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Real Food in the Dramatic Arts - How Does It Work?
May 20, 2012 10:22 PM   Subscribe

Edible theatrical properties - whose responsibility and how does it all work?

I know we have a lot of theatre, TV, and movie people around these parts, and someone will know the answer to my question. Obviously, fake food props and styling of food that isn't to be eaten must be the responsibility of the props department. But in terms of food the actors actually have to eat - as in this recent FPP - how does the props department handle it? Do they have to have food handling cards? Does someone make the actor wash his hands before eating? What if the actor has allergies? If a shot goes on for hours and hours, do they replace food that can spoil? Is there a fancy name for the department or position, like Food Wrangler? And while obviously booze has to be swapped for look-alikes, are there foods that get styled even though they are going to be eaten?
posted by gingerest to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
In the theaters I've worked in:

Do they have to have food handling cards?
Not as far as I know.
Does someone make the actor wash his hands before eating?
No. (The concept of "making" an actor do anything makes me laugh.)
What if the actor has allergies?
Food that looks like the food the actor is allergic to is substituted. (One example from my past: the roundest pears we could find in place of apples.)
If a shot goes on for hours and hours, do they replace food that can spoil?
I do theater, but I would presume so.
Is there a fancy name for the department or position, like Food Wrangler?
Not that I know of.
And while obviously booze has to be swapped for look-alikes, are there foods that get styled even though they are going to be eaten?
I don't quite understand this question. Can you clarify?


Basically, someone from the props department handles this. Usually in a multi-member department, there is one member who likes that sort of work and is more skilled at it. In my current theater, show food is stored with non-show food (the props department feeds the crew fairly often, and they all love food and bring in food a lot) but is CLEARLY labeled as show food so the crew doesn't eat it by mistake. Artists who have to actually consume food onstage are consulted about their preferences, allergies, etc. Food is bought pre-made as much as possible. Though we do have kitchen facilities in the theater, cooking can be really time consuming. I know we outsourced a bunch of baking to a culinary student last season when we needed bread in special shapes.
posted by mollymayhem at 10:57 PM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


One example in film: Real-life chef and author Martha Foose was credited as "food stylist" for The Help. She had to tackle coming up with tricky edible props like vegan (soy) fried chicken for Jessica Chastain and making a believable flourless, sugarless chocolate pie for Bryce Dallas Howard.
posted by mochapickle at 11:30 PM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


My mother was once in charge of food props for a production of The Hobbit. Her main challenge was the troll scene - the director wanted them to be gnawing on frighteningly large, indeterminate bones w/flesh. Impractical and expensive to cook up leg of mutton or somesuch every-day-and-twice-on-Sundays. She wound up buying cow tibias, boiling them clean, artfully arranging food-dye-colored croissant dough on them, and baking them. Every day and twice on Sundays. They looked completely revolting. The actors said they tasted pretty good.
posted by likeso at 2:01 AM on May 21, 2012 [12 favorites]


Somewhere I've heard that ice cream does really poorly in during filming (lights, multiple takes, etc.) so mashed potatoes are often used as a substitute.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:05 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the professional theatre where I work, there are two "PROP FOOD" fridges, (one in each of the two greenrooms/kitchens). They generally contain the food/drink (and sometimes fresh flowers) to be used in shows. The exact nature of the food in question is figured out by the Props Department before the production opens, but then it is generally prepared nightly by the Stage Management Team (The Stage Manager and/or one to two Assistant Stage Managers). Because time is limited, it seems to me that pre-packaged food is often used. (Eg. if a cake is called for, it's probably a cheapish store bought cake that is used nightly and purchased in batches every few days from the supermarket). However, all performers will be asked about allergies and food preferences, and those will DEFINITELY be taken into account - an actor having an allergic attack on stage is not an option.

Because it is theatre (as opposed to film), exact verisimilitude isn't necessary.....so for example you can have hamburger standing in for steak. That said, Props Departments take their jobs very seriously, and will do their best to make it all look good. Sometimes this entails making a plate with fake food in front (to be seen by the audience) and some room for real food for the actor to eat.

Alcohol is always swapped out - the stage manager will fill the bottles with something that looks similar - watered down ice tea, or water with food colouring, etc.

As far as I know, food handling certification is not needed, everyone just uses common sense.
posted by stray at 2:53 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The trick I've seen used with beer cans is to slice the top off of an empty tallboy, and sometimes make a seam along the back, and place a spacer and then a can of pop or soda water into it so that the top sits where the top of the beer can used to be. Then seal it up with tape or glue. That way you still get the sound of carbonation when you open the can.
posted by stray at 2:58 AM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


My father was the film caterer on Australian films for years ending about 20 years ago. In that time he would provide the food for any eating scenes if given enough notice. He was a fully trained chef with years of experience and had basically a fully equipped kitchen on wheels on a converted bus, so could prepare pretty much anything they required anywhere they required.

He also used to make up fake "vomit" if the actors actually had to have it in their mouths out of food items and also make up a lot of food you'd see in the backgrounds that wasn't eaten. The waste of food always bothered him.

He may have been going above and beyond what caterers do now a days, and I know Australian crews back (and most likely now) tend to be less unionized etc so everyone just chipped in to help. I have no idea what they do on US film sets

Food quality wise, he would make huge quantities of the food so they could keep the continuity between takes and I imagine that would work towards keeping the food fresh.
posted by wwax at 5:58 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The exact nature of the food in question is figured out by the Props Department before the production opens, but then it is generally prepared nightly by the Stage Management Team (The Stage Manager and/or one to two Assistant Stage Managers). Because time is limited, it seems to me that pre-packaged food is often used. (Eg. if a cake is called for, it's probably a cheapish store bought cake that is used nightly and purchased in batches every few days from the supermarket). However, all performers will be asked about allergies and food preferences, and those will DEFINITELY be taken into account - an actor having an allergic attack on stage is not an option.

Stray speaks truth, and I can confirm that this happens in off-off-Broadway as well. My very first gig called for a lot of food, and I had to mix it all up/procure it before every show - flat coke for the "coffee", iced team for the "bourbon," and spring rolls for the Chinese food delivery (and the actor who ate it requested that they be vegetarian, which necessitated an emergency run around all the Chinese takeout places on 42nd Street one weekend when my initial source closed from a kitchen emergency). I've also had to procure fruit, cereal, Goldfish crackers, milk, and a whole fake bar (water, cranberry juice, and iced tea in varying strengths depending on the desired color). I even baked cookies for one play, and took an actress' nut allergies into account. And the fact that microwaveable pre-made pancakes is a thing that exists is something that saved me for one show.

And since this was off-off-Broadway, there WAS no props department -- so it fell to the stage manager (me) to both figure things out in rehearsal AND to procure and produce it during the show.

Noting that this is for theater; film may be a bit different.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:21 AM on May 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh, and I know a couple cool tricks for "making" non-edible fake food on a serious budget (there's a brand of rawhide dog chews that looks a lot like bacon strips, and a set designer showed me how to make a very realistic-looking "chicken cutlet" out of a big puddle of hot glue and a touch of latex paint swirled in).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:24 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


In my experience in TV and Film, prop food is in the scope of the props department. I know a few prop folks who double as food stylists, as well.

For commercials that involve food, they usually bring in people who specialize in that sort of thing - I remember working on a tinfoil commercial a few years ago where they brought in a food prop/stylist who made 3 dozen lasagnas for various stages of the shoot.

Re food handling certificates -- I don't think these are strictly required, but it wouldn't surprise me if there was some crossover between food stylists and culinary folk, and as I've said I know there is some crossover between food stylists and props, especially in the world of commercials. Films and TV shows that are especially food-centric hire stylists and consultants, too, which probably are certified in that sort of thing.

Re actors and allergies -- the prop department works with the cast on this. I've heard at least one anecdote about an actor who didn't eat X but who, for some reason, had to eat X onscreen. There are numerous workarounds for this, including making food that looks like X but is not actually X.

If a shoot goes on for hours, they will replace food that is actually to be eaten on screen (I mean, why make it gross for everyone?), but often background "prop food" for waiters to carry, or that is not eaten on screen for whatever reason, is left as is and can get pretty gnarly by the end of a long day.

Re "styled" food not including swapping alcoholic things for non-alcoholic things -- I've heard that vanilla ice cream is often replaced with mashed potatoes because of the hot lights of a shoot, but I'm not sure it's really true. I've never seen it with my own eyes.

Interesting anecdote somewhat off topic: on medical shows, the pills are often candy! I just finished one, and we had breathmints, red hots, Mike & Ikes, etc. standing in. Because obviously you can't make an actor swallow a dozen aspirin in the interest of GOING AGAIN!!!!
posted by Sara C. at 7:28 AM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and yes, per wwax, yes, often food is provided by the Craft Services or Catering department, especially if it's a cooked dish that takes time & effort to prepare and isn't easily obtained in prepackaged form. The handling of said food is done by Props as soon as it's actually prepared, though.

The departments collaborate in the same way that the Production department liases with the Art department on product placement, or the Locations department collaborates with Construction and Set Dressing in terms of what alterations can happen to a location.
posted by Sara C. at 7:34 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting anecdote somewhat off topic: on medical shows, the pills are often candy! I just finished one, and we had breathmints, red hots, Mike & Ikes, etc. standing in.

Ah, yes, you've just made me flash back to when I was on the backstage crew during my high school's production of Hair. (Yes.) We had a big sack of candy I had on hand for various pills, which made for some really interesting fights backstage (me vs. all 25 of my other classmates who were all thinking "woo, free candy!" all the time).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:01 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


In film, whatever an actor handles is the responsibility of the props department. The dressing around them is the set decorator's responsibility. Say if the scene takes place in a bakery, set dec will dress out the counters, displays and cold case with product. Prop's will place their product for the actor to handle and eat.

It's always a problem with crew eating the set dressing. I used to buy several dozen donuts at the start of production and let them harden for several months before using them on set. It was fun to watch the grips try and take a bite out of one and then set it back very quickly.
posted by Pecantree at 8:18 AM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks, everybody! I appreciate every one of your answers but a couple just tickled me.

Since I posted the question, there has been one tangentially related FPP, about food fluffing: Behind the Scenes at a McDonald's Photo Shoot
posted by gingerest at 3:47 PM on June 20, 2012


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