Tag Archives: symposium

The Prop Building Guidebook: 75% Done

It’s been an intense two months of writing here as I plowed through the lion’s share of my book, The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film and TV. I am sorry you have to wait until February of next year before you can get your hands on a copy, because it is starting to take shape into something really exciting. Prop building books come along rarely, and having read just about all of them, I can honestly say there has never been a book like this one.

Acrylic bent at an angle
Acrylic bent at an angle

When I first had the germs of the idea for this book way back in 2008, I never knew where it would take me. The paper I presented at the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium discussed a theoretical approach to constructing props. I also knew I wanted my book to have a lot of practical information; not so much a list of “this is how props people do this, and if you do it differently, you’re not a real props person”, but rather, a survey of the numerous materials and methods used by prop makers all over the country working in all kinds of situations (and budgets). As I’ve typed away for the past eight months, I’ve watched these two concepts—the theoretical approach and the practical methods—start to come together into a cohesive whole. I began writing this book to make the kind of book I always wanted to read, and after the batch of chapters I just submitted, it is finally starting to turn into that.

The scenery shop at Monomoy Theatre
The scenery shop at Monomoy Theatre

It is also surprising how much I have been learning while writing this book. I mean, I knew I would have to look up some information and practice some of the crafts I normally do not do, but when it comes to the sheer amount of knowledge that a prop maker can possess, it was like I was starting from scratch. What I didn’t know could literally fill a book—this book. If you come to this blog to learn what I know, imagine what you’ll learn from this book.

Closing up a seam
Closing up a seam

The rest of my book is due at the beginning of June, and then I have a few months to edit the whole thing. By the fall, I should have the website for the book up and running, and I may begin posting some of the videos I am making to complement portions of the text. Hopefully between that and this blog, I can continue serving your prop needs until the book comes out.

Jeremy Lydic making oversized gift boxes for Iron Chef: America
Jeremy Lydic making oversized gift boxes for Iron Chef: America

Closing Remarks at 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium

Bland Wade and Andrew Sofer give their closing remarks
Bland Wade and Andrew Sofer give their closing remarks

By the end of the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium, which focused on theatre props, I felt like my brain was full. We heard so many good papers on all aspects of props, from their use by playwrights, their practical application and construction, their historical iterations, and their perception by the audience.

A coffee cup is a coffee cup is a coffee cup

Andrew Sofer began his closing remarks by pointing to a statement Bland Wade had made earlier in the conference: “It has to be a believable item or the audience won’t buy it.” Sofer was struck by Wade’s use of the word “believable” rather than “realistic.” A prop director can find research for an obscure but completely historically accurate object, but if it is out of the realm of what the audience is expecting, they will not believe it. Likewise, we often have to work in more constructed worlds on stage, where time periods are mixed or elements are completely fabricated from imagination, but we still have to provide props which the audience will accept. A prop director’s role is constrained by the audience’s need for mimetic realism.

The Joy of Labor

In regards to the paper I presented, Sofer pointed out the joy of labor and the audience’s appreciation of it. Often, the academic world will focus so much on the meaning of signs and symbols in props that they overlook the audience’s simple joy at seeing well-produced theatre. When props (or any other design element) are well-constructed, meticulously-crafted, and, for lack of a better word, “cool”, the audience has a deeper reaction to the play.

Continue reading Closing Remarks at 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium

Creating Props, Creating Performances

On the end of the first day of the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium, I sat on my first panel, entitled “Creating Props, Creating Performances”.

The first paper, by Teemu Paavolainen, was titled “From Props to Affordances: An Ecological Approach to Theatrical Objects”. An “affordance” is the ability of an object to perform a function. For example, a chair affords sitting. A spoon affords eating soup.

The study of affordances has been around in other fields, such as music and painting, for awhile, but not so in theatre. Theatre, particularly the study of props, has long been dominated by Jiři Veltruský. In 1940, he wrote the famous, “All that is on stage is a sign.” He and the rest of the Prague School believed

The very fact of their appearance on stage suppresses the practical function of phenomena in favour of a symbolic or signifying role.

(The semiotics of theatre and drama  By Keir Elam, p. 6)

Andrew Sofer, one of the keynote speakers at this conference, originally took exception to this when dealing with props in his oft-mentioned book, The Stage Life of Props. Continue reading Creating Props, Creating Performances

Bland Wade at SETC Theatre Symposium

Bland Wade gave the first keynote speech at the 2009 Theatre Symposium. He spoke about what it means to be a properties director. I thought I’d share a few highlights.

Bland is the props director at the North Carolina School of the Arts. NCSA does about twenty shows per year. He began working as a props director in 1976. Part of NCSA’s philosophy is that the teachers keep tabs on the industry, so in addition to teaching, Bland also works in a professional capacity throughout the year. For instance, he did the set decoration for The Color Purple. The general store is almost entirely his work.

Bland is a member of the Society of Properties Artisan Managers, or SPAM. SPAM began about fifteen or sixteen years ago. In the old days, the props master worked under the technical director. These days, a props director has his or her own shop. SPAM is pushing for the “prop director” terminology, rather than prop master. In my own experience, it seems a lot of theatres are using the prop director term (or prop supervisor, prop head, etc) for the head of the department, while using “prop master” for specific shows.

Bland asked what a prop is, and used his definition in terms of the practical usage of the word. He refers to his “house” analogy. Scenery is the walls and floor. The scenic designer is the architect and interior designer. The technical director is the contractor. The props director is the interior director.

A props director needs to read between the lines of a script. If a play has the line, “Bob walks in with a cigarette,” what does that entail? First, where does the cigarette come from? Is it in a pack? A case? Is he already smoking it? If so, where does he dispose of it? In an ashtray? On the floor? And of course, there is the actual cigarette itself. What brand is it? What color? One stage direction can turn into a whole page of notes.

Bland mentioned a number of skills and responsibilities of a properties director.

  • A prop director must always look at safety. This is true not only of your artisans at work, but also of the actors. This is true in food preparation and keeping the dishes clean. This is also true of weapon safety.
  • A prop director is an historian, a researcher, and inventor. Heron of Alexandria is one of Bland’s favorite inventors. One of Heron’s secrets was the simplicity of his mechanisms. A props director should always keep things simple.
  • A prop director is a problem solver.
  • You need to help the actor create a character.
  • There are many other random skills a prop director needs, such as plumbing and sewing.

“If it looks like crap, the actor’s going to treat it like a piece of crap,” Bland said. This is something I’ve been mulling over for awhile; I’m going to go into this in more depth in a later post.

Bland mentioned the Prop Directors Handbook, which I’ve posted about previously (Properties Directors Handbook), and link to in my sidebar. This book, written by Sandra J. Strawn, could not find a publisher, so she put it online for free. She is also a member of SPAM.

Stay tuned for many more highlights from this year’s Symposium. I also have some photographs once I dig out my USB cable.

SETC Theatre Symposium Day 1

You’ll notice I didn’t have a post yesterday. I flew down to Winston-Salem to attend the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium. This year, the topic is props, which is very apropos for this blog.

It was a long but fruitful day. I presented my paper. Bland Wade, the props director at North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA) gave a tour of their props shop and a speech on what a properties director does.

I forgot my USB cable, so I cannot get the pictures off my camera at the moment. I’ll have a more in-depth summary of this weekend when I get back to New York. Today, in addition to more papers, we have a speech by Andrew Sofer, author of The Stage Life of Props.

It’s all very fascinating stuff, and I can’t wait to write it all up for this blog.