Alex is a prop maker and set designer with over a decade of experience in theatre and production. She studied Theatre: Design For Performance at Central Saint Martins and graduated with a BA(Hons) in 2008. As well as design and technical drawing, Alex is a skilled scenic artist and model maker and is proficient in a range of making processes and materials including sculpting, moulding, casting & poycarving, to name a few. Below is a transcript of a press interview about Alex and her process.
We caught up with Alexandria Kerr, Prop Maker and Scenic Artist for Minotaur. Keep reading if you’ve ever wondered how props are made.
Unicorn: How do you usually come up with ideas?
Alex Kerr (AK): Coming up with ideas is usually my favourite part of a make. Each project is unique, so it’s essential to understand the visual language of the production before you dive in. The designer is the guru of visual language for every production. Sometimes a designer will have a very specific outline for the props and other times it can be more of a collaboration. You may only have a vague concept to start you off so you have to pull images from a variety of different sources and whittle them down into a design that feels right. I’ve always found that the only way to develop and communicate a design effectively is through visuals- throw as many images at it as you can and see what sticks! Sketch, pull pictures off the internet, magazines and books, take photos of pavements and walls (textures are oddly inspiring), make miniature versions of props out of paper and tape, experiment with different materials, pollyfilla, paint…Eventually you’ll find a design and method that works. However, it’s essential to remember your parameters: 1) Will it fit with the overall design of the production? 2) How will it be used and is it functional for this purpose? 3) Is it achievable in the time scale we have? and 4) Will it be achievable within our budget? These limitations are often the biggest challenges to overcome. But, in my experience, the best ideas are always born out of a need to overcome a specific problem.
Unicorn: Where did you seek inspiration for Minotaur?
AK: The starting point for this project was the original gold ‘origami’-style mask that I designed and made for the publicity. Louie Whitemore, the designer for this production, was influenced by the shape of that mask but wanted to take it to another level. We discussed the overall story, the production design and how the mask would figure in. It’s important to consider what impact the prop should have – especially given how central it is to the performance and the performers who wear and interact with it. I came away from that meeting with words like ‘origami’, ‘industrial’, ’texture’, ‘rust’, ‘blood’ and ‘brutal’ floating around in my head and a few design images and sketches to give me a solid starting point. Of course, with a prop that has to be worn, the other challenge was to develop something that would also be comfortable and fit seamlessly into the actor’s performances…
Unicorn: What materials did you use for the Minotaur’s mask?
AK: The base material for the mask is most commonly referred to as ‘Plastazote’. It’s a kind a rubber foam that yoga mats are made of and comes in all colours, thicknesses and densities. It’s a very common material for puppet making because it’s strong, flexible, paint-able and light. As I mentioned, the Minotaur mask had to be comfortable to wear so as not to hinder the performer in any way. Therefore, It was essential that the base material be made of something strong and light, especially since I’d need to use many layers of heavy plaster, paint and wire on top to achieve the kind of texture and colour that Louie had provided in her reference images. I spent a lot of time experimenting with different materials to make sure it appeared ‘crumbly’ and ‘chalky’ without being fragile to handle or easily damaged. Pollyfilla can be a cheap way to achieve this but, depending on the type, can dry quite rubbery or brittle. Specialist acrylic modelling paste will last much longer and you can always add sand for more texture, as I did here. It was also important to Louie that the audience be able to see a ‘shadow’ of the performer’s face underneath the mask so it was essential that I found the right kind of mesh to use for these ‘see-through’ sections. In the end, the most effective material turned out to be plastic guttering mesh- it’s amazing what a good paint effect can do!
Unicorn: Describe the mask for the audience in three words:
AK: Angular. Corroded. Menacing.
Unicorn: That sounds very cool. Could you describe a typical day for you?
AK: For me, no two days are the same. Each project is different and has different demands on my time. When in the throws of a design or make, I spend many an hour at my desk, working furiously with a pen and paper, computer and tablet, getting more and more covered in paint or plaster, working until my eyes get crossed and I’ve forgotten to eat lunch! Sometimes I’ll spend hours or even days out and about, sourcing different materials – it helps when you’ve been doing this for a while, knowing all the best places to find weird and wonderful things. I’m also often working at odd hours. Overnight paint calls are common for scenic artists as it’s the only time the stage is clear of people long enough for the paint to dry. Then, once you’re finished one project, you’re constantly lining up the next thing, editing photos and updating your website. Hey, at least it’s not predictable!
Unicorn: Wow! That sounds intense but fun. So how long does designing a prop or set usually take?
AK: The time scale often depends on the complexity or significance of it in the overall scheme. We were lucky enough to be given two months of prep time to develop the Minotaur. It was to be such a significant part of the production that we needed as much time as possible to make sure it was right. We also knew that the performers would benefit from having a prototype to use for rehearsals. This isn’t always the case and sometimes it can be a rush to get things made on time, especially if it’s a production with many different complex props and a tight budget.
Unicorn: How did you become a set designer and prop stylist?
AK: I studied Design For Performance at university simply because I had a history of writing and storytelling but loved to be creative and make things with my hands. I’d always been fascinated by theatre, film and literature and how much storytelling informs culture. I was interested in the complexities and collaborative nature of making work that would be seen by an audience. So, theatre, along with all the challenges of live performance, seemed like an obvious choice. For me, it was a chance to tell stories visually. After graduating I started out designing small productions to develop my portfolio and made connections with some wonderful creatives and performers. Making props was something I started doing almost by accident- I was asked to make something while I was assisting a designer and found that I loved working on something in such detail.
Unicorn: What’s the best thing about your job?
AK: Honestly, I love the challenge. Because no two projects are ever the same, there are always new and interesting elements to overcome. I love the unpredictable nature of it and knowing that everything I create is unique. Best of all, is that feeling at the end of a project when everyone’s hard work comes together and makes this wonderful thing that so many people get to see and appreciate.
Unicorn: What does it feel like to see your work being used ‘live’ and onstage?
AK: One of the first props I ever made was a matchstick house for a production of Elling at Trafalgar Studios. It was about the size of a large shoebox and during each performance, it had to be spectacularly smashed on stage and then magically re-built in front of the audience. I made it using a complex system of magnets, over 1000 matchsticks… and who knows how many hours?! I remember sitting in the audience at press night and feeling dizzy from holding my breath the entire time it was on stage. I was utterly and irrationally terrified that it was going to disintegrate every time someone touched it, simply because the audience was in and the pressure was on! So, I suppose you could say that seeing your work on stage is equal parts pride and fear. Every single element in a production, from the props to the set and the performers themselves, are there to serve the story and deliver it to the audience. If it doesn’t work for the story, then it doesn’t work. Period. So, seeing something you’ve created, even a tiny little piece in the collaborative puzzle, is thrilling because you know you’ve helped it to work.