acrylic wood polish with a very light hand—just so they’d look slightly browned—and poly’ed them. Since the play dough wasn’t dried out beforehand, when I poly’ed them they cracked a bit. It makes them look like authentic puffs.

For the fruitcake, shown above (sliced) and below: I wanted to model it after Traditional English Fruitcake, which I imagined was a holiday favorite of Mr. Laurence, and one he wanted to share with his neighbors. First I kneaded in edible brown gel paste from my candy supply basket. But once it dried, it turned a disagreeable, asteroidlike shade of brownish green. On went the brown paint and then poly, the latter of which gave the cake an appealing gloss that made it look moist, buttery and alcohol soaked. I sliced it with a serrated knife.

I made a real fruitcake last Christmas, and iced and decorated it in the style of the south of England. For this one, I decorated it in the northern style—very simply, with bits of play dough shaped to suggest sliced almonds, lightly wood stained so they’d look toasted, and I scattered them around the edges. A sprig of holly was inserted into the middle, and I replace it with a fresh one each weekend.

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For the ice cream:  The show takes place in New England in the 1860s, before vanilla was the common flavoring it is today. Lemon was common, though. Let’s call the below lemon.

To give it a realistic effect, I used an ice cream scooper to scoop the soft play dough into the bowl. I chose a silver one which had a frosted-over look, suggesting the ice cream was creating condensation on the outside of the bowl. Then, while still soft, I covered it with lots of poly. Like the puffs, this made it crack a bit on top and gave it a subtly iced-over look, and the extra poly made it appear slick and slightly melting.

Good times.

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*Bit of an editorial there, especially the choice to put actors before mice; actors show far less discretion. When I propped Chekov’s Three Sisters in college, I had to provide a huge platter of impractical pastries for one scene. I bought real ones, and the actors nibbled at it like stoners until I was forced to shellac it. Even then I still needed to post a sign telling them to keep their sticky paws off it. Though I quite, QUITE relished hearing the occasional ‘Bleah! Goddammit!’ from actors who either weren’t literate or thought the sign was a joke.

**This is latex, or water-based paint—my favorite. Oil-based paint is nice and shiny, but it takes longer to dry, is more of a hassle because you need to buy turpentine, a solvent, to clean your paintbrush, and until it dries your house smells like a Sunoco station.

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