Pat’s Propmaking Diary  for The Cooper and San Giovanni Battista.

3rd June 2014.
We’re in stage and orchestra rehearsals for our double bill of Thomas Arne’s the Cooper and Stredella’s San Giovanni Battista; two 18c operas/. Technically San Giovanni is an oratorio which will be performed by Guildhall students on original instruments. I’ve yet to hear the full orchestra but the theorbo player has joined this afternoon and the wonderfully plangent melancholic tone of the eighteenth century is wafting through the theatre.

Director Rodula Gaitano and Head of Opera Studies Dominic Wheeler have revived these rarely performed pieces and breathed new life into them.  They have provided some interesting challenges for the Props department.

The Cooper is set in a cooperage or a barrel making workshop, and propmakers and performers have had the challenge of discovering and re-learning how a barrel is made.  Tenor Gerard Schneider sits astride a shaving horse made by Props Supervisor George Walters and whittles a beautiful barrette for his sweetheart, and with tenor Piran Legg they pull together the staves of a barrel and hoop it with metal rings every night. We’ve also researched old carpentry tools and equipment and reproduced them for the piece. One online research tip   try translating your search terms into another language: “barrel making”, and “coopering” found us more or less the same research but “tonnelier” which is French for Cooper found us a full set of engravings of coopering tools.

Prop maker Tommy Keatley reproduced two barrel makers compasses and a strap clamp for the first scene where Martin the Cooper and his apprentice fit the hoops on a barrel.

Prop maker Clare Hellyer took apart a 56 gallon whiskey barrel bought online, labelled each piece and re-made each stave in a two layer laminate of airex an extruded foam product from trident foams. We used the barrels original hoops and created something which was flexible and could close up every night.

Kim North and Clare explored the world of prosthetics and created false noses and chins for singers Piran Legg and Frazer Scott. We also exploited the particular feature of alginate to create a tiny shrunken head of Frazer.
San Giovanni Battista has provided much darker unpleasant challenges: we have created John the Baptist’s severed head and the team joined by Giulia worked together to create the mutilated corpse of the Baptist. Designer Simon Corder wanted to create a fresh new take on the old idea of a headless corpse and decided on the concept of the hacked apart pieces thrown ruthlessly into a body bag so out team set to creating a series of bloodied body parts.  We were very constricted in time so we started with a shop display dummy from Morplan which we used as a mould and backfilled with clay. We were able to twist the body into the right position and then proceeded to inflict wounds onto the torso and fashion the extremities so they looked as if they had been brutally butchered.  Giulia researched and built intestines which had been  pulled out and George fashioned broken bones and severed muscles using my old German anatomy books and reference books of 18th century  anatomical models.
We took a two part plaster mould of the torso and then filled it with Tiranti’s flexible expanding foam weighted down with scrap pieces of scaff bar to add realistic weight to the corpse. , in fact on reflection we added too much weight the corpse was extremely heavy.
It’s important not to take a director or designer  totally absolutely literally when they ask you to go over the top and drench the body in blood  because  there is a  tipping point, a point at which  you can see lots of blood and you can also see what body part you are looking at. Go beyond that with the gore and all you have is a bag of red mince and you might as well have not bothered to sculpt anything because it can’t be distinguished any more.


It is really important to give your corpse a back story and to decide exactly what wounds have been inflicted and when and to decide at what point in the process the body died.   Forensic nursing has a really good infographic on this:
Programmes like CSI which focus on police procedurals also help educate us in how to make a realistic corpse.  Although be warned what they tell us they’re showing us on CSI is often far from the reality of what they are actually showing us, often they’re showing a change in the direction and colour of light and shadow but talking about isolating something from something else, take it all with a pinch of salt.

Propmakers need to decide the time of death of the corpse and relate that to the corpse’s appearance on stage.   We have seen John the Baptist. Descend into the pit from which his corpse will be lifted so we know the blood should be fresh, he has had his head cut off so there will be fresh arterial blood spattered all over the place.  After he was killed his body was chopped up and dismembered so there will be lots of pooled blood in the bottom of the bag.
Lots of different types of blood were used. A rusty red oxide Rosco colour was sponged all over the sites where amputations and wounds had been sculpted, this oxide paint went mainly into the crevices. A purpley colour was used to identify muscles. High points were left clean, and then a brighter red was sponged over the mid ground. Finally “Pigs might fly South” blood smeared and spattered with toothbrushes over the clean high points.

The body had to bleed a stream of blood which was achieved by filling a cyclists back water pack with Kryolan stage blood. With a brewing tube tap switching it on and off. We filled the bag with the same volume every night confident that the bag would be empty before the hook had to carry the bag off stage.

Our head had been made for a previous show. it was a silicone life cast. The hollow core of the sculpt was then backfilled with two part foam.

We added a new wig, precisely matching those worn by the performers.  Whenever I make a severed head I make sure that I embed a strong cord around a butterfly cross of wood in the centre of the foam head. This cord can become a loop or be knotted around a ring or a bead which can ensure that however much it is covered by fake blood and slime it won’t slip out of the grip of the performer. We disguised the loop in with strands of hair.  If Salome had dropped The Baptist’s head the accelerated force could have taken out the theorbo player.

For this show I excavated a sea sponge sized hole in the neck and put in a sea sponge which was drenched with Pigs might fly South .

Pigs might fly South is made from inverted sugar.  It is viscous; it sits above fabric and skin.  It has a beautiful colour quality and a bit of yellow separates out from it, and when smeared over Salome’s nightdress it retained its deep colour.

Friday 13th June.

The show’s now up and running and we’ve now moved onto different challenges on Grand Hotel. Last week blood and guts were the focus of our prop making lives. This week it’s just a routine check to see there’s sufficient supplies of blood and that the body isn’t twisting inside its plastic sack.

Monday 23rd June

The show is over. We have received back the head and body bag of John the Baptist.  I’ve washed all the blood out of the hair removed the sea sponge and left it hanging up over the sink to dry terrifying anyone who comes by to casually wash their hands.
Friday 27th June

Today there is a careers fair, and Vanessa took the head along as an example of the work we do. I’ve been told that Ben the Director of Technical Theatre has been joking around carrying the head under his arm. Ben is wearing a beautiful pale blue linen jacket and the head is still oozing and seeping blood.  I am not accepting responsibility for any dry cleaning bills.