I recently began checking out the YouTube channel of the British Pathé, one of the largest historical video archives on the planet. Pathé news was filming nearly everything between 1910 and 1970 in the UK and around the world. They have a few recordings of theatre life in decades past. I really enjoyed this 1933 “Peep Behind the Scenes”:
The following illustrations are taken from an 1870 book about the backstage areas of Edwin Booth’s theatre in New York City.
The book has this to say about the property room and adjoining armory:
The “property room” gathers within its fold a marvellous curiosity-shop; helmets and tiaras, mitres and swords, crowns and masks, gyves and chains; furniture of the past and of to-day, “cheek by jowl;” griffins and globes, biers and beer-cups, coffins and thrones; decorations for the garden, the boudoir, the palace; furniture for the salon or the hovel—a multitude of things, in fact, more numerous than can readily be catalogued. The “armory”, if not a collection of such strange things, is interesting, and looks as if we were wandering through some ancient tower or castle rather than “behind the scenes” at a theatre.
Because the illustrations are so charming, I thought I would show a few more.
The book also does the great service of giving the names of all the backstage workers at that time:
We must give large credit for all the complete features of this theatre to Mr. J. L. Peake whose inventive talent constructed the machinery; to Mr. Withan, whose skilful pencil gives us pictures of such rare beauty; to Mr. Deuel, whose tase and research provide all those many accessories of furniture and properties, so often necessary to give illusion to the scene; to Mr. Joyce, who reproduces with historical accuracy the costumes of bygone periods; to Mr. Dunn, the carpenter, without whom the play were naught; and to Mr. Kelsey, engineer, whose care and watchfulness contribute to our safety and comfort.
The property man’s full name is James P. Deuel.
Originally published in Booth’s Theatre. Behind the Scenes. Illustrated, by OB Bunce. Reproduced from Appletons’ Journal. New York: Henry L. Hinton, 1870.
Here’s a story about a prop master who has found a new career killing zombies. I think most props people imagine they would be pretty well equipped to fight zombies.
Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) has quite an intense and detailed tutorial on making a silicone rubber mold with a plaster mother mold (or as he calls it, a “hard shell mold”). It is perhaps a bit more involved than most theatrical prop shops would ever need, but a lot of the extra steps he does are to keep the mold from collapsing on itself and to ensure the two halves are lined up perfectly.
What do you want to know about drill bits? How about everything! Ok, so this free PDF guide to drill bits deals only with woodworking (no metal or plastics), but it is still a useful amount of information available at a glance.
So, I’ve talked about the invention of the jig saw before; its history is at least somewhat intertwined with the history of fret and scroll saws. Well, Chris Schwartz has a piece on the history of the coping saw, another tool sharing this history. I personally love my coping saw, and consider it one of the indispensable tools in my prop-making bag.
The National Theatre in England has a video going behind the scenes of their new production of Timon of Athens.
The video deals with all aspects of the backstage production, including costumes, stage management and set design, as well as props. Lizzie Frankl, the props supervisor, talks about tables, chairs and, um, poo.
I found the following images in a copy of “The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine” from 1900. They appeared in an article about performing Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I love how they give a glimpse of what backstage life was like over a hundred years ago. In most respects, it is very much unchanged from the present form.
Though asleep, the stage hand above is “better dressed” than the typical stage hand today. Than again, most stage hands need to wear all black clothes, and the fabrics today stand up to much more wear and tear and are easier to clean than the suits and trousers of 1900.
I love the looks of these chorus members as they wait for their moment on stage. What is also interesting is the flat in the background, which is constructed in exactly the same way that modern flats are.
This moving dragon shows a low-tech but reliable solution that is still utilized in all but the highest-budget performances today.
The wagons which carry these boys would not look out of place in a modern opera production. I find it interesting again how the stage hand is dressed; it is not just that he is wearing a vest and tie, but that his shirt appears to be white rather than the dark colors we usually wear back stage.
Finally, this illustration goes to show you that back stage areas have always been cramped.
Images originally appeared in “The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 59, Richard Watson Gilder, The Century Co, 1900.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies