In our production of King Lear, which is in its last week of performances here at the Public Theater, one of the first props we knew we needed was a collection of dead animals for when the men return from hunting. I knew from doing Timon of Athens last winter that we had nothing in stock, no one in town had anything we could rent or borrow, and you can’t just go out and buy them, so I began trying to make a pheasant.
I began gathering research images and working out a pattern. I worked out the size by looking up average heights and lengths of pheasants, and from photographs where pheasants were next to people and other objects of known sizes. In retrospect, I should have looked at more pictures of dead pheasants; a pheasant has a really long neck. In most photographs of pheasants in action, the neck is contracted so the head appears close to the chest. When the pheasant is dead and hangs limp, the neck is actually a good five to six inches long. You can see I was drawing a bird with a contracted neck which left my dead pheasant looking stiffer than a real one. Ah well, now I know for the next time I have to build a dead pheasant.
Once I had the pattern, I cut pieces out of muslin and began stitching them together. I left one side open so I could fill it with sandbags for weight. Some of the stitching was a little sloppy, which was okay because the whole thing was going to be covered in feathers and small imperfections would be obscured. Continue reading →
Tech rehearsals for the Public Theater’s production of King Lear start this Thursday, and we are busy as ever in the props shop. My life is busy as ever between writing my book, preparing for Lear, tech rehearsals for Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and some minor revolution in New York City. So I don’t have much to write, but I do have a sampling of photographs of some of the props we are constructing for King Lear.
The “map” in our production is a tabletop topographical model of Lear’s kingdom. King Lear, played by Sam Waterston , actually kicks the whole table over, and pieces of the map break off. At least, that’s our goal. Besides Jay, a lot of the work has been undertaken by Fran Maxwell, with some help by Sara Swanberg and Raphael Mishler.
We need a variety of dead game for Lear’s men when they return from hunting. After last spring’s Timon of Athens, I already knew we had nothing decent in stock nor anything worth renting in the city, so we had to make some. Pictured above is my first attempt at building one from scratch and covering it in hackle pads and feathers. We then found complete pheasant hides, so we started using those as coverings, which freed us from having to glue individual feathers all over the bodies.
In addition to the pheasants and some rabbits, they wanted a larger dead animal as well. We gave them my fake dead lamb for rehearsals, which longtime readers may remember from last year. We then located the hide of a jackal which turned out to be nearly the same size as the lamb, so rather than construct a new dead animal, Sara Swanberg just set off covering the lamb with the jackal hide.
We have more cool stuff coming up, such as Michael McKean’s eyes which get torn out of his head. That should be quite a sight!
Here are some whimsical tales to tickle your funny bone on this Friday.
When Macready opened in “Lear” at the Nottingham Theatre the “property man” received his plot for the play in the unsual manner, a map being required among the many articles–(map highly necessary for Lear to divide his Kingdom.) The property-man, being illiterate, read mop for map. At night the tragedy commences; Macready, in full stage on his throne, calls for his map; a supernumerary “noble,” kneeling, presents the aged King a white curly mop. The astounded actor rushed off the stage, dragging the unfortunate nobleman and his mop with him, actors and audience wild with delight.
-The New York Times. February 6, 1881
Imagine King Lear being handed a mop! Priceless! This next chestnut is quite a gem as well.
The other night the critical scene in “Iris,” in which Oscar Asche “breaks up housekeeping,” was almost spoiled by a property man. To avenge a fancied wrong the man glued down the vases on the mantle which Mr. Asche breaks first. When that trying scene came Mr. Asche turned Iris into the streets as usual, and turned to the vases. With a sweep of his hand he struck them. They were so firmly glued, however, that only the tops were broken by the blow–and Mr. Asche’s hand incidentally bruised. A property man is now looking for a new job.
-The New York Times. November 2, 1902
Oh that wacky property man! This final anecdote takes place at one of the first theatres I worked at professionally.
Another story which has to do with edibles on the stage used to be told by Joseph Jefferson, who described the incident as happening in the early days of the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. “Camille” was the piece that was being played and all was going beautifully. Then came a scene between Camille and Armand, in the course of which a a servant was to enter with lights. “In those days,” said Mr. Jefferson, “Sea Island cotton was stage ice cream, just as molasses and water was stage wine.”
Armand and Camille were seated at the table and the crowded house was rapturuously following their scene. Then in came the maidservant with the wobbliest sort of a candelabrum, but the scene was so tense that nobody seemed to notice her. However, as she set down her burden between the lovers one of the candles toppled over and set fire to the ice cream. That was more than the audience could stand and the curtain was rung down.
-The New York Times. June 5, 1910
Sounds like that show was “on fire” that night! I hope these quirky little tales leave you smiling for the weekend.
By the end of the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium, which focused on theatre props, I felt like my brain was full. We heard so many good papers on all aspects of props, from their use by playwrights, their practical application and construction, their historical iterations, and their perception by the audience.
A coffee cup is a coffee cup is a coffee cup
Andrew Sofer began his closing remarks by pointing to a statement Bland Wade had made earlier in the conference: “It has to be a believable item or the audience won’t buy it.” Sofer was struck by Wade’s use of the word “believable” rather than “realistic.” A prop director can find research for an obscure but completely historically accurate object, but if it is out of the realm of what the audience is expecting, they will not believe it. Likewise, we often have to work in more constructed worlds on stage, where time periods are mixed or elements are completely fabricated from imagination, but we still have to provide props which the audience will accept. A prop director’s role is constrained by the audience’s need for mimetic realism.
The Joy of Labor
In regards to the paper I presented, Sofer pointed out the joy of labor and the audience’s appreciation of it. Often, the academic world will focus so much on the meaning of signs and symbols in props that they overlook the audience’s simple joy at seeing well-produced theatre. When props (or any other design element) are well-constructed, meticulously-crafted, and, for lack of a better word, “cool”, the audience has a deeper reaction to the play.