Supporting The Arts

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.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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5 Responses to Supporting The Arts

  1. athene says:

    The list of things Kage and I repaired with gaffers tape …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

    Remember that well…truly miraculous stuff, that gaffers’ tape.


  2. Kelly says:

    In the Army, we called it “100-mile-an-hour” tape. An additional advantage was that if you had three or four rolls of it you could barter it for just about anything else that you needed!


  3. Kate says:

    When I was in high school chemistry class, I exhibited an amazing talent for leaving thermometers in condensing paradichlorobenzene until they shattered. My dad bought off the outraged chemistry teacher by trading her a box of gaffers tape for what I had cost in industrial thermometers. So I know that my value at age 17 was 24 rolls of gaffer tape.


  4. Kathy says:

    Oh, dear. Miss Spitt–or Mrs. Harris, as she became–was very good at being outraged when the occasioned warranted. I remember when she tossed a too-big chunk of something or other into a too-small test tube, and it started bubbling and smoking, and she flung it out the door, where it blew a large chunk of cement out of the sidewalk. Not that you’d notice, given that the school was a bit down at heel, but still.


  5. Kate says:

    Metallic sodium, as I recall, and she left it out of the mineral oil too long. And we had ignition! And she threw it out the window. It burned a small but classical smoking crater right down through the asphalt and took out the plumbing for the east wing. Including the girls’ room over there.
    Of course, our high school looked like Gormaghast anyway, so what was one more smoking crater? Remember how the bats used to fly out of the palm trees in the twilight? And the collections of doll gloves and log drums in the Catacombs?


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