When Prop or Player Fails part 2, 1919

Last week, I posted some excerpts of prop mishaps from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails.” They were so much fun, I thought I would share a few more from the same article:

One of the best of the missing prop stories is concerned with a performance of “Virginius” given many years ago by James O’Neill. In this play another character was required to bring to O’Neill an urn supposed to contain the ashes of his dead sweetheart, and on one occasion, as he was about to make his entrance, the actor could not find the urn. Hearing his cue spoken on the stage, he hurriedly snatched up a small water cooler, which stood on a table back stage. Although it had a spigot on one side, it was about the size and general shape of the urn, and could readily pass for it on the stage, which was dimly lighted. In the ensuing scene Mr. O’Neill put out his hand to touch the urn, as was his wont, and was unlucky enough to touch the spigot and turn it. He was kneeling in prayer at the moment, and the ice cold water began to run down his bare knee. He gave no sign that he was in discomfort, however, and the scene was played without interruption…

Richard Mansfield, in “Ivan the Terrible,” used a green hassock in the throne room scene, and during the run of the play at the New Amsterdam Theatre here the hassock became so worn that the star demanded that it be reupholstered. Mansfield’s Saturday program was “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and by sending the hassock to the upholsterer early Saturday morning the stage manager thought to get it back in plenty of time for the Monday night performance of “Ivan.” It failed to arrive, however, and in the emergency a small red hassock, of the sort provided by the theatre management for its juvenile patrons, was put in front of the throne instead. The entire stage setting was green, and this bit of bright red greeted the star as he made his entrance preparatory to mounting the throne. His reply to the stage manager was to lift the hassock neatly with his foot and send it spinning out into the audience…

At the Red Cross performances of “Out There” at the Century in the Spring there occurred on the opening night a stage wait which most of the audience sensed. Following the departure of ‘Erb to enlist, at the end of the first act, the mother and sister of Annie have one or two speeches before the curtain falls. The sister then bids her mother take a drink, and the curtain drops as she lifts the flask to her lips. This night, however, the curtain did not fall. Helen Ware, who was playing Princess Lizzie, looked uneasily off stage and then said: “Have another drink.” Beryl Mercer, playing mother, drank again. But still the curtain did not fall. “Have another drink,” said Miss Ware, equal to the emergency. Fortunately the curtain finally fell at this point, and Miss Mercer was saved from drinking herself to death in the interests of art. It developed later that Laurette Taylor, who had just left the stage, had stopped to chat with the youth who operated the curtain, and had so distracted his attention that he missed his cue.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

Some Light Prop Reading

If you’ve ever wandered over to Dave Lowe’s blog, you may have noticed he’s a bit into Halloween. He has already began building props and decorations for his house this year. I got a kick out of this ghostly gravestone made of foam core and spray foam. Be sure to check his blog regularly for many more projects leading up to the big day.

Lewis Baumstark, Jr. made a fake crowbar out of a piece of PVC pipe and wrote an Instructable showing how he did it. It looks so devilishly simple and quick, especially if you don’t have the time or money to mold and cast one.

Chris Schwartz has scanned some drawings of English furniture styles throughout history and posted them on his blog. It’s a great aid for recognizing the style of pieces you find in the antique store, or for choosing furniture based on the period of the play you are doing. It’s also fun just to see how furniture has evolved in the last 800 years or so; a chest of drawers used to literally be just a chest.

Finally, Make Magazine has shared this wonderful short video of Dan Madsen painting signs by hand.

When Prop or Player Fails, 1919

The following excerpt comes from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails.” The article describes mishaps on stage due to missing or malfunctioning props, a problem which has plagued actors since theatre began.

One of the most familiar and most absurd stories of histrionic presence of mind is concerned with an old-time melodrama which called for an actor to file his way through prison bars, only to be shot dead later as he stood on the wall of the prison, about to escape. The file had been brought carefully into the plot, so that the audience was fully aware that the prisoner had it in his possession. On the night in question, as he stood on the prison wall after sawing his way through the bars, the gun of the prison guard failed to go off when the trigger was pulled. The actor, however, fell from the wall as he was accustomed to, but instead of lying where he dropped, he staggered down to the footlights.

“My God!” he gasped, to the audience. “I’ve swallowed the file!” And dropped dead.

The gun which fails to go off is one of the most frequent causes of embarrassment to an actor. There is the long familiar story of the actor who pulled the trigger as usual one night, in a scene in which he was supposed to murder another character, only to be met by a click instead of the customary report. The other man, however, fell down as usual when the trigger was pulled, so the first player did what he could to save the situation. Looking from the revolver in his hand to the man prostrate on the floor, he remarked, “These Maxim silencers are certainly wonderful things,” and the play went on…

Arthur Byron of “Tea for Three” tells of a melodrama in which he was supposed to shoot E. J. Henley, only to find that the gun would not go off. He made several attempts, and then Henley whispered “Stab me! Stab me!” Byron, unfortunately, had nothing with which to stab him, so he brought about his demise by clubbing him over the head with the revolver.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

Friday Props Roundup

Hi everyone. If you noticed a lack of posts this week, it was because I was in tech for our second show of the season at Triad Stage. And I bought a house and moved. And I have a newborn. But there’s still some cool props stuff this week:

New York Theatre Workshop has transformed its space for a unique production of Scenes From a Marriage. The New York Times is on the story of how director Ivo van Hove and his production designer Jan Versweyveld chopped the space into three rooms that audiences wander through in the first act, and then return to an amphitheater after intermission. Crazy. If those names sound familiar, it’s because I made a fake dead lamb for a previous production that van Hove and Versweyveld did at NYTW.

The Credits delves into the challenges of building massive sets on location in the upcoming film, The Maze RunnerThey had to hire a snake wrangler just to get rid of the snakes on set. So many snakes.

For fans of Firefly, a user named Yellowjacket has created his own high-quality printable files of all sorts of paper props from the show.

Over on the RPF, Steven K. Smith has documented the construction of a very impressive suit of armor from the Dragon Age: Inquisition video game. The whole thing is made entirely of EVA foam with acrylic paint on top.

Finally, on a personal note, Ben Harris, the founder of the Alamance Makers Guild which I’m a member of, has a Kickstarter going. Ben makes science kits for kids, where you can make your own light bulb or telegraph and such. He’s raising money to make some more kits and even to help the Makers Guild find a permanent home.  So check it out if you like science and making stuff.

Weekly Props Roundup

The New Yorker has a great piece on theatrical special effects, where they follow around Jeremy Chernick of J&M Special Effects. I almost did some work for Chernick when I lived in NYC, and he was definitely one of the go-to guys for any kind of effect that wasn’t specifically props, costumes, lighting or scenery.

Empire Online has a piece that boldly proclaims “In the Future, All Film Props Will be 3D Printed“. While that statement may be a bit hyperbolic, the article itself is an interesting look on how digital fabrication techniques are being integrated into the pre-production and production phases of filmmaking, and what benefits they give that traditional fabrication techniques don’t.

Since we’re talking about the future, check out Cinefex’s piece on the future of practical creature effects. For a time, it looked like filmmaking was heading for a future where a single actor stands in front of a green screen, and everything else was digital. Now, practical creatures (and props and sets) are making a comeback; effects teams have a better handle on how to plan out and integrate digital and practical, and new technology has made possible practical effects which were previously unachievable.

Finally, check out an easy way to make tin advertising signs. Jesse Gaffney takes some tin and a ballpoint pen, and makes signs that have some dimensional detail. Nice!

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies