14 April 2011


(C) 2011 by Markus Alias
We made a mess of the stage at Burlesqueland this past year.  When did Mssrs. Snapper & Buddy become prop comics?

Well, we're not really prop comics. We're not a couple of Carrot Tops up on that stage. No sir, what we do is refined ...

(C) 2011 by Markus Alias
Maybe not so much "refined" as dignified and high-brow ...

(C) 2011 by Markus Alias

Tell you what, let's skip over definitions for the moment and get to the heart of the matter: Props.  It makes sense that we would use quite a few props in our bits.  I love making them!  They happen to be good for a laugh or two on their own, so what the hey?  Anything that contributes to the quality of entertainment is in.

I take great care in making props.  That especially goes for the things I build for Red Snapper!  Few things pain me as deeply as a crappy prop onstage at a burlesque show.  It is easily avoidable, but you have to take the time to get it right in advance of the performance.

I've blogged about this before, but here's some more insight to my process.  Not because I'm the ultimate bad-ass when it comes to prop building, but because I do know a couple of things that may help prevent prop disasters from happening.

Mr. Buddy and I do a routine to "Whale of a Tale" from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Each verse is about a different woman, and the ill-fated romance experienced with her.  For the first two verses, Mr. Buddy puts on a different colored wig and ... well, he does what Mr. Buddy does.  (If you haven't seen us live, take my word for it:  He's pretty spectacular.)

(c) 2011 by Markus Alias
As you know, comedy happens in threes.  The third verse changes things up, as we go from mermaid to beautiful captain's wife to ... Harpoon Hannah.  The idea was for Mr. Buddy to emerge with a mask of some sort that would embody this (un)lovable hag.  We debuted this song as part of a set dedicated to the conceit that we were stranded on a desert island, hallucinating the audience and club around us.  So the mask had to embody that tropical island feel, and look as if it could have been made by the sorts of things you find in such an environ.

Harpoon Hannah would be a tiki mask.  Pretty obvious, huh?  I did my research, basically Google image searching "tiki mask."  I sketched down some ideas, basic face shapes and what not.  I paid attention to color.

It begins with a sketch. Ninety-nine-point-nine-eight times out of a hundred, it starts with a sketch.

What do we know about Harpoon Hannah? Let's look at the lyrics:

Then there was Harpoon Hannah
Had a face that made you shudder
Lips like fish-hooks, and a nose just like a rudder
Since I kissed and held her tenderly
There's no sea monster big enough
To ever frighten me!
A pretty clear-cut description! So long as I make her hideous and give her that nose and those lips, everything I need to communicate to the audience is covered.  Filter all that through the visual research, and sketch:

Lips with fish-hooks poking through them, and a nose just like a rudder.
At this point I should reveal a huge secret of the prop-building game:  Resourcefulness.  The week I built this prop, I was broke.  I literally had to build this thing with whatever I happened to have lying around Casa de Snapper.  Granted, Casa de Snapper tends to have more crafty odds and ends lying around than your typical home.  The point is, I knew what materials I had at my disposal, and I kept those limitations in mind as I sketched the mask.  I even surveyed what paints we had and used that info to inform my color choices.

I knew I had a small grass skirt somewhere (I thought it was black).  Voila -- hair.  The brow and lips needed a certain sculpted look.  I had three-quarter inch sheet foam with my puppet building materials.  Voila -- brow and lips.  I figured I could make the fish-hooks out of bits of a brass-colored clothes hanger, bending the bits into the right shape and gluing short strands of fish line to the ends.

I didn't have any bamboo for the stick, but I had a pretty thick cardboard tube that I could convincingly paint.  So what to use on the mask itself?

Here comes another confession:  I used cardboard.  I hate cardboard, I really do.  Yes, it's lightweight and sturdy, but it's difficult to disguise the distinctive lines that the corrugation produces, and it soaks up color.  It so happened that for this particular piece, those drawbacks were advantageous.  First, the mask was going to be slightly curved, and the corrugation would help it look carved.  Second, a duller appearance after painting would help sell the wooden look -- not to mention the ugliness of Hannah!

Happy with the sketch, I set to work.  Here's the final product:

A couple of noticeable differences:  She has eyes and she has no teeth. 
As it turned out, I had far less white paint than I thought I did!  So, goodbye teeth.  I also decided to give the girl some peepers, to not just let Buddy's eyes show through.  With that heavy brow line, the eyes would be mostly in shadows anyhow.  I covered the eyes (from the inside of the mask) with buckram, and painted the pupils with some red glitter paint I had lying around.
Here's the same mask in performance:
(c) 2011 by Markus Alias
You can see the faux-bamboo stick a little better.  The entire mask was assembled with hot glue, by the way.

Something else I did with the finished piece that's not in the sketch is I went to town with a black marker to punch out certain details.  You gotta figure the audience will be at least six feet away from your prop, and it needs to read to the back of the house.  So many props in burlesque shows miss this one basic thing:  Can the audience clearly see it and understand what the hell it's supposed to be?  And they have to be able to tell at a glance.

So that's the process from idea to execution.  Harpoon Hannah has held up remarkably well.  She's three years old and is used as much as any of our props (if not more.)  Not bad for something I cobbled together from a bunch of stuff lying around the house!

05 April 2011

Pay What You Can

Let's make a deal:

You pay what you can for the show.

The actors will do what they can to entertain you.


Pay a premium because our actors are worth it, dammit.

I wonder which is the better proposition?
Published with Blogger-droid v1.6.6