Kage Baker was a hands-on writer, artist, performer – as much as she could, she tried to be capable of taking care of her tools herself. Being a tool-user is vital in any creative effort: it’s all very well to have marvels of beauty and poetry in your head, but not a lot of use if you can’t get them out so others can see them.
Once you’ve got them out, they have to be maintained, too. Nothing teaches you this faster than live theatre. There, the sets and props are subject to the same wear and tear as the actors – also, they are subject to the actors, which can often prove fatal to a fragile prop. And while you can send the actor home to heal (nature having kindly made them self-repairing) the prop is not going to do that. It’s dead, dead, deadski.
And yet, it cannot be! It’s still needed! No one thought to hire a stand-in custom palanquin! And it’s gonna take a week and $1,000 to build one, and we need it by 2:30 this afternoon, and who had the stupid idea of seeing how many people you could cram into a palanquin anyway?
Enter zombie props. Or maybe just disabled props, but the bottom line is: they have been not so much repaired as … augmented. Every show has them. They have been glued (unevenly) nailed (badly) repainted (poorly) and otherwise given prosthetic aid even more uncomfortable than Robocops’s. Kage, though, was an expert at this, and could improvise a revision to a prop that would last at least the rest of the weekend on a moment’s notice. She carried her little red tool box everywhere, and it held miracles.
Her main weapon was duct tape – or, as it was known in our movie-studio family, gaffers tape. A wise and talented prop man once told us: “You want to destroy the arts in America? Invent a chemical that dissolves gaffers tape.” It is the dark matter of the artistic universe. It’s an icon in any working person’s pantheon, of course: but in the arts, it is A GOD. No live theatre can survive long without it.
I was reminded of this as we put the walls of our Dickens Fair set up last week – there are panels in our Insta-Parlour Kit that have several years’ worth of gaffers tape holding them together. There’s a peek-through in the wall behind the bar, covered by a panel of burlap and gaffer’s tape. There are wreaths and mirrors and bits of fireplace and shelves full of bric-a-brac (and shelves themselves for that matter) held together in some vital manner by a strip of gaffers tape.
Hell, we hold down the rugs in the Parlour with it, so no one will trip over the edges.
The list of things Kage and I repaired with gaffers tape range from weight-bearing walls and entire wheeled stages (pulled through the streets by actors – we were young, once), to the Master of the Queen’s Revels – whose ribs we once taped with gaffers tape, to get him through a crucial pageant after a blow-back accident with an electric saw and a chunk of maple. Numerous boots and shoes have been saved with it, and not a few corsets – wrap a few yards of gaffers tape around a lady, and absolutely no stays will pop. I guarantee it. Personally.
Kage bound books with it; patched tents and sleeping bags with it; applied it as metal trim, window leading, and scale armour. Everyone did; everyone does. It’s one of the staples of live theatre, and its uses and mysteries are passed down to young apprentices in backstages everywhere. Usually some harried stage manager hands a kid a broken spear and a roll of gaffers tape and says: “Here, you! Tape the ends back together and paint the thing brown!” And then that kid is an initiate. Within a week, she’ll be taping up the cables that hold the flys in place.
It’s how you really support the arts.