Design Work and Puppet Fun on Elf the Musical by Avery Johnson, 4th year design
I am so excited to be able to update you on all the incredible things I’ve been a part of working on Elf the Musical as Neptune Theatre’s 2022 RBC Chrysalis 2022 Apprentice Set Designer! This process has given me many valuable experiences and hands-on projects that I look forward to seeing onstage! I can’t wait to share more about what I’ve done so far on this incredible SOLD-OUT Christmas Musical. Stay tuned for my final blog post where I talk about the final week before opening night, called tech week, so check back to read how it wrapped up!
Designing and Building
I wanted to expand a bit more and give you some more insights into the process of designing and building this show! As I mentioned, I got to design paper props for this show. Paper props are all the paper materials that the actors use onstage. So anytime you see an actor either reading a document or carrying papers, that document was carefully designed and replicated to fit the requirements of that specific prop. The paper prop I designed was the Chris Smith Christmas Manuscript that Buddy accidentally shreds in Walter's office at Greenway Press. Even though the audience will not see the document close-up, every element onstage needs to be treated with as much detail as possible. This prop needed to look like a vintage or archived manuscript with pages worn or stained, with an old English cursive font. The manuscript also needed little images that resemble "doodles" on the pages to give the idea of an early manuscript in its storyboard phase. This was an exciting task because I had to compile a series of images online that were free to use and share publicly and essentially collage these pieces together. I found an old tea-stained background to simulate what the paper will looks like and used a vintage font with pen and ink sketches of Christmas elements such as Santa's, Christmas trees and Reindeer to add to the pages. One thing that people often forget about during the design process is that everything needs to be approved. The designer, Tamara Kucheran is fantastic about giving excellent detailed feedback and suggestions. Still, each step requires additional time to make the changes, have them re-approved and then send the final design along with the instructions to the props departments who will build (or, in this case, print) the documents for each show. Since the papers get shredded live onstage for each performance, several pages need to be printed, so those factors come into play when thinking about what paper will be used and its cost.
Puppet land has been such an eye-opening process. I have never had the experience of building puppets, let alone elf-sized puppets with armatures that need to move in tune with the actors and withstand dance choreography and numerous performances. My tasks with the puppet assembly so far have included sewing the mouth handles for the actors so that they can mime the mouth movements. I have also built the wireframes for the elf ears so that they have shape and cut out the fabric for the ears themselves. It's nice to see an element through to completion, so I have also been sewing the ears closed and getting them ready to be attached to the puppet heads.
What I've learned
What I’ve learned so far on this project is just how many props there are for the average musical! Shadowing Tamara Kucheran has shown me how many intricate components are involved in both the set and props world. This show has so many props that are critical to adding detail to the set but are time-consuming to acquire and build. The mix of projects that fall between the Set and Props Department is numerous. Usually, larger props get sent to the carpentry department, but within the design of this production, almost all pieces fall under the props department. It shows you how important time management is and ensuring you are on top of how long each prop or project takes because it is very easy to fall behind. It also taught me how many unexpected additions can be added once rehearsal starts. Often, the props departments get the master props list from the set designer, which includes all the necessary props (those mentioned in the script) and all the other design touches. Once rehearsal starts, the director almost always has additions they don’t foresee needing until they start rehearsing the show. This makes time management critical and ensuring you divide your work evenly amongst your team but, most importantly, that you grasp the overall amount of work that needs to be done. For example, you don’t get bogged down perfecting one prop when there are still many untouched things to do.
When the MAGIC happens!
Now we are finally on deck! This means we are now at the stage in the production process where the set starts to get installed onstage, and the props team starts dressing. Set dressing includes all the props, painting and finishes that bring the stage to life—for example, adding the props like bookshelves or desks. Or adding the details to pieces like Santa's sleigh. Since all the added elements need to be secured down, this process happens earlier so that the actors can get used to dancing and interacting with set pieces and ensure that things are secure before dress rehearsal.
Overall, this process and experience have been an absolute blast. I have learned so much and have loved to be able to build and design props. I look forward to giving you one final look into the last stage of this show before opening night and my experience working at Neptune this season: thanks for reading!