Tag Archives: props

The Ten Best Props (of 1921)

The following article, written by Lisle Bell, first appeared in Theatre Magazine in May of 1922. It’s interesting that theatre-goers from almost a hundred years ago recognized that props were forgotten during awards ceremonies. It’s also cool that one of the ten best props of 1921 was the bar in “Anna Christie”, a prop that I tackled earlier this year.

As the dramatic year draws to a close, the critical pastime of handing out the laurel begins. The producers are sitting in their box offices, counting out the money, and the actors are beginning to look forward to the relaxations of the Atlantic or of Great Neck, but meantime the critical judges, both professional and amateur, are busy thumbing over their accumulated programmes. Those who have blue ribbons to pin, prepare to pin them now.

These exercises usually take the form of “ten best” and “ten best that.” Combing over the productions of the season, the experts select the plays and players who have, in their estimation, contributed most to the advancement of their art. Their choices, alphabetically arranged or else tabulated in the order of merit, are duly published to a waiting world, and mere theatregoers spend many a pleasant evening quarreling with their decisions or improving upon them.

The Drama League makes an authentic choice of those who have rendered the greatest service to the cause, and those thus honored are invited to a banquet, where they occupy such positions of distinction, and are in fact so conspicuous, that one wonders whether they really have a chance to enjoy the food. Perhaps, however, the actors who attend those functions do not have to satisfy an appetite, and so merely go through the motions of eating with evident relish, much as they might do while taking part in a stage meal.

There is something truly fascinating about stage food, and the manner of its histrionic disappearance. Who will ever forget that patient loaf of bread that Margaret Wycherly kept eternally cutting in “Jane Clegg”? And does anyone recall a more intense scene of drama than that opening of the last act of “The Grand Duke”—with no one on the stage but Lionel Atwill and his breakfast? Here was drama reduced to highest nutriment—the conflict between an epicure and his spices which was as packed with thrills as a conflict between a dope fiend and his vices. Atwill gave as much thought and deliberation to the dressing of his salad as Ziegfeld gives to the undressing of his chorus.

The more we think about the importance of this property breakfast, the more we are struck with the fact that the whole domain of stage props has been neglected in the annual awards of the drama experts. Burns Mantle edits a volume of the best plays of the year; the magazine critics issue their ukases of ten best “unfeatured male players,” and “unfeatured female players;” even the reviewers at Podunk and one-night stands get out lists of the best things that have come to the “opry house,”—and all this time the props have languished, unwept and unsung.

Here goes, then, for the ten best props of the season of 1921-22: Continue reading

Voting Begins!

Hi, everybody. I start my summer job at the Santa Fe Opera today; I was traveling and settling in this weekend, so I did not have much time to write.

But I did want to take this chance to remind you to enter the Prop Building Guidebook contest. You still have until April 30th to enter. But more importantly, today is the day you can start voting on entries. You get one vote per day. You can vote on your own entry every day until the contest ends, or you can vote on a different entry every day.

Either way, the entry with the most votes when the contest closes will win their own prize of $100 worth of Focal Press books.

So vote early, and vote often!

The Prop Building Guidebook contest

The Prop Building Guidebook by Eric Hart

Good news, everyone! I’ve been talking with Focal Press for the past several months, and yesterday, I found out that my book was approved. It is tentatively titled The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film and TV. What’s it going to be about? I am going to lay out all the “whys” of prop building I’ve developed over the years to help you build your own props. Don’t worry; it’s going to be heavy on the “hows” as well. Everything from carpentry and metalwork, to fabric and upholstery, molding and casting, and painting too. It will be the first guide to building props that will feature color pictures. We’re living in the future now!

The Prop Building Guidebook will hit the bookshelves in February, 2013. I know, it feels like a long way off. I will also be developing a companion website and some short videos to complement the book which may debut slightly ahead of then. Until then, you’ll have to continue getting your prop fix from this blog.

So don’t worry about this blog. The world of props is a vast world indeed, and I will continue covering all the news and information here that won’t fit in my book. Some exciting things are on the horizon; the third annual NYC Props Summit is scheduled for August 26th (drop me a line if you are interested in attending). I’ve recently begun interviewing props people, and will post those in a few weeks when I get through transcribing them (transcribing video takes a long time, apparently).

So keep on reading! There’s a world of prop-portunities out there!

Bad Props Make Bad Shows

In Monday’s post, I took a closer look at some of the set dressing in one of our previous shows. The props included details which were relevant to the play but which would have never been visible to the audience. Why would anyone do that?

There’s a saying (I first heard it from Bland Wade at UNCSA) that if the prop is crap, the actors will treat it like crap. There is a lot that goes into a play: lights, sets, sound, theatre architecture, publicity, etc. For individual actors, they mostly share all of this with the rest of the company. The only pieces they have to themselves are their costumes and their props. If an actor is given a prop which is poorly made, misshapen, or otherwise less-than-stellar, it may feel like a bit of an insult; everybody else gets treated well, but he is left holding something that looks like an old candle stuck in a potato and wrapped in gaff tape. If it feels like a throwaway prop, he will act as though it can be thrown away.

When an actor is treating his props like crap, it may creep into his acting as well. He may still give his more important lines their proper reading, but the less important ones—the “throwaway lines”, if you will—will start to be treated with less care and thought. After all, if the theatre does not care enough to give him a well-constructed prop, why should he care enough to be emotionally focused for every single line?

That’s not to say that actors cannot overcome difficult working conditions, or that they only work well when they are coddled and pampered. What I am describing may not be conscious or done purposefully. But just like a dog can pick up an owner’s emotional state of mind even in the absence of any visible or verbal cues, so too can an audience pick up the invisible dissatisfaction of an actor even when he is trying his best to hide it. It is no coincidence that when you hear about the great flops of theatre and film production, you also hear about how bad it was working on them; in-fighting, personality conflicts, incompetence and other bad working conditions often go hand-in-hand with box office failure.

Contrast that with a production where everybody feels like they are taken care of. An actor receives a prop which looks like it was carefully built. Any notes or suggestions he gives to make it easier to work with are taken care of in a timely manner. He begins to feel that the theatre cares about every little detail and is working hard to do the best work they can. He steps up his own game, and works as hard as he can, because nobody wants to be the laziest person on a team. Small actions can ripple through a group of people and move them all in a positive or negative direction.

So take care in everything you do. You do not necessarily need to write a character’s phone number on a card which only the actor can see, but be aware that all your props add meaning to the show for the actors who use them.

Confusions in the Definition of a Prop

The definition of a prop is a sometimes nebulous thing. We all know that a book or an apple is a prop. But what about a purse or a built- in bookcase? And why is props in charge of manual sound effects and bushes? The confusion stems from the fact that what a prop is and what a prop shop does can be different things. To confound this, one prop shop may have slightly different duties than another; also, the duties of a prop shop in theatre are different then that of a props crew in film. As one final confusion, an individual production may see a slight modification in the duties of the prop shop based on the specific challenges in relation to the workloads of the various shops. A scene shop may build a certain prop because their shop is better equipped for its manner of construction. It is still a prop in the academic sense. After the show, it goes into the prop shop’s storage, and if used again, it is a props person that pulls it from the stock. Likewise, in a future production, the prop shop may be better equipped and can build a similar prop on their own. It is not the scene shops duty just because they built one in the past.

Keep these three confusions in mind when talking about the definition of a prop. Though usually the same, the academic definition of a prop and the practical obligations of a prop shop are sometimes at odds.