Monday, September 27, 2010

Building Buzz-Worthy Props

Kathleen Early and Rebecca Mozo in SCR's In the Next Room or the vibrator play

So, Andrea Bullock and Jeff Rockey, what did you do at work last week?

Oh, you know, the usual: Built replicas of antique vibrators.

SCR’s version of the Carpenter.
You did what?

Yes, the halls of South Coast Repertory are buzzing these days as our artists prepare for the opening of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, a new comedy set in the 1880s about a just-invented electrical device designed to cure “female hysteria.”

Andrea and Jeff, our props artisans, had the task of creating two versions of the device from drawings of the real things.

Because these were real things: “Both of our vibrators are based on historical fixtures,” Jeff said, “the Carpenter vibrator, invented by a Dr. Carpenter, and the Chattanooga vibrator, manufactured by the Chattanooga Medical Company.”'

SCR’s version of the Chattanooga.
Described in the book The Technology of Orgasm as the “Cadillac of vibrators” because of its $200 price tag (in 1900), the Chattanooga was designed for, ahem… interior use. It consisted of a pole with a moveable arm. On that arm was a rod that could be made to vibrate.

“This instrument will be found to be an invaluable aid to the physician in the treatment of all nervous diseases and female trouble,” read its instruction manual.

Though it sounds silly and shocking today, doctors practiced genital massage on women from the time of the ancient Greeks through at least the 1920s. For them, this was a medical act, not a sexual one. They called the result a paroxysm rather than an orgasm.

Doctors believed this treatment relieved the symptoms of female hysteria, a diagnosis that also dates to the Greeks and covered everything from headaches to nervousness to loss of appetite to sleeplessness to general bad behavior—anything doctors couldn’t otherwise explain.

Problem was: Doctors didn’t really like doing it because it took a long time, time that could be spent earning money seeing other patients.

They needed a device that could do the job for them, which led to the invention of water-powered, steam-powered and finally—and most successfully—electric vibrators.

That’s where our story begins.

Andrea and Jeff used what they call “found parts” to create their vibrator replicas—bits of old lamps, an air hose, modern-day machine cranks, coat hooks.

19th Century drawing of the Chattanooga.
The Chattanooga model includes a tool handle, a pedal borrowed from a costume shop dress form, and oil filter wrenches. The legs on the Carpenter once supported a barstool.

“We did some research to find out what these antique vibrators looked like,” Andrea said, “and then sat around brainstorming ideas for how to make something that looked like that.”

She made the Chattanooga, and said the hardest part was creating an arm that could move up and down, back and forth.

Jeff made a variation of the Carpenter, which unlike the Chattanooga was designed only for exterior use and featured a collection of attachments (which in his model came from a modern day massager).

But no, neither of these devices actually vibrates. Those noises you hear will be coming from…well, we must keep a few secrets. See if you can figure it out.

Andrea and Jeff weren’t fazed by their assignments. In fact, they weren’t even sure these were the weirdest things they’d ever been asked to make.

One of the weirdest, maybe, said Jeff.
“I don’t know,” said Andrea, “I’ve made ‘dead’ plush animals that bleed.”

Now What’s This Play About?
In the Next Room or the vibrator play takes place at the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of home electricity. With its arrival comes a new invention that Dr. Givings is applying to patients suffering from “female hysteria.” His wife, Catherine, can’t help but overhear the sounds that accompany her husband’s treatments, and so begins to investigate—with comical results. But what Catherine comes to realize is that it is not the device in the next room that she yearns for, but rather an intimacy that’s missing from her marriage.
Sept. 26 - Oct. 17 - More Info/Tickets

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