Tag Archives: tradition

The Two Definitions of a Prop

A lot of ink has been spilled over what the proper definition of “props” would include. Many arguments try to deal with specific items—is a parasol a prop? A dog? I think props can be more easily defined once we realize there are two different ways of thinking on the subject: the academic way, and the practical way. The academic way is useful in terms of script and production analysis, while the practical way is useful when planning a production.

The Academic Way

One of the more pivotal books in our contemporary understanding of props is Andrew Sofer’s The Stage Life of Props. In it, Sofer says, “a prop can be more rigorously defined as a discrete, material, inanimate object that is visibly manipulated by an actor in the course of performance.”

He uses this definition to state that an object on stage must be “triggered” by an actor before it becomes a prop. He says “Thus a hat or sword remains an article of costume until an actor removes or adjusts it, and a chair remains an item of furniture unless an actor shifts its position.” This definition demands that an “actor-object interaction” is necessary for a prop to exist: “Irrespective of its signifying function(s), a prop is something an object becomes, rather than something an object is.” 1

He draws some of his theory from Francis Teague, who described a property as “an object, mimed or tangible, that occurs onstage, where it functions differently from the way it functions offstage.” He elaborates on the idea of function (or “dislocated function”, as he calls it) further:

The property has a function, but it is not the same function as it has offstage (though it may imitate that ordinary function). The ordinary function of the object does not disappear; an object has the same connotation that it has offstage, for example. A knife might connote passion or violence when it appears onstage, but it will not function to injure anyone and may even be physically modified (by blunting or a retractable blade) so that it cannot cut. Its ordinary function of cutting is simply displaced onstage by the object’s function in the performance—to seem to cut, to suggest passion or violence. 2

Both scholars (and many others) draw their inspiration from Jiří Veltruský’s landmark 1940 essay, “Man and Object in the Theater”. In it, he posits that items on stage cannot be divided strictly into “subjects” and “objects”, but exist in a fluid continuum between the two. Thus, an actor who exists merely as a spear carrier in a scene is downgraded to “object”, and can even be thought of as a prop. A prop exists as an “object”, but should it acquire enough significance in a scene, it can become a “subject” much like an actor. 3

The Practical Way

Of course, in reality, if one is charged with providing the props for a production, one needn’t worry about mimed and imaginary props. Also, while it is academically useful to think of a costume or set piece “becoming” a prop when it is interacted with, only one physical object is needed (likewise, an actor who “becomes” a prop does not need to be rented or built by the props shop). You will not have both the scenery and props departments build identical chairs that can be magically switched when an actor begins his interaction with it.

From a practical standpoint, if an object in a production will become a prop at some point, than it must be considered a prop at all points. All departments have their own plots—light plots, costume plots, prop plots, etc.—and every object and piece of equipment in a production must appear on one and only one of those plots. The department heads are tasked with their own respective items and no one else’s 4. When the show is running, the items remain the responsibility of each departments—costumes are kept in the dressing rooms by the wardrobe crew, while props are laid out on prop tables by the props running crew.

A grey area also exists between props, costumes and set design (and sometimes other departments as well). They “do not work in isolation; each is an integral part of the whole, and at times their roles are bound to overlap.” 5 While academics may feel comfortable viewing stage objects as existing along a fluid continuum, changing between prop, costume and set during a single performance, for practicality’s sake, the responsibility for each object must be assigned to one specific department. As Margaret Harris says in her famous essay, “In the professional theatre, it is essential to clarify from the beginning who is responsible for each article, and a decision is usually made according to whether it can best be handled by stage, property, or costume staff, and which budget can best afford it.” 6

A lawsuit between the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and IATSE from 2007 brings up some interesting considerations for the practical definition of a prop. At the Rep, the scenery was constructed by a union shop, while the props shop was nonunion, thus making the line between prop and scenery one of legal importance. Though technically the lawsuit concerned the difference between a “prop” and “furniture” (Milwaukee Rep, at that time, being one of the only theatres where the stage furniture was built by the scene shop rather than the prop shop), two of the points made by the judge are worth mentioning for our discussion.

“[W]hen a prop is acquired or constructed by the Rep, it is not disposed of following the close of the play in which it was used. Rather, it is stored for potential reuse in a subsequent production. Thus, in a future production, the King Lear trunk may reappear on stage, perhaps as part of the background illustrating the character of the setting, or perhaps in a similar manner as it was used in King Lear, indicating that it held the possessions of royalty venturing off on a journey. The same trunk, yet two different roles.”

An object which is a “prop” in one production can be used as “scenery” in a second production and as a “costume” in a third. The extension of this idea is that even if an object was the responsibility of one department in the past, a similar item may be the responsibility of a different department in the future. A built-in bookcase may be considered scenery in one production, and a few months later, a detached bookcase by be considered a prop, even when the appearance of the two bookcases are nearly identical. It is not the object, but its use which determines whether it is a prop or not.

I’d like to point out the second statement made by the judge:

“[T]he fact that the scene shop or the prop shop made a particular item in the past bears only minimal relevance to the question of whether that particular item was in fact constructed by the proper shop… Guy testified that when the prop shop is overloaded it may call upon the scene shop for help. (Tr. 79-80.) Thus, it is possible that when the union made a particular item it was the result of the prop shop’s request rather than an understanding that the construction was contractually required.” 7

This becomes more important when looking at prop shops in different theatres. Some theatres with a highly-skilled costume crafts department may relegate masks to the costume shop, while in theatres where the costume shop is more strictly populated by stitchers and drapers, the props shop may handle masks. 8. Whether or not a mask is technically a “prop” is independent of deciding which department will build specific masks for a specific production. Likewise, you cannot look at how other theatres deal with masks (or any grey area) as evidence of what is a prop or not.

Thus, while you may wish to define a prop as “those things provided by a props shop”, you must remember that specific items are divvied up according to the logistical challenges of a specific show at a specific theater. It is also important to keep in mind that props shops have duties beyond just providing props; in some venues, the props shop is traditionally charged with sweeping and mopping the stage. In theatre, prop masters have to take care of set dressing, which is a different department in film and television, and not really considered “props” in the academic sense.

Conclusion

While the academic and practical way of thinking about props may not always agree, both define props conditionally. You can’t just say “knives are always a prop, and walls are never a prop.” Rather, they are defined by how they are used in that specific production.

 

Notes:

  1. Andrew Sofer, The Stage Life of Props, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 11-12.
  2. Frances N. Teague, Shakespeare’s Speaking Properties, (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1991), 16-18.
  3. Jiří Veltruský, “Man and Object in the Theater,” in A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure, and Style, ed. and trans. Paul L. Garvin (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1964), 84. ISBN 0-87840-151-2
  4. Though one plot may reference an item in another plot. For instance, a prop plot may list “Malvolio’s garters – provided by costumes.” This is to avoid confusion in case a props person sees that the garters are missing from the props plot, and, unaware that the costume shop is taking care of them, spends unnecessary time and money producing a second pair.
  5. Govier, Jacquie (1984). Create Your Own Stage Props. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. p. 8. ISBN 0-13-189044-1.
  6. Harris, Margaret (1975). “Introduction”. In Motley. Theatre Props. New York: Drama Book Specialists/Publishers. p. 7. ISBN 0-910-482-66-7.
  7. IATSE Local 18 v. Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Inc., 2007 WL 1502115 (E.D. Wis. 2007).
  8. Hart, Eric (2013). The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV. Burlington, MA: Focal Press. p. 4. 978-0-240-82138-2.

Real Objects versus Constructed Props

This is the third excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It 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

The maker of properties, although an important aid to theatrical representations, is never seen by the audience; he is of scarcely less value to the stage than the scene-painter, but he is never called before the curtain to be publicly congratulated upon his exploits. His manufactory or workshop is usually in some retired part of the theatre. He lives in a world of his own—a world of shams. His duty is to make the worse appear the better article; to obtain acceptance for forgeries, to create, not realities, but semblances. He does not figure among the dramatis personæ; but what a significant part he plays! Tragedy and comedy, serious ballet and Christmas pantomime, are alike to him. He appears in none of them, but he pervades them all; his unseen presence is felt as a notable influence on every side. He provides the purse of gold with which the rich man relieves the necessities of his poor interlocutor, the bank notes that are stolen, the will that disinherits, the parchments long lost but found at last, which restore the rightful heir to the family possessions. The assassin’s knife, the robber’s pistol, the soldier’s musket, the sailor’s cutlass, the court sword of genteel comedy, the basket-hilted blade that works such havoc in melodrama, all these proceed from his armoury; while from his kitchen, so to speak, issue alike the kingly feasts, consisting usually of wooden apples and Dutch-metal-smeared goblets, and the humbler meals spread in cottage interiors or furnished lodgings, the pseudo legs of mutton, roast fowls or pork chops—to say nothing of those joints of meat, shoals of fish, and pounds of sausages inseparable from what are called the ‘spill and pelt’ scenes of harlequinade.

Of late years, however, our purveyors of theatrical entertainments, moved by much fondness for reality, have shown a disposition to limit the labours of the property-maker, to dispense with his simulacra as much as possible, and to employ instead the actualities he but seeks to mimic and shadow forth. Costly furniture is now often hired or purchased from fashionable upholsterers. Genuine china appears where once pasteboard fabrications did duty—real oak-carvings banish the old substitutes of painted canvas stretched on deal laths and ‘profiled,’ to resort to the technical term, with a small sharp saw. The property-maker, with his boards and battens, his wicker-work and gold leaf, his paints and glue and size, his shams of all kinds, is almost banished from the scene. The stage accessories become so substantial that the actors begin to wear a shadowy look—especially when they are required to represent rather unlife-like characters. Real horses, real dogs, real water, real pumps and washing tubs are now supplemented by real bric-à-brac, bijouterie, and drawing-room knick-knackery.

Faith has been lost, apparently, in the arts of stage illusion; the spectators must be no longer duped, things must be what they seem. But this system of furnishing the stage with actualities, or of combining the real with the imaginary, with a view to enhancing scenic effect, is not absolutely an innovation—at least, some hints may be found of it in Addison’s account of the opera of his time. While allowing that an opera—and entertainments dependent upon spectacle for their success were included in that term—might be extravagantly lavish in its decorations—its only object being ‘to gratify the senses and keep up an indolent attention in the audience’—he urged that common sense should be respected, and that there should be nothing childish and absurd in the scenes and machines. ‘How would the wits of King Charles’s time have laughed to have seen Nicolini exposed to a tempest in robes of ermine, and sailing in an open boat in a sea of pasteboard! What a field of raillery would they have been let into had they been entertained with painted dragons spitting wildfire, enchanted chariots drawn by Flanders mares, and real cascades in artificial landscapes! A little skill in criticism would inform us that shadows and realities ought not to be mixed together in the same piece; and that the scenes which are designed as the representations of nature should be filled with resemblances and not with the things themselves. If one would represent a wide champaign country filled with herds and flocks, it would be ridiculous to draw the country only upon the scenes and to crowd several parts of the stage with sheep and oxen. This is joining together inconsistencies and making the decoration partly real and partly imaginary.’

Pursuing the subject, he relates how sparrows have been purchased for the opera house—’to enter towards the end of the first act and to fly about the stage… to act the part of singing birds in a delightful grove.’ Upon a nearer inquiry, however, he finds that, ‘though they flew in sight, the music proceeded from a concert of flagelets and bird-calls which were planted behind the scenes.’ So many sparrows, however, had been let loose in the opera of ‘Rinaldo,’ that it was feared the house would never get rid of them, and that in other plays they might make their entrance in very improper scenes, so as to be seen flying in a lady’s bed-chamber or perching upon a king’s throne. ‘I am credibly informed,’ he continues, ‘that there was once a design of casting into an opera the story of Whittington and his Cat, and that in order to it there had been got together a great quantity of mice; but Mr. Rich,”the proprietor of the playhouse, very prudently considered that it would be impossible for the cat to kill them all, and that consequently the princes of the stage might be as much infested with mice as the prince of the island was before the cat’s arrival upon it; for which reason he would not permit it to be acted in his house.’ In conclusion, he mentions a proposal to furnish the next performance of the opera with a real orange grove from Messrs. Loudon and Wise, the Queen’s gardeners at this time, and to secure a number of tomtits to personate the singing birds,’ the undertakers being resolved to spare neither pains nor money for the gratification of the audience.’

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 287-289.)

Drawing of a mystery play by David Jee, from Thomas Sharp's "Coventry Mysteries", 1825

Medieval Theatre and Trade Guilds

Drawing of a mystery play by David Jee, from Thomas Sharp's "Coventry Mysteries", 1825
Drawing of a mystery play by David Jee, from Thomas Sharp's "Coventry Mysteries", 1825

How were props made in Medieval theatres? Before Shakespeare’s time, European theatre consisted of festivals and traveling religious pageants. Trade guilds were maturing into full-fledged institutions by the fourteenth century. It would seem that most of the props (and other production values) were provided by these guilds.

Gradually, too, the priests lost their hold even on the plays themselves; skillful actors from among the laymen began to take many of the parts; and at last in some towns the trade-guilds, or unions of the various handicrafts, which had secured control of the town governments, assumed entire charge…

Generally each play was presented by a single guild (though sometimes two or three guilds or two or three plays might be combined), and sometimes, though not always, there was a special fitness in the assignment, as when the watermen gave the play of Noah’s Ark or the bakers that of the Last Supper. In this connected form the plays are called the Mystery or Miracle Cycles…

(A History of English literature for Students, by Robert Huntington Fletcher, 1916: pp. 85-88)

Thus it would appear the productions were very artisan-based; a ship was built as a ship would be built, rather than as some cheap facsimile. We read further that:

at York before 1378 the management of the different plays was already divided out between the different crafts, and it is probable that the allusions to the method of representation which have been gleaned from later records apply equally well to these fourteenth century performances…

On the morning of the performance each pageant would be rolled out of its shed and dragged in its turn to the first of the ‘stations’ at which the plays were acted. The first performance over, the pageant would be dragged through the streets to the second station, and then the play repeated. At York each play was performed twelve times, and occasionally oftener, the choice of the stopping places or stations being determined by the liberality of the owners of the adjacent houses. These contributions were much needed, for the cost of the plays fell heavily on the guilds; five or six of them had sometimes to club together to produce a single pageant, while the sharing of the expenses led to frequent disputes. In a few cases the reason for the assignment of a play to a particular guild is obvious; thus the Shipwrights or Fishmongers commonly interested themselves in Noah and the Flood, while the Goldsmiths and Goldbeaters played the Magi. But as a rule the wealth of the guild and the cost of the necessary dresses and stage properties were the chief considerations.

(Chamber’s Cyclopædia of English Literature, by Robert Chambers, 1902: pp. 47-48)

and

Each guild was entrusted as far as possible with a performance in harmony with the character of its own craft; thus the building of the Ark was represented by the shipwrights. The number of these associations seems startling, until the great subdivision of labour in the Middle Age is considered, and the jealousy lest one craft should encroach on the domain of another. We hear o’ bladesmiths, sheathers, buckle-makers, girdelers, corvisors (shoemakers), spicers, fletchers (arrow-makers), pinners, needlers, and whittawers (workers in white leather).

(English Literature: From the beginning of the age of Henry VIII, by Richard Garnett and Edmund Gosse, 1903: pp. 223-225)

In many ways, it would seem the guilds provided these pageants as a way to showcase the skills of their members and advertise their abilities. Between the numerous guilds, these pageants must have had quite the variety of props and costumes. Some of these pageants lasted all day, encompassing the entirety of sacred history. By dividing up the parts between the different guilds, it became economically feasible.

Let’s look at some of the more practical aspects of Medieval theatre production.

The expense accounts of the guilds, sometimes luckily preserved, furnish many picturesque and amusing items, such as these: ‘Four pair of angels’ wings, 2 shillings and 8 pence.’ ‘For mending of hell head, 6 pence.’ ‘Item, link for setting the world on fire.’…

To the guilds the giving of the plays was a very serious matter. Often each guild had a ‘pageant-house’ where it stored its ‘properties,’ and a pageant-master who trained the actors and imposed substantial fines on members remiss in cooperation.

(Fletcher)

We can compare this to a later account of expenses in my previous post on Theatrical profits and expenses in 1511.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at the construction of some of these props and effects:

There could be little attempt at scenery, but details of costume and stage fittings are abundantly supplied by the account books of the municipalities, when these have been preserved, and are full of curiosity and interest. The representation of Paradise naturally surpassed the powers of the scenic artists of that period, but they were perfectly at home in Hell, and especial pains were taken with Hell mouth, delineated as the literal mouth of an enormous monster, and with the pitchforks and clubs of the demons. The latter implements were considerately made of wadding: but the gunpowder which the fiends are enjoined to carry about various parts of their persons, if not mere brutum fulmen, in which case it might as well have been omitted, must have been productive of considerable inconvenience to the performer.

(Garnett and Gosse)

Ha ha, blowing up performers with gunpowder. That’s props!

Parody of Heracles with the Cercopes

Ancient Greek Theatre Props

How were props used in Ancient Greek theatre? How were props made or acquired in Ancient Greek theatre? Here is a brief introduction, and also some resources to help you explore further if you wish.

The presence of props in Ancient Greek theatre

Parody of Heracles with the Cercopes
Parody of Heracles with the Cercopes

In the picture above, the actors have furniture, hand props and crowns. There also appears to be set dressing. You can see more images showing Greek theatre in action (scroll down about halfway through the page).

One of the most popular acting anecdotes involves a Greek actor named Polus. The tale was first recounted by Aulus Gellius:

Being at this time to act the Electra of Sophocles at Athens, it was his part to carry an urn as containing the bones of Orestes. The argument of the fable is so imagined, that Electra, who is presumed to carry the relics of her brother, laments and commiserates his end, who is believed to have died a violent death. Polus therefore, clad in the mourning habit of Electra, took from the tomb the bones and urn of his son, and as if embracing Orestes, filled the place, not with the image and imitation, but with the sighs and lamentations of unfeigned sorrow. (The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, pg. 68)

Though this anecdote is often used when talking about acting methods, it is also an interesting prop story.

Aristotle spoke of the opsis as one of the elements of tragedy. Opsis is the visual spectacle, which in Greek theatre includes the masks, scenery, costumes, and props. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he writes:

The decoration has, also, a great effect; but, of all the parts, is most foreign to the art. For the power of Tragedy is felt without representation, and actors ; and the beauty of the decorations depends more on the art of the mechanic, than on that of the poet. (The Poetics of Aristotle, translated by Twining, 1851, pg. 14)

Here, opsis is translated as “decoration.” “Mechanic” is how Twining has translated skeuopoios. Other translaters have described it as “stage machinist”, “costumer”, “stage manager”, “property man”, or “stage carpenter”.

How props were made or acquired in Ancient Greek theatre

Skeuopoios might be defined as a mask-maker, prop-maker, prop manager, or all of the above. Skeue may mean the trappings of an actor, such as equipment, attire, or apparel. Greek theatre used a lot of masks. These were impermanent objects, made of linen, wood or leather, and often included animal or human hair. This was probably the major job of the skeuopoios. If we think in terms of how theatre works today, we can imagine that the skeuopoios would have made other impermanent objects for the theatre. After all, if the theatre hired him to make masks, and they needed another object which could be made with the same skill sets, it would not make sense for them to seek out and hire another craftsman.

Perhaps the most comprehensive look at the economic and practical realities of ancient Greek theatre can be found in Peter Wilson’s The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia. In it, he describes the Khoregia, which was the cultural institution in Athens which produced the festivals, plays, and other performances featuring singing and dancing.

A khoregia will thus have brought the khoregos or his deputies into contact with a number of craftsmen. There is the skeuopoios or maskmaker. He may have also been the person who manufactured special theatrical clothing and other properties. Perhaps, as in Demosthenes’ case, a goldsmith for crowns, and even for gold-weave fabrics, will have been consulted. A less zealous khoregos could, we are told, visit the himatiomisthotes and hire second-hand costumes from him: even the scanty evidence at our disposal reveals the considerable range open to a khoregos to demonstrate his munificence or otherwise. (The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia, pp. 86-87)

J. Michael Walton posits that a number of people made all or part of their living off of theatre. Among these, he lists

…crane-operator (mêchanopoios), mask-maker (skeuopoios), costumier (himatiomisthês)… (The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, pg. 288)

From this, we can see some of the specialization which exists in theatre today.

Unfortunately, none of the masks from Ancient Greek Theatre have survived today. The only visual evidence of masks and props are from vase paintings and sculptures.

The Swan theatre in London in 1596, by Johannes de Witt

Shakespeare’s Props

As yesterday (April 23) was William Shakespeare’s unofficial birthday, I thought I’d write a bit about props and Shakespeare. At the Public Theatre here in New York City, we’re starting to gear up for Shakespeare in the Park, starting with Twelfth Night. It will feature Anne Hathaway (the Bride Wars star, not Shakespeare’s wife).

A lot of what we know about props in Shakespearean times comes from Henslowe’s Diary, which incidentally, never once mentions William Shakespeare. It does, however, contain a detailed record of the day-to-day theatre business of Philip Henslowe, a theatrical entrepreneur involved in nearly all aspects of the Elizabethan stage. Included in his diary is an inventory of “all the properties for my Lord Admiral’s Men, the 10 of March 1598:

Item, 1 rock, 1 cage, 1 tomb, 1 Hell mouth… 1 bedstead.
Item, 8 lances, 1 pair of stairs for Phaethon.
Item, 1 globe, & 1 golden sceptre; 3 clubs
Item, 1 golden fleece, 2 racquets, 1 bay tree.
Item, 1 lion’s skin, 1 bear’s skin; Phaethon’s limbs, & Phaethon’s chariot, & Argus’s head.
Item, Iris’s head, & rainbow; 1 little altar. . .
1 ghost’s gown; 1 crown with a sun.”

You can see many typical props here. Furniture, weapons, and set decoration all appear on the list. Heads are another common prop made by prop shops. The list also contains what we would consider small set pieces. As Elizabethan theatre had no “background” scenery, it made sense for a set of stairs to be made and maintained by the same person or people who made and kept track of the bedstead.

It is a fairly straightforward props list. When you read a Shakespeare play, the stage directions will be pretty explicit about what props his actors probably used. In Romeo and Juliet, when it is written that Juliet “snatches Romeo’s dagger”, it most certainly meant she (technically, he) grabbed a prop dagger, rather than miming the action. The style and construction of the dagger is less certain, though many scholars contend it would have been an Elizabethan dagger, rather than a more historically or geographically accurate one.  In other words, the dagger in Julius Caesar would have been the same dagger as in Romeo and Juliet, which would have been similar to the daggers carried by the audience.

Perhaps one of the most problematic stage directions is The Winter’s Tale‘s “exit pursued by a bear”. Without uncovering new archaeological evidence, we will probably never know whether a real bear was used or not. But for the rest of the props, between Henslow’s diary, and de Witt’s drawing of the Swan theatre (pictured below), we get a good overview of props in Shakespeare’s time: weapons, furniture, minor set decoration and small set pieces, and fake (I hope) body parts.

You can find more about Henslowe’s Diary by perusing the public domain Henslow’s Diary Companion on Google Books. I also found a great deal of information at Internet Shakespeare. If you click around, you’ll find an archive of Shakespeare in Performance, including an archive of artifacts from past performances of Shakespeare’s plays. This includes not only drawings and photographs, but also props lists, scene breakdowns, and other production notes.

The Swan theatre in London in 1596, by Johannes de Witt
The Swan theatre in London in 1596, by Johannes de Witt