Category Archives: Resources

Online and offline resources to help you in all aspects of propping a show.

Should I throw away this prop?

It is the prop master’s greatest challenge: whether to throw away a prop or not. When we clean and reorganize our stock, we find a number of “iffy” items and questionable furniture pieces. After we close a show, we have a whole truckload filled with items we need to find storage space for, even when we suspect we will never use them again.

Thankfully, Lisa Bledsoe put together this handy flowchart to determine which props to keep and which to toss. Lisa and I worked together at the Triad Stage props shop a few years back, and she did a phenomenal job reorganizing and thinning our stock.

Should I throw away this prop?

WWII Provisions

In 1942, Life Magazine published an article on the logistics of supplying the US Army. This is a good glimpse at the items one would find on Army bases and with soldiers during World War II. Many of these items are still easy to find or make, so it makes a short task of adding props and set dressing to your wartime play or musical. Photographs by Myron H. Davis.

World War II Supplies
World War II Supplies
World War II Supplies
World War II Supplies

“Logistics: It Is the Science of Supplying an Army.” Life 22 June 1942: 65-75. Google Books. Web. 27 June 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=KFAEAAAAMBAJ>.

Flame and Pyro Survey Results

I recently put out a survey to see how various theaters and other live venues deal with open flame and pyrotechnic effects.

I received a total of 118 responses. The chart below shows the breakdown by country.

geography

Responses from outside the USA came from Canada, the UK, and Australia, as well as from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Finland.

The responses were from a healthy mix of companies, from the largest regional theaters to the smallest community theaters. There were responses from Broadway and off-Broadway houses, as well as theme parks, opera companies, and educational programs.

The meat of the survey was a series of questions asking about the requirements for using various items. The items included open flame devices like candles and matches, pyrotechnic devices like squibs and sparklers, and heating elements like stoves.

requirements

Every answer has at least some variety. Perhaps the closest ones with any sort of “consensus” were burning paper and a hot plate. But it goes to show just how different every venue could be.  Even within the venues, the requirements could change on a show-to-show basis. A lot of what is “allowed” comes down to the fire marshal’s approval, and that can change depending on which fire marshal visits your theatre, or even how you present the effect to the fire marshal.

I also wanted to point out one interesting distinction between “Bic-style” and “Zippo-style” lighters. You can see in the chart above that a Zippo-style lighter is more likely to require a flame permit than a Bic-style lighter. Not all lighters are the same!

The use of cigarettes is not just dependent on the fire marshal; you also have to contend with tobacco and smoking regulations. I asked a question about what types of smoking products are allowed:

cigarettes

I was actually surprised at the percentage of theaters that could still use real cigarettes. From talking with other props masters, it sounded like they were all but completely banned by this point. But apparently a few places can still use them, usually citing free speech as their defense.

Looking at the individual responses, I found another surprise. In some venues, real and herbal cigarettes were allowed, while e-cigarettes were not. Usually, though, it is more likely to be the case that e-cigarettes were the only option where all others were banned.

The last graph shows whether theaters have a licensed pyrotechnician on staff.

pyrotechnic

Having someone on the theater’s payroll makes a big difference with what types of effects they use regularly. Using flash paper on stage gets a whole lot more expensive if you have to hire an additional crew member. If you ever wondered how some companies can afford to use a lot of pyro, this may be the answer.

The final question of the survey asked for additional comments on the use of flame and pyro effects. Many responses discussed the safety procedures they had to follow, such as maintaining a fire watch or flameproofing all the surrounding scenery. A few places mentioned they are only allowed to light and extinguish candles and matches on stage, not off.

A couple of responses reiterated just how arbitrary the rulings of a fire marshal can be. In one case, effects which followed national and state guidelines were banned simply because of city politics. Every theatre and every show is different, and you should never assume you can do certain effects just because you saw another theatre do them.

Podcast with Buist Bickley

Head on over to the “In 1 Podcast” site and check out this episode with Buist Bickley. Buist is fairly new to the New York props scene, but he has already served as production props supervisor (the Broadway term for “props master”) on a number of high profile shows: Other Desert CitiesThe MountaintopAct OneMothers and Sons, and many others.

The podcast is a little over two hours long, but you learn so much about working as a props supervisor in New York and on Broadway shows. Buist talks about how he gets hired on new shows, and what the beginning of the process is like. He discusses when he likes to put the real props into rehearsal (“as soon as possible”).  He divulges his favorite places to go shopping and how he manages to get things shipped as quickly as possible.

I learned a few things as well. I did not know that the props person is also responsible for providing rehearsal scenery. Buist talks about the intricacies of dealing with unions, and how once he gets to a theatre, he is no longer allowed to touch any of the props, or in some cases, even set foot on stage.

The episode is filled with so many more tidbits and information. Buist talks about his favorite designers to collaborate with, his favorite materials to use, and how he got started in the business. And check out the other episodes of “In 1” as well, to learn more about your favorite Broadway designers.