I first started thinking about my showcase piece during Standing By 2019, while helping that year’s graduating cohort bump in to the Powerhouse Museum. I imagined various technical pieces that would show off my ability to program and build, that would help me find work in prop making and automation, but I was unable to settle on any one plan. An interactive LED wall, a remote control for RGBW lighting, a music box that could play MIDI files, a CNC Styrofoam cutter for making props and set elements. All of them felt like ‘things’, and no single one of them felt like it would showcase me. It was in that realization that I found my solution.
My showcase piece is a recreation of a section of my workshop. As an emerging props maker, hobbyist programmer and aspiring automation technician it is the place where most of my theatre-related work takes place. Around my workshop are all sorts of artefacts – tools of every size, prototypes and test pieces from previous productions, half-finished experiments with Arduino, old toys being restored for my niece. None of these objects individually has a lot to say, but in aggregate they paint a picture of my skills, my interests, and my personality. I have still had the opportunity to include those bespoke elements that I enjoy creating - the “magic” light switch that shows my love of tricky properties, the small brickwork section to indicate my interest in scenic art, the whitecard model of my workshop, and even the interactive display which I programmed from scratch on a Raspberry Pi. Still, it’s not the ‘things’ that is the important part of my work, my workshop or my showcase. It’s the process, the act of creation, and that more than anything is why I’m sharing the place where I work.
The light switch is my favourite kind of property. Deceptively mundane, but with a clever trick or gimmick that sells a small moment or interaction. In this case, it’s just a box with an off-the-shelf light switch on top left sitting on my workshop bench. You can pick it up, it’s not attached to anything. It’s sealed shut. Yet, when you flick the switch, the workshop lights turn on. That small moment, and others like them, are something I enjoy creating. For some, that’s enough – the light is now on, the function served, and the rest of the workshop can now be examined, and that’s just great. The prop has done its job. For others, it demands a little more attention – how is the light on now? It’s the light switch that demands examination, and that’s great too. The prop has served another function, it’s meaning and importance changing to suit the audience.
Upon examination, there’s another little switch tucked away on the back of the box, set too deep to toggle without a tool of some kind, so there’s clearly something inside. That’s the key to working out the gimmick. The little switch controls power for the box so it doesn’t run out of battery overnight. The light switch is connected to a wireless transmitter, the cheap kind you’d find in a wireless mouse or keyboard. The Raspberry Pi is receiving that signal via a USB receiver, and a short Python script then passes along an OSC cue to the lighting console that’s controlling the whole exhibition. Very mundane, very simple, very cheap (The whole assembly cost about $10 and that’s including the cost of photopolymer resin used to print the case). This is a simplified and weaker version of the original idea – the first plan was to use an Arduino with a Wi-Fi shield and connect to the exhibition network directly from the light switch, which makes the prop less reliant on a nearby computer and potentially more useful in the future for other applications. Then it became clear that there would be no wireless access to the exhibition network or lighting console, so I moved on to plan B. The ‘fluorescent’ light (An LED batten taken from my actual workshop) was also going to be part of the magic for a time – rather than being connected to a dimmer directly it was to be battery powered and controlled by the lighting console via an RC4 transceiver. This would have meant there was a light with no visible power source or wires of any kind that could be turned on and off by a light switch that wasn’t connected to anything – how cool is that! Then I looked at the cost of batteries. Back to mains power it was.
Scenic art, sets, and properties go hand in hand in my experience. I have spent several years volunteering with community theatres as a mechanist, props maker and props master and the demand for the sorts of intricate and gimmicky props I love isn’t particularly high in that arena. If you can make a cardboard box look like a pirate chest filled with treasure though? That’s a skill you’ll get lots of use out of. Making MDF and plywood look like anything but MDF and plywood is something I’ve been called upon to do time and time again, from marble columns to hardwood veneers to rough stone to brickwork, and the process of experimenting in getting texture and colour juuuust right, of adding another method or technique to my arsenal, is something I greatly enjoy. The small brick wall scenic at the back of my showcase was an excuse to try a method of doing brickwork I hadn’t tried before, one shown to me by two acquaintances who ran an escape room. I’ve previously painted flat bricks using sponges, used sheets of polystyrene cut into rectangles, and one on occasion repainted a massive vacuum-formed brick wall, but none of them had results I’d loved. The first method was cheap and fast, but looked flat and tacky. The polystyrene bricks were prone to crumbling and impossible to store, and the texture left something to be desired. The vacuum-formed panels looked amazing, but they weren’t cheap and were prone to cracking if mishandled. I have been told that this method, using gyprock, solves many of these issues. Showcase is serving as the test. The method is really simple – lay down some 10mm painters tape where you want the ‘mortar’ to be, coat the whole surface with gyprock, texture, leave to cure for 10 minutes. Pull up the tape once the gyprock is tacky, and you’ll be left with a brick pattern. Leave to cure, then paint. If you have more money, mix your base colour into the gyprock before you start so any damage to the gyprock won’t be stark white – my friends with the escape room did this to save on maintenance costs and cited it as the reason for this methods superiority. I also wanted to see if the method would work at smaller scales as I’m also a hobbyist model sculptor and painter, so I’ve used the same method for the scale model of my workshop – with much narrower tape. The resulting ‘bricks’ were painted and weathered with cheap craft paint from a nearby dollar store, the most used and useful in my experience: Red Ochre, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Titanium White and Carbon Black. While the results aren’t my best work, I’m happy with the underlying method and plan to iterate on the process. The texturing step hasn’t worked the way I had hoped, so next time I’ll leave the texturing until after the painter’s tape is pulled up. The paint job has also ended up quite caked on, so next time I use this brand of paint I’ll be thinning it more before use. Other than that, I’m happy to cite this as a success – the gyprock has held up to handling much better than I expected and the resulting panels are both hardier and more flexible than anticipated. Another technique in the arsenal.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had reason to make a physical model box thanks to covid, but I have had plenty of opportunities to make virtual set models while cooped up in isolation. For showcase, I did both, and found that I like the ways in which the process is enhanced by this hybrid approach. Model boxes have a physicality that’s incredibly valuable to the creative process and require no additional technical know-how to use once they’ve been made. Virtual set models have an advantage in accuracy, revision and tracking changes, as well as an easier time translating to the plans and schematics for the workshop. With access to a 3D printer, I’ve been able to make accurate models of the more complex parts of my showcase in a virtual environment, then bring them into a very traditional model box. The resulting set model has been used to help plan the showcase in which it is a part – the physical act of moving bits and pieces around, fiddling with them, looking at it from different angles to see how it comes together helping shape how the showcase will be built and, in turn, changing the model. This is the first time I’ve worked with stereolithography, so making the models has been additional challenge – the tolerances and material properties are totally different from fused deposition modelling, and this has changed how I make and export the digital models for printing.
That’s not all there is to my Showcase – after all, there’s all the artefacts scattered around to be examined and explored, that show my other interests and skills from painting miniatures for board- and wargames to drafting patterns and sewing costumes for theatre and conventions – but to see these you’ll have to make it to Standing By 2021 in person. I hope to see you there!