Tag Archives: prop shop

Hourglass

Oh, the Things you Find in Stock

It is always fun when you inherit a props stock to go through and imagine what shows the props have previously appeared in, or to see how previous props people have solved problems. Every once in awhile, though, you see something that is so… “theatrical”, that you just have to stare at it for a bit:

Hourglass
Hourglass

If you are familiar with the “fast-good-cheap” triangle, this prop is firmly in the “fast and cheap” category. Despite its aesthetic shortcomings, it is actually a fairly clever solution. It uses materials and found objects that are common to most prop shops, and it is constructed in a manner that probably took less than an hour. It is also possible that on the right stage, under the right lighting and in the right context, this may have looked fine, and the time it would have taken to make this look better was better spent on other props.

Obviously, you would never put a prop like this in your portfolio, and it is not something you should aspire to. It can definitely use a second-pass of sanding and painting. The plywood could have been cut out more carefully, and the excess of glue oozing out everywhere is disturbing. But as I said above, without knowing the circumstances of when this was built, it may have been the least-bad option at the time. There are no judgments in props, only opportunities for improvement.

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.
Friday Link-eteria

Friday Link-eteria

A fun new blog has appeared from a theatre props artisan: Meanwhile in the Prop Shop… It’s a simple stream of photographs and quotes showing the weird and often surreal scenes that play out in a props shop on a daily basis.

Conan O’Brian has a recurring segment featuring the show’s prop master, Bill Tull. With this Sunday being Super Bowl Sunday, Tull gives us some Budget Super Bowl Party Tips.

Awhile back, I pointed to a page with a few color photographs from Pre-World War I Paris. Here is its bigger cousin, a whole website full of color photography from Paris circa 1914 (give or take a few years).

Two weeks ago, I had a link to a post on Matt Munson’s blog. Munson is also working on converting a Chevy Caprice into a Batmobile, which he calls the “Mattmobile.” Check out all the posts he has, because it is quite the epic build. He has been shooting mini episodes along the way, and is up to 29 as of this writing.

Finally, I dug up this old video about the making of the Stargate from Stargate (the film). It delves into a lot more than just the construction of the Stargate itself; the scale of the sets they built were incredible. It’s not entirely about props, but whatever, I’m a big Stargate fan.

The Properties Director's Handbook

The Properties Director’s Handbook

The Properties Director's Handbook
The Properties Director’s Handbook by Sandra J. Strawn

Props people have a new book that was just released today: The Properties Director’s Handbook, by Sandra J. Strawn. Longtime readers may be familiar with the website version of the Properties Director’s Handbook; I’ve mentioned it a few times over the years, and this blog has a link over along the sidebar.

Sandy also happens to be the technical editor for my book. Both of our books are being published by Focal Press. Between the two, they cover two of the major aspects of props: building props, and managing a prop shop. I asked Sandy a few questions about how the website came about and what we can expect from her new book.

What prompted you to first create the Properties Director Handbook website?

Sandy: I was prompted to initially start the handbook from the SPAM (Society for Properties Artisan Managers) discussions at our national conferences. As someone who has been doing this for almost three decades I realized many of our incoming prop masters were asking us “old timers” among the SPAM network many of the same questions: how to organize a shop, how to effectively manage a build, how to write a prop list and work with stage management in updates, etc. I also teach this as part of my arc of training in the prop curriculum. I found myself emailing out my handouts to folks in the business and they would often comment to me, “You should write a book.” I decided to try and compile the information in one spot and was granted a sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee to create my website. I wanted it to be a free textbook available to all those folks who teach the props classes in university programs, as well as to prop professionals or community prop people who need to understand the process of being a prop master or props director.

How has the website been translated into this new book?

Sandy: Seeing the success of my website, Focal Press expressed interest in making a book from part of the chapters I had on the website. Over the past summer I re-worked the webpage into a more condensed book form, now available online from Routledge Press and all the usual online book selling sites.

I have updated my website pretty much continuously since I created it in 2008. As I re-worked the chapters to make them over into a book, I ended up pretty much re-writing and updating everything. I did a new survey on prop salaries and contracts and that information is included in the book as well as some better illustrations of paperwork. The book covers about two-thirds of what is on the site and focuses primarily on the properties director’s process of taking a show from initial script reading through opening. These chapters tend to be the ones most viewed on my site and I think are the ones most relevant to those folks who are teaching prop classes. The web site has many more links and examples of prop lists, show reports, photographs of shops and props, and additional “chapters” on setting up a safe and happy prop shop. Anyone who utilizes the book will find the website a convenient resource for additional reading and research materials as well as interesting examples of prop work and prop shops around the United States.

I wrote this primarily as a textbook for undergraduate props training but I know many beginning prop professionals would find it useful as well. My hope is, in combination with your excellent book on the “how to do” part of making props, this book will help theatre folks understand the “how to manage” part of doing props.

What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about what a prop director/master does?

Sandy: The biggest misconception about what a prop master does is about the range of skills an effective prop master must have in order to do the job well. Not only does the person need to be able to shop, but to create props the artisans must know sewing, welding and metal working, furniture construction and restoration, plastics construction, upholstery, faux painting, radio and pneumatic controls, calligraphy, graphics layout, molding and casting, leather work, painting and portraiture with acrylics and watercolors, floral arrangement, sculpture and 3D carving, especially with foam, electrical construction and wiring, crafts, photography, fabric dyeing and distressing, matting and framing, draping, fabric layout,  pattern making, musical instrumentation, weaponry, pyrotechnics… to name a few.

Layer that on to the management side of being a props director and master, where an effective prop person must be highly organized, creative, have an eye for detail, flair for design, creative adaptability (the “what if…”), be self motivated, and be willing to do all that and more as part of a collaborative design and production process. Whew! I’m exhausted just talking about it!

There is no prop “store” where we can run out and buy all the props; eBay comes close, but our budgets are never enough and those pesky designers always want something so specific it must be created in the shop. That’s what we do as prop people.

In a Graveyard of “Props”, 1904

The following comes from a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I’ve previously posted a portion of this article; I wonder if E. L. Morse is related to the Charles Morse in this ad?

How are the mighty fallen! This is the first thought that comes to him who crosses the threshold of the gloomy old “property shop” in Twenty-ninth Street, where the trappings of past theatrical kingdoms and make-believe monarchies lie mold and unnoticed, stripped of all their former glory.

In front of you, as you enter, is the once haughty helmet of a Richard III or the breastplate of a Julius Caesar, or mayhap a necklace of pearls that was wont to encircle the neck of some dusky, passionate Cleopatra. It is a place full of suggestion, of splendor long forgot—this burial ground of discarded “props.” It is not one of the so-called “sights” of New York, but it contains more of interest than nine-tenths of the wonders proclaimed so blatantly by the megaphonic expositors who shout from the lofty, glistening coaches that roll up and down our avenues every day.

A dingy little hole! If you showed it to the ordinary provincial who had come to “see the town,” it’s ten chances to one he would turn up his nose in disgust and hasten away to find delight in one of the gilt-edged glass-covered palaces that adorn the street corners of Gotham.

But if the contents of this quaint, over-crowded little room could speak, what secrets, what choice morsels of gossip they would give up! They would make the memoirs of a famous actor or actress read like a missionary tract. They’ve been in the seats of the mighty and have taken part in the battles of the strong. That crown you see nearly hidden on the dusty shelf used to rest on the brow of a genius; that dagger, hanging harmless on the smoky wall, peeped every night for six months from the girdle of a woman who was the idol of thousands.

To find this storeroom of relics is no easy thing to do. If a kind friend tells you the address, even then the puzzle is not solved. The shop is not dignified by an entrance on either Twenty-ninth or Thirtieth Street, though it lies squarely between the two. While you are getting to it you think of underground dungeons such as you have read about in the wonderful Arabian Nights stories. After you have stood in the street looking blankly at the number to which you have been directed, you decide to display your ignorance and ask aid of the man in the ground-floor shop. The man looks up from his wares, partly impatient and party amused that any one should want to get into the dirty old “prop shop,” as he calls it.

“It’s back of the house,” he says, jerking this thumb loosely over his shoulder.

You thank him and leave him to find your way to the back. The door under the stoop is dark and forbidding, but beside it is a clew in the form of a faded wooden sign, so faded that the letters it bears are hard to make out. The words are “E. L. Morse, Theatrical Properties.” Evidently, Mr. Morse is not overanxious for anybody to find him.

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.