Devious Designs: How to Craft the Diary Pages from Woman in the Walls

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Welcome to Devious Designs!  Every so often, we’ll post an article on how we created some of our craftiest, craziest, and most cunning props, costumes, set pieces, and much more.  These designs help make a Master Mystery Production truly one-of-a-kind, and we want to share them with you.  So let’s get started!

THE DIARY PAGES

Woman in the Walls

From March 21 to April 11, 2020, Death Valley saw the premiere run of Woman in the Walls, our spooky ghost story and 26th Master Mystery Production, which opened our 5th anniversary season. Within the show, the character of Eliza discovers of ribbon-wrapped bundle of diary pages written by the unhappy Claire Forsythe and abandoned for decades in her old home.

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But we didn’t just go out and buy antiqued paper. Using some theatre magic, we made our own. But before you go out an clean out your loose tea tins, we didn’t use any tea staining. We created our own process to save time, give us great visual impact, and help suit our needs and schedule during the production. Interested in creating your own antique paper? Here’s how we made ours!

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First, we want to give some background on what we needed regarding the paper. The diary pages were hidden under an old desk, undiscovered for decades. They are the secret thoughts of a madwoman, confined within the drawing room of her home for a “rest cure.” We envisioned her smuggling in scraps of paper she could find to record her story. So the diary wasn’t a constructed book so much as a bundle of thoughts recording a descent into madness. So the paper wasn’t well-maintained or preserved. It’s heavily yellowed, stained, creased, crumpled, and even chewed.

The diary also served a theatrical function, providing cues for the actress reading them as a security measure. While we rehearse heavily, a little insurance onstage doesn’t hurt if things go wrong. That’s the fun of live theatre. But we were sure to make it in such a way that it didn’t impact the show negatively. The paper also had to read onstage as aged, to communicate instantly to audiences that this paper was very old and not well-preserved.

Diary back

Digital design helped us a large amount. Staining and aging a sheet of bright white and new paper to the crumpled and aged color and texture we wanted takes many hours of labor and manpower that we didn’t have to spare. Documents for the stage are often created by specialty prop designers, which can be very expensive to produce. We took a shortcut by designing the base paper we wanted on the computer first. The aged paper background with a crumpled texture overlay gave us a base to work with. We typed up the diary entries with the cues on them in a script that was clean and legible for the performer. Then we printed out the sheets on white card stock, just like you’d get at any office supply store. Card stock will hold up to the aging treatment we wanted to do to it. We also made sure to have a blank page design, such as the one above, which we printed on the back of each page, saving more time and effort down the road. This helped eliminate the amount of white we would have to color to get to the right shade.

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Fresh from the printer

Now, looking above, the bright white margins we had might concern you. But we had a plan for that. After all, paper that old and neglected would not keep a clean edge. Rodents might eat it. Abrasion might occur where the paper rubbed against the desk. The papers had been handled for many years, perhaps even mishandled. And we wanted to replicate that.

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Torn edges

So we tore off the margins. We were very careful how we tore the paper so as not to create large tears across the words. Some tears we kept to add to the look. And we weren’t looking for a clean tear. We wanted a rough, chewed-up texture. We found that pulling the margin outward as we tore it created this almost deckled edge to the paper.

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Now something to remember is that paper is built of layers. So sometimes, when you pull to tear the page, the layers will split in half. This can leave a a thin, white edge around the torn edges of your paper, essentially seeing the rough insides of the card stock itself. We had a plan for that. Because the digital background wasn’t enough for the look we wanted. We had to color and stain and distress the paper further.

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Watercolor pencils
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Coloring the edge

Watercolor pencils were our solution. Our design plan was to artistically mimic how paper ages. Water stains can be typical, and water naturally warps paper fibers, which is what we wanted. Watercolor pencils gave us the ability to have greater control over where our colors went and to do more detailed spots and stains, while also being reactive to the water to dye and color any parts of the paper we wanted. You can find these pencils at art supply or even craft stores. We used three colors: a sandy beige that mirrored our background, a deeper gold, and a rusty brown.

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Wetting the watercolor

The goal wasn’t to be neat or precise. Our marks ranged from tight little spots to wide, long arcs. To color the white torn edges, we stuck just a normal sheet of paper under the edge, so we didn’t have to worry about marking our work surface with the pencil. It also acted like a barrier when we wet the paper. Using our fingers as brushes, we dipped them in water and activated the watercolor.

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Stained and aged paper

Sometimes we smudged to make discoloration marks on edges and corners. Sometimes we dabbed on tight spots to make localized staining. We dotted our reddish brown on the pages to create a special kind of paper stain known as foxing, seen on many old, untreated documents. Sometimes we left the pencil marks in sharper lines. We just played with the colors and had fun with it with no preconceived design. And once we were satisfied with the effect, we let the paper dry.

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More water!

Once dried, we took the paper, now naturally warped by the water stains, and crumpled them gently, trying not to damage them too much. We let the paper tell us how it wanted to be crumpled, letting it fold in the places it naturally allowed us to fold. After that, we added more water with our fingers, dabbing, smudging, and splattering drops to create more natural stains and continue warping the sheet.

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We did this to all the diary pages. Once finished, we stacked the sheets and flattened them under a great deal of weight (like our stack of theatre textbooks). This would help dry and set the paper fibers to make them stronger to survive being onstage. The creases would also be set into the paper, giving it this great aged texture. We let it flatten overnight.

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Oops

Now accidents happen. Sometimes tears or holes appear, because the water weakens the paper a little, especially before it’s fully dry. Now you can incorporate these into the design if you feel they work, but there are times when a tear or hole appears in a place you don’t want it, like in the word above. We made a patch to help stabilize it, so it didn’t get exacerbated onstage through constant handling by cast and crew.

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First, we turned over the page and found the hole on the back, where we planned to place the patch…

…and then we created the patch from a torn corner off one of our paper margins. Keep those margins to make patches, if you need them. We shaped the patch by tearing it with our fingers.

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Like a Band-Aid

After making sure that the pieces around the hole lined up on the front to make the word legible, we used clear liquid glue with a sponge applicator to adhere the patch on the back of the page. The glue dried transparent and helped make a strong seal on the back. We let the patch dry fully, overnight to be safe.

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Good as…well…old!

Once dry, we colored with our watercolor pencils over the patch to replicate the aging and staining we did on the paper. A tiny bit of water helped smudge the lines of color without weakening the adhesive. Use your own discretion when doing it and be cautious of over-soaking your paper.

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With all the pages we wanted to use colored, stained, crumpled, dampened, and flattened, we folded them in half to create our secret bundle from Claire Forsythe. Then we tied it in a red ribbon we stained, frayed, and aged to work with our new-made-old papers. Et viola! A finished bundle of diary pages!

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Claire’s drawings of her child from memory, created by Scenic Artist Devanne Fredette and aged by the Props Dept.

Whether you want to make aged paper for the stage or want to create an old looking pirate map for a kid’s birthday party or just want to make a neat craft, we hope this gives you lots of ideas to make your own devious designs with it! Get creative! And have fun!

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Hope you enjoyed this Devious Design, and we’ll see you for our next interactive mystery!

–Master Mystery Productions

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