Friday, July 8, 2016

First Jobs In The Theatah (Plus Propmaking in the Stone Age!)

Before I have to disappear for a while thanks to some upcoming surgery, I wanted to at least get this out there.  So -- Chapter 3 in my story, for what it's worth.

After graduating with a 5-year degree in Drama, it was time to look for paying work.  At that time there was a massive "cattle call" style audition for something called the South East Theater Conference, or SETC.  Mostly it was used to help cast the giant "outdoor dramas" that were more popular back then than they are now.  Shows like "The Trail of Tears" and "The Book of Job" which ran all summer long in outdoor theaters, largely as tourist attractions.  But there were also dinner theaters and regional theaters doing casting as well.  I ultimately accepted an intern position at a dinner theater in Lexington, KY, which was supposed to offer room, board, a very small salary and a chance to learn the trade by working with more experienced professionals.  Sadly, it was grossly misrepresented and the interns were essentially slave labor.  Or at least indentured labor.  I did not learn anything new, but in fairness I was given the chance to put what I had learned at U.Va. into practice.  I did stage lighting, sound, prop creation, scenery building, and so forth.  The "room" turned out to be a cot in the basement of the owner's dad.  The "board" was dinner theater leftovers.  Luckily my sanity was saved by the fact that my roommate at U.Va. also took the same internship and we were thrown into it together.  I learned how to make props and dress sets on the cheap, by borrowing and scrounging and exchanging ad space in the programs for something essential (like, say, an antique candlestick telephone or a vintage lava lamp.)  I mostly wanted to perform, though; not intern as a stagehand, so I was always auditioning and lobbying for a chance to audition.  The owner was very reluctant to lose his cheap labor force, though, and resisted mightily.  I finally got a decent speaking part in "Fiddler On The Roof" and when the show closed, I was dismissed.  Not for anything wrong that I had done; hell, I taught them more about props and sound than they ever taught me.  I think the owner was just tired of having me try out instead of working in the shop.

I did leave them with some great stuff that I had learned how to do.  I built a vacuform machine for things like door moldings and set trimmings.  (A vacuform machine is basically a wooden frame that holds a sheet of thin plastic which you soften using heat.  Underneath this frame you place a mold of whatever you want to duplicate.  The top frame fits snugly over the bottom frame -- the one with the mold -- and is connected to a vacuum cleaner.  You put the softened plastic over the mold while sucking out the air and bam! instant mold.)

 A basic home-made vacuform machine.

 Photo courtesy of Punished Props: A vacuform machine with the mold in place, and with the molded softened plastic.  You can turn out as many copies of the mold as you need to make.

Another neat trick I left them with:  Making a bell with instant urethane moulding foam.  Instant foam is a two-ingredient product: you add Ingredient One to Ingredient Two and you get a growing mass of insulation-type foam.  If you place Ingredient One in a cup and add Ingredient Two to the center, it will "boil over" the rim of the cup and form the shape of a bell when it hardens.  It's versatile stuff, and in the days before EVA foam carving, it was used for a ton of different things.  Here's an incredibly boring video about it from the manufacturer:  

When I was actively making props, urethane foam and light woods like balsa were the tools I most often used.  Today's propmakers are doing insanely creative things with materials we never dreamed of using.  Things like floor mats and a moldable material called Worbla are de rigeur work materials for props and armor, and being from another age, I have almost no experience with them.  About the only props I've made recently are a lightsaber hilt (from leftover plumbing materials) and a steampunk style Doctor Who sonic screwdriver.

My homemade lighsaber.  Yoda is not losing any sleep.

And that's pretty much it.  About ten years into my career as an actor, I was still working children's theater and dinner theater.  It was fun and rewarding, and for the most part paid the bills, but then I began getting more and more sick from Crohn's Disease.  I also began having other autoimmune-disease related problems that have since been diagnosed as things like rheumatoid arthritis and some weird neurological degeneration thing similar to ALS that affects my sensory nerves more than my motor nerves and has caused peripheral neuropathy.  When I collapsed on stage during a performance and turned out to need a transfusion of 11 pints of blood thanks to an internal hemorrhage (thanks to Crohn's) I knew I had to seriously start looking at my life.  I didn't think I could continue to live out of my suitcase as an itinerant performer any more.

I basically decided to look at things I loved.  I knew I didn't want to do anything that would directly or indirectly harm the environment, and I knew I loved books and reading.  I knew that my favorite work-study job back in college had been at the library.  So I learned to become a librarian.  I eventually met my wife, had a kid, and stayed in the library business a lot longer than I would have been able to stay an actor.  Ultimately I had to quit that job, too, because of poor health. 

Which brings me to today.  I am effectively disabled thanks to autoimmune disease.  I find it difficult to leave the house most days because I am chained to the plumbing, so to speak, but thanks to the internet I don't feel as trapped as I certainly would have a generation ago.  I have a wife and a daughter whom I love very much, and to whom I dedicate these scribbles.

For what it's worth to you, that's my story.

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