BY: MICHAEL EDDY
In The Shop with Props Fabricator Zoë Morsette
Zoë Morsette knew at an early age that she wanted to work in the theater. Inspired by a childhood filled with art and summer theater on Cape Cod where she grew up, Morsette completed her BA in theater and dance at Skidmore College in 1973 and then moved to NYC. She worked as a milliner at Radio City Music Hall for two years and then as a shop supervisor and fabricator in the display industry for five years. Freelance since 1984, Morsette has built props, models, costumes, and puppets for 51 Broadway productions, dozens of commercials and print ads, feature films, television shows, theme parks, ice shows, ballets, operas, and the Macy’s Parade. Morsette spoke with Stage Directions to discuss her work as a props fabricator, some of her favorite projects and some sage advice for those starting out.
Talk a little bit about what you think are the essential traits and skills to be a good props fabricator.
You can’t be afraid to fail. Lots of times I have to try things several times. A perfect example is on Hamilton, they added a prop that was not in the show at The Public. It was a stack of newspapers tied together into a bundle. Maybe about three and a half inches high. And they told me, ‘Oh, we want a piece of wood inside. And you’ve got to screw it together, etc.’ I didn’t know why, but I did it the way they said. Then I get notes that it’s coming apart. I couldn’t figure out what are they doing to it. It turns out they were dropping it from a balcony to the floor every night! Well, no wonder it was coming apart.
So, I redesigned it, twice. I spoke with Denise Grillo, production props for Hamilton on Broadway; I’ve worked with her for years. I asked if instead of real newspapers, what if I sculpted it out of EVA foam with weights inside. It’s then coated with about 10 coats of Jaxsan and then the hero paper is glued on top; it’s a solid mass. I actually weighed a bundle of papers and made it the same weight.
Then the London production said it sounded like wood hitting the stage. So, I had to redo it; again. Now it’s got three layers of very thin ply sandwiched inside all the paper, which is glued together, stapled, and the whole thing is screwed through. So far, so good. But that’s a case of having to change it, change it, and change it again. I also find that every time I do a piece, if it’s a show that repeats—which of course you hope it does—I always try to improve it each time.
The other thing is, I tell people you have to know how to sew. Any good prop master I ever knew can run an industrial machine. Because, sometimes it’s just a matter of you’re putting tape on the back of a curtain or something. You just have to be able to run a machine. Then, it certainly helps to know how to drape and stuff.
For anyone in props I really feel like you should study theater, know about dissecting plays and see how things relate to the story. You have to see where the director’s coming from, where the playwright’s coming from, so that what you do makes sense to move the story along. It’s not that your thing is supposed to jump out, it’s supposed to work with the rest of the show. And so, all of those academic classes that I had to take in theater history and everything else were so helpful. It’s just such a great background. I also see as much theater as I can.
What are some of the craziest props you’ve ever been asked to make for the stage?
Some of the stuff for Shrek was really neat. Oh, you know what was kind of cool, was for The Addam’s Family. There’s a scene Wednesday has a crossbow, and she has to shoot down a Canada goose. The sight gag was supposed to be that it falls from the sky and the butler is standing there with the tray, and it just misses the tray and he doesn’t try to catch it. The thing was that the goose always had to land on its backside with its feet up in the air. It wasn’t the hardest thing I ever did, but it was a tricky one to balance it on the inside, so it always fell like that.
I didn’t use any feathers, because I couldn’t afford to be losing feathers every night. I used fur, which I shaved, and cut, and over-painted. On stage, fur makes very good feathers so the whole thing is actually covered in fur. Also whenever I do animals like that, I always use real glass eyes, because they always read really well. And there was almost like a little cage inside the goose body that was weighted at a certain point so that it always landed on its back. And the webbed feet were actually leather. It was a pretty cool prop and it worked, but in the end they just had Wednesday carry it on stage saying, “I got dinner.” Not the same impact as the original gag but that happens also. You build it and then they cut it.
Another prop they cut from that show but was fun to make was a roast swan that had to be hollow so you could reveal the carcass underneath. This was for a dinner scene in Addam’s Family and the idea was to show the passage of time. So first they were going to have this fabulous feast on the table with the full roast swan on a platter. Then they were going to roll a big clock past the table and an actor at the table could grab the ‘full’ roast swan and toss it in the hollow back of the clock. When the clock passed by just the leftover carcass would be on the platter. I did it so the neck was curled over, and the beak was tucked coyly behind the gnarly wing. I made it very roasted looking, but it a was a really solid piece that you could grab the neck to pick it up like a cover. Some of the garnish things were glued down to the tray, and some were attached to the roast swan. It looked great and worked nicely. I actually found a photo of a swan carcass in the weeds, a black and white photo, so I knew what it looked like.
You know, I do a lot of animals and I do tons of research on animals. I have a huge picture file, a hard file of photos. Mostly from Natural History magazine. They would do an article on a fox, and you’d get 20 different views of a fox, with beautiful color. So, whenever I sculpt or paint an animal or anything, I usually put a board up with tons of pictures in front of me while I’m working. Which is especially helpful as you’re sculpting and you’re working your way around it.
Is there a favorite prop you’ve made in your career?
Well, I have to say the Donkey dummy from Shrek. Donkey actually hangs in my studio, and he’s kind of like a mascot. He was meant, in the beginning of the show, like at the top of the movie, Donkey falls from the sky. In the previews, that’s what they did. In Seattle, it got a huge laugh. They dropped him into a pit. So, I had to make a full-scale Donkey that looked like the cartoon version. But nothing in it could possibly hurt an actor—if an actor, for some strange reason, got under him. So it’s 43-inches wide and it only weighs seven pounds.
It’s completely patterned, the body is patterned out of an aerated foam. It’s what they use for boat cushions. It’s better than the costume foam, as far as durability. It’s very stiff and it sculpts really well with a blade and it lasts for years. It’s great stuff. The legs are sculpted out of that foam solid and then it’s covered and air brushed and the head was a solid sculpt. But then I put a zipper on his spine, because I figured you’re never going to see the spine, and that way if they ever had to get inside to re-rig, I used cables, like bicycle cables, the coated cables. I put a very dense Ethafoam rod between the shoulders and the hips on the inside, and the cables literally go into the body, loop around that, because you had to have something stiff in there to attach to. But if you ever, for any reason, wanted to change it out, all you had to do was unzip the spine.
Another fun thing is that his ears and his tail were done kind of flat, so when he dropped, I think it was about 25 feet, they would go straight up in the air. What I did for the eyes to make them look like they’re bugging out… We do eyes a lot of different ways, but sometimes we back paint. I used a plastic globe, but then I took like a teddy bear eye, you know the toys ones that have a little knob on the back and I put it on the outside of the eye, so it looks like his eyes are literally bugging out. He is one of my favorites.
In your shop is there one tool you can’t live without?
My little band saw. I have a Craftsman band saw; it doesn’t have a big throat or anything. Especially since I work an awful lot with EVA foam, I can cut it on the band saw. I also have like two Bosch foam saws, but a lot of stuff works better on the band saw, or if you want to cut an angle, you need a tilt table, so it is a great tool. Also lots of times I’m cutting little pieces of nylon rod or small pieces of wood or whatever. So the band saw is big for me.
My heat gun is big also, because I do things like when I need to form a nylon rod—I rarely use wire to stabilize anything. I use wire, but not the way they did in the old days. If we’re hooping out a big piece, we’ll use nylon rod, because it’s incredibly strong and flexible. It’s never going to break and pierce someone’s gut. It’s so durable; it’s great stuff. The fact that it comes in so many different thicknesses, there’s an awful lot you can do with it. I would never use wire in say a tail, but nylon rod? Fantastic, and the fact that you can heat form it.
Is there a piece of advice you got at the start of your career that you still find applicable today?
You know Leslie Rollins actually gave me some very good advice. He said, “I never put anything in my book that I didn’t do at least 50% of.” Everybody knows if you’re working in a big shop, one person didn’t do the whole piece generally. He said, “If maybe you welded all the armature, good. Say that. Or maybe you did all the covering, but if you just did one little bit of it, don’t even put it in your book.” It’s not worth it. It really isn’t. I tell students when I lecture at universities and USITT “Do not pad your resume and your book.” If you just got out of college, I don’t expect you to have done a ton of things outside of school. I know that your resume is going to be limited. Do not lie, because you will be found out. Also I tell kids—especially skill-wise—I tell them, “If you don’t have a particular skill that they’re looking for, tell them that isn’t something you’ve done or haven’t done a lot of, but you would love to assist on it.” Honesty is huge.
When you look back over it, would you say you’re satisfied with your career so far?
Oh yeah. I never really planned on anything specific for my career, except that I loved theater since I was very young, and I just wanted to work in the theater in some capacity. I’ve managed to do that for over 40 years and I’m still doing it, which is very cool.