Tag Archives: milwaukee repertory

Jim Guy

Interview with Jim Guy

The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.

Jim Guy

by Jessica Kemp

Jim Guy
Jim Guy

When we chose our properties directors to interview, Ron handed over Jim’s information with a smile. “Jim is one of the most personable guys you will ever meet,” he said. “Have fun.”

Indeed I did. Continue reading

Milwaukee Rep

Organizing a Props Shop

We have a bit of a break during the summer at Triad Stage between when the last show opens and the new season begins. It’s the time we spend cleaning and organizing the shops. We’ve been busy in the props shop doing a pretty big overhaul with building new shelving and storage spaces, and moving around where things go. Organizing a props shop can be a challenge, since props people want to save every bit and scrap they come across. I thought I’d share some pictures of various shops I’ve been in to show how others have tackled this problem.

ACT Scene Shop
ACT Scene Shop

The first picture is actually from the scene shop at ACT in San Francisco, but props shops need to store and organize hardware as well. It’s pricey way to store things, with tons of metal shelving and matching bins. But it allows everything to be separated out while allowing you to find anything just by visually scanning the room; nothing is tucked away.

Childsplay Theater
Childsplay Theater

Childsplay Theater in Arizona uses the full wall approach, where a whole wall is covered in shelving from floor to ceiling and filled with bins. You can see boxes and bins of all sizes, as well as plastic tubs, baskets, and loose items. It’s very modular, allowing one to change what is stored there if you run out of one type of material and decide not to reorder it. It also has the benefit of displaying everything you have available without hiding anything away.

Berkeley Rep
Berkeley Rep

The Berkeley Rep props shop takes full advantage of using every square inch of their tiny props shop. A mix of open shelves, bins and drawers fill every hole in the wall.

Berkeley Rep
Berkeley Rep

Various cabinets and shelving units are tucked in every corner to keep every spare area utilized. I’ve found that if you don’t designate uses for all the out-of-the-way areas of a shop, they end up accumulating piles of random items and scraps in a big heap. Likewise, if you don’t have a bin or shelf to put a thing away in, then it will always be in the way, and you will always be moving it around.

New York City
New York City

Here is part of a shop of a Broadway prop maker in New York City. He is also using the “every square inch” approach in his tiny shop, though he has opted to keep everything out in the open, rather than in bins and boxes.

Milwaukee Rep
Milwaukee Rep

Props shops seem to naturally accumulate little metal file box cabinets over the years, and Milwaukee Rep has put them to good use. With bins, you can carry the whole bin to wherever you need it in the shop, whereas with drawers, a prop maker doesn’t have to hunt down a missing bin that someone else has taken. It’s a matter of preference which you use, though many prop shops have a mix of both.

San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera

I liked these drawers underneath the chop saw in the San Francisco Opera. Adding storage under tools and machines is a great way to use space, especially if you can store the materials and equipment associated with that tool.

Public Theater
Public Theater

The tool and hardware cabinet at the Public Theater was in a weird area, so a custom storage area was built by the shop. The angle in that corner was not square, and the walls sloped backwards as well, so any ready-made shelving or storage units would end up wasting precious space.

Public Theater
Public Theater

Here is the opposite side of the Public’s tool cabinet. With the right organization and storage, a shop can hold more tools, materials and supplies, and yet have more open working space than a poorly organized one.

How is your shop organized? I’d love to see pictures. Send them my way.

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.
Chairs as far as the eye can see.

USITT 2013 Wrap-Up

This past week was the 53rd USITT conference in Milwaukee. This year’s conference featured a lot of things for props people. I couldn’t get to them all, but I saw a lot of them. I took notes which I may go through later, but since I’m writing this on the flight home (and have to work first thing in the morning), I’ll just give the highlights.

First off, there was the Expo floor, filled with companies, organizations and universities peddling their wares. Wonderflex World had plenty of samples of their products, including a sneak peek of a new product coming out soon that is pretty exciting.

Smooth-On had their usual cool booth with all the rubber monsters and foam cinder blocks you can make with their products. There’s a possibility I may start getting samples of their new products to test out for this blog. That would be neat.

StageBitz had demos of their props management and inventory software. I first tested them out about two years ago, and it’s almost completely different now (in a good way). You can do a 3-week free trial of their software from their website, which is really the only way to start discovering how easy and seamless this can make propping a show, from letting the designer share images and research with you, to letting you send the designer pictures of items in your stock, to keeping up with changes in rehearsal, creating to-do lists to send to your artisans and shoppers, maintaining a budget, to finally adding all the props to your stock when the show closes.

RC4 Wireless Dimming had tiny wireless dimmers. It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how these little devices act so seamlessly to let you control any sort of battery-powered light or motor from your theatre’s lighting console. I also attended a session called “Wireless Light and Motion for Propmasters”, where a couple theatres were showing off various ways they used the RC4 units.

One of the last sessions of the conference was on sustainability in design and production led by Donyale Werle. It included the exciting unveiling of the College Green Captain Toolkit, based off of the already-successful program which every Broadway show participates in (I’ll post a link when it appears, or you can contact the Broadway Green Alliance for more information). Jacob Coakley from Stage Directions Magazine live-blogged much of the session.

An earlier session on “Reimagining Theatre with Green Ideals” also featured information about sustainability and the Broadway Green Alliance. Once again, Jacob Coakley live-blogged the whole discussion.

“Grave Matters” was a session with a lot of good tips and tricks for making gore and corpses. One of the speakers, Gary Benson, has his presentation online , including step-by-step photographs of how he made some skulls.

“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” was a bit disappointing since 3 of the 4 presenters could not be there. However, you can check out the handouts on firearm safety that they had. You will also find a link for a survey they are running to discover how various theatres deal with guns on stage (and off). I’m not sure how long that link will last, so you should download those files rather than bookmarking them.

I got to check out the Young Designer’s Forum, which had some great work. I was also able to meet two of my future coworkers this summer at the Santa Fe Opera.

The Milwaukee Rep props shop hosted a SPAM get-together at their space, though it was nice to see plenty of non-SPAM props masters and prop makers there as well. I wrote about their shop for Stage Directions this month, but to actually see their work space and storage facilities in person was a great treat.

Chairs as far as the eye can see.
Chairs as far as the eye can see.

Oh yeah, I also sold out of my book by the end of my signing. The response has been overwhelming so far. I am ecstatic that so many people are excited about this book, and I can’t wait to hear back from those of you who use it or teach from it.

Did I forget anything about the conference? Was there something I missed? Let me know in the comments what you saw at USITT that excited you.

March Goes in Like a Link

March Goes in Like a Link

It’s the end of the week, but the beginning of a new month. This is conference month for those of us in technical theatre. First is SETC, happening next week (March 5-9) in Louisville, KY. Shortly after is USITT, taking place March 19-23 in Milwaukee, WI. I will be at both if you wanted a chance to catch up or introduce yourself. At USITT, Stage Directions will be hosting a book signing for my book at their booth on Friday, March 22nd, at 12:30 PM. More info to come. For now, enjoy these links:

My latest magazine article in Stage Directions is now online; I profile the Milwaukee Rep props shop, home of props master Jim Guy. Milwaukee also happens to be the location of this year’s USITT conference. Coincidence?… actually, no, we chose to write about Milwaukee Rep for this issue precisely because of USITT.

The designer of the Dalek from Doctor Who, Ray Cusick, died this past week. The Verge has some videos and a story about him and how the Daleks came to be.

When the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre shut its doors in March 2012, its production facilities and prop storage were abandoned and surrendered to the landlords who owned the building. Jim Buckshon was subleasing part of that building at the time for his company, Renegade Productions, and decided to lease the entire building and save the props. Read the whole story to see how Buckshon took on one of Vancouver’s largest prop collections and kept it intact for future productions.

Weta Workshop — the design/production/creature/FX shop behind films such as The Lord of the RingsKing Kong and Avatar — recently solicited questions for their Mold Shop Supervisor, Michael Wallace.  Mike answers those questions about working in a mold shop, materials and techniques he uses, and his own background.

AJ Catalano is a sci-fi prop maker who has built items for films ranging from The Avengers and The Amazing Spiderman, to The Muppets. Check out this video where he talks about his background and the work he does: