Big Props: The Picture Frame

Dear Constant Reader,

Continuing in my big prop series, The Picture Frame was built for the same show as The Paintbrushes, The Fine Art of Burlesque. We used it as both a back drop for the whole show and as a silhouette screen for my number “An Invitation”.

The base of the frame is sturdy metal pieces that bolt together. They are concealed behind decorative molding, painted with a metallic finish. The two frames are held together with tiny bolts, which allow the metal to slide under the molding to make corners that are neat and securely-attached. The whole thing is supported with wooden feet and braces, painted black for unobtrusiveness. The scrim is made from a king bedsheet and is held in place with Velcro. That was a bit fussy (I was the one who sewed it), but after I added some subtle clues as to which side was up, it became much easier to attach correctly.

Brigitte got this backstage shot of the setup (I’ve since gotten a better backlight):

Once broken down, the frame packs into The Big Red Box along with the paint brushes and would ride on the roof thusly:

In The Big Time Pearl used the frame without the scrim to portray a dancer in the vein of Degas, who steps out of her picture and into the real world for a while.

Pros: packs down fairly small, albeit long. Versatile — I can think of a few neat effects we can do with the scrim that we haven’t tried yet.
Cons: a bit complicated to put together if you don’t know what you’re doing.

M2These writings and other creative projects are supported by my Patrons. Thank you so much! To become a Patron, go to my Patreon page.

Published in: on 5 July 2017 at 3:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Big Props: Evie’s Oyster

Dear Constant Reader,

I’d like to return to the theme of big props. I haven’t covered all the big props in the BeauTease collection, before I even get to the props we built for The Big Time. This is one of my favorites, because it looks great and the construction is so clever: Evie’s Oyster

Evie was our Oyster Girl for Madame Burlesque, so obviously she needed an oyster. We were touring with this show, so the oyster need to break down for transport, but it had to be large enough that Evie could fit inside with a minimum of contortion (she’s pretty bendy, but still…) Also, it needed to be light enough that the two sea nymphs who danced with Evie could carry it onto stage with her inside.

And this is how it appeared:

It’s very cleverly made from two papasan chairs. Betty sacrificed one for the cause and I think the other was a Craig’s List find. The two seats and one base were covered in fabric and decorated with “seaweed” and pearls, then securely fastened together with zip ties. We tried some other methods of attachment, but those proved the best, even though we had to cut them off after every show.

And when the oyster opened:

There’s Evie!

Behind Evie’s arms, you can just see the two golden cords inside that keep the lid from falling back when the oyster is open. What you can’t see is the wooden platform Scratch built for Evie to sit on, so she could just step out instead of clambering up.

Her pearl was made from a battery-powered accent lamp, so it gently glowed.

The only real problems I remember having with the oyster was a venue with a stage entrance that was so narrow the oyster had to be carried through sideways and Evie had to hop inside once it was positioned on stage and another one where the tiny backstage area had no room for it at all. For the most part it’s a good example of “packs (relatively) small, plays big”.

M2These writings and other creative projects are supported by my Patrons. Thank you so much! To become a Patron, go to my Patreon page.

Published in: on 27 June 2017 at 2:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Big Props: The Bench

Dear Constant Reader,

Burlesque Legends refer to something you could sit or lie on as a prop. This was inspired by a prop used by a Legend in the 1960s, who always referred to it as “The Prop”. We generally refer to this piece as “the bench”.

The main part is a nice solid wooden coffee table with legs that attach with bolts. Scratch cut the back of the table flat so we could attach a back piece to it. We glued some foam to the top of the table so it would be a little more comfortable to lie on and I sewed a drape for it. The drape is made of satin with a drawstring just under the table top to secure it. It has a skirt that hangs down to cover the legs, but leaves the back of the table open, so we could attached the back piece.

The back piece was cut out of plywood. The original was tiled, but I couldn’t find any vinyl tiles I liked and I wasn’t going to use glass or ceramic tiles because of the weight. I tried spray painting it gold, but it still looked plywoody. Scratch suggest I make a cloth cover, kind of like a cozy. At this point we diverged greatly from the original, but needed to do something in a fairly short time.

I made the cover from a cream colored fabric, covered in dimensional roses. Then I created a clever (if I do say so myself) system of Velcro to attach a cluster of ostrich feathers to the top of the back piece. The back piece is held onto the back of the bench with spring clips.

Eventually Scratch cut the back piece in half (the long way) and attached a piano hinge, so it’s much easy to store and carry. The bench, with legs removed, fits in a big cloth bag, which is basically an envelope I sewed from an old blanket. All the soft goods (bench drape, back cover, and feathers) live in a plastic box with some spring clips. Everything together easily fits in the trunk of a standard car.

I made two other drapes for the bench and we use it a lot on stage, though rarely with the back piece on it these days. It’s great for being visible while you do floorwork moves. Scratch also drilled a couple of holes in the back of the bench so we could bolt a flame effect in place for one of Betty’s numbers.

Photo by Cassandra Mia at The Great Burlesque Expo of 2011

Pros: Looks great, really sturdy, easy to put together and take apart, very versatile

Cons: We did have to irreparably damage a really nice coffee table.


Published in: on 25 April 2017 at 11:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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Friday Tip

Dear Constant Reader,

Happy Friday! Here’s another tip on the theme of big props:

When you are using a big prop, use it.

A big prop should be integrated into your act like any other aspect. I always think it’s such a shame when a performer has this lovely prop and they spend just a little time with/on/in it, but basically ignore it for most of the act. The prop is just as important as your costume, music, choreography, &c. I love acts where the performer uses the prop throughout the act in creative ways.

You can see if I take my own advice in The Big Time on May 19 and 20.

M2Like this tip? There are lots more in Miss Mina Murray’s Little Book of Better Burlesque.

Published in: on 21 April 2017 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Big Props: Spider Web

Dear Constant Reader,

Today’s big prop is Betty’s spider web. It was originally made for Out For Blood 2006, our second Halloween show.

The web backdrop is two huge pieces of black velvet seamed together. The web itself is silver sequin trim. When we first made the web we were under a time crunch (aren’t we always) and it was just safety pinned in place. Later it was stitched down. The whole thing attached to a frame with Velcro along the sides and elastic cord looped through eyelets in the corners.

The original frame was made by a blacksmith friend of ours and it was *huge*. The backdrop is about 10′ x 10′, so the frame was bigger than that and it had big feet so it wouldn’t tip over. They were easy to trip over, though. The whole thing sat at the back of the stage until it was time to bring it forward for the act, which I think was the show closer. The frame came apart into pieces, but it was still bulky when broken down and I think it had to go together just so. I remember strips of tape on the pieces to mark what connected to which.

The velvet backdrop had slits cut in it so the spiders could come out and grope Betty. I remember reinforcing them part way through that show.

The spiders themselves are made of sequin trim and fabric, stuffed and mounted on the backs of black gloves. Betty did the work and very nicely.

In summer of 2011 we presented Madame Burlesque: An Evening of Tributes featuring acts inspired by the great Legends. Betty, of course, revived the spider act in honor of Zorita. This was going to be a touring show (our first!) so the frame had to be replaced with something that could travel and be set up and broken down quickly.

Scratch came up with a clever contraption made of PVC pipe and some hardware that works sort of like an umbrella. There are two center pieces that bolt together. Each one has two arms that fold out and extend to each side, making a top and a bottom. The backdrop has a pocket in each corner and the arms just slide in. Voila. It breaks down into two sections that go into a carrying bag that fits easily into a car. The whole thing is attached to a wooden base that also provides a step for the spider manipulator for when she has to reach the top of Betty’s head (remember: Betty is six feet tall sans heels and none of the other BeauTease top 5’5″).

Pros: very impressive, lightweight, sets up quickly, easy to transport and store.

Cons: needs a certain amount of ceiling clearance.

You’ll get to see the spider web in action at The Big Time on May 19 and 20 at The Thalia.


Published in: on 20 April 2017 at 3:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Big Props: Absinthe Bottle

Dear Constant Reader,

One of the earliest big props built was The Giant Absinthe Bottle. It was supposed to be like those dancing cigarette boxes from long ago, with only the dancer’s legs showing. It needed to be light enough for the dancer to hold it up and dance, sturdy enough to last through rehearsals and shows, and break down for travel & storage.

Scratch designed it, but the construction may have been a group effort. It was made from corrugated cardboard — specifically a refrigerator box. The bottle was cut in two pieces that bolted together at the middle. The body of the bottle was spray painted green and the top black to look like a cap. Across the back was bolted a piece of PVC pipe to make a handle, so the dancer had something to hold to move the bottle. It also curved the cardboard, making the whole thing more bottle-like. The best part, in my opinion, was a label that attached with Velcro to cover the seam where the two pieces joined.

We used it in a couple of shows, but have almost no pictures. This is the best one I could find, from a run-through of French Kiss in 2010, by Katherine Mae Judd. You can just see the bottle at the side of the stage behind the cast streaming off after the curtain call rehearsal.
absinthe bottle

Pros: easy to make, needs no special tools to build or assemble, cheap, light to use, relatively easy to store & transport, amusing.

Cons: not very durable.

Eventually we trashed it. The cardboard had gotten damp at some point and had started to delaminate. I’m pretty sure we saved the label and the hardware. We’ve talked about recreating it, perhaps out of a light plastic. It would be fun to have Betty do her Goth Dance of Woe-due-to-lack-of-absinthe again.


Published in: on 19 April 2017 at 1:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Friday Tip

Dear Constant Reader,

Happy Friday! Today’s tip continues on the theme of big props:

The big prop is not the star of the act. You are!

Don’t let your big prop overshadow you! It’s there to support you, not replace you. It’s one of the many elements that go into your act: costume, storyline, choreography, music, &c. Let it be just one part of a stunning ensemble.

M2Like this tip? There are lots more in Miss Mina Murray’s Little Book of Better Burlesque.

Published in: on 14 April 2017 at 3:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Big Props: Paintbrushes

Dear Constant Reader,

For the next installment in the Big Props series, the paintbrushes. A few years ago we designed a touring show called The Fine Art of Burlesque. The structure of the show was such that it could be presented by any three dancers plus Scratch plus a local special guest, so we only needed one car and one hotel room.

Betty created a jewelbox number in which could be done by any three dancers. Some of us learned just one part (that would be me), others learned two, so any combination of us could do it. And to make sure that the audience really got the Fine Art theme right off, we were all dancing with staves that looked like great big paintbrushes.

Photo by Rich Jarvis at the Coolidge Corner Theatre

The brushes are made from PVC pipe, a popular material with us, because it’s sturdy, light, and doesn’t need specialty tools to cut. The “bristles” were made from black feather trim. The “handle” was capped on the end, painted, and decorated with silver foil tape. I think they came out pretty nicely.

Scratch built a wooden box in which to carry them and also the picture frame backdrop (more on that in another missive). The box was perfectly designed to go on the roof of the car, but it took almost all of us to heft it up there and get it secured. That was always an amusing end to loading out.

Pros: Looks good. Exactly what we wanted. Easy to handle. Inexpensive to make. Pretty easy to transport. I think they’re about 5 feet and change long, so if we’re not transporting an entire show’s worth of people and gear, they can go inside the car.

Con: The only one I can think of is that they’re not very versatile. We’ve only ever used them for that one number. There’s not a lot of call for over-sized paintbrushes. It was the dance that turned out to be more versatile. We’ve since done it with something like five different designs of staves and it’s one of our go-to group numbers.

Published in: on 13 April 2017 at 2:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Big Props

Dear Constant Reader,

As I mentioned on Friday The Boston BeauTease are working on a show dominated by big props, most of which the performers are building themselves. I thought I’d take you on a little tour of some of the other large props we’ve used over their years and how we made them. Eventually perhaps I’ll talk about some of the new pieces being constructed for The Big Time. For now, you can get a peek here.

To start, I’d like to re-introduce you to one of my pieces: Super Screen. Click the link for the previous missives about its construction.

Photo by Tuomas Lairila at The 12th Annual New York Burlesque Festival

Having used Super Screen for a couple of years now, I’m mostly very happy with it.

Pros: There’s nothing to obscure my silhouette. It’s tall enough that my head doesn’t get cut off in shadow. It’s narrow enough that I can easily reach out. The shape of the wings gives me an opportunity to tease. It’s a graceful shape and clearly not a mass produced item. I love the color.

Cons: It’s a bitch to transport. It’s 6’x 3′ folded up. It barely fits in the car on a diagonal with the seats folded up. We’re trying to figure out some way to secure it to the roof rack so that it’s not damaged. There’s a non-zero chance that unless we’re really careful and clever the wind would pick up the front of it and snap my poor screen like a cracker. Dangerous as well as heart-breaking.

The other down side is that the Tyvek we got was not the super-sturdy unrippable sort. That stuff, like they use for wrapping houses, is boldly emblazoned with the brand name all over, which would not do for my purposes. I think the Tyvek we ended up with is from what they make those protective suits for painting and the like. It’s fairly sturdy and water resistant, but it does puncture and Super Screen has suffered a few tears. I will continue my quest for stronger material.

More big props to come!

Published in: on 11 April 2017 at 3:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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