I’ve noticed a tendency, mostly among non-professional theatre companies, to save everything from every show: every piece of scenery, prop, and wood cut-off, and every little leftover of paint. Sometimes this comes from wanting to save money in the future and other times from wanting to place the items in the company’s rental inventory, but, from what I’ve seen, most often it’s just “because that’s what you do.” As a result, shops and storage areas frequently turn into attics and/or fire hazards.
There are several ways of dealing with the “what do you save” question, and below are some of the best thoughts and ideas I’ve seen over the past thirty-odd years.
Custom scenery pieces
Generally, scenery pieces built for one specific show will often not be used the same way again. That huge Gothic window from The Sound of Music, for instance, can only be used in a very few shows (like maybe A Man For All Seasons and Becket), but chances are it won’t be used again “as is” or it won’t work with the new design concept.
Rather than storing pieces like this, a lot of companies advertise them on local theatre bulletin boards or networks and either sell them at cost or donate them to another company. Failing that, the piece can be dismantled and the usable raw materials saved, while the rest are discarded or recycled.
Case in point: A few years ago I designed two full-size “opera boxes” for a production of Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman in Black. After the show closed, the TD decided to discard them, and I later heard a bunch of people were sad or disappointed because the units were so beautiful. But I had to agree with the TD: the pieces were huge, fragile (mostly 1×3 pine, 1/8″ lauan, and rigid plastic foam), and, in the case of this theatre and the local area, they would have more than likely not be re-used or rented.
Staircases and balustrades are another example. To save space, a better solution would be to dismantle the piece and save just the components that can be re-used, such as the balusters, newel posts, and long pieces of railing.
Generic pieces (flats, platforms, step units)
So-called “standard” pieces are good for a company’s stock, but, here again, there’s no point in saving more than you can conveniently store and find when you need it. Here’s where we can borrow an idea from architects and builders: if it’s going to cost more to repair the unit (or make it usable again) than it is to build a new one, then toss it. Or, if it’s such an odd size (a flat, two feet two inches by three feet five inches) that it probably won’t be re-used, there’s no point in hanging on to it.
Some companies dismantle odd items and salvage any usable wood, but, here again, it’s a question of time versus storage space versus money saved.
I’ve seen a few shops that hang on to every little scrap of raw material, like plywood or dimensional lumber, until literally every part of the shop is full of them. The problem here is that you sometimes need a short piece but can’t find it in the mass of scraps, so you end up cutting a new one. Having a plan, or “policy,” for this can make things a lot easier for everyone. For instance, and I’m making this up on the fly, you may decide you want to save:
3/4″ ply – square pieces larger than 2′ x 2′, and non-square pieces at least 3′ in one dimension by 6″ in the the other dimension
1/4″ ply – pieces larger than 12″ x 12″ (these can often be used for props)
1×3 or 1×4 – new, clean pieces longer than 18″ (both ends cut square)
plastic tubing – clean pieces longer than 18″
muslin – clean, unpainted pieces larger than 2′ x 2′
and so on. Once the collection gets to the point where you have more than you can conveniently see or use, you can weed some of it out. The result will be a cleaner, more efficient shop.
The biggest problem with keeping every little paint leftover is that eventually it solidifies and becomes just a can taking up space. Sometimes it turns bad, and you open the can to find a biology experiment.
One solution here is to dump small leftovers into a five-gallon bucket and make up a batch of “garbage paint,” which is handy for priming raw wood, or, sometimes, even for base coating a unit. The bucket, of course, wants to be sealed tight to keep as much air as possible out of it. I will cover various types of paints in another post, but, generally, the water-based “house paints” used often in schools and community theatres can be mixed together with no problem. If in doubt, check with a local paint store and see what they say.
Another solution is to donate the leftover paint. Some communities have an arts recycling program that accepts clean, usable scraps of materials and paints and makes them available to non-profits. A place like this can be a good resource for your company too.
If push comes to shove, you can always discard the paint. Many communities will accept dried paint (i.e., a solid mass) as regular garbage, so you can either let it dry naturally or mix enough sawdust into it that it turns solid. I’ve heard of using cat litter for this purpose, although it seems an expensive solution, and there’s also a product available in paint stores that will solidify paint so it can be discarded. Check your local community to see if they have any preference.
Spray paints are a different animal and require their own disposal methods, so the cans will usually give you the instructions. Some communities will accept these cans as regular garbage and others require that they be taken to a recycling center, so be sure to check locally.
Mechanical and specialty pieces
These are often the tough ones: they took a lot of time and/or cost a lot of money to make, so naturally we want to save them. The best way to approach these is to ask two questions: will we ever really use it again, and will it survive storage until it gets used again?
If you really think you won’t use it again, you may be able to donate it to another theatre group, or trade it for something else, or even sell it. Of course, in this day and age, we also need to be concerned about liability, so, for instance, if it’s an electrical piece, you may be better off dismantling it if you’re not going to find a use for it.
Whether it will survive storage is the second question. How will the piece be stored, and how much storage space do you have? If there’s a chance it will get damaged beyond repair, or get in the way, or it has parts that have a limited shelf life, or, for instance, has a pump that needs to be oiled regularly, you may be better off dismantling it and saving only the parts you think you can use another time.
A lot of theatres have a collection of furniture: real antiques, modern pieces, and some items designed for a particular show. A collection of real furniture is always nice if you have the space for it, but the problem occurs when some of these pieces are so old and fragile, or damaged beyond reasonable repair, or just plain unsafe — or so specific to a particular show and design concept — that all they do is take up space. That’s when it may become time to make a decision.
Another case in point: a French secretary I designed for a production of Robin Hawdon’s Don’t Dress for Dinner. The characters in the story “drank like fish” for most of the play, so a bar was needed, but the director and I didn’t want just a predictable sideboard or liquor cart. So I designed a secretary that looked “normal” when the doors were closed, but turned into a bar when they were open:
This theatre has a very active rental program, and chances are this piece will never be rented for its double purpose, but I hear it’s been rented a number of times as set dressing (i.e., with the doors closed) when the designer wanted a nice piece of furniture.
Where to begin with props? I have seen prop rooms that are beautifully organized and maintained, often with computerized inventories and photos, and others that are basically just attics, but (so far) they all have one thing in common: they have a lot of items that are just taking up space.
The two questions I mentioned in specialty pieces above can also apply here: will we ever use it again, and will it survive storage? But a third question comes into the mix: is it worth keeping it?
I’ve seen piles of gift-wrapped boxes, complete with ribbons and bows, that cannot be used as is again because the wrapping has become dirty or torn, the bows have been flattened, and the ribbon is pulling off. Or it’s such a specific type of gift wrap (baby shower, or Christmas, or antique) that it’ll need to be replaced anyway even if we re-use the boxes. A good solution here is to discard the wrapping and flatten the boxes for storage.
Fake food items are another example. Years ago I made a highly realistic “Sara Lee” cheesecake with a slice cut off, for a production of Kander and Ebb’s And The World Goes ‘Round, and of course it was saved.
Not too long afterwards, due to being stored in a large box with other fake food items, it was in very sorry shape. Plates of salad and hors d’oeuvres, in the same box, were also coming apart. It would have been so much better to discard these items and make them fresh next time.
Liquids are yet another example. Bottles of liquids should be emptied and the bottles rinsed for storage or, if they’re commonly available, discarded.
Cleaning out a huge collection can be a very scary task if you try to do it all at once, but, if you set up a system and do a little at a time, it can result in a more organized, useful, easier-to-work-in space.