1903 Lectures on the Property Man’s Job

I recently came upon the 1903-1904 academic catalog for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. At that time, it was a two-year program for young men aged sixteen to seventeen. The school still exists, granting two-year associates degrees to aspiring actors.

All students at the time were given introductory lectures in the various technical departments on stage. The lecture on props has a bullet-point list of all the topic covered, which I have reprinted below. It is fascinating to see the list of what a props person was responsible for and what skills they were required to have from over 110 years ago, and compare it to today.

The lectures were given by a Mr. Wilfred Buckland, with assistance by Mr. Edgar J. M. Hart (no relation) and Miss Louise Musson. The topics of the lectures are as follows:

The Property Man’s Work in Preparing a Production:

  • The property plot
  • cabinet work
  • paper work
  • upholstery, furniture, bric-à-brac, carpets, rugs, hangings
  • stage props
  • side props
  • hand props
  • written letters
  • inserts in newspapers

The Property Man’s Work at Performance:

  • Helpers and clearers
  • system
  • the property room
  • laying the floor cloth
  • setting the stage
  • marking
  • dressing a scene
  • hanging curtains
  • hanging side props
  • effects
  • apparatuses
  • flash pans
  • rain box
  • thunder box
  • thunder crash
  • glass crash
  • carriage roll
  • knocks
  • snow box
  • salt
  • fuller’s earth
  • blowers
  • leaves, stumps, and grass mats
  • animals
  • the rosin box
  • eatables

Striking Properties:

  • Clearing
  • handling furniture
  • care of props

You can read the whole 1903 Annual Catalog of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts here.

 

 

First Links of August

First Links of August

Happy August, everyone. While the “regulars” still have some summer left, those of us in theatre are already gearing up to work on all the new shows for the fall season, not to mention those of us in the academic world getting ready for the new school year. But there’s still time to read about props stuff on the internet, so enjoy the following:

Priceonomics has a short history of fake money in the movies. It delves into some of the more high-profile cases of fake movie money making it into the real world, and the resultant crack-downs by the Secret Service. It goes into detail of some of the rules of using money on film and how the top prop houses modify their fake money to follow those rules.

Casey Neistat has a new video series on his studio, and his first video shows his red box system of organization.  He’s an independent film maker, but his system solves the same problems that prop shops have: how to save a little bit of everything, but be able to find it quickly.

Adam Savage has spent over four years painstakingly recreating the Mecha-Glove from the Hellboy film. Tested has a video where they talk with Adam about all the various processes and challenges of building this complex piece.

Finally, Credits has a great piece on building The Guardians of the Galaxy. Though it only briefly touches on the props for the film, it does delve into a lot of the physical and design work that went on in a number of the departments. Plus, it looks like a really exciting film.

The Ten Best Props (of 1921)

The following article, written by Lisle Bell, first appeared in Theatre Magazine in May of 1922. It’s interesting that theatre-goers from almost a hundred years ago recognized that props were forgotten during awards ceremonies. It’s also cool that one of the ten best props of 1921 was the bar in “Anna Christie”, a prop that I tackled earlier this year.

As the dramatic year draws to a close, the critical pastime of handing out the laurel begins. The producers are sitting in their box offices, counting out the money, and the actors are beginning to look forward to the relaxations of the Atlantic or of Great Neck, but meantime the critical judges, both professional and amateur, are busy thumbing over their accumulated programmes. Those who have blue ribbons to pin, prepare to pin them now.

These exercises usually take the form of “ten best” and “ten best that.” Combing over the productions of the season, the experts select the plays and players who have, in their estimation, contributed most to the advancement of their art. Their choices, alphabetically arranged or else tabulated in the order of merit, are duly published to a waiting world, and mere theatregoers spend many a pleasant evening quarreling with their decisions or improving upon them.

The Drama League makes an authentic choice of those who have rendered the greatest service to the cause, and those thus honored are invited to a banquet, where they occupy such positions of distinction, and are in fact so conspicuous, that one wonders whether they really have a chance to enjoy the food. Perhaps, however, the actors who attend those functions do not have to satisfy an appetite, and so merely go through the motions of eating with evident relish, much as they might do while taking part in a stage meal.

There is something truly fascinating about stage food, and the manner of its histrionic disappearance. Who will ever forget that patient loaf of bread that Margaret Wycherly kept eternally cutting in “Jane Clegg”? And does anyone recall a more intense scene of drama than that opening of the last act of “The Grand Duke”—with no one on the stage but Lionel Atwill and his breakfast? Here was drama reduced to highest nutriment—the conflict between an epicure and his spices which was as packed with thrills as a conflict between a dope fiend and his vices. Atwill gave as much thought and deliberation to the dressing of his salad as Ziegfeld gives to the undressing of his chorus.

The more we think about the importance of this property breakfast, the more we are struck with the fact that the whole domain of stage props has been neglected in the annual awards of the drama experts. Burns Mantle edits a volume of the best plays of the year; the magazine critics issue their ukases of ten best “unfeatured male players,” and “unfeatured female players;” even the reviewers at Podunk and one-night stands get out lists of the best things that have come to the “opry house,”—and all this time the props have languished, unwept and unsung.

Here goes, then, for the ten best props of the season of 1921-22: Continue reading

Creature Features

I caught a few episodes of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop a while back when my wife was in the hospital. It was very entertaining and informative, and probably the closest a reality show has come to portraying what prop builders actually do (though the show deals with creature building). I recently found that the SyFy website has some companion Creature Feature videos to go with the show.

In the videos, the expert mentors on the show, Peter Brooke, John Criswell and Julie Zobel, take you through the process of building a creature. They start with design and sculpting, go through the animatronics, show you different finishing techniques, and end with how puppeteers bring it to life. It’s not an explicit “how-to” guide, since they gloss through everything quickly and don’t go into details. But if you have some experience, it is great to see how the masters do it, since you can get a lot of inspiration of new things to try on your own.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies