Seattle Children’s Theatre – Creating Props For GO, DOG. GO! – Grey Areas And Precise Color …
Originally published in 1961, GO, DOG. GO!, Written and illustrated by famed children’s author P.D. Eastman, chronicles the non-stop adventures of a group of very mobile, (and very primary-colored) dogs as they drive, ski, boat, and roller-skate their way to a “Dog Party” in the trees.
In 2003, Seattle Children’s Theatre created the official stage musical version of GO, DOG. GO!. This production has since become a nationwide Children’s Theatre favorite, produced all over the country.
For their 2017-2018 season opener SCT brought it back …
This is an article about shops. The prop and scene shops at Seattle Children’s Theatre to be specific. But it’s also a great glimpse into how different shops work together on multiple overlapping levels to create the world we see onstage …
The prop shop at SCT is deceptively big. A bright loft space, divided into organized workrooms and offices, with, (seriously), a beautiful view of the Puget Sound. It’s where we met properties head Elizabeth Friedrich, (Fried to most), and her crew.
“There are a lot of great props we get to make,” they told me, “The more simple ones are fun but there’s definitely been some great complicated ones too.”
I wanted to know a li
ttle more about this aspect of props. Did they get to create that from scratch? Or does the Technical Director or Artistic Director come to the shop with a definite idea to work from?
“It’s a bit of both,” Fried says, “Usually the designer will have an idea of what she or he wants, and we work closely with them to figure out what we can do, how we can make it practical.” “Then sometimes the opposite happens, some designers are much more hands off, so you get a basic idea and go from there.”
“Other times you have a very specific design to work from, you need to design very closely to the source …”
This last point describes GO, DOG. GO! perfectly. Based on a beloved children’s classic, the illustrations created by Eastman are instantly recognizable by generations of fans, so straying from the original source material is unacceptable. We wanted to know about GDG, what were the challenges for a show like that from the standpoint of props?
“It’s a very active show,” explains Fried, “So we have to make sure things survive the excitement onstage and the excitement backstage.”
Excellent point. GO, DOG. GO! is pure movement. the dogs are non-stop; using cars, skis, roller-skates, even a boat, in their quest to get to the party. Not only do the props need to look like a beloved children’s illustration come to life, they need to be built tough enough and well enough to stand up to the rigors of the show run.
“There’s just as much abuse that happens backstage as onstage, you know, with the shuffling things around in the dark,” Fried says, “So when we build something we need to make sure it stands up to 11 shows a week. Most theatres do 7-8 shows a week.”
At this point I asked a weird question …
“So, this may sound like a weird question, but where’s the line between what is a prop and what is a piece of scenery?”
“Ah, that’s a great question!”
That’s what I said, at this point I asked a great question …
“My way of looking at it is,” she began, “if you think of buying a house, or renting an apartment, what’s there when you move in, the structure, the view, is scenery. Everything you bring in with you is a prop.”
Great answer …
Fried continued. “That, to me, makes a really good delineation. However there are grey areas. For instance, an umbrella is a prop, but a parasol is a costume.”
“And what’s a backpack? It’s generally a prop but the costume designer will have a say in what they want that backpack to look like. So there’s a lot of overlapping with the other departments.”
The official prop list for GDG is 6 pages long. “We have prop storage, where we save generic items,” she tells me, “For GDG everything is unique, we’re never going to use a GDG prop for any other show.”
But what about that storage? Does SCT rent their stuff out to other productions? There’s a lot of that in theatre in general, a lot of times from sheer necessity, and a production company can find some profit from renting out things like costumes and props to other production companies.
“We’ve got the cookies,” Fried told me.
And while I absolutely believed her, I had no idea what she was talking about. She explained.
“In Frog and Toad. There are cookies. There’s a whole song about cookies. We saved our cookies and we’ve rented them out several times. It can shave weeks off your build by renting the cookies.”
LET THEM PAINT CAKE …
If Frog And Toad have their cookies, then GDG has its cake. (Hey, the whole thing ends in a dog party at the top of a tree, can you imagine cake not being there?) And downstairs in the scene shop we talked with crewmember Ashley, bent over a foam and wood slice of pink layer cake, running a paint brush along the sides.
I wanted to dig deep down to find the perfect first question, I went for it.
Nailed it …
“I’m currently putting lines on a cake.” She answered. “The design of this show is straight out of the book. It’s a lot of solid colors with dry-brushing over that.”
Dry-brushing is a scenic technique in which a small amount of paint in put on a dry paintbrush. No water or other medium is used to wet the brush. It’s a deceptively difficult technique, once the brush is prepared it is run lightly across the surface, skimming it to add bold contrasting color to the object. In Ashley’s case, she was hard at work painting bold black lines on the side of the pink prop cake to highlight the layers, perfectly mimicking the rough style of the original illustrations.
“We’ve done this type of storybook painting before. This is different than say. Dr. Seuss. All of the lines in a Seuss book are a very very crisp. But for GO, DOG. GO!, the drawings have a much more sketchy look to them, so the lines aren’t really crisp and clean, we’re purposefully leaving it a little rough. A different style.”
The Scene shop is responsible for painting all props built. We decided to stick with the topic of color, since it plays such a vital role in the final look of the show.
“Color is very specific on this show,” Ashley told me. “there are 9 colors used in the book. Everything red is the same red, blue the same blue, the same two greens, same yellow, the same pink.”
Sitting on the work table next to her was a copy of the book. I opened to a random page that happened to match perfectly the pink color of the cake. Impressive.
Behind us at another workstation were the famous red go carts.
“Those were built as props.” Ashley remarks, “But again, it’s the scenery/prop weirdness. The Go Carts are props, but they are “Actor Handled”. They are worn like suspenders, so they cross that prop/costume line.”
… It may be more true in the world of Children’s Theatre than anywhere else. the dual challenges of not only translating a beloved story from page to stage, but to translate the illustrations that have made it the classic it is. It might seem easier at first glance, the design is already done, it’s all over but the building. But on closer inspection that’s not the case.
It takes great care and skill and thought and ultimately hard work to hone closely to the source material. Deviation is not an option. Colors, shapes, lines, all studied, matched, replicated so perfectly that the audience is instantly transported to the world they all know.
Hats off to the shops at Seattle Children’s Theatre. We at B.I.T.N. had a blast. Let’s do it again soon!
To learn more about Seattle Children’s Theatre click here at www.sct.org
And do yourself a huge favor and like their Facebook Page here at facebook.com/SeattleChildrensTheatre
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