I actually enjoy watching the Tonys. I wrote this not out of bitterness, just as an annual reminder that the technicians, crew and artisans of theatre make a lot of the “magic” happen. We already receive little recognition in the playbills; to be ignored by this and most other major theatrical award ceremonies is a huge oversight.
I sometimes think this helps lead to an atmosphere where directors and producers think magic just “happens” and that theatre tech can accomplish anything. They think it’s perfectly reasonable to request a new prop on Saturday night and have it by Sunday morning. Or to give a paint note before dinner break and have it be done and dry by the time they are back on stage. Or my favorite, that any item imaginable can be found in the “prop room” that you have hidden away.
Of course, many of the recipients of Tony Awards take the time to thank the crew and technicians, knowing that their hard work helped contribute to the success of the production. Some even take the time to thank individuals. Last night, Andrea Martin thanked the rigger for Pippin in her Tony acceptance speech. In 2011, Sutton Foster broke into tears while thanking her dresser. That’s not bad when you consider they only have 75 seconds to thank everyone in their life.
The Tonys used to honor technicians and craftspeople. The Tony Award for Best Stage Technician began in 1948 at the second Tony Awards ceremony, and ended in 1963, being received by 14 individuals. Joe Lynn won in 1949, making him the only props person to win a Tony. Peter Feller won the the Tony Award for Best Stage Technician for Call Me Madam. In 1984, he won a Special Tony Award in recognition of his “theater stagecraft and magic” for over 40 years.
Other stage technicians have also been recognized through special Tony Awards. Some include P.A. MacDonald (set construction) in 1947, Edward Kook (lighting) in 1952, Thomas H. Fitzgerald (lighting) in 1976, and Walter F. Diehl (president of IATSE) in 1979.
The Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre have also been used to recognize technicians. IATSE won the award in 1993. In 2003, it was given to wig and hair stylist Paul Huntley. In 2007, wardrobe supervisor Alyce Gilbert and CEO of Hudson Scenic Studios Neil Mazzella both won. Last night, one was awarded to Peter Lawrence, the Production Stage Manager on Annie, and over 20 previous Broadway productions.
Tomorrow, the nominees for this year’s Tony Awards will be announced. Once again, there will be no category for Prop Design, or recognition of props people in any capacity. The only time a props person has ever been recognized at the Tony’s was in 1949, when Joe Lynn won for his work as master propertyman on Miss Liberty in the (now defunct) category of “Best Stage Technician”. I first wrote about him in my article asking “Why is there no Tony Award for Props?” and I thought I would write a little more about what I know of him (especially now that I’ve added a “Joe Lynn” page on Wikipedia).
He was born in August of 1887 and died in 1969. His career in props began in 1915, and by his own account, he has worked on hundreds of Broadway shows.
In 1936, a dramatic version of the novel Ethan Frome was put on at the National Theatre. It was staged by Guthrie McClintic, with scenic design by Jo Mielziner. The stage was covered in snow, and I wrote about Joe Lynn’s solution to the snow in a previous post:
After much trial and error, they arrived at a mixture of white cornmeal, ground quartz and powdered mica flakes.
The Eve of St. Mark
Joe Lynn was the prop master of the 1942 production of The Eve of St. Mark at the Cort Theatre. It was directed by Lem Ward, with scenic design by Howard Bay. The May 22, 1943, issue of The New Yorker featured a short article on the letters which Lynn created for this production.
Every day, and twice a day on matinée days, he has written a real letter for the use of Mary Rolfe, who plays the girl, and she has added a few words of her own before sealing it. There’s no need for any of this super-realism, you understand; a sheet of paper with a few random scribbles on it would be good enough to fool even the people in the front row.
The show ran for 307 performances, and Joe wrote a letter for each one; when the show went on tour, the prop man for the road company was ordered to follow in this tradition. The July 5, 1943, issue of The Princeton Bulletin reveals that Lynn had donated three of these letters for their exhibit on Maxwell Anderson, the author of The Eve of St. Mark. You can read the issue online or download a PDF of it.
Death of a Salesman
1949 saw Lynn again working with Jo Mielziner as well as director Elia Kazan for the Broadway premiere of Death of a Salesman at the Morosco Theatre. In his 1965 memoir, Mielziner writes about the difficulty in finding a particular icebox for the show:
[T]hey were hard to find, even in the best junkyards. However, [Lynn] told me not to worry: “We’ll allow ourselves enough time so that if we can’t find one, we can make it.” A good property man like Joe Lynn is incredibly versatile; what he can’t find, he must–and can–make.
You can see the icebox–and other props which Lynn built and acquired–in the photograph below:
Joe Lynn was the props master on the 1949 production of Miss Liberty at the Imperial Theatre. This show was directed by Moss Hart, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and the sets and costumes were designed by Oliver Smith. The show itself was not very well received, and the Tony Award which Lynn received for the show was the only nod the show got at the awards; it was the same year South Pacific had come out, which snatched up ten Tony’s.
Joe Lynn worked again with Kazan and Mielziner on the 1955 debut of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Morosco. Besides its importance in the history of American theatre, the show is also noteworthy for being Ming Cho Lee’s first paid Broadway gig. In Designing and Painting for the Theatre, by Lynn Pecktal, Lee himself tells us:
Then I did a bar in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that was very important. A portion of the bar lifted up and it was all catty-cornered on a raked platform. Joe Lynn, the prop man on that show, said we would have to build it because we would never find it. And I drew the bar so accurately that he was able to build it straight from the drawing and it worked, which was a marvelous compliment.
Lee is being a little modest here. In USITT presents the designs of Ming Cho Lee, Delbert Unruh tells us:
Warren Clymer had left the studio and Lee was assisting on all of the shows, but it was his drafting of the complicated bar unit for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that got him his first paycheck. The bar had to open up at the flip of a switch and it was sitting on a raked stage. Lee prepared the drafting of the bar and it was sent to Joe Lynn, the legendary Broadway prop man. Lynn came to the studio to discuss the props for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and told Mielziener, “This kid is OK. I can build from this drawing.” He became the second assistant in the studio at $75.00 per week and now felt fully vindicated in the eyes of his father and stepfather.
So in his own small way, Joe Lynn had a part in Ming Cho Lee’s success, a path which would lead to Lee becoming one of the father’s of contemporary American scene design.
Other Broadway productions
Nobody thinks to include props people and other stage technicians in their databases, so searching for other shows which Joe Lynn has worked on involves going through the original Playbills from the time period. A few I’ve found include:
A New Life
written and directed by Elmer Rice
Scenic Design by Howard Bay
Send Me No Flowers
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
directed by James Dyas
Scenic Design by Frederick Fox
Under the Yum-Yum Tree
Henry Miller’s Theatre
directed by Joseph Anthony
Scenic Design by Oliver Smith
The Private Ear and The Public Eye
directed by Peter Wood
Production Design by Richard Negri
For Send Me No Flowers, the credit is listed as “special props by Joe Lynn and Dunkel Studio Associates”. Anyone who has access to other Playbills of the time and can search for shows Joe has worked, I’d love to hear about it. For that matter, anyone who has further information or anecdotes about the only Tony Award—winning props master, drop me a line.
Update (July 31, 2014):
The article originally stated Lynn was born on February 2, 1898, and died March 15, 1984, which was totally wrong. I’ve updated the post with the correct information.
Every winter, many performing arts institutions put on some kind of winter or holiday show. From a traditional Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker Suite, to the more modern A Christmas Story and The Santaland Diaries, many of these shows involve snow to some extant. Now, depending on the context of the snow and the traditions of the theater you work at, snow can be the responsibility of one or more departments: props, scenery, sometimes even lighting. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know some of the many ways snow is recreated, whether or not it ends up being the prop department’s responsibility.
For the 1936 Broadway production of Ethan Frome, scenic designer Jo Mielziner was very specific about the properties of the snow which covered most of the stage. It fell to Joe Lynn, the property master, to come up with a recipe. After much trial and error, they arrived at a mixture of white cornmeal, ground quartz and powdered mica flakes. As Mielziner himelf explains:
The cornmeal provided the right consistency, the quartz gave the crunching sound and the mica simulated the sparkling surface of snow in moonlight.
(from Designing for the theatre: a memoir and a portfolio, by Jo Mielziner; Atheneum, 1965, pg. 90)
Joe Lynn also added some rat poison to the mix to keep vermin away, which is probably not the safest solution available to today’s theatres. Also, using particles and powders as a floor covering—this is true of sand as well—can trigger issues with your fire marshal and even Actor’s Equity; you want to make sure you involve them as soon as possible so that you don’t end up using something which is not allowed.
For snowballs, previous props people have used white bar soap shaved into bits with a cheese grater. The resulting bits can be packed into a snowball which explodes on impact. Others suggest instant mashed potato flakes. In either case, water can be mixed in or spritzed on to make the snowballs stick better. If the actors are throwing the snowballs at people, obviously you want the snowball to break apart on impact as easily as possible. A lot of variables come into play: how hard the actor throws it, what it is hitting against, the temperature and humidity in your theatre, how far in advance you need to make the snowballs, etc. As a result of all these variables, there is no “exact recipe”, and research and development is essential.
Another option is the interior of disposable diapers (new ones, not used ones). They contain a powder called sodium polyacrylate, a polymer which absorbs 800–1000 times its own weight, effectively turning a liquid into a solid gel. It is also sold in magic shops and novelty stores as “slush powder”.
If a show calls for falling snow, it is often the props departments duty to procure the snow, while scenery is in charge of making it fall from the air. I know, it’s bizarre. The preferred method for at least the past hundred and thirty years is using clipped paper. Unfortunately, regular paper will not pass today’s fire retardant standards. If the thought of fire-proofing every snowflake for every performance is too overwhelming, theatrical suppliers, like Rose Brand, sell flame-proofed paper snow flakes. Expect to pay a lot though, and be aware that everyone needs snow during the winter and they are often sold out by this time of the year.
A more modern alternative is plastic flakes. Rose Brand sells these as well, but you can make your own if you wish. You can find paper shredders (for offices) which not only cut in strips, but also crosscut those pieces to make confetti. You can run white grocery bags or garbage bags through one to make your own plastic snow flakes. Bear in mind that you need a lot of snowflakes to make even a short-duration snowfall over a small stage. You’ll need more for multiple performances. You may be tempted to sweep as much as you can from one performance to use in the next one. Be aware that when you are picking up the old snow, you are also picking up all the dirt and dust from the stage. You don’t want to rain crud down onto your performers during a show; the dust can get in their eyes, and larger particles may even injure them when dropped from the top of the stage.
Imagine The Phantom of the Opera without the chandelier, the organ, the boats, or the mirror. Imagine Les Misérables without guns or the breakaway chair. Imagine other shows without the props. These are all shows that have won Tony Awards for their Set Designs. But what would they be without the props?
First, let us consider why there is no props or props design categories in awards ceremonies. Historically, props have been the realm of the set designer. In addition to walls and floors (and sometimes ceilings), the set designer is responsible for describing and designing all the props. Though the actors may request them, or the director finds he or she wants them, or the stage manager discover a need for one, the set designer has the first and final decision on the “look” of the prop. Of course, the prop master is frequently finding all the possible options, and in the end, the set designer is merely choosing between the two or three options which the props master has presented. Also, many set designers do not go into nearly enough detail that the props master doesn’t find him or herself filling in the gaps. Sometimes the hardest job can be taking a thousand possibilities and turning them into a single reality. Some set designers love to give the props master a stack of research images to serve as design “inspiration”, which forces the prop master to do all the legwork.
In many modern settings, the set designer is far too busy to deal with the minutia of all the various props in a production. It often falls to the first or even second assistant to research, design and draft the furniture and special hand props. Many times, a prop master will deal solely with one of the assistants through the entire process to hone the selection of all the props. Even with the undivided attention of an entire assistant, the prop master is still forced to make many design decisions.
Some productions have begun recognizing the need for a distinct props designer. Otherwise, the props remain lumped within the set design purview, even when their design is undertaken by completely separate people. There remain shows where “set design” encompasses the designing of the props; in other cases, keeping the two together makes as much sense as combining architecture and interior design. Sound design used to be undertaken by the second assistant in the lighting department; it has since broken apart and is now recognized as its own discipline with its own category at most awards ceremonies. Props is far older than sound design. In fact, it predates the idea of a “scenic designer” in most cultures and theatre traditions. You can do Hamlet without scenery, but you can’t do it without a skull.
A year after the Tony’s were founded, they introduced an award for Best Stage Technician. In 1950, Joe Lynn won a Tony for his work as master propertyman on Miss Liberty. The last award for this category was given in 1963. Joe Lynn remains the single props person to have won a Tony in its 63 year history.
Most of the other New York-based theatrical awards are equally deficient in their recognition of props and prop design. The Drama Desk Awards, the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle all neglect to include props as a category. In 2004, Faye Armon was recognized as part of the design team for Bug, becoming the only person to win an Obie for props. She is, arguably, only the second New York props person to ever be awarded for her work.
Other cities and regions are similar in their non-recognition of props design. The Drammy Awards began in 1979 to recognize Oregon theatre. In 2006, they awarded Andy Berry for Properties in Underneath the Lintel. The Acclaim Awards in Cincinnati began in 2006. They gave an award for Properties to Shannon Rae Lutz in 2010 for Great American Trailer Park Musical. These are the exceptions to the rule, however.
Neither Chicago’s Jeff Awards, nor Los Angeles’ Drama Critics Circle Awards recognize props or props design. The South Florida Carbonell Awards, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards, Boston’s Elliot Norton Awards, San Diego’s Craig Noel Awards and Washington DC’s Helen Hayes Awards are equally remiss in their recognition of the value of props to a theatrical production.
I can go on – and I will; The Barrymores in Philadelphia, Boston’s IRNE Awards, the Ivey Awards in Minneapolis, the Henrys in Colorado, and St. Louis’ Kevin Kline Awards follow the trend set by the Tony’s by not giving awards to prop designers. This is not unique to the United States; The Laurence Olivier Awards, London’s equivalent to the Tony’s, does not give awards to props or any theatre technicians either.
So my question to you is this: should there be a Tony Award for Props? Why or why not?
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies