Springtime is play time around the Power household.
You may remember, if you’re a friend or reader of our old blog, Archipelago, that last spring I played Sally Bowles in the school’s production of Cabaret.
When I found out that this spring’s production would be columbinus, a play inspired by the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, I was both excited as well as slightly disappointed.
I was excited because work about the massacre at CHS is close to my heart. When Dave Cullen published his book Columbine in 2009, I devoured it–all of its thorough research, clear, objective explanations, and heartbreaking narratives–and I soon after decided to use it in my English comp. 2 classes. I felt, and still feel, that it should be required reading for all freshmen and sophomore college students. They are not far removed from the high school experience and all of its drama and turbulence, and they are learning how to think critically, question mythology and rumor, and avoid logical fallacy. It’s the perfect book and context for them to do all of these things.
So I adopted Columbine in my comp. 2 classes and taught with it for a few years. The students loved it, and I loved teaching it, though it was a dark way to spend a semester. I haven’t taught comp. 2 in about a year, so I haven’t revisited Cullen’s text in a while. The play, then, seemed perfectly timed.
I was, though, a bit disappointed about the play as well, since I quickly realized after reading it that I wouldn’t be auditioning. If it’d been produced by a theater company in the city with adult actors, I’d have given it a shot (it’d been done this way by American Theater Company in 2013). But since we’re on a community college campus and the majority of our students and student actors are traditional-aged college students (i.e. 18 – 25), I knew I’d be the odd (old) man out.
But I still wanted to participate, so I asked my colleague Jay, our one-man MCC theater department and director of the show, if he needed help backstage. And he gave me the best gift by asking if I’d like to do props. Shopping? Yes! With someone else’s budget? Yes, please! Crafting? Oh, hell yes!
Now, columbinus is a dark play, so I had to do some dark shopping and prop-building: PVC pipes and caps for dummy bombs; plastic bottles for useless but dangerous-looking Molotov cocktails; a utility knife that played sharp on stage but wouldn’t actually cut.
I also bought cigarettes for the first time in a decade, which was…odd. Kind of fun, really, knowing that I wasn’t going to smoke them. I made a wooden bead necklace, and I hunted down a Boston Red Sox cap, two-bell alarm clocks, and a black tool box. I made one particularly fruitful trip to Walmart to get a pregnancy test, a silver cross necklace, a makeup compact, and a bottle of Jack Daniels. I even got to shop for books! Two used copies of Romeo & Juliet and an SAT prep text.
Here’s all of it:
It was fun doing it all on the cheap, too–trying to find things for as little money as possible, and making what I could. And that’s when my love for Halloween-style crafts came in really handy. It just so happened that I already had a pint full of theatrical blood (as any self-respecting Halloween decorator would have tucked away in her garage, next to her plastic rib cage and ghost parts).
So, I had plenty of material as I fooled around with the best techniques to make a little blood bladder for my fake knife. The actor was playing a character who was a cutter, and Jay wanted there to be blood as she drew the “blade” across her upper arm. I needed just enough to see in the back of the house, but not enough to be a mess.
I started with plastic baggies, but they didn’t give as much as I needed them to. I then tried skinny party balloons, filling them up with an eye-dropper, but they were too small. Finally, I came to the ultimately successful method:
- Cut off the little finger of a latex glove (a box of 50 will run you about $8)
- Cut a drinking straw in half
- Insert half of straw into the glove finger, leaving an inch at the bottom
- Pour blood into straw (carefully) until there is as much in glove finger as needed
- Carefully remove straw, trying not to get blood on sides of glove finger
- Tie off glove finger
I cut off the excess latex and affixed it to my prop knife using double-sided tape. I poked a hole in the tip and covered it with a piece of Scotch tape that the assistant stage manager pulled off immediately before the actor went on stage. And it worked like a charm!
For the first weekend of the run, I used my card stock knives, covered in Scotch tape so they wouldn’t get too wet with the blood. But then, wandering around Hancock Fabrics, I found this little beauty:
I’d been able to find lots of prop knives–kitchen knives, machetes, switch-blades–but no prop razors. So when I saw this, I was thrilled and snatched it up immediately. I painted it silver (using a Sharpie fat-tip metallic marker) and it looked great.
The only downside to all of this is that for weeks our kitchen table has looked a bit like a weird crime scene.
But that’s a small price to pay for the effect, and, really, for the fun of doing it.
The show closed last Saturday, and, not surprisingly, got good reviews. The acting was great, the set design, lights, and screen-images were effective, and the overall atmosphere was thought-provoking and earnest. And, of course, the props were super cool.
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