Tag Archives: Bland Wade

Bad Props Make Bad Shows

In Monday’s post, I took a closer look at some of the set dressing in one of our previous shows. The props included details which were relevant to the play but which would have never been visible to the audience. Why would anyone do that?

There’s a saying (I first heard it from Bland Wade at UNCSA) that if the prop is crap, the actors will treat it like crap. There is a lot that goes into a play: lights, sets, sound, theatre architecture, publicity, etc. For individual actors, they mostly share all of this with the rest of the company. The only pieces they have to themselves are their costumes and their props. If an actor is given a prop which is poorly made, misshapen, or otherwise less-than-stellar, it may feel like a bit of an insult; everybody else gets treated well, but he is left holding something that looks like an old candle stuck in a potato and wrapped in gaff tape. If it feels like a throwaway prop, he will act as though it can be thrown away.

When an actor is treating his props like crap, it may creep into his acting as well. He may still give his more important lines their proper reading, but the less important ones—the “throwaway lines”, if you will—will start to be treated with less care and thought. After all, if the theatre does not care enough to give him a well-constructed prop, why should he care enough to be emotionally focused for every single line?

That’s not to say that actors cannot overcome difficult working conditions, or that they only work well when they are coddled and pampered. What I am describing may not be conscious or done purposefully. But just like a dog can pick up an owner’s emotional state of mind even in the absence of any visible or verbal cues, so too can an audience pick up the invisible dissatisfaction of an actor even when he is trying his best to hide it. It is no coincidence that when you hear about the great flops of theatre and film production, you also hear about how bad it was working on them; in-fighting, personality conflicts, incompetence and other bad working conditions often go hand-in-hand with box office failure.

Contrast that with a production where everybody feels like they are taken care of. An actor receives a prop which looks like it was carefully built. Any notes or suggestions he gives to make it easier to work with are taken care of in a timely manner. He begins to feel that the theatre cares about every little detail and is working hard to do the best work they can. He steps up his own game, and works as hard as he can, because nobody wants to be the laziest person on a team. Small actions can ripple through a group of people and move them all in a positive or negative direction.

So take care in everything you do. You do not necessarily need to write a character’s phone number on a card which only the actor can see, but be aware that all your props add meaning to the show for the actors who use them.

How to read a script

A prop master develops a prop list by reading the script. The director, designer, and/or stage manager may come up with their own prop list; you still need your own so you can get working right away, and so you can make sure the rest of the production team has considered all the props that may be in the production.

First off, if your script comes with a prop list in the back, don’t use it. These are from the original production. The design and direction of your production will certainly be slightly altered, and can even be totally different.

Read the script twice. The first time is for fun, to get an overall feel of the play. You want to be able to have an intelligent conversation about the play with the rest of the design team. You don’t want to be the one at the meetings going, “Wait, Juliet is a girl?” The second time you read through it is to start noting props. Have your own copy of the script so you can mark it as you read. This script should live in your prop bible. Mark the page number of the prop on the prop list for easy reference later.

You can find props references throughout the script. The scene descriptions will give descriptions of the set furniture and some set dressing. The stage directions will tell you what hand props are being used, and how they are used.  The character descriptions can give more clues about hand props, and can also hint at possible costume props. Even the dialogue can hold additional prop notes.

Look for clues on how a prop is used, and what it needs to do. If a chair is introduced on page 3, and on page 42, a character leaps on top of it, that needs to go on your prop list. A designer will usually decide what a prop must look like, but it is up to you to figure out what the prop needs to do. The director will also determine what a prop needs to do in rehearsal, but it helps to know as soon as possible if anything on your list will take some time or effort to build or acquire.

One final bit of advice comes from Bland Wade, who reminds you to consider all the ramifications of a stage direction, rather than what is merely written down. When a script says a character enters “smoking”, you need to ask what kind of cigarette he has. Where did it come from: a pack, a cigarette case, a friend? Where do the ashes go? Does he light it on stage? With a lighter or matches? What kind of lighter? Where does he extinguish it? In an ashtray or the floor? One simple stage direction can lead to a page’s worth of props.

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.