Tag Archives: sound effects

A Clap of Thunder, 1902

The following first appeared in The Salt Lake Herald, on July 27, 1902.

Many stories are told of Dion Boucicault as occurring during the active life of that playwright actor. One relates to the time he was playing a piece called “The Vampire” at the Princess theatre, London. The opening scene represented the highest regions of the Alps by moonlight, while a thunderstorm raged in the distance. The Vampire (Mr. Boucicault) was seen lying dead on the mountain peak, to all appearances, but as a ray of moon touched his body he came to life.

Of course, the thunder was produced in the usual manner by the property man with a “thunder sheet.”

One night in the height of the season a tremendous clap of thunder startled the audience and interrupted Mr. Boucicault in the middle of a speech. Lowering his voice so that it could be heard only by the property man, he said:

“Very well, Mr. Davis, you are making more mistakes. That clap of thunder came in the wrong place.”

Mr. Davis replied in stentorian tones, which could be plainly heard all over the auditorium:

“No fault of mine, sir; it wasn’t my thunder. Thunder’s real out of doors, perhaps you can stop it there.”

Originally published in The Salt Lake Herald, July 27, 1902, page 11.

Thunder sheet and Galloping steeds

Mechanical Sound Effects

Before sound could be reproduced by recorded means, any sound effects needed in the theatre had to be created by mechanical means. The props department was in charge of coming up with the machines and devices to achieve that. In the rare cases that live sound effects are used in a modern performance, it still tends to be props’ responsibility, though with the advent of sound designers, you will always have some cross-departmental collaboration.

The devices used for the most common sounds were fairly standard during the last few centuries. I found some great illustrations of these in a 1900 book entitled Secrets of Scene Painting and Stage Effects by Van Dyke Browne (what a name for a scene painter!)

Thunder sheet and Galloping steeds
Thunder sheet and Galloping steeds

Thunder was created by hanging a large sheet of thin iron and shaking it. If you’ve ever carried a large sheet of thin sheet metal, you can imagine the sound something as large in the picture can create.

Wood blocks were used to generate the sound of galloping horses; they had elastic bands to keep them on the prop-person’s hands. The book points out that some property masters preferred the use of coconut halves, though this required the cut ends to be perfectly flat and smooth.

Rain and Wind
Rain and Wind

The sound of rain was made by filling a long box with small pebbles. The box had a center pivot point which allowed it to tilt; all the pebbles would tumble to the other side. If you’ve ever played with a rain stick, it is the same general idea.

The “wind-producing drum” is a bit of a mystery to me. Browne neglects to describe this drawing, and I cannot be certain of its possible sound or intended use. Most of us are more familiar with the next drawing as a machine to create the sound of wind.

Wind Machine
Wind Machine

A piece of silk is draped over a drum made of slats of wood with spaces in between. The drum can be turned to create the sound of wind.

The following are more esoteric devices. With the advent of cinema, foley artists (as the creators of mechanical sound effects were called) had to come up with ways to create sound effects in much smaller places; after all, a cinema has far less space backstage than a theatre for plays.

Horse Trotter
Horse Trotter

This is a horse trotting machine. It acts like a more automated version of hitting two coconut halves together. A shaft above has a number of “tappets” (C1 and C2) which pushes the top cup away from the bottom cup (Fig 2). When the tappet clears, a spring connecting the two cups pulls them back together, creating the sound. The triangular cutouts in the top cup help make a louder and richer sound. The “foot lever” on the bottom is used to adjust the distance of the cups from the shaft. When it is further away, the tappets do not push the cup as much, creating a softer sound. Thus, it gives the operator some control over the volume of the galloping horses.

Sound Machine
Sound Machine

This last machine is an attempt to combine a whole bunch of sound-generating devices into one. The back part (S) has a number of pipes, whistles and bells (V), through which compressed air is run. You can trigger each one individually by turning the air on and off. In the middle of a large drum is a thin sheet of stiff metal (M). Using the handle, you can slap it against the drum to simulate artillery fire. Because it is on a roll (P), you can alter the length of the sheet to control the volume of the slap.

A final lever (R) can be used to generate a rolling effect on the drum, which apparently mimicked the sound of automobiles quite successfully.

The final illustration does not have to do with sound, but it was in the same chapter. I recently wrote a post about the variety of ways a props person simulates snow on stage. Though a snow drop itself is not usually a prop department’s responsibility, it is helpful to know how one works, and so I include the illustration below.

Snow Drop
Snow Drop

Illustrations originally printed in Secrets of Scene Painting and Stage Effects by Van Dyke Browne. 5th ed., 1900, George Routledge and Sons, Limited. You can read theĀ whole book at the Internet Archive.

Categories of Props

Props can be divided into several categories, which may make the realm of props less overwhelming. Because of the diversity of traditions and practices in the hundreds of theaters that put on shows, a props person may not be responsible for some of these categories. This is also not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the duties of a props person, rather it is a list of all the kinds of props (For example, in union houses and many other theatres, the props department is responsible for sweeping the stage. I haven’t added that to this list).

The props in the different categories come from different places. Many of the hand props come from the text, or are requested by the stage manager or director during rehearsals. The set designer is usually asking for the set props, trim and set dressing. Often, actors themselves will ask for certain props, particularly personal props. Let’s look at some of these categories:

Hand – Hand props are any props manipulated by one or more actors on stage. A book, a gun, and a wine glass are all hand props. Hand props can be consumable or perishable prop, which means they need to be replaced every night, such as food which is eaten or a letter which is torn up. We can also look at costume (or personal, or “propstume“) props like purses or belts as a subcategory. These require special consideration with the costume department to determine who is responsible for both providing and paying for them. manual/special effect, practical

Set - Set props include all the furniture on stage, and any other “objects” which are a part of the set. It also includes furniture-like objects, such as rocks which are sat on. The lines between “set” and “props” are the most blurry in this category, as some sets have “built-in” furniture, and more abstract or metaphorical sets have less reference points for determining what is “prop or not”.

Trim – Trim props hang on the walls, like curtains, blinds, or pictures.

Set dressing – The set dressing is the items and objects on the stage which the actor doesn’t handle. The easiest way to think of this is in an apartment set. The floor, walls, doors and windows are the set. The furniture is the set props. All the knick-knacks on the dresser, books on the shelves, and plates in the sink are the set dressing. If an actor picks a set dressing item up, it becomes a hand prop and is treated differently. The set dressing can include practicals, which are electrical props (like lamps, chandeliers, and wall sconces) that actually work. Also included here are rugs, carpets, and other floor coverings. Set dressing is used more to flesh out the characters and setting rather than push the narrative forward. While it is up to the set designer to describe and lay out what the set dressing is, it is often left to the props master to choose and arrange the individual items. Set dressing is an art and a craft of its own, and in some cases (especially in film) can be a person’s exclusive job on a production.

Personal – A personal prop is a prop an actor carries to develop their character. Sometimes these are called for in the script, but often it is the actor who is requesting it. A pipe, a cane, or a fan can are examples. Some actors are notorious for picking a prop or two at the very first rehearsal to play with.

Greens - Whether real or artificial, the props department is oft responsible for plants, leaves, bushes and flowers. Obviously, if the set calls for a life-sized tree to fill the stage, the props department can defer to the scenic department for its construction.

Manual special effects – Bursts of smoke, remote-controlled rats, artificial fires in fireplaces, or any other manual special effect is generally the responsibility of the props department, though depending on the scope or means of achieving said effect, there may certainly be overlap with any number of other departments. Breakaway props may also fall in this category.

Manual sound effects – Though increasingly rare in these days of recorded audio, if a sound effect is generated off-stage by an actor or crew member, the props department is responsible for the apparatus that creates that noise. Older props shops still have the various crash-boxes, thunder sheets, and wind machines that fall under this category. You can see pictures of some of the machines that created stage sounds in one of my previous posts.

Wind machine

Stage Sounds

Stage Sounds

by Harley Vincent

Photographs by George Newnes, Ltd.

(originally published in The Strand Magazine, 1904)

Suppose some reader of The Strand were to ask, “What is a wind-machine?” how many persons in an intelligent audience would be able correctly to answer the conundrum? Yet how often have they, in some thrilling drama at Drury Lane or one of the great London theatres, listened with sympathetic anguish to the heroine’s tearful ejaculation, “Oh, what a night! Hark to the fearful wind as it beats on yon desolate moor!” And what if, after all our straining of ears to hear the wind beating on the desolate moor (the scene, by-the-bye, of the heroine’s desertion by the villain of the play), there were nothing more realistic to reward us than the scene-painter’s gorse and heather and the proscenium lights turned low?

Wind machine
Wind machine - "Hark to the fearful wind!"

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