Tag Archives: set design

Do the soldiers have swords or guns?

A design concept which pops up here and there is the “timeless” time period. Especially popular with Shakespeare and Greek classics, the designer and director wish to stage the play so that the scenery, costumes and props do not convey any specific time period. The goal is usually to allow the production to focus on the language, rather than worrying about all the historical minutia which comes from picking a specific time period and the inevitable anachronisms which will be introduced.

The problem which tends to creep up is that while “timeless” means everything comes from a vague time period, the props one uses have to be specific. All objects used by humans are inevitably colored by history and geography. While a designer may have an ever-morphing Platonic ideal of a piece of furniture swimming around in her or his head, the prop master must ultimately choose this furniture from a finite number of pieces.

My boss, Jay Duckworth, and I were talking about the questions which arise between a prop master and a set designer when such a situation occurs. Presented below is an imaginary conversation to further illustrate what might happen:

Prop Master: So I want to pick out some chairs. What period is this show set in?

Set Designer: It’s timeless. It is unrecognizable as any specific time period.

Prop Master: Great. But what period should the chairs be from?

Set Designer: They should not convey any period. They should be timeless.

PM: Okay. Wood timeless, or metal timeless?

SD: What?

PM: Should they be made out of wood or metal? Which is more “timeless”?

SD: Show me some options.

PM: Are they upholstered? Do they have arms?

SD: Whatever looks the least like any specific time period. They should be completely generic.

PM: Like, curvy generic? Or straight generic?

SD: No, they should look like the most representative example of a generic chair you can think of.

PM: So you want a contemporary chair.

SD: No, a timeless one.

PM: Great, we’ll come back to this. Now, there are soldiers in this play. Which country are they from, and which war did they fight in?

SD: They should not look like they come from any specific place or time. They are archetypes of a soldier throughout history.

PM: That’s cool. So… should they be carrying guns or swords? Are they from gun times? Or sword times?

SD: Whatever looks the most archetypal.

PM: It’s a pretty big investment to outfit fourteen soldiers with swords, sheaths, and sword belts only to decide later you want to switch to guns. Maybe they could have clubs?

SD: I want something that could kind of be “all weapons”. Something the audience might think is a sword at one point, but makes them think of a gun at another point. Nothing specific.

PM: Clubs it is. Now onto this letter. I just wanted your thoughts because it features so heavily in the action. Do you have any feelings about what the letter should look like?

SD: Like everything else. It should be timeless. An archetype of a letter.

PM: A paper archetype or a parchment archetype?


Set Dressing in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Last week at the Public Theater, our production of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures held its final performance. The set was a very realistic (and very cluttered) brownstone in Brooklyn, NY, circa 2007. In today’s post, I’m going to take a look at some of the little touches in the set dressing which you may not have noticed.

Bulletin Board
Bulletin board on the desk

In the farthest upstage left corner is a desk belonging to Gus, the father and apartment’s owner. The desk is overcome with papers, books, files, furniture and other knick-knacks from a lifetime of accumulation. Notice the article in The New York Times: “Dockworkers Slow Shipping.” In the course of the play, we learn that Gus was a longshoreman, and a strike by the dockworkers marked a turning point in his life. All of these papers and ephemera came from the Guthrie Theatre’s production, and were created there by Nick Golfis.

The bookshelf in the room

The set contained a large number of books—stacks and stacks of books, in fact. When the production moved from the Guthrie Theatre, many of these books came with it. However, most were law books and other nondescript leather-bound tomes. For our production, Tony Kushner and Mark Wendland (the set designer) decided we needed to replace as many of these as we could with a more realistic collection which Gus would have owned. If you took a closer look during the production, you would have noticed a remarkable collection of Communist, Socialist, Marxist and leftist books.

Inside of the broken wall
Inside of the broken wall

It is a shocking moment when Steven Pasquale first puts a statue through the wall of his father’s apartment. A close look at the wreckage would show the old and crumbly lath of the wall behind it, as well as the horsehair used to hold it all together. An even closer look would show cloth-covered wires along with porcelain electrical wire holders running along a wooden stud.

Phone number
Phone number

Here’s something you wouldn’t have seen. Above the main set was Gus’ room. During various scenes throughout the play, the audience can see Gus in his room walking around, reading, writing and engaging in other solitary and silent business. At one point, he makes a phone call. Near the end of the play, a new character named Shelle O’Neill shows up with a “suicide kit” for Gus to use. If you watch the show again, you may infer that Shelle is the person Gus was phoning earlier. In the photo above, you can see a note card with Shelle’s phone number actually written on it next to the phone Gus used. This little detail was visible only to the actor playing Gus.

2011 Tony Awards for Best Scenic Design

Last night was the 65th Annual Tony Awards. As longtime readers of this blog know, there is no Tony Award for props, whether it’s props design or prop mastering (actually, there is very little recognition of the craft and labor of backstage theatre overall, but I digress). Instead, I will look at the Tony Award winners for Scenic Design, which encompasses the world of props.

Congratulations to Scott Pask, designer of The Book of Mormon, for his Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical. Scott is the designer for both Shakespeare in the Park shows this year, which began preview performances just this past week. I couldn’t find his acceptance speech online anywhere, so in lieu of that, here is a video in which he talks about the scenic design of The Book of Mormon.

You can also read a great feature on Playbill about the design of Book of Mormon, featuring a number of photographs of the sets as well as the scenic models.

The winner for Best Scenic Design of a Play went to Rae Smith for War Horse. I highlighted some video of the horse puppets from this show back in 2009 when it was still on the West End. It’s worth watching again, because the puppets are really, really cool. The link also has some information on the puppets’ creators, Handspring Puppet Company, which incidentally, won a Special Tony Award last night as well.

Her acceptance speech is online, though I can’t seem to embed it. You can browse to it from the Tony Awards video gallery though.

Some of our prop bibles

What’s in a Prop Bible

What is a “prop bible” and why do we have one? We can answer the first question by answering the second; if a prop master were to disappear off the face of the earth during the preparation of a show, the prop bible would allow his or her replacement to pick up exactly where the process was left off. Thus, a prop bible would have any and all information which a prop master has picked up in the course of propping a show about the props and their various details.

Some of our prop bibles
Some of our prop bibles

The first thing a prop bible would have is a copy of the script. Like most prop masters, I like to have the script printed on one side of regular copy paper and placed in a three-ring binder. This lets me add notes, highlights, and otherwise mark up the script. It also allows me to write more detailed notes on the opposing blank page.

The next vital item to have in the prop bible is an up-to-date version of the prop list. The subject of what goes in a prop list is a discussion in and of itself. I wrote about how to read a script back in 2009; while it touches on some parts of creating a prop list, I haven’t explicitly written about the process yet. The important thing for the purposes of this article is to have a single document which lists every prop and piece of set dressing that is expected of you.

Next up is all the information the designer gives you. Drawings, draftings, research and inspiration photographs, and even verbal and written descriptions should all be collected as much as humanly possible. You may not be able to fit full drafting plates in your book, but if possible, you can print out or photocopy at reduced size or selected portion of the drafting with an indication that the full-size version exists in another location. I often do my own supplementary research; I indicate that these pictures did not come from the designer or director, as this can sometimes be an important distinction.

The daily rehearsal reports are also integral to a props bible. The stage managers will (hopefully) sum up all the prop notes and discoveries during the day’s rehearsals and send it out to everyone on the production team. This is where many of the notes about the usage and practical requirements of the hand props will come from. When someone asks “Why is Hamlet’s sword so short?”, you can point to the rehearsal report where the actor decided he would hide his sword under his cape, and a longer sword would stick out the bottom.

Other preproduction information to have copies of includes minutes from production meetings and any other meetings with the director, designers, or stage managers. Basically, any communication, written or verbal, where decisions are made about props should be included in the bible so you don’t end up making a fool of yourself by picking out a chair for a show which the director told you weeks ago was not the style he wants.

Your prop bible is also where you want to keep all the other relevant information about your production, such as the contact sheet, schedules, and any contract you may have signed.

As your process gets underway, you need to ensure that your prop bible remains up to date. You can also add information about the sources of where your props come from. If they are borrowed or rented, you can keep contact information for the source. You may also record information about stores or vendors where you buy items from. The actual financial documents, such as receipts and invoices, are not kept in the bible; in most organizations, you need to submit the original copies of these to the accounting department or some similar department. But keeping track of the budget and keeping your budget estimate up-to-date is a good thing to have in the bible. If you were to drop off the face of the earth and someone else had only the prop bible to finish the show with, he or she would want to know how much money was left to spend.

Once the show is “frozen”, you can begin the process of documenting the show. Pictures of every prop are vital, as are pictures of how the set dressing is arranged on stage. Prop preset lists and running sheets from stage management and run crew are good to have, too. If props are arranged a certain way backstage, either on prop tables or on shelves, photographs or even diagrams of these arrangements can also be included. You should list the consumables used during the show, including how much is needed per show or per week. Any sort of food, blood, or other recipe-based prop can have its recipe recorded and instructions on how to prepare it. It is especially helpful to have a pristine copy of every paper prop used, so that new copies can be made; if you have digital versions, you can burn these to a CD to keep with the bible as well. At this point, the prop bible becomes the document with which a person can recreate the props for a production down to the last detail.

In some cases, a theatre actually does remount a production it did in the past, or rent out the props as a complete package to another theatre. Even if your organization does not do that, the prop bible still comes in handy for a number of other reasons. Sometimes you want to track down the vendor of an item in your props stock; looking through old prop bibles can sometimes yield this information. Often, we get artists who remember certain props and want us to track them down. “I remember using a green table when I did Hamlet here in 2004,” a director may reminisce. “Can we get that for our next show?” You may not have worked in that props department back in 2004, but if your predecessor had kept good bibles, it would be a mere matter of looking up that show, finding the photo of the table in the bible, and matching it to an item in your stock. Or, it may reveal that such an item was actually rented in 2004, and you can call the rental place to see if it is available.

The point of all of this is that when wagering against what information you will need in the future, keeping accurate records now will ensure you always win that wager, regardless of the situation.

For more on creating and maintaining a prop bible, I highly recommend Amy Mussman’s book The Prop Master, as well as Sandra Strawn’s The Properties Directors Handbook. You can read that last one for free on the internet, and I have a link to it on my sidebar, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, now’s your chance to see what you’ve been missing.

Why is there no Tony Award for Props?

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?