Creating Props, Creating Performances

On the end of the first day of the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium, I sat on my first panel, entitled “Creating Props, Creating Performances”.

The first paper, by Teemu Paavolainen, was titled “From Props to Affordances: An Ecological Approach to Theatrical Objects”. An “affordance” is the ability of an object to perform a function. For example, a chair affords sitting. A spoon affords eating soup.

The study of affordances has been around in other fields, such as music and painting, for awhile, but not so in theatre. Theatre, particularly the study of props, has long been dominated by Jiři Veltruský. In 1940, he wrote the famous, “All that is on stage is a sign.” He and the rest of the Prague School believed

The very fact of their appearance on stage suppresses the practical function of phenomena in favour of a symbolic or signifying role.

(The semiotics of theatre and drama  By Keir Elam, p. 6)

Andrew Sofer, one of the keynote speakers at this conference, originally took exception to this when dealing with props in his oft-mentioned book, The Stage Life of Props. You’ll have to read his book to get a full historical overview of the attempt to define objects on stage, in terms of function and meaning.

Sofer seemed excited about Paavolainen’s approach of using affordances. He said

We can revise Veltruský’s “All on stage is a sign,” to “All on stage affords.”

All of this dovetailed nicely into my paper, “Devising a Mental Process for Approaching a Prop”. If you read the abstract, you will know I attempted to describe how an artisan determines the best way to build a prop. I focused mainly on deciphering the needs of a prop above any other consideration.

In a successful production, every single prop will be built to do exactly what it needs to do. Their appearance, including their tactile and auditory qualities, will serve the play. They will stand up to whatever stress they must endure through the run of the show. Their physical properties, such as size and weight, will not inhibit the actors in using them night after night, nor will they impede their movement and manipulation backstage. If a prop fulfills all of its needs, then it was built correctly.

Andrew Sofer opined that a prop says to the artisan, “by its needs shall you build us!” Returning to affordances, if a chair affords sitting, than it should be built to make sitting practical. In a more general sense, whatever a prop affords, or wants to afford, is what a props artisan must build it to do. As many of us know, it is seldom up to the props artisan to tell the director how a prop should be used.

And that’s how my paper went. It seemed to be well received by the other presenters. It dovetailed nicely with many of the overall themes of this year’s conference, but it added a practical component to an otherwise academic topic. Props is one of those areas where the academic and practical have long been kept seperate, but would probably benefit from greatly if they continued to be brought together as they were this past weekend.

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