I have never done anything quite like this for a show. I have built a few props in my time. Props are the things actors carry around and use in a play, full name: properties.
For my students’ shows in the past I have built things to look like food: a foam rubber three tiered chocolate brown birthday cake, double decker plaster ice cream cones and the occasional foam rubber and fabric chicken drumstick, but for this year’s play, I am creating something edible that will look as though it should never go near a person’s mouth.
Tina Howe’s Museum, the play our acting students are performing this year, takes place on the last day of an exhibition of three talented young visual artists’ works, one of whom, the fictional Agnes Vaag, makes small sinister sculptures out of objects found on moonlight prowls through state parks.
One of the characters performs a monologue about going with her friend, the artist, on one of her searches for rodent skeletons, bird beaks, bones and animal leavings. As the monologue progresses, the character becomes more and more animated with the artwork, caressing, sniffing, licking and eventually sucking on one of them, to the horror and discomfort of the other museum patrons. It is one of my favorite parts of the play.
I am very fond of my students, and the young actress playing this particular part was cast for her delicious sense of the absurd, and her big bold character choices. I know she would have made it work, whatever we chose to hand her, but I didn’t want her to have to nibble on real or plaster animal bones, although these are components of the other statues in the show.
So, I have decided to create a “chocolate and other things” sculpture to take on the role of “The Temptation and Corruption of William Blake” (described in the play as the artist’s first attempt to combine porous and non-porous objects).
After a fascinating afternoon, looking up websites dedicated to preparing animal skeletons for display, another dedicated to owl pellets, and still others dealing with animal “deposits”, I felt ready to have a go.
Dark chocolate covered organic Thompson raisins, representing fresh deer scat, forms the base of this sculpture. I tempered 200 grams of dark chocolate couverture, threw in 100 grams of raisins, while the chocolate was still on the marble slab, scraped the mass onto a Silpat mat, and eased it into a circle.
I needed a mass to hold together for a base, but if I were to do this again (I can’t believe I am saying this), in order to make the deer scat look more authentic, I would hand tumble the raisins to have them separate.
With my base ready, I prepare what I envisage as the central theme of the sculpture:
Malteser cranium, mandible (jawbone), and vertebrae: I had such fun making homemade Maltesers (known as Whoppers in the US) last year. Elder Son and I found the mixture of malted milk powder and white chocolate so easy to roll into balls, that we got a bit creative and began making whole heads, with features, which were later enrobed in chocolate. The interior’s appearance is slightly beige/off white, so they seem to mimic aged bone.
I melt 200 grams of good white chocolate, which I mix with 200 grams of Horlick’s malted milk powder to a somewhat grainy, stiff paste. I scoop up a ball and begin molding a small cranium, using a round ended cocktail skewer and the back of a demi-tasse spoon to create the necessary indentations. There was no plan – I just grabbed whatever looked like would work, from the kitchen drawers … but I did feel downright artistic!
I do not enrobe the centres I make this time, but leave them to air dry to a satisfying crunchiness, and indeed they are quite sturdy, and look a bit sinister.
Next, the part I want my student to be able to easily break off and eat, during the show, and also be highly visible from the audience. This is easily accomplished with:
White chocolate and pretzel “long bones” (femurs). After tempering another 200 grams of white chocolate couverture, I quickly transfer it to an improvised piping bag – a large Ziplok freezer bag, with a tiny hole cut from one corner.
I have actually used the same bag for a while now, as I can’t bear to throw away plastic unnecessarily. I find they are easy to wash out and hang to dry. For the next use, I clamp the open corner with a plastic bag sealer (you can buy them in large quantities from Ikea).
As I have said, I am no visual artist, but I did manage to pipe some fairly convincing “bone” shapes, some of which I left as is. I dropped a pretzel stick on the others, then piped another line of chocolate on top to cover the pretzel.
The final element of the sculpture may look like animal scat, but is in fact, a representation of a fascinating object – the owl pellet. Also called a casting, the pellet is made up of the undigested parts of the bird’s meal, which it regurgitates, and provides a wealth of information to naturalists and ornithologists as to the bird’s diet and habits, with no interference to the actual bird (because they don’t have to kill and dissect it) I have found owl pellets in the walk through the park on the way to the theatre.
It may sound disgusting, but is actually a very efficient way for the bird to safely deal with parts of its prey it cannot digest. The ones I have made however, are wonderfully tasty, as they are:
Milk chocolate Gianduja owl pellets. I love making Gianduja, as the classic combination of toasted hazelnuts and milk chocolate is one of those delightfully homey, comfort food tastes, combined with an edge of sophistication.
I toast 200 grams of hazelnuts, at 350 degrees F for 12 minutes, which fills the kitchen with a gorgeous toasty aroma.
Immediately upon taking them from the oven, I roll them into a thick tea towel and let them sit, steaming their skins loose, for ten minutes. I then rub them vigorously in the towel, then between my fingers, to take off as much of the outer skins as I can.
The hazelnuts are whirled in the food processor to form a thick paste (this takes a few minutes) then are mixed with 200 grams of tempered milk chocolate. It occurs to me that 200 grams is a theme, this week! It just seems like a good amount – enough to work with, without being too much. Finally, I add in 100 grams of coconut, which I have toasted for 5 minutes, at 350 degrees F, while watching carefully. Coconut goes from deliciously toasted to hopelessly burned if you turn your back on it.
As it is a very hot day, I place the mixture in the refrigerator for ten minutes, before placing the mixture in a piping bag. This time, I use a heavy duty fabric piping bag, as it is a heavy mixture, requiring a good deal of pressure to pipe successfully.
Nonetheless, I still ended up kneading the piped “logs” into thicker objects. In hindsight, I could have just scooped up tablespoon sized blobs, and worked them carefully with my hands. The toasted coconut definitely adds a visually pleasing “sticks and fur” texture to the pellets!
And this is how THE TEMPTATION AND CORRUPTION OF WILLIAM BLAKE looked once all the elements were put together:
I will never win any prizes for visual art, but I know one young actress who is going to have a disgustingly delicious show, tonight. I can’t wait to see her face … and our audience’s!