BY KRISTOPHER KYER
Having just returned from a six-week stint in the Boston area, directing, starring, and building sets and props for a big production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I got to thinking. Not many people with a small theater (125 seats at Steps Off Broadway) where I just worked, know how to be resourceful. Musicals can be mighty expensive, and on a shoestring budget what does one do?
I have a knack for being “resourceful”. My motto is “Go with what you have.” There is always a way to disguise or alter props and set pieces you have used before and keep your expenses low. Believe it or not, I made all of the sets and props and pulled costumes from existing stock – all for about $300.00. The Chitty car rental and rights and my Equity guest artist contract ate up most of the costs. So I just looked in the theatre’s back room and dug.
The first thing one must do is make the list of props and set pieces needed. Then I look for “shapes.” This is my gift; I have an eye for creating things out of nothing. I made three invention machines from the likes of a dryer aluminum hose, an upside-down popcorn cart with wheels, a large hourglass, plastic paint trays (which I cut in half and sprayed gold to look like metal vents), and more. I took cardboard and shaped a Model-T vintage-looking hood and put it on an old horse cart that was in the back room. Cardboard can go a lonnnng way if you have the imagination and know-how to shape it and cut it. I should have a glue gun Velcroed to my right hand. It is THE essential tool for all of my work. The stage is ALL smoke and mirrors…something on stage looks incredible and fools the eye, but up close you see what it really is. Again, it is the “shapes” that suggest to the audience’s eyes the illusion of being something it isn’t.
Costumes can be difficult, and with Chitty I pulled nearly 100 pieces and altered and changed their look. Adding aprons and bonnets and such to existing dresses worked well for the “Toot Sweet” factory, in which I used green costumes from a production of The Wizard of Oz. I made Truly Scrumptious’s hat from a plastic toy pith helmet that I found. I glued on a ring of cardboard, some white fabric, chiffon from a scrap pile, and voila! For candles, I rolled up tubes of white paper, cut the tips on an angle, and inserted them in a chandelier. You would sweat they were real candles. Since we had no bamboo sticks for the “Me Ol’ Bamboo” number, I took some PVC pipes and spray-painted them to look like bamboo. They lasted much longer than actual bamboo, which cracks. Sometimes, you just have to think like a kid, and realize that “suggesting” something is better and cheaper than the real thing.
To create “sweets” on trays for the “Toot Sweet”number, I used bottle caps sprayed different colors. I think I have more fun (and it is much more rewarding) when I use my imagination, saving thousands of dollars for the theater in the process. Theater is all illusion, after all, and it is a world I love to play in..