The fake dead lamb I made for The Little Foxes was cut.
It wasn’t because they didn’t like it. In fact, they never even looked at it. They had decided the scene would play better without the actors eating a lamb. So they cut it.
As a props artisan, you cannot take it personally. When a prop is cut, it is cut because the play works better without it. If a director (or writer or producer) tries to keep everything in a play just because they spent a lot of money on it or someone spent a lot of time it would quickly bog the production down. Theatre history is filled with the stories of monumental failures like these, where so much money has been spent and so many famous names are attached, but the production seems to crumble under its own weight. They fail because no one was willing to make the cuts or edit away the extraneous elements.
The lamb is amongst the more spectacular of my props to be cut, but there are certainly plenty of others. Remember this guy?
I first made him for the 2009 production of Twelfth Night. Director Dan Sullivan wanted some period noise-makers, and we did not have much in stock. We sent this to rehearsal, but they rejected it. Again, it wasn’t because they disliked it or did not appreciate it; rather the entire “bit” where they would use period noise-makers was re-staged to be something else.
The following year, Dan Sullivan was back to direct our production of The Merchant of Venice. In one of the rehearsal reports, they requested “period noise-makers”. Not to be outdone, I dug this wooden ratchet out of our props stock and sent it up to rehearsal. It again failed to make it into the show. So despite my pride in the construction of this prop, it was cut from twoÂ separateÂ productions.
I made this chair for the 2007 production of Tea: A Mirror of Soul at the Santa Fe Opera. There were actually going to be nine of these chairs; I prototyped the construction process on the first three, and then I was going to teach our two apprentices how to build them so they could make the remaining six between them both. I solved a lot of structural and design challenges in my prototype. Besides making the splat appear to be both floating and structural, you will notice that the back uprights are offset from the back legs. Usually, they are one long piece running from top to bottom, which gives chairs most of their strength. So I solved these problems and actually had the first three of these chairs built, when I found out they were cut. They hadn’t even made it into rehearsal. The reason? Most scenic designers design past their budget. They know that some elements or pieces will be cut from their design to bring the budget down. The more crafty (or sneaky, depending on your point of view) designers will actually design things that are extraneous just to have pieces to cut later on. It makes them appear like they’re willing to compromise without actually compromising the design they want. It turns out these chairs were one such element, and the designer did not realize I would build them before they were cut. I guess I’m just too fast and efficient in my work.
Please remember: it is inevitable, if you work in props for long enough, that a prop you adore will be cut from the show. Keep in mind that you are working to make the show better.
MoliÃ¨re (1622-1673) performed his plays in Paris, where theatres were inside and lit by candles. He performed at the salle du Petit-Bourbon at the Louvre, followed by the Palais-Royal. Finally, he performed some of his works at Versailles for King Louis XIV. We know quite a bit about the acting styles, the sceneography, and the costumes of his time. But how were props dealt with? Where did they come from, and who was in charge of them?
We can piece together information of how MoliÃ¨re acquired and used props by looking at the general theatre conditions in France at the time. We also have some actual surviving props from his theatre company, and several record books. The picture which forms is similar to conditions in theatres of adjoining countries and eras, such as Elizabethan England. There is some form of bureaucratic control in the theatre buildings, including people responsible for commissioning props. There does not appear to be “prop makers” or “prop masters” per se; rather, the theatre troupes, composed of the actors and a manager, are responsible for maintaining their own stock of props for the shows they perform (this, of course, is where the term “property” comes from).
General Theatre Conditions
The French theatre in MoliÃ¨re’s time customarily employed several people. The decorateur, or theatrical painter, decoraged the stage and auditorium. He worked with the machinest to produce all the scenery and machines.
We can glean some more information from L’Impromptu de Versailles (The Impromptu at Versailles, written in 1663). This one-act farce by MoliÃ¨re was written in response to criticisms against him, and the actors in this troupe played exaggerated versions of themselves as they rehearse a new play. We can pull off-handed remarks about the props and their use to construct a bit of information about standard practices of MoliÃ¨re and his company. For example, in scene IV, MoliÃ¨re instructs his actors: “Those coffres, Mesdames, will serve you for easy-chairs.” The actors obey; we can assume that the actors would have been familiar with using rehearsal furniture at least some of the time, otherwise they would have expressed objection or confusion. The French word “coffres” translates to “chests” or “trunks”. As for the easy-chair, the fauteuil was an upholstered arm chair popular at that time.
The chair is a Louis XIII style armchair made of wood, upholstered with black sheepskin, and set on casters. It is 4 feet by 2 feet 2 inches by 2 feet 8 inches (123 x 68 x 82 cm). It was first used in 1673 by MoliÃ¨re for the premiere of Le Malade imaginaire, and is the chair he died on during the performance. It was used by successive actors playing Argan until 1879. That’s 209 years, math-wizard. At that point, it had become so worn that a replica was made for the current Argan and the original placed on display.
A nitecap worn by Argan (played by MoliÃ¨re) is also housed there.
An engraving of a 1674 remount of The Imaginary Invalid (the year after MoliÃ¨re’s death) shows the stage picture.
The armchair appears to be the only set prop. Set dressing is nonexistent. The only hand props are the fan, and the spears held by the guards on the far sides of the stage. Really, the fan should be considered a personal prop. At this time in France, it was the actress’s (and actor’s)Â responsibility to costume herself, even at great expense. Conceivably, the fan could have been her personal property as well. Since the plays at the time used archetypal characters, and the settings were very consistent, one might surmise that props were mostly pulled from their stock, which would have been fairly modest. After all, if they used the same armchair for 209 years, the modern convention of purchasing and constructing new props for every single production was probably not practiced at that time.
One of these accounting books is the register of Charles Varlet de la Grange. He was an actor in MoliÃ¨re’s troupe and kept a daily account of the business dealings, as well as major events in the members’ lives. You can check out a description and photos of La Grange’s register, or read Ã‰douard Thierry’s edition (in French). By studying this register, we can find out what props were used in his various plays, and whether there were any “prop” tricks. For example, in L’Ã‰cole des femmes (The School for Wives), first performed in 1662, props mentioned include a chair in III.2 and a purse with some counters to serve as coins for I.4.
According to La Grange’s reports, Le Malade imaginaire received a lavish staging with “the prologue and intermÃ¨des filled with dances, vocal music, and stage properties”. The theatre troupe had to order the wood, iron, and canvas for carpenters, upholsterers, and painters. The first two carpenters were named Caron and Jacques Portrait. The workers were paid by the day. For its 1674 revival, La Grange listed the following production expenses: menuisiers (carpenters), ouvriers et assistans (workers who operated the machinery and set-changes), 2 laquais et decorateur (2 lackeys and the set-designer), and surcroist de chandel (candle supplement).
Similar records can be found in registers by La ThorilliÃ¨re and Hubert, two more members of MoliÃ¨re troupe. You can read the original register of La ThorilliÃ¨re (in French) for more fun.
Learning the names and terms for parts of objects is important in developing your shared vocabulary for easier communication. If a designer asks you to “make the splat wider”, you don’t want to waste your time trying to widen a drop of paint.
For chairs, this was a little tricky trying to distill down all the general parts. Not all chairs have all the parts. Some parts are only specific to certain styles or time periods. Various people refer to similar parts by different names; in some contexts, they can be synonyms, while in others, they might have slightly different definitions. I’ve tried to exclude terminology which describes styles of parts. So while I defined a “leg”, I haven’t included a “cabriole leg”.
You can refer to the drawing above as well as the one below when looking at the definitions. At the end of today’s post, I’ve included a full-size drawing of both diagrams together at a higher resolution so you can print it out and hang it up. Have fun!
apron – the strips that run between the legs and connects to the surface (seat)
arm or armrest – part that supports your elbow and forearm
arm support – generalized term for the upright piece which supports the arm
back rail – rails specific to the seat back
back upright – synonym for “stile”
corner bracket – item which connects two members for added support and structure
cresting – ornamental topping, usually set in the center of the top of a chair-back
cresting rail – rail which contains the cresting, aka top rail
ear – small projecting member or part of a piece or structure, either decorative or structural
foot – bottom of the leg
headpiece – another word for “top rail” or “headrest”. With cresting, can be called “cresting rail”
leg – support for the chair
lower rail – lowermost rail of the seat back
manchette (arm pad) – upholstered patch or cushion on an armrest
mid rail – rail close to the vertical center of the seat back
rail – horizontal bar (of the back)
seat – the piece you set your bum on
seat back – general term encompassing the whole back of a chair, from the seat on up
seat rail – a synonym for the apron, or a single piece of the apron
shoe – a piece that sits on the back seat rail and holds the bottom of the splat, allowing easy replacement of a broken splat without disassembling the whole chair
skirt – band of fabric that hangs free from the bottom of an upholstered cushion. Sometimes used as a synonym for “apron”
slip seat – a seat which is easily removable to facilitate re-upholstery
spindle – a cylindrically symmetric shaft
splat – a vertical central element of the chair back
stile – outside vertical framing member (of the back)
stretcher – horizontal support element joining the legs
top rail – uppermost rail of the seat back
upholstered back – a padded back covered in fabric
upholstered seat – a padded seat covered in fabric
A week and a half ago, I wrote about the set props for Slave Shack, a show I prop-mastered at the Algonquin Theatre. Now that the show has closed, I can talk about the hand props (the hand props give away several key plot points, which is why I held off until the show closed). There were several interesting challenges with the hand props for Slave Shack
The “handcuffs” actually needed to be leg-cuffs, as you can see in the first photograph. They also needed to be trick cuffs, with the ability to come apart without a key at any time. We couldn’t find any leg cuffs with that ability, so we had to invent them. The first thing we tried was grinding down the teeth; this would allowÂ Candice LaGia Lenoir, the actress who played Janice, to pull the handcuffs apart as easily as they could be pushed together.
During the play, however, Janice jumps out of her seat a couple of times. When she did this, the handcuffs would pop open. My first idea was to rig some sort of latch on the handcuffs, which could hold the handcuff jaws together. This created more problems than it solved, as Candice needed to undo the handcuffs in the dark and get off stage at the end of Act One. It introduced a whole lot of fumbling whenever the handcuffs needed to come on or off.
I got another set of cuffs which still had un-ground teeth. I put the key in the hole and covered the slot so the key remained inside permanently. I then cut the end of the key off and replaced it with a less visible lever to operate it. Basically, I turned the leg-cuffs into a set of trick cuffs. This seemed to work for the most part.
The play called for a large sofa in the middle of the office. Jack handcuffs Janice’s leg to one of the sofa’s legs. There is a line about the sofa being so heavy “it took five guys to carry it up here.” The implication is that Janice cannot simply lift the sofa and slide the cuff out from underneath to free herself.
Unfortunately, the stage at the Algonquin is 12′ by 15′, and a sofa of any significant size would fill the entire set. Natalie (the set designer, and my wife) designed a swivel chair with a heavy pedestal as pictured above. Unfortunately, such a thing does not exist; the only chairs close are designer mid-century pieces which cost thousands of dollars.
We found the top part of the chair on Craigslist, and was able to get it delivered. It originally had a rolling base. I removed that and replaced it with the base you see above, which was taken from an outdoor pedestal table. It was extremely heavy, which was good, since we needed to sell the idea that Janice could not simply sneak off with the entire chair, and also so the chair would not tip over during the violent scufflings which occurred throughout the performance.
One of the major plot points of Slave Shack involves a racist monkey cartoon which appeared on a company brochure to depict Africa. Jack Blake, the main character was held responsible for it and forced to retire. During the play, Warren, his underling, gives Jack a going-away present – a stuffed toy which resembles the racist monkey cartoon described earlier. Debra Whitfield, the director, wanted something creepy-looking, like the cymbal monkey toys from the 1950s.
I found a significantly creepy version of this toy on eBay; it was fairly cheap, as the moving parts were broken. I removed the clothes and added a grass skirt, feather headdress, a bone in its nose, and some decor around his neck.
I had to add some additional fur as removing the clothes revealed the metal skeleton underneath.
You may recall my earlier post on how to make a breakable glass. When we tested it in the space, it was still too dangerous. The space is so small that any breakable item had the potential of throwing shards into the audience. The space was also completely enclosed, so no matter how you blocked the action, the pieces would eventually ricochet off a wall and head toward the audience.
The only safe alternative on our budget (short of cutting the moment) was a wooden statue which could be pre-broken and reassembled with hot glue every night. Once again, Natalie decided to carve one herself rather than buy one. Though more labor-intensive, this gave us one distinct advantage. We cut the block of wood into five pieces and reassembled it with hot glue before carving it. This gave us nearly invisible break lines. If we cut a statue that had already been carved, the kerf, or thickness of the cutting blade, would have kept the seams from lining up completely.
This was originally published in the February 1907 issue of Popular Mechanics. As such, it does not include over a hundred years of chair evolution. Still, it’s a good starting point for narrowing down what kind of chair your production needs.
There are 40 distinct styles of chairs embracing the period from 3000 B.C. to 1900 A.D. â€” nearly 7,000 years. Of all the millions of chairs made during the centuries, each one can be classified under one or more of the 40 general styles shown in the chart. This chart was compiled by the editor of Decorative Furniture. The Colonial does not appear on the chart because it classifies under the Jacobean and other styles. A condensed key to the chart follows:
Egyptian â€” 3000 B.C. to 500 B.C. Seems to have been derived largely from the Early Asian. It influenced Assyrian and Greek decorations, and was used as a motif in some French Empire decoration. Not used in its entirety except for lodge rooms, etc.
Grecian â€” 700 B.C. to 200 B.C. Influenced by Egyptian and Assyrian styles. It had a progressive growth through the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian periods. It influenced the Roman style and the Pompeian, and all the Renaissance styles, and all styles following the Renaissance, and is still the most important factor in decorations today.
Roman â€” 750 B.C. to 450 A.D. Rome took her art entirely from Greece, and the Roman is purely a Greek development. The Roman style “revived” in the Renaissance, and in this way is still a prominent factor in modern decoration.
Pompeian â€” 100 B.C. to 79 A.D. Sometimes called the Grecian-Roman style, which well describes its components. The style we know as Greek was the Greek as used in public structures. The Pompeian is our best idea of Greek domestic decoration. Pompeii was long buried, but when rediscovered it promptly influenced all European styles, including Louis XVI, and the various Georgian styles.
Byzantine â€” 300 A.D. to 1450 A.D. The “Eastern Roman” style, originating in the removal of the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (then called Byzantium). It is a combination of Persian and Roman. It influenced the various Moorish, Sacracenic and other Mohammedan styles.
Gothic â€” 1100 to 1550. It had nothing to do with the Goths, but was a local European outgrowth of the Romanesque. It spread all over Europe, and reached its climax of development about 1550. It was on the Gothic construction that the Northern European and English Renaissance styles were grafted to form such styles as the Elizabethan, etc.
Moorish â€” 700 to 1600. The various Mohammedan styles can all be traced to the ancient Persian through the Byzantine. The Moorish or Moresque was the form taken by the Mohammedans in Spain.
Indian â€” 2000 B.C. to 1906 A.D. The East Indian style is almost composite, as expected of one with a growth of nearly 4,000 years. It has been influenced repeatedly by outside forces and various religious invasions, and has, in turn, influenced other far Eastern styles.
Chinese â€” 3500 B.C. to 1906 A.D. Another of the ancient styles. It had a continuous growth up to 230 B.C., since when it has not changed much. It has influenced Western styles, as in the Chippendale, Queen Anne, etc.
Japanese â€” 1200 B.C. to 1906 A.D. A style probably springing originally from China, but now absolutely distinct. It has influenced recent art in Europe and America, especially the “New Art” styles.
Italian Gothic â€” 1100 to 1500. The Italian Gothic differs from the European and English Gothic in clinging more closely to the Romanesque-Byzantine originals.
Tudor â€” 1485 to 1558. The earliest entry of the Renaissance into England. An application of Renaissance to the Gothic foundations. Its growth was into the Elizabethan.
Italian Renaissance, Fifteenth Century â€” 1400 to 1500. The birth century of the Renaissance. A seeking for revival of the old Roman and Greek decorative and constructive forms.
Italian Renaissance, Sixteenth Century â€” 1500 to 1600. A period of greater elaboration of detail and more freedom from actual Greek and Roman models.
Italian Renaissance, Seventeenth Century â€” 1600 to 1700. The period of great elaboration and beginning of reckless ornamentation.
Spanish Renaissance â€” 1500 to 1700. A variation of the Renaissance spirit caused by the combination of three distinct stylesâ€”the Renaissance as known in Italy, the Gothic and the Moorish. In furniture the Spanish Renaissance is almost identical with the Flemish, which it influenced.
Dutch Renaissance â€” 1500 to 1700. A style influenced alternately by the French and the Spanish. This style and the Flemish had a strong influence on the English William and Mary and Queen Anne styles, and especially on the Jacobean.
German Renaissance â€” 1550 to 1700. A style introduced by Germans who had gone to Italy to study. It was a heavy treatment of the Renaissance spirit, and merged into the German Baroque about 1700.
Francis I â€” 1515 to 1549. The introductory period when the Italian Renaissance found foothold in France. It is almost purely Italian, and was the forerunner of the Henri II.
Henri II â€” 1549 to 1610. In this the French Renaissance became differentiated from the Italian, assuming traits that were specifically French and that were emphasized in the next period.
Louis XIII â€” 1616 to 1643. A typically French style, in which but few traces of its derivation from the Italian remained. It was followed by the Louis XIV.
Elizabethan â€” 1558 to 1603. A compound style containing traces of the Gothic, much of the Tudor, some Dutch, Flemish and a little Italian. Especially noted for its fine wood carving.
Jacobean â€” 1603 to 1689. The English period immediately following the Elizabethan, and in most respects quite similar. The Dutch influence was, however, more prominent. The Cromwellian, which is included in this period, was identical with it.
William and Mary â€” 1689 to 1702. More Dutch influences. All furniture lighter and better suited to domestic purposes.
Queen Anne â€” 1702 to 1714. Increasing Dutch influences. Jacobean influence finally discarded. Chinese influence largely present.
Louis XIV â€” 1643 to 1715. The greatest French style. An entirely French creation, marked by elegance and dignity. Toward the end of the period it softened into the early Rococo.
Georgian â€” 1714 to 1820. A direct outgrowth of the Queen Anne, tempered by the prevailing French styles. It includes Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton, but these three great cabinetmakers were sufficiently distinct from the average Georgian to be worthy separate classification.
Chippendale â€” 1754 to 1800. The greatest English cabinet style. Based on the Queen Anne, but drawing largely from the Rococo, Chinese and Gothic, he produced three distinct types, viz.: French Chippendale, Chinese Chippendale and Gothic Chippendale. The last is a negligible quantity.
Louis XV â€” 1715 to 1774. The Rococo period. The result of the efforts of French designers to enliven the Louis XIV, and to evolve a new style out of one that had reached its logical climax.
Hepplewhite â€” 1775 to 1800. Succeeded Chippendale as the popular English cabinetmaker. By many he is considered his superior. His work is notable for a charming delicacy of line and design.
Louis XVI â€” 1774 to 1793. The French style based on a revival of Greek forms, and influenced by the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii.
Sheraton â€” 1775 to 1800. A fellow cabinetmaker, working at same time as Hepplewhite. One of the Colonial styles (Georgian).
R. & J. Adam â€” 1762 to 1800. Fathers of an English classic revival. Much like the French Louis XVI and Empire styles in many respects.
Empire â€” 1804 to 1814. The style created during the Empire of Napoleon I. Derived from classic Roman suggestions, with some Greek and Egyptian influences.
New Arts â€” 1900 to date. These are various worthy attempts by the designers of various nations to create a new style. Some of the results are good, and they are apt to be like the “little girl who had a little curl that hung in the middle of her forehead,” in that “when they are good they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid.”
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies