Category Archives: News

Props in the news

27 Visual Theatre Cliches

Though this is almost a month old, I’ve been wanting to get around to it. In Time Out London, Andrew Haydon has made a list of cliches of visual theatre that should be banned (The article has since disappeared from their website). He posits that these metaphorical objects and devices are so overused, that they’ve lost their impact. Here is the list with my commentary as it relates to props.

  • Battered brown leather suitcases – Just in the last two days, we’ve had 4 of our battered brown suitcases returned from shows that closed. Obviously it’s a popular item and your prop stock will benefit from having several. Just remember to do your research; the battered brown leather suitcase is not appropriate for every period and location. You certainly don’t find them in common use today.
  • Microphones – I assume he’s talking about microphones as a prop rather than to solve sound issues. I’d agree, mostly because as time goes on, the younger generations will be less familiar with their use (as most performers use nearly invisible mic packs) and would get less meaning out of their use on stage.
  • Accordions – Like the suitcase, this is fine if called for in the show and design. Again, they are less common throughout history then you may think.
  • Feathers falling from the ceiling – Sounds like the scenery department.
  • Sand – Scenery
  • Bowler hats – Costumes (or millinery, if your theatre is lucky enough to have that department). Though not props, I second their overuse.
  • Live video feeds / projection – Not props, but I’m not sure this is specific enough to be a cliche. It’s kind of like saying “hard surfaces” is a cliche.
  • Umbrellas – particularly when projected on or used to signify birds – I can’t say I’ve ever seen them used as birds, but in photography, umbrellas are most certainly overused as visual elements.
  • Shredded paper plus fan as snow – Is this a visual cliche? I think if a show calls for snow, this is a fairly cheap alternative to professional snow machines (less chemicals, too).
  • Ukuleles – Agreed.
  • Lots of big tellies – I’d agree this convention is used quite a bit. Still, if you walk around Manhattan, you’d find yourself surrounded by more moving video screens then even two years ago. They’re on buses, taxis, billboards, even shoes.
  • People climbing out of pieces of furniture – Not props.
  • Static/white noise during blackouts – Sound
  • Movement sequences instead of blackouts – Choreography
  • Rostra – Scenery
  • Blackouts – Not props, but really?
  • Polythene sheeting – Another “cliche” that is so broad I don’t know if it should be here.
  • String – And I thought the last one was too broad.
  • White face – Makeup.
  • No curtain call – Directing.
  • Clocks – counting down the seconds, stopped or running normally – I’d have to bring up my earlier argument about how younger and younger generations are less exposed to clocks (analog) than we might think, and would get less out of their use as convention.
  • Over- or under-sized furniture – I’m sorry to see this on the list, as these can often be really cool to build.
  • Laptops – Again, really? Their use is so ubiquitous these days, yet everything points to them becoming even more and more popular. Can you tell the stories of today without including the props of today? It’s like trying to tell the story of a waiter without using plates.
  • Nursery rhymes sung discordantly – “Visual” cliche?
  • Heartbeats – Again, “visual”?
  • Spooky children’s voices – possibly singing nursery rhymes, almost invariably – Ring-a-ring-a-roses. – Isn’t this one already in the list?
  • Sequences where all the performers talk in canon before ending abruptly with a scream – Yep.

As you can see, the list seems to be hastily put together. A number of them are not visual cliches, several seem to be more pet peeves than cliches, and a few are too broad to be considered cliches. If anyone out there has any additional ideas to add to this list, let me know!

Kathy Fabian

Kathy Fabian has been a fixture in the Broadway props world for a few years now. In the past few years, she’s propped shows such as South Pacific, Spring Awakening, and You’re Welcome America. She is also the resident props master at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.

Last year, Tom Isler wrote a great article about her called Why Kathy Fabian always gets her props. It’s a great look at the work of a busy props person, neatly summed up in the beginning:

if it exists in this world, she’ll track it down. If it doesn’t, she’ll build it from scratch.

You need to read the whole article for all the great stories and insights into her work. However, there was one bit toward the beginning of the article that I wanted to point out:

Propping (theater jargon, from the verb “to prop,” meaning to design and/or obtain props for a production) is an underappreciated art, even within the industry. Set, sound, costume and lighting designers all get recognition, but there’s no Tony Award for propping. The Drama Desk Awards even handed out an award this year for Outstanding Projection and Video Design. Nothing for props.

It’s true; props are rarely, if ever recognized. What do you think about this?

Dispatches from Props Summit 2009

The first New York City Props Summit was a rousing success.

The attendees of the 2009 New York City Props Summit
The attendees of the 2009 New York City Props Summit

From left to right in the photograph are: Rebecca Aldridge, Mark Gill, Sarah Gill, Jessica Provenzale, Natalie Taylor Hart, Kate Dale, Meredith Ries, Scott Laule, Jeremy Lydic, me, and Jay Duckworth. Not pictured are Meghan Buchanan, Eric Reynolds, Sara Swanberg, and Arianna Zindler, as well as Michael Schupbach and Katey Parker from the Puppet Kitchen. (If I missed anyone, let me know!)

Jay thought it was important for the various props professionals to get to know each other, whether props masters, artisans, freelancers, or full-timers. The benefit of this was immediately apparent as half the attendees were currently in tech and needed something built or borrowed. There’s only so many places to store stuff in New York City, so it’s nice to be able to borrow from as many of them as you can.

We are tentatively planning another Props Summit sometime before Christmas. If you live in New York City or the surrounding tri-state area, or if you know anyone who does, drop me a line so I can keep you informed!

First Ever NYC Props Summit

First ever Props Summit
First ever Props Summit

Jay Duckworth, our props manager at the Public Theatre, is throwing a props summit next week, September 4th. His idea is to get together all the props people in New York City, whether it’s masters, artisans, or runners, working either freelance or full-time.

It’s a chance for everyone in this great city to meet each other and see who else is out there. In a sense, we’re all in this together, and combining our resources can only be beneficial in the long run.

So if you want to get involved, and don’t have a personal contact with either me or Jay, leave a comment or send me an email. I’ll let you know the when and where in more detail.

20th Century Props Closing

by Marissa Roth for The New York Times
by Marissa Roth for The New York Times

2oth Century Props is one of the larger prop houses in Hollywood, serving much of the entertainment and event industry as the studios closed down their own in-house prop studios over the past two decades. Unfortunately, it is now closing.

It’s a Wrap for 20th Century Props, by Brooks Barnes in the New York Times, details the full story:

Mr. Schwartz, the owner of 20th Century Props, plans to go out of business next month and auction the inventory. Battered by the surge in out-of-state movie production and the demise of scripted programming on network television, the once-thriving business — one of a handful of its type remaining — is failing.

The company’s inventory, about 93,752 items, will be liquidated during the last week of July. They already have an eBay store, where several hundred of their items are currently up for bid.