Tag Archives: shakespeare

Skulls used in Hamlet

This fifth excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878, describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

Nor is he more necessary to pantomime and melodrama than to Shakespeare. Grimaldi, indeed, upon occasions, finding a scarcity of the appliances necessary to the business of harlequinade, resorted to the public markets, and made live pigs, ducks, and geese do duty for the usual property animals—the property-man, very likely, thinking poorly of such efforts of nature in comparison with the works of art he would have produced had time permitted; just as Mr. Johnson [Eric: His name is actually Alexander Johnston, not Johnson], the machinist of Covent Garden, viewing Chunee, the real elephant at Drury Lane, is reported to have said: ‘I should be very sorry if I couldn’t make a better elephant than that!’ But as a rule no performance is possible without the property-man. What, for instance, would ‘Macbeth’ be, bereft of its properties: its witches’ cauldron, eye of newt and toe of frog, apparitions, torches, crowned kings, the dagger with which Duncan is slain and the bloodstains which are afterwards to render Macbeth’s hands ‘a sorry sight’? How could ‘Hamlet’ be played without the partisans of Francisco and Bernardo, the fencing foils for the last scene, the poisoned cup out of which Gertrude is inadvertently to drink, the book Hamlet is to read, denouncing its slanders, the miniature portraits upon which he is to descant, and that famous skull—once adorning the shoulders of Yorick, the king’s jester—over which he is to muse?

This skull seems oftentimes to have been no figment or property of pasteboard, but a real thing—there being so many skulls about in the world, and obtainable at a small cost—although there is a story told of a sheep’s head being brought on as a property to serve the purpose of the scene, and enable Hamlet to meditate as usual and point the accustomed morals. This involved a bad compliment to the departed Yorick, however, and assumed the complete ignorance of the audience in regard to comparative anatomy. Nor is it to be believed that Hamlet could seriously repeat his philosophical speeches, gazing steadily the while at the straightened forehead of the innocent sheep. Macready relates in his Diary of his performing ‘ Hamlet’ at Boston, U.S., in 1848: ‘Was struck at the grave scene with the extraordinary weight of the skull which was given to me. I thought it was loaded; then it occurred to me it might be filled with earth—but no. Mr. Ayling observed to me it might be a negro’s skull; looking at the receding forehead, I perceived it was so. But, directly, this circumstance seemed to confirm to me Agassiz’s theory, that the brain did not develop itself after childhood; the brain does not grow, but the bone does. The weight of this skull went in confirmation of this ingenious theory.’ Of a subsequent performance at Richmond in the same year he writes: ‘Acted Hamlet, taking much pains, and, as I thought, acting well; but the audience testified neither sensibility nor enthusiasm, and I suppose it was either not good or “caviare to the general.” They gave me the skull, for Yorick’s, of a negro who was hung two years ago for cutting down his overseer.’

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 290-291.)

Jay Duckworth working on the map table

Preparing for King Lear

Tech rehearsals for the Public Theater’s production of King Lear start this Thursday, and we are busy as ever in the props shop. My life is busy as ever between writing my book, preparing for Lear, tech rehearsals for Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and some minor revolution in New York City. So I don’t have much to write, but I do have a sampling of photographs of some of the props we are constructing for King Lear.

Jay Duckworth working on the map table
Jay Duckworth working on the map table

The “map” in our production is a tabletop topographical model of Lear’s kingdom. King Lear, played by Sam Waterston , actually kicks the whole table over, and pieces of the map break off. At least, that’s our goal. Besides Jay, a lot of the work has been undertaken by Fran Maxwell, with some help by Sara Swanberg and Raphael Mishler.

Partially finished dead pheasant
Partially finished dead pheasant

We need a variety of dead game for Lear’s men when they return from hunting. After last spring’s Timon of Athens, I already knew we had nothing decent in stock nor anything worth renting in the city, so we had to make some. Pictured above is my first attempt at building one from scratch and covering it in hackle pads and feathers. We then found complete pheasant hides, so we started using those as coverings, which freed us from having to glue individual feathers all over the bodies.

A sheep in wolf's clothing
A sheep in wolf's clothing

In addition to the pheasants and some rabbits, they wanted a larger dead animal as well. We gave them my fake dead lamb for rehearsals, which longtime readers may remember from last year. We then located the hide of a jackal which turned out to be nearly the same size as the lamb, so rather than construct a new dead animal, Sara Swanberg just set off covering the lamb with the jackal hide.

We have more cool stuff coming up, such as Michael McKean’s eyes which get torn out of his head. That should be quite a sight!

The lobby of the McKittrick Hotel, where "Sleep No More" is set

Sleep No More

The lobby of the McKittrick Hotel, where "Sleep No More" is set
The lobby of the McKittrick Hotel, where "Sleep No More" is set

 

 

This week, I took a chance to watch Punchdrunk‘s current New York City production of Sleep No More. You may remember I previously wrote about Punchdrunk when I showed some Art Deco footlights I constructed for this production. I do not normally write about productions I see, but this was such a unique experience with a heavy reliance on props, so I thought I’d share.

First, some background. Punchdrunk is a British theatre troupe known for their immersive brand of promenade theatre. The actors are interspersed throughout a venue, and the audience is free to walk around and watch whichever scenes they wish, or just explore the space on their own. For Sleep No More, Punchdrunk has taken a set of three connected warehouses and lofts in Chelsea (former site of one of the super clubs back in the day) and transformed all six floors into a noir-ish world straight out of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, with many of the story elements from Macbeth. In other words, it’s “Shakespeare in the Dark”. The audience is given white masks to hide their faces, brought up an elevator in small groups, and set loose to explore the world and pick up pieces of the story. Hundreds of rooms have been created with literally thousands of props, with excruciating levels of detail. You can wander into a room which looks like an office, open a drawer in a desk, open a book, and find a scrap of paper with a note written by one of the characters. If it sounds like a lot of work went into this, it has; a team of artisans, shoppers and dozens of interns spent almost six months working non-stop on the physical production.

The New York Times has a wonderful article on Sleep No More. You really have to click through to the interactive feature where you can view a photo slideshow with audio commentary on a few of the hundred rooms in this piece. The pictures give you a better sense of the “look” of the place than I can describe. The “gestalt” of the piece, however, is something which not even pictures can describe. The whole experience is so intense, and the conventions it creates and exploits serve to create a uniquely theatrical event; “theatrical” in the sense that it can only be done as live theatre, with any attempt to transform it into film, text or interactive digital inevitably falling far, far short. You can read another write-up at the Wall Street Journal. Unfortunately, the New York Times article is the only source of photographs for this production, as the Punchdrunk group plays their marketing close to the vest to keep an air of mystery and discovery to the whole affair.

Making toast

Food in Timon

Our production of Timon of Athens just closed yesterday here at the Public Theater. It was my first prop master credit at the Public. I’ll probably post some more about this show once I get back from USITT and can go through my photographs, but for today, I thought I’d highlight some of the food, both real and fake.

Making toast
Making toast

They needed a lot of toast, so I decided to make some fake toast to augment the real toast. I started off with a sheet of white floral foam the same thickness as toast. I cut it into triangles, rounded some of the edges and shaped them a bit to match the pieces of real toast I was using as reference. I needed to coat it in something to make a paintable surface, and I realized that wood glue would not only do the job, it would also serve as a good base color.

Final toast
Final toast

Raphael, one of our interns from last summer, was back on this show as an artisan. He finished most of the toast pieces. He arranged them in the pyramid seen above. Each night, BK, our props runner for the show, made several pieces of toast for the top of this pyramid and for another tray which held the caviar.

Caviar
Caviar

The director wanted an “obscene amount” of caviar during the banquet scene to showcase the ostentatious display of wealth which Timon indulges in. To cut down costs, we decided to fill a bowl with a mound of fake caviar and top it off each night with a real caviar substitute which the actors could eat. I found that pearl couscous and black food coloring made a convincing fake caviar, and it was cheap and easy to prepare as well. Alex, another one of our artisans, set to sculpting a mound of caviar out of white bead foam and painted it. During tech, it turned out that the fake caviar and real caviar did not match closely enough, and the difference was too obvious between the two. I mixed some of the dry caviar with the food coloring and added it to a mixture of glue and water. I spread this over the top of the mound, and when it was dry, coated the whole thing in shellac to seal it and make it food-safe. It was still not quite the same as the real caviar. For the third attempt, Raphael reshaped the mound a bit and repainted it to match the color of the couscous more closely. It finally matched the real caviar enough to make them indistinguishable.

In addition to the toast and caviar, the show also had a scene where a waiter carried around appetizers. Some of these appetizers were picked up by actors and eaten. Neil Patel, our designer, was interested in the really fancy amuse-bouche kind of appetizers you find at so many New York events. From the research he gave me, I came up with the following:

 

Real appetizers
Real appetizers

I made the edible appetizers by placing a toothpick through a grape and adding a piece of dried apricot on one end and a mint leaf on the other. They were, in fact, surprisingly delicious.

We wanted to have a lot of appetizers on the tray and decided to make some fake ones so BK would not have to make dozens of real appetizers each night. We also decided to make the fake ones different so the actors would not accidentally eat a piece of fake food.

Fake appetizers
Fake appetizers

I cut a scrap of yellow upholstery foam into tiny squares. I put a scoop of joint compound in a sandwich bag, cut a corner off of it, and used it like an icing bag to make the swirl of white. The green was some fake grass I clipped and set in while the joint compound was still wet. We had some tiny red beads in stock, so I added one to each to give it a bit more color. I figured it might be a piece of cod roe, in keeping with the caviar theme.

Regular readers already know this, but my friend Anna has far more tips and tricks dealing with fake food on her blog dedicated to that very subject; check out Fake ‘n Bake if you haven’t already.

Props in Henslowe’s Diary

I am knee-deep in Shakespeare right now, with this year’s Shakespeare in the Park featuring two Shakespeare in repertory. While A Winter’s Tale and Merchant of Venice prepare to open next week, I thought I’d share some more information about the props in Shakespeare’s time.

I’ve written previously about what the props in Shakespeare’s time might have been. Henslowe’s Diary provides a list of the props in storage at Henslowe’s Rose Theatre. Though his diary does not mention Shakespeare, he was a contemporary and his theatre was similar in size and organization. I gave an excerpt of what was on that list, but since then, I’ve dug up the list in its entirety:
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