Category Archives: Features

In-depth articles written specifically for this blog.

Challenges in making props lists for Shakespeare

When faced with a new production, the second thing a props master does (after reading the play once) is read the play again and make note of all the props. I’ve written about how to read a script and make a props list before. If you’re doing Shakespeare though, it presents itself with several challenges in this method.

First is the problem with the stage directions. In modern plays, the stage directions give a large number of clues. In Shakespeare’s plays, the stage directions are more suspect. Modern Shakespeare scholars understand that finding the “definitive” version of many of his plays is a problem that may never be solved. Theories exist that some versions are pirated copies from an audience member who transcribed the play during a performance. Other theories suggest that actors wrote down their own parts from memory and compiled them into a single version. In any case, the versions we perform today are merely the “best guess” of what was originally performed. The stage directions themselves were probably added by a later editor based on the stage manager’s notes of what was originally performed.

In Titus Andronicus in Act III, Scene 1, we see the stage direction:

[Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand]

Some directors treat Shakespeare’s text as sacred as modern playwrights’ and will ask for two heads and a hand in the props list. Others, recognizing that the stage directions are less authorial and possibly even a corruption of the original work, will either keep, change, or omit the stage directions on a scene-by-scene basis depending on what works best for the production.

What this means is that the initial props list you generate from your first reading (before meeting with the director, designer or stage managers) will have a lot of question marks:

Act/Scene character prop qty. notes
III.1 messenger heads 2 ?
III.1 messenger hand 1 ?

The second challenge in making a props list for Shakespeare’s plays is in how he layers rich visual imagery on top of the action of the scene. His metaphors often weave in and out of the reality on stage, making it difficult to know (and open to the interpretation of the director) what objects are used in a scene and which are merely mentioned by the character.

For instance, take Mercutio’s famous speech in Act I, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate-stone

On the fore-finger of an alderman,

Drawn with a team of little atomies

Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;

Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs,

The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,

The traces of the smallest spider’s web,

The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,

Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,

Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,

Not so big as a round little worm

Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut

Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

Now, it would be silly of a prop master to add all these things –  a hazel-nut chariot, cricket’s bone whip, etc. – to the props list. However, there are plenty of passages throughout Shakespeare where it is far less obvious when a character is alluding to a real object on stage or merely waxing poetic. In many cases, it can be up to the director to make that decision.

The final challenge with propping a Shakespeare play is how widely different the interpretations of a single play can be. Hamlet can be played in Elizabethan Denmark, or modern-day Wall Street. It would be very embarrassing to bring an armload of rapiers to the first day of rehearsal if the director has set the play in Nazi Germany. It is vitally important to find out the setting and time period which your production will be set in before you begin generating a props list. Even then, you have no way of knowing what props they will want merely by reading the text.

Some Thoughts on Brand-Name Props

Let’s imagine you were dressing the set in a realistic manner for a contemporary home. It would be ridiculous to do so without any brand name products. If you step into any random house of the type your characters live in, you will find yourself swimming in a sea of logos and packaging of distinctive colors and shapes. Even something as innocuous as a bookcase can be recognized as IKEA simply by its appearance.

The fact is, to deliberately omit brand names from a contemporary set is not only difficult and time-consuming, it is not realistic. If you carefully construct “look-alike” logos and names, you will merely draw attention to the props. The same holds true if you fill your set with generic brands (such as “Beer” brand beer) – not to mention the fact that a household with all generic products is actually an anomaly and the very opposite of generic.

As you do your research, try to take notice to all the brands around you. Also think about how ingrained some brands are in the fabric of our culture. If a character is drinking a Coca-Cola, you think he is thirsty. If he is drinking an invented brand of cola, you might suddenly wonder if his choice of brand has some significance. It’s distracting.

25 Memorable Film Props

What are the most memorable props in movies?

I looked at a number of factors in choosing these props. Did the film change the way the object is viewed? For example, one cannot drive a DeLorean without hearing at least one reference to Back to the Future. Did the use of the prop have a strong visual impact? John Cusack holding a boombox over his head is an iconic image, whether one remembers the actual plot of Say Anything or not. Perhaps the object has gained a life of its own apart from the film, such as the lightsabers in Star Wars. Or, the prop may have encapsulated the themes of the film, or expressed a symbolic idea which no other object could. In any event, I’m sure all of you will have disagreements with this list, or additions. I went through hundreds of films to come up with an initial list of over 75 props before narrowing it down to these 25. I decided to limit the list to American films just to keep myself sane.
Continue reading 25 Memorable Film Props

When to give real props to actors

When should you begin providing the real props for a production? At the very latest, the actors should have the final versions by the first day of tech. If the size or weight will change, the actor may not feel comfortable using it without adequate preparation. If the color is going to change, the lighting designer may have to adjust the light cues.
When you can’t provide the final prop, the rehearsal prop should be as close to the real one as possible. Depending on what kind of prop it is, the properties you need to match need not be replicated in exact detail. For example, a rehearsal table can simply be a piece of sheet goods cut to the correct width and depth and set on a base of the correct height.

One type of prop you should not hesitate in introducing is weapons. Stage combat items should be provided as soon as the actors begin fight rehearsals. Swords, especially, can be very particular, and a slight difference in weight or balance can alter even simple choreography.

So why wouldn’t you provide all the real props by the first rehearsal? The main reason is simple logistics. You cannot buy, borrow or buid all the props for a show between the time you receive the designs and rehearsals begin. You need to prioritize what props they need to practice with and which can wait. In addition, the designs (especially for props) can be late, and may not come in until after rehearsals have begun. Some directors prefer not to have final props before rehearsal; they use rehearsal time to work out what they want the props to be. It helps to build a rehearsal prop which can be adapted easily. There are some directors we work with where we give them a rehearsal prop right away, even before he or she requests it; we know they will not make a decision until they have something tangible in their hand which they can compare against (“it should be bigger than this”, or “more purple please”).

Another reason you may not want to provide the real thing is when it is a large set prop, or it is built into the set somehow. If it’s a rental and you need to save money by only renting it for the minimum amount of time, you might also keep it out of rehearsals until closer to tech. Breakaways should be saved for tech. You can arrange for a special breakaway rehearsal to allow the actor to see what they should be mimicking during regular rehearsals. This is true of other special effect and trick props which the show might call for. Actors and stage management are being introduced to a lot of elements on the first day of tech, so the more props you can show them beforehand, even if only once, the better.

Sometimes, you can provide the real prop but in an unfinished form. It may be unpainted or needs to be reupholstered, or it just needs more details and decoration unrelated to its function. In these cases, you can allow the actors to rehearse with the unfinished prop for awhile and then take it away to finish it on their days off.
I’ve only provided what I know on this subject. What are your insights or opinions on the matter?

Trash or Treasure? Which props are worth saving

We’ve been cleaning out a bit lately at the Public Theatre. One reason is we’re about to undergo major construction and renovation, and need to clear out spaces that haven’t been cleared out in decades. Another reason is we finally have all our shows open for the year and have a bit of a breather at the moment. Finally, storage space is expensive in New York City, and we don’t have that much to begin with, so we continually need to reevaluate what we keep.

my own private idaho by phil h
my own private idaho by phil h

Like most props people, I’m a bit of a pack-rat, so it can be almost physically painful to throw things out. There are of course, alternatives to just trashing things. The easiest solution, depending on the item, is to send out an email to everyone in your theatre and offer it up for free on a first-come first-serve basis. You can also try to sell it on Craigslist or eBay, or through another venue. There are also a number of charities you can donate certain things to, such as Salvation Army or Goodwill. Here in New York City, we also have a place called Materials for the Arts.

So how do you go about determining what to keep and what to toss? Unfortunately, no two theatres can use the same set of guidelines. If you do mainly new works, you’ll have different prop needs then if you do mostly Shakespeare. Likewise, the capabilities of your shop will determine what props can be built in the future. While you may come across your own set of guidelines after maintaining a storage space for a few years, if you’re new to your stock, you can run through a series of questions to determine whether a prop is trash or treasure.

How show-specific is the prop? Is it something common that can be used in a number of shows or as a rehearsal prop? Or is it a painting of a unicorn on a piece of black velvet… in a forced perspective picture frame.

How large is it? If it takes up the space of several smaller props, you may need extra justification to keep it around.

How much does a new one cost? If it’s inexpensive, especially if it’s already showing some wear and tear, you may want to just buy a new one when you need it… that is, if you need it.

How hard would it be to build another one? Some props are constructed so simply, it would almost take more time to walk to the prop storage, dig around until you find it, and carry it back, then it would to build a new one. This is especially true when I come across props whose construction can be improved upon.

Do you already have some of the same thing in stock? Sometimes you need multiples, but sometimes there’s no conceivable reason why you would need a hundred brown paper grocery bags; and if you did, you should demand the budget for it.

Is the item in good condition? You have to figure that anything in your stock will need some tightening and dusting when you pull it out, but if it’s beyond repair, why are you keeping it?

Is there anything useful or valuable that can be taken off and used again? If you can remove large, sections of usable raw materials, do it. Sometimes, you have pieces which you feel can be incorporated into future props, such as knobs or dials. In these cases, I’d rather keep these “found object” building materials with the rest of the building materials; keep knobs with knobs, dials with dials, and the rest in containers such as “brass stuff” or “wood pieces”. It’s a lot easier than filling your prop storage with random vacuum cleaner parts and broken prop pieces.

Is it going to be difficult or dangerous to store? We all have at least one prop like that in our storage; no matter what we need to get, it always seems to be in the way some how, and it weighs more than you can lift. No matter where you put it, you’re doomed to be kicking a dead horse whenever you need to get a chair.

How adaptable is it? Chairs can always be reupholstered, refinished, or painted; they can even be made taller or shorter. Compare that with a carved piece of solid marble.

Will it attract mice and ants in storage? I’m looking at you, shellac-ed piece of real bread.

How well-made is it? This is a little different from whether it’s in good shape or not. A crude and ugly piece is still crude and ugly even when it’s undamaged. An exceptional prop, in addition to serving your limited storage well, can also have instructional value for future prop building endeavors.

Can you make money or develop karma by renting it out to other companies? If you have an iron lung, you can almost make a full-time job out of renting it to theatres who are putting on “City of Angels”.

I’d love to hear what everyone else does to determine what to keep and what to get rid of, as well as more alternatives to simply throwing things away.