Category Archives: Education

Historical and scholarly views of props

Props in Brome’s Antipodes, 1638.

Richard Brome was an English playwright during the Caroline era, making him about a generation removed from Shakespeare. One of his plays, The Antipodes, first performed in 1638, features a sort of play-within-a-play that gives us a glimpse into a properties storeroom of the time. The character of Peregrine is fooled into believing he has traveled to the Antipodes, a mythical “anti-London” on the opposite side of the world. The inhabitants are simply theatrical actors, though, hired by a doctor in an attempt to treat Peregrine. Peregrine eventually finds his way “backstage” into the props storage area, known in this time as the “tiring house”, and begins destroying the props, believing they are real items in the Antipodes. Another character, Byplay, recounts this event. It gives us a glimpse into what manner of props and scenery may have been stored at an English theater during this time period:

Byplay: He has got into our tiring house amongst us,
And ta’en a strict survey of all our properties,
Our statues and our images of gods, our planets and our constellations,
Our giants, monsters, furies, beasts, and bugbears,
Our helmets, shields and vizors, hairs and beards,
Our pasteboard marchpanes and our wooden pies.

later…

When on the sudden, with thrice knightly force,
And thrice, thrice puissant arm he snatcheth down
The sword and shield that I played Bevis with,
Rusheth amongst the foresaid properties,
Kills monster after monster, takes the puppets
Prisoners, knocks down the Cyclops, tumbles all
Our jiggumbobs and trinkets to the wall.
Spying at last the crown and royal robes
I’th’ upper wardrobe, next to which by chance
The devil’s vizors hung and their flame-painted
Skin coats, those he removed with greater fury,
And (having cut the infernal ugly faces,
All into mammocks) with a reverend hand,
He takes the imperial diadem and crowns
Himself King of the Antipodes, and believes
He has justly gained the kingdom by his conquest.

The Antipodes by Richard Brome, Act 3 Scene 1. 1638. https://www.dhi.ac.uk/brome/viewTranscripts.jsp?play=AN&act=1&type=BOTH

Three Types of Knowledge a Props Person Needs

I have recently been reading about the three different types of knowledge which a mastercraftsperson should possess (originally suggested by Nick Hunt and Susan Melrose 1 and applied to props by Eleanor Margolies 2). These include technical knowledge, emotional-affective knowledge, and interpersonal knowledge. At any moment during a props person’s day, they may have to use all three types to navigate a situation or solve a problem. Continue reading Three Types of Knowledge a Props Person Needs

Notes:

  1. Hunt, Nick, and Susan Melrose. “Techne, Technology, Technician.” Performance Research 10.4 (2005): 70-82. Web.
  2. Margolies, Eleanor. Props. London: Palgrave Macmillan Education, 2016: 18. Print.

Strike Anywhere Versus Safety Matches

If your production is permitted to use live flame, a match can be one of the most frustrating props to get right. In real life, we barely notice when it takes a few attempts to light a match, but on stage, we want the match to light up on the first stroke. First we need to know about the two main types of matches: safety vs strike anywhere.

What is the difference between safety matches and strike-anywhere matches? A match requires a mix of chemicals in order to ignite, including phosphorus. On a strike-anywhere match, all the chemicals are contained in the head. On a safety match, the phosphorus is not on the match head, but rather on a special striking surface. It is only when you draw the match against that surface that you have the correct combination of ingredients. A strike-anywhere match can be lit against any surface with enough friction; a safety match needs a strike plate containing phosphorus.

Safety match versus Strike Anywhere Match
Safety match versus Strike Anywhere Match

The above picture shows the visual difference between the two. The head on a safety match (top) is a solid color; usually red or blue, though newer ones can be green. The head of a strike anywhere match is red with a white tip; the white tip is the phosphorus.

In theatre, we want consistency, and most productions opt for the strike-anywhere match. You can light it off of a sheet of sandpaper; I found 300 grit is pretty good. A lot of shows will tape small rectangles of sandpaper on various hard surfaces around the set so the actor can light the match wherever they are. With a safety match, the chemicals on the striking plate are consumable, so the matches get progressively harder to light unless you switch out a fresh strike plate every so often.

Using strike anywhere matches takes some foresight, since it has gotten nearly impossible to just run out to a store and buy them. You probably need to order them online. They are not difficult to find, but they may take a few days to ship because of regulations against sending them by air.

You can buy in bulk, though they tend to lose their effectiveness over time. For optimum storing, keep them in an airtight container or bag along with a pack of silica gel desiccant.

As far as the historical accuracy of matches, both types appeared at basically the same time. The nineteenth century saw a lot of change and evolution in matches. You can find a lot of information online, but be careful with what you read; many sites will have interesting trivia about matches, but will neglect to tell you which matches were widely used and which were expensive novelties.

Basic archetypal wood matches using white phosphorus were widely used between 1830 and 1890. Many nineteenth century match boxes did not contain a striking surface, but rather had a loose piece of sandpaper inside that one used to light it. They also needed to be kept in an airtight container, so you would not see piles of loose matches out in the open.

The strike anywhere match as we know it came around the beginning of the twentieth century, as the use of white phosphorus was banned around the world and alternatives were found.

Safety matches began appearing around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Besides keeping your matches dry and making sure you have the correct striking surface, the other way to help your actors light a match is to use matches with a larger head and a sturdy shaft. Kitchen matches will often use thicker wood for their body than “standard” matches. Camping matches are typically beefier too; however, if they are “windproof”, it will be harder to blow them out, which can be dangerous onstage. Fireplace matches have some of the biggest heads; their shafts can often be nine inches or longer, but you can cut them down to whatever length you need.

One final disclaimer: the use of live flame onstage should only be done when you have the approval of the venue and the local fire marshal. Many jurisdictions will not allow any fire at all, even a single match. You need to take all possible precautions, including having someone backstage on “fire watch”, standing ready with a fire extinguisher. Wherever the actor disposes of the match, whether an ashtray or other container, you should fill with a bit of water, non-flammable gel (like Vaseline), or sand. The proper flameproofing of all props, scenery, and costumes around the match is also vital.

Props in Caroline England

Richard Brome was an English playwright of the Caroline Era, coming just on the heels of Shakespeare. In his 1640 play The Antipodes, he describes the inventory of properties and costumes of a typical company at the time. In the scene, a character named By-Play is describing how another character named Peregrine entered the company’s prop room and, thinking everything was real, set forth on “conquering” all the props.

Richard Brome
Richard Brome

“He has got into our tiring house 1 amongst us,
And ta’en a strict survey of all our properties,
Our statues, and our images of gods,
Our planets, and our constellations,
Our giants, monsters, furies, beasts, and bug-bears,
Our helmets, shields, and visors, hair, and beards,
Our paste-board march-panes, and our wooden pies.
Whether he thought ‘t was some enchanted castle,
Or temple, hung and piled with monuments
Of uncouth and various aspects,
I dive not to his thoughts. Wonder he did
Awhile, it seemed, but yet undaunted stood;
When, on a sudden, with thrice knightly force,
And thrice puissant arm, he snatcheth down
The sword and shield that I played Bevis with,
Rushed among the ‘foresaid properties,
Killed monster after monster, takes the puppets
Prisoners, knocks down the Cyclops, tumbles all
Our Jigamogs and trinkets to the wall.
Spying at last the crown and royal robes
I’ the upper-wardrobe, next to which, by chance,
The devil’s visor hung, and their flame-painted
Skin-coats, these he removed with greater fury;
And (having cut the infernal ugly faces
All into mammocks,) with a reverend hand
He takes the imperial diadem, and crowns
Himself ‘King of the Antipodes,’ and believes
He has justly gained the kingdom by his conquest.” 2

Original text of script
Original text of script

Notes:

  1. The tiring house was a backstage area for actors to change costumes and grab props before going back onto stage (http://www.bardstage.org/globe-theatre-tiring-house.htm)
  2. Wall, James W. Rise and progress of the modern drama. Knickerbocker, v.44, July, 1854, p.70. Google Books. Web. 27 June 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?id=zJtdXXOxOK0C&pg=PA70#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

Video History of IATSE

If you have a spare half hour, check out this video history of IATSE. It was made by members of IATSE themselves. I’m not entirely sure when it was actually produced, but it had to have been somewhere around the late 40s.

The video features then-President of IATSE, Richard Walsh, as he is visited by the ghost of John Williams, the first President of the union in 1893. The history of IATSE is more than just about the union though; it is also a history of changing theatrical technology from the days of gaslight to our modern world.