Tag Archives: shakespeare

King's crown

Making of a King

Our last show of the season at Triad Stage is All’s Well That Ends Well, a Shakespeare piece I had worked on before (you may recognize the cannon I built for the previous production at Shakespeare in the Park). There were no cannons this time around, but we did need a crown for the King of France. Since Shakespeare isn’t our typical shtick, we did not have any crowns in stock. I had to make one.

Brass bar
Brass bar

The base of the crown was a piece of one-inch wide brass bar that was 3/16″ thick. I ordered a long piece of it from McMaster Carr in case I messed up and had to make another one.

Ring bender
Ring bender

I ran it through a cheap little ring bender from Harbor Freight. It’s small, but it can handle metal up to an inch wide, so I was golden. I covered the brass bar in tape because the wheels on the bender marred up the soft metal. The bender made a nice circle, but since the crown was actually an oval, I had to do some shaping by hand to get it just right.

Solder paste
Solder paste

I had some stamped brass fleurs-de-lis which I needed to solder on. I discovered “solder paste”, which is a mixture of flux and powdered solder in a liquid form. You just squirt it into the joints you want to be soldered and then run a torch over it until it melts.

Soldering with a propane torch
Soldering with a propane torch

Since the solder paste has a very low melting temperature, I could use a regular propane torch from any hardware store. Brass has a very low melting temperature, and since the fleurs-de-lis were very thin, I was worried that any kind of brazing or silver soldering would melt them before it melted the solder. The solder paste was a great solution.

Upholstery tacks
Upholstery tacks

Next I added some decorative upholstery tacks to the crown. I drilled some holes for the tack part to stick through. At first, I thought I could solder them on from the back, kind of like plug welding. That wasn’t working, so I just soldered them from the front. I was using this giant piece of aluminum tube as a heat sink so that the torch would not de-solder the pieces I had already soldered.

Moleskin Lining
Moleskin Lining

I was able to remove all of the charring and discoloration with some #000 steel wool. I lined the inside of the crown with moleskin, a very thin but soft padding. You can find self-adhesive pads of it in any drugstore near the foot pads and shoe inserts.

King's crown
King’s crown

I think you can get the solder paste in a copper or brass color; I was going to cover up all the silver bits of solder with some brass craft paint, but they didn’t show up once the crown was on stage. I think I look pretty good as a king.

Specimens of Fans

Prop Drawings from the Shakespeare Rare Print Collection

I came across some interesting prop-related illustrations in  a series of books called The Shakespeare Rare Print Collection, which was published back in 1900. The first shows a performance in progress on the stage of the Red Bull Playhouse circa 1672. I’m not really sure this is a Shakespeare play, since the drawing was made during the Restoration Theatre period well after his death.

Red Bull Playhouse
Red Bull Playhouse

You can see some minimal hand props, like a cup and a lantern, as well as plenty of swords and musical instruments. The picture shows a complete lack of furniture though, as well as any sort of scenic element.

The other illustration shows specimens of fans “as referred to in the notes on the Merry Wives of Windsor.”

Specimens of Fans
Specimens of Fans

This drawing was made in 1786. It is fascinating how much variation there is in such a seemingly simple hand prop.

Merchant of Venice bond

Props at the Victoria and Albert Museum

While it is interesting to read about how props have been constructed and used throughout the long history of theatre, it is rare to find surviving examples of actual props from bygone days. After a production, props are either integrated into a theatre’s prop storage, taken home by the cast and crew, or simply disposed of. I would hazard a guess that most historical props are kept in private collections or buried deep in the back of stock rooms at old theatres, with no way of knowing just what is out there. Luckily, some of these items do make their way to museums who recognize their historical value. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a few such items in their collection related to props.

Merchant of Venice bond
Merchant of Venice bond, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The first is this bond from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. For those unfamiliar with the story, Shylock lends Antonio (the aforementioned merchant) 3000 ducats; if Antonio cannot repay, he must give Shylock a pound of his flesh. This bond secures the deal and is a critical prop during the courtroom scene where Antonio’s fate must be decided.

This bond was used by Henry Irving during the production of The Merchant of Venice which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1879 (the museum states it opened in January, but all accounts list its opening as November). The production was designed by Hawes Craven. It is made of beige vellum mounted on cream cotton cloth with black petersham ribbon and burgundy-painted metal seal. The dust and age is a deliberate treatment done by the prop maker. Interestingly, this prop has some areas torn on purpose and stitched together with double cotton thread; it seems likely this was done so the same prop could be torn up each performance and reattached before the next one.

Irving’s production of Merchant was one of the most influential at that time, as well as one of the most popular and long-running. You can find scores of books and articles delving into every aspect of this production and his performance.

This prop came to the British Theatre Museum (a branch of the V&A which closed in 2007 and whose collection was absorbed into the main museum) in 1968 by Lady Wolfit. It had probably belonged to her husband, Sir Donald Wolfit, a well-known English theatre actor-manager, who had died just a few months prior to the Lady’s donation.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Next is this property sword, also used by Henry Irving for an 1895 adaptation of King Arthur. The sets, costumes and props for this show were designed by Arthurian artist Edward Burne-Jones. This prop is based off of a sword used during the Holy Roman Empire for coronation ceremonies, known as the “Sword of Saint Maurice”.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The prop itself has a pommel made of carved brazil nut wood with an embossed and painted metal scabbard. It was built between 1894 and 1895.

Bakst Designs
Bakst Designs, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The final image is a drawing showing the stage property designs done by Léon Bakst for a production of the ballet La Spectre de la rose at the Diaghilev Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo in 1911. The pencil, watercolor, gouache and gold paint drawings show a green wing cushioned chair, a sewing frame behind a curtain on a curtain rod, a harp, and a bed with blanket and pillows. You can find more of his set designs on his official site, as well as his costume designs. This is the only example of his prop designs that I have ever come across.

Who was the first property maker?

When I say “the first property maker”, I mean in terms of a professional person who earns a living making props. People have made props throughout history in many theatrical traditions; they certainly haven’t appeared from nowhere. Many traditions probably sustained quite a class of artisans devoted to the theater, particularly in Ancient Greece and Rome. Certainly too, there are many forms of theatre outside of our Western traditions. What I am looking at is the first group of people known as “property makers” who could make a living building props for professional theater. For that, we must look to the origins of what, in many ways, has become our idea of modern theatre and performing arts, the Elizabethans.

The pinnacle of Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre centered around the monarchy, which hired many types of artists to perform at Court, festivals and pageants, and licensed other forms of entertainment throughout the city. Though various officers were tasked with this job earlier, the first official “Master of the Revels” with an independent office was Sir Thomas Cawarden in 1544. The office and storage facilities were consolidated to a dissolved Dominican monastery at Blackfriars. Cawarden was known for his skill in taking sketches and turning them into fully-realized productions. This required a whole “production team”, as well as the ability to communicate the needs of the stage to a group of skilled craftsmen who understood the special considerations which theatre requires. After Cawarden’s death in 1559, the office moved to the priory of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell.

The office moved several times throughout its history; in 1608, it came to be located in the Whitefriars district outside the western city wall of London. The Master of Revels at the time, Edmund Tilney, described that the Office:

…consisteth of a wardrobe and other several [i.e. separate] rooms for artificers to work in (viz. tailors, embroiderers, property makers, painters, wire-drawers and carpenters), together with a convenient place for the rehearsals and setting forth of plays and other shows….”

[Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, (1964)]

Tilney also noted that the office served as a residence for the Master and his family, as well as other personnel.

The records kept by the Office of the Revels informs much of what we know about the artisans hired to furnish the theatre with its physical “stuff” and the money spent on materials. It was not just writers and actors who were beginning to develop into a new profession at this time, but a whole range of carpenters, tailors, plasterers, wiredrawers, painters, plumbers and others who were becoming a new “theatrical artisan” class. Some of these artisans appear in the records steadily employed for periods of thirty or even forty years.

One of the first artists to be listed in the Revels records as a “property maker” is a man named John Carowe (or Carow or Caro). He was first employed in 1547 for the coronation of Edward, and continued to work as a property maker, joiner and carver until his death in 1574. In these records, “property making refers” not just to hand props like heads and swords, but also to the custom construction of stage furniture and large scenic devices (such as wagons and hell-mouths). In this account of expenses paid between December 1573 and January 1574, we see some of the things Carowe has provided to the Revels:

John Caro, Property maker, for money to him due for sundry parcells Holly and Jug for the play of Predor.–Fishes counterfet for the same, viz Whiting, Place, Mackarell, &c.–A payle for the castell top–Bayes for sundry purposes,–Lathes for the hollo tree–Hoopes for tharbor and top of an howse,–A truncheon for the Dictator,–Paste and paper for the Dragons head,–Deale boordes for the Senat Howse,–A long staf to reach up and downe the lights,–Fawchins for Farrants play–Pynnes styf and greate for paynted clothes,–Formes ii. and stooles xii, &c.–In all lxixs. ixd [69 shillings, 9 pence].

Carowe was also in charge of overseeing other property makers, as we can see in this account of the 1572 Christmas Revels, separated into individual projects:

Propertymakers: Iohn Caro, Iohn Rosse, Nicholas Rosse, Iohn Rosse Iunior, Thomas Sturley, Iohn Ogle, Iohn David for Caro.

Propertymakers, Embroiderers, and Haberdashers: Iohn Caro, William Pilkington, Iohn Sharpe, Iohn ffarington, Iohn Tuke, Iohn Owgle, Iohn David for Caro, Ione Pilkington

Propertymakers, Embroiderers, and Haberdashers: Iolin Carowe, William Pilkington, Iohn ffarrington, Iohn Tuke, Ione Pilkington, Thomas Tysant, Iohn David for Caro.

You can see one of the property makers is named John Rosse, and another John Rosse Junior; like many crafts at this time, the evidence points to fathers passing their skills along to sons to keep the theatrical traditions alive. It would seem that Carowe made some of his props in his own shop, which must have been thriving, while others were constructed in the Revels Offices mentioned at the beginning.

Completed headboard

The Making of the Props for The Making of a King

I recently finished my first major gig down here in North Carolina. I was building props for the productions of Henry IV and Henry V at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. It was a lot of fun, and also an interesting change of pace to return to a job where I am building all day without any managerial duties.

base of a chaise lounge
base of a chaise lounge

The base for this chaise lounge was fairly straightforward. I began by building a nice sturdy frame out of oak. The design evolved later to a piece which was completely covered in moulding. The oak ended up being completely obscured by all the moulding. Ah, well.

CNC routed headboard design
CNC routed headboard design

The king’s headboard had a fairly intricate cut-out design, so the props shop sent a piece of 3/4″ plywood to the scene shop to be CNC routed.

Completed headboard
Completed headboard

When I got the CNC’d piece back, I cleaned it up and attached some other layers, moulding, posts and finials to make the full headboard.

Trestle table base
Trestle table base

Above is a nice trestle table base I built for the tavern scene. The feet and the pieces on top of the legs are made of solid wood; I had to laminate a few pieces together to get those thicknesses. The legs themselves are actually boxed out, with a two-by-four hidden inside for strength. The wedged tenons on the sides of the legs are just fake pieces glued on the outside.

Finished table
Finished table

The table top had already been built for the rehearsal piece, so I just had to attach it. The scene shop also added some metal diagonal braces, which were needed to keep the table from collapsing under horizontal forces.

Papier-mache tub
Papier-mache tub

Finally, the props shop was building a hammered copper bath tub out of some good old-fashioned papier-mâché. I jumped on this project in the middle, adding a few layers to what was already started and attaching the large Ethafoam rod along the top. The initial layers were done with an ordinary flour and water paste. The next few layers were done with strips of paper and a product called “Aqua Form” to make it harder and more water-proof. Aqua Form markets itself as a nontoxic water-based polymer which replaces resins for use in laminates; it worked great with the paper, but it also claims it can be used in lieu of resin for fiberglass. I certainly look forward to learning more about it.