Tag Archives: definition

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, 1912

The following article first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. Note: This article consistently misspells the name of Edward Siedle, who was the technical director at the Met.

Twenty Thousand Distinct Objects in the Opera’s Property Room

They Range From a Feather to a Set of Furniture, Include Armor, Food Supplies and Fans, and Show in Every Detail Careful Attention to Artistic and Historic Veracity.

One of the busiest men in this strenuous town is Edward Siedel of the Metropolitan Opera House. If you should run across a man wearing a black fedora hat on his head, an anxious frown upon his corrugated brow and a cigar between his teeth, seek no further. You will have found the hero of this tale.

Twenty-four hours out of the day Mr. Siedel is technical director of the opera house. The rest of the time he eats, sleeps and diverts himself. He got two winks of sleep one night last week. That was oversleeping himself by one wink, but he doesn’t expect it to happen again this year.

Mr. Siedel is the high muckamuck to whom all the stage hands, carpenters, electricians, property men and so forth are responsible. As an example of the extent of his duties take a single one of these departments, that of properties. Maybe everybody knows that a stage property, or “prop,” is everything used in a stage setting except the main scenery. Also everything carried by members of the company, artists, chorus or supers, except the clothes actually worn, which come under the head of costumes, and the wigs, which have a classification all their own.

In charge of the property department is a master of properties, who has to look after an insignificant total of about 20,000 objects! These range all the way from so trivial a thing as a single feather to whole sets of expensive furniture. The feather does duty in various operas in which a quill pen is needed, as in “Tosca,” where it is used to write the unhappy singer’s passport before she assassinates Scarpia.

The opera house property department has enough furniture to fill a hotel. There are over 100 side chairs, as those without arms are called; about forty arm chairs and fifteen sofas, not counting various settees, benches and wooden stools. In the same category are about fifty tables, several screens, hatracks, a cheval glass, chests and so on. All this is real furniture.

In “Donne Curiose” the settings for the two scenes of the first act are perhaps more costly, so far as the properties are concerned, than any others to be seen at the Metropolitan. In the first scene, showing the gaming room, the chairs are of wood and real leather, the tables and the buffet are handsome pieces of furniture and the wine coolers and similar articles on the buffet are of good plated silver. In the second scene the chairs are of gilt and brocade, there are several handsome tables and a beautiful cheval glass which was made to order.

The opera house is pretty well fixed to repel an attack, for in the property master’s department there are about 500 swords of all shapes and sizes, 350 helmets, 100 breastplates, 8 full suits of armor, scores of spears, a lot of guns and even some big sticks which would make T.R. himself sit up and take notice. The last named belong to the giants in the Ring and cause an ordinary shillelah to look like a baby’s rattle.

All those little flowering shrubs for “Madama Butterfly” are properties. So are the bunches of flowers used in the second act of that opera, the garlands used in “Lobetanz” and other pieces, the apple blossom leaves showered on the Goose Girl in “Königskinder”, and the dead leaves which drop in “Parsifal.” There is a pretty good sized vegetable kingdom, in fact, under the property man’s care.

He is the Jove too who launches the thunderbolts by means of the thunder drum, although the lightning owes allegiance only to the chief electrician. The thunder drum, which looks more like an overgrown squirrel cage than like a drum, is classed as one of the fifty-five real musical instruments which belong in  the property department.

These are not the fake harps, as in “Lobetanz,” or other imitation instruments but the real thing. They are all numbered, 1 to 55, and include such a curious variety as the thunder drum above mentioned, whistles, wind makers, bells, trumpets, a piano and the great pipe organ itself.

Mighty few persons in the audiences that listen to “Aida,” for instance, know that there is a stage band at the opera house entirely separate from the orchestra. Its members play those silver trumpets in “Aida” and they are the heralds in “Lohengrin.” In fact whenever any instrument is to be played on the stage itself a member of this band does it.

This article will continue in a later post. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

What is a Props Coordinator?

You sometimes find the title “props coordinator” listed in the back of a Playbill. Sometimes it might be “production props coordinator” or “props supervisor”. You know what a props master is; why is this other term sometimes used instead?

In every Broadway house (and many of the larger union houses across the country), you have a “house props” position. This is a union job in charge of the preset of all the props, running the show, and clearing at the end of the night. Basically, any time a prop needs to be touched or moved outside of the performance, it must be done by the house props or a member of his crew.

This position is distinct from the production props master, who acquires all the props during preproduction through opening. On smaller shows or transfers, a production props person may not be needed, either because the props arrive complete as a “package”, or because the particular house props person is a props master in his own right. But most shows go through their own period of rehearsals, and so a production props master is needed.

Some union props people have both jobs. They work as a production props master on one show during the day, then run a show as the house props at a different theater at night. This is true in other departments as well; many of the union shops around New York City are open from 7am to 3pm to allow workers time to run shows at night.

The production props master position does not need to be union. Many rehearsal spaces around New York City are not union spaces, and the production props master or her assistants can carry the props around, make modifications or repairs, or otherwise work in the space.

However, once the props arrive at the theater space, they can only be handled by the union. This means that a non-union props master can literally carry the props to the front door, then drop them and wait for a member of the house props crew to come and carry it to the stage. Once inside, they can ask the crew to repair or modify props, but cannot physically touch anything themselves. This can lead to potential frustrations, but many non-union props masters have found ways to make this work.

When it comes time to print the Playbill, the union only allows its own members to use the title “props master” or “production props master”. So for shows with a non-union props master, the term “props coordinator” (or one of its variations) is used instead.

The Two Definitions of a Prop

A lot of ink has been spilled over what the proper definition of “props” would include. Many arguments try to deal with specific items—is a parasol a prop? A dog? I think props can be more easily defined once we realize there are two different ways of thinking on the subject: the academic way, and the practical way. The academic way is useful in terms of script and production analysis, while the practical way is useful when planning a production.

The Academic Way

One of the more pivotal books in our contemporary understanding of props is Andrew Sofer’s The Stage Life of Props. In it, Sofer says, “a prop can be more rigorously defined as a discrete, material, inanimate object that is visibly manipulated by an actor in the course of performance.”

He uses this definition to state that an object on stage must be “triggered” by an actor before it becomes a prop. He says “Thus a hat or sword remains an article of costume until an actor removes or adjusts it, and a chair remains an item of furniture unless an actor shifts its position.” This definition demands that an “actor-object interaction” is necessary for a prop to exist: “Irrespective of its signifying function(s), a prop is something an object becomes, rather than something an object is.” 1

He draws some of his theory from Francis Teague, who described a property as “an object, mimed or tangible, that occurs onstage, where it functions differently from the way it functions offstage.” He elaborates on the idea of function (or “dislocated function”, as he calls it) further:

The property has a function, but it is not the same function as it has offstage (though it may imitate that ordinary function). The ordinary function of the object does not disappear; an object has the same connotation that it has offstage, for example. A knife might connote passion or violence when it appears onstage, but it will not function to injure anyone and may even be physically modified (by blunting or a retractable blade) so that it cannot cut. Its ordinary function of cutting is simply displaced onstage by the object’s function in the performance—to seem to cut, to suggest passion or violence. 2

Both scholars (and many others) draw their inspiration from Jiří Veltruský’s landmark 1940 essay, “Man and Object in the Theater”. In it, he posits that items on stage cannot be divided strictly into “subjects” and “objects”, but exist in a fluid continuum between the two. Thus, an actor who exists merely as a spear carrier in a scene is downgraded to “object”, and can even be thought of as a prop. A prop exists as an “object”, but should it acquire enough significance in a scene, it can become a “subject” much like an actor. 3

The Practical Way

Of course, in reality, if one is charged with providing the props for a production, one needn’t worry about mimed and imaginary props. Also, while it is academically useful to think of a costume or set piece “becoming” a prop when it is interacted with, only one physical object is needed (likewise, an actor who “becomes” a prop does not need to be rented or built by the props shop). You will not have both the scenery and props departments build identical chairs that can be magically switched when an actor begins his interaction with it.

From a practical standpoint, if an object in a production will become a prop at some point, than it must be considered a prop at all points. All departments have their own plots—light plots, costume plots, prop plots, etc.—and every object and piece of equipment in a production must appear on one and only one of those plots. The department heads are tasked with their own respective items and no one else’s 4. When the show is running, the items remain the responsibility of each departments—costumes are kept in the dressing rooms by the wardrobe crew, while props are laid out on prop tables by the props running crew.

A grey area also exists between props, costumes and set design (and sometimes other departments as well). They “do not work in isolation; each is an integral part of the whole, and at times their roles are bound to overlap.” 5 While academics may feel comfortable viewing stage objects as existing along a fluid continuum, changing between prop, costume and set during a single performance, for practicality’s sake, the responsibility for each object must be assigned to one specific department. As Margaret Harris says in her famous essay, “In the professional theatre, it is essential to clarify from the beginning who is responsible for each article, and a decision is usually made according to whether it can best be handled by stage, property, or costume staff, and which budget can best afford it.” 6

A lawsuit between the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and IATSE from 2007 brings up some interesting considerations for the practical definition of a prop. At the Rep, the scenery was constructed by a union shop, while the props shop was nonunion, thus making the line between prop and scenery one of legal importance. Though technically the lawsuit concerned the difference between a “prop” and “furniture” (Milwaukee Rep, at that time, being one of the only theatres where the stage furniture was built by the scene shop rather than the prop shop), two of the points made by the judge are worth mentioning for our discussion.

“[W]hen a prop is acquired or constructed by the Rep, it is not disposed of following the close of the play in which it was used. Rather, it is stored for potential reuse in a subsequent production. Thus, in a future production, the King Lear trunk may reappear on stage, perhaps as part of the background illustrating the character of the setting, or perhaps in a similar manner as it was used in King Lear, indicating that it held the possessions of royalty venturing off on a journey. The same trunk, yet two different roles.”

An object which is a “prop” in one production can be used as “scenery” in a second production and as a “costume” in a third. The extension of this idea is that even if an object was the responsibility of one department in the past, a similar item may be the responsibility of a different department in the future. A built-in bookcase may be considered scenery in one production, and a few months later, a detached bookcase by be considered a prop, even when the appearance of the two bookcases are nearly identical. It is not the object, but its use which determines whether it is a prop or not.

I’d like to point out the second statement made by the judge:

“[T]he fact that the scene shop or the prop shop made a particular item in the past bears only minimal relevance to the question of whether that particular item was in fact constructed by the proper shop… Guy testified that when the prop shop is overloaded it may call upon the scene shop for help. (Tr. 79-80.) Thus, it is possible that when the union made a particular item it was the result of the prop shop’s request rather than an understanding that the construction was contractually required.” 7

This becomes more important when looking at prop shops in different theatres. Some theatres with a highly-skilled costume crafts department may relegate masks to the costume shop, while in theatres where the costume shop is more strictly populated by stitchers and drapers, the props shop may handle masks. 8. Whether or not a mask is technically a “prop” is independent of deciding which department will build specific masks for a specific production. Likewise, you cannot look at how other theatres deal with masks (or any grey area) as evidence of what is a prop or not.

Thus, while you may wish to define a prop as “those things provided by a props shop”, you must remember that specific items are divvied up according to the logistical challenges of a specific show at a specific theater. It is also important to keep in mind that props shops have duties beyond just providing props; in some venues, the props shop is traditionally charged with sweeping and mopping the stage. In theatre, prop masters have to take care of set dressing, which is a different department in film and television, and not really considered “props” in the academic sense.

Conclusion

While the academic and practical way of thinking about props may not always agree, both define props conditionally. You can’t just say “knives are always a prop, and walls are never a prop.” Rather, they are defined by how they are used in that specific production.

 

Notes:

  1. Andrew Sofer, The Stage Life of Props, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 11-12.
  2. Frances N. Teague, Shakespeare’s Speaking Properties, (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1991), 16-18.
  3. Jiří Veltruský, “Man and Object in the Theater,” in A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure, and Style, ed. and trans. Paul L. Garvin (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1964), 84. ISBN 0-87840-151-2
  4. Though one plot may reference an item in another plot. For instance, a prop plot may list “Malvolio’s garters – provided by costumes.” This is to avoid confusion in case a props person sees that the garters are missing from the props plot, and, unaware that the costume shop is taking care of them, spends unnecessary time and money producing a second pair.
  5. Govier, Jacquie (1984). Create Your Own Stage Props. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. p. 8. ISBN 0-13-189044-1.
  6. Harris, Margaret (1975). “Introduction”. In Motley. Theatre Props. New York: Drama Book Specialists/Publishers. p. 7. ISBN 0-910-482-66-7.
  7. IATSE Local 18 v. Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Inc., 2007 WL 1502115 (E.D. Wis. 2007).
  8. Hart, Eric (2013). The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV. Burlington, MA: Focal Press. p. 4. 978-0-240-82138-2.
Flush, Shy and Proud

Better Proud than Shy

When you have to line up two pieces of material to create a corner, your pieces may be either flush, shy or proud. The illustration below shows what I mean:

Flush, Shy and Proud
Flush, Shy and Proud

A piece is flush when it lines up with the outside face of the other piece. A piece is shy when it is inset from the outside face, and proud when it sticks out a bit.

While your goal is to be flush, it is often better to be a little proud. A proud piece can be trimmed or sanded so it is flush. If you try to line your pieces up exactly flush, you may end up shy. When you’re shy, it is harder to make it flush after the glue has dried; you either have to use filler (which is often too fragile to hold a good corner) or sand the long piece of material on its entire face.

So, in fabrication at least, it is better to be proud than shy.

Some Confusions in the World of Plastics

I’ve been researching the wide world of plastics for the book I’m working on. I’m trying to make sure my terminology is correct, and it’s proving daunting; plastics is a world where many terms can refer to the same thing, and common-use terms may not be technically correct. Add to the mix a bunch of trade names which are used generically, and you end up with one big confusing mess.

Take urethane rubber for instance. If you are into molding and casting you may have used it. “Urethane” in this case is a shortening of “polyurethane”, the same kind of plastic you use as a clear varnish among other things. “Urethane” is also a specific substance in the world of plastics; it is known as “ethyl carbamate”. Polyurethane does not contain ethyl carbamate, nor is it made from it.

Rubber can refer to a material or a substance. The substance, sometimes clarified as “natural rubber”, has historically been derived from the latex tree, though the proliferation of latex allergies has led to some companies experimenting with different plant sources. Synthetic rubbers, such as nitrile, do not contain latex; the “rubber” in their name refers to the fact that their properties mimic natural rubber. Technically, they are all referred to as “elastomers”.

Thus, “urethane rubber” contains neither urethane, nor rubber.

Speaking of latex, we all know and love latex paint for painting houses both inside and out. Sometimes we even use it to paint props. It does not actually contain any latex. It refers to paints which use plastics as their binders, such as acrylic, polyvinyl acrylic, styrene, etc. Vinyl resins are cheaper than acrylic resins, and most house paints contain a lot more vinyl than acrylic, which is why pure acrylic paint is a lot more expensive than house paint.

In case you are wondering, the acrylic in paint is the same acrylic found in sheet form, known commonly by trade names such as Plexiglas and Lucite. Crazy!