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Review: Backstage Handbook

Backstage Handbook
Backstage Handbook

I feel almost silly reviewing the Backstage Handbook: An Illustrated Almanac of Technical Information by Paul Carter and George Chiang; it is already so well-known and ubiquitous in the theatre world, I don’t know that I have anything to add. Nonetheless, every time I pick it up, it’s like I’m rediscovering how much useful information it has in it for the props professional. If you haven’t gotten this book because you think it’s aimed solely at the carpenter, electrician, stagehand or stage manager, think again.

Inside, you can find illustrations differentiating the type of moulding we use, parts of a window and wood joints. You can find lists and illustrations of the common hand and power tools you would find in a prop shop, as well as all the hardware and fasteners you will come across. It also includes definitions and descriptions of the various fabrics at our disposal, the multitude of adhesives we use (along with their ingredients) and the different types of rope and cord you can choose from. Along the way, you can also learn how to tie the most common types of theatre knots, how to draw a variety of geometric shapes (like pentagons and hexagons) and how to build a flat. Of course, you can also find all sorts of general theatre knowledge, such as the parts of a stage and the types of curtains we use.

So really, this isn’t much of a review; it’s more of a reminder that if you work in technical theatre (or film for that matter), you should own this book. Case closed.

Parts of a Table

Parts of a table
Parts of a table

Tables are a type of furniture which have innumerable variations, types and styles. Nonetheless, some basic parts show up in the majority of tables, especially the kinds which find their way onto the theatrical stage. Knowing the names of these parts is helpful for facilitating communication between designers, artisans and other members of the team; if the set designer asks for the apron to be smaller, you want to know which part you should change. What follows is some quick definitions of the parts in the illustration above.

top – the flat surface of a table

apron, skirt or frieze – the under-framing which connects the legs to the top

leg – the main vertical piece which supports the top and raises it off the floor

knee – the upper portion of the leg

foot – the bottom part of the leg which touches the floor. A table may have completely straight legs with no distinct knee or foot.

drop leaf – a portion of the top which overextends the apron and can be hinged down to take up less space when not in use

stretcher – cross pieces which connect the legs to add strength and stability. Some common configurations of stretchers include the H stretcher, X stretcher, and box stretcher.

Hammer Time

Parts of a hammer
Parts of a hammer

Your basic hammer is made of two parts: the handle and the head. The handle fits through a hole in the head known as the eye (or adze eye), and is held in place with a wedge. On newer hammers, the grip may be wrapped in rubber for greater comfort. The face is what strikes the nail or other surface you are hammering. Hammers used for peening, or shaping metal come in a number of varieties. A ball peen hammer has a peen with a hemisphere shape. A claw hammer has a claw used for removing nails or separating two pieces of wood.

Types of hammers
Types of hammers

I gathered some of the hammers we have in our shop, which represent some of the more common types which are useful to the props artisan. From left to right, we have:

Claw hammer: Your basic carpentry hammer is useful for driving and removing nails into wood. It’s also the go-to-hammer for basic “hitting stuff”; I kind of cringe every time I see someone grab a ball peen hammer to knock something loose.

Rawhide mallet: Useful for non-marring blows, especially when working with leather, jewelery or other softer and delicate metals.

Lead mallet: These are used to hit steel without the risk of creating sparks. You can also get copper mallets for the same purpose.

Soft-faced hammer: The faces are made of soft materials, such as rubber or plastic, and are often removable and replaceable. These are used when you are hammering on or around decorative or finished wood to keep from marring the surface.

Tack hammer: Used in upholstery to drive tacks. One end is split and often magnetic to help hold the tiny tacks while driving them in.

Ball peen hammer: Peen hammers are used for shaping metal. Besides the ball peen, you may also find straight peen, cross peen, and point peen, among others.

Wooden mallet: Or carpenter’s mallet, used for furniture assembly or driving in dowels when non-marring blows are needed.

You can of course find any number of other types of hammers and mallets, with many variations in between. Prop shops will often carry rubber mallets, rip hammers and sledge hammers. Other types of hammers, such as bricklayer hammers or drywall hammers may also find their way into shops. Check out the Science and Engineering Encyclopedia for a comprehensive list of hammers.

The Influence of Properties upon Dramatic Literature, 1889

The following comes from The Theatre, Vol 4, by Deshler Welch. Theatre Pub. Co., 1889, pg 4.

Scenery and “Properties.”

Their Influence upon Dramatic Literature.

By scenery is meant the paintings in perspective and movable with the change of place represented in the play.

The word “properties” we find technically applied to the appurtenances of the stage in England as early as 1511. In an account of the furniture used for the play of St. George during the Revels at Court in that year, “properties” and “property making” are both used. The person in charge of them was called the “tire-man,” and the one in charge of the “apparel” was called the “garment-man.”

In the estimates of the Revels in 1563 the “properties” for five plays at Windsor are mentioned several times. The “tireman,” as well as the “book-holder” (the prompter), is also spoken of by Ben Jonson in the induction to his play, “Cynthia’s Revels,” and both are mentioned by many other dramatic writers of that time.

As long ago as 1561 the public theatres only had, instead of scenery, besides the curtain in front, other curtains at the back of the stage. These were called “traverses,” and served to indicate another inner apartment, when one was needed. These were also afterward called “arras.” In “Hamlet” we find Polonius places himself behind the “arras.” Beds, chairs, and other “properties” needed on the stage, were thrust on through these hangings.

Parts of a Book

For long-term fans of my blog, you may have picked up that I am working on a book about props. It will be an expanded treatment of the paper I presented at the SETC Symposium in 2009, essentially setting forth a “scientific method” to approach the construction of any type of prop. It’s going to be a lot more fun than that sounds. To get in the spirit of things, here is a diagram and definitions of the various parts of a book.

Diagram of the parts of a book
Diagram of the parts of a book
  • text block – Everything between the covers.
  • front flap – The section of the dust jacket on the front of the book which is folded so it sits inside the cover.
  • endleaves – Two or more leaves at the front and back between the cover and the text block.
  • fore edge – The side of the book opposite the spine.
  • leaf – A single sheet of paper is a leaf, and each side is a page. The front page is known as the Obverse or Recto, while the back page is the Reverse or Verso.
  • gatherings – A group of leaves formed by folding a single sheet of paper. The text block is made of a series of gatherings.
  • headband – The narrow cloth band on the top and bottom of the spine. In hand-sewn books, it is functional and adds strength, in machine-bound books it is decorative.
  • cover/case – Whatever covers the text block. It consists of the cover panels and cover spine.
  • back flap – Like the front flap, but in the back.
  • dust jacket – Books used to have these to protect the covers. Of course that was before they had dust repellent paper.
  • front face – The front section of the dust jacket. The portion of the cover underneath is the front cover panel.
  • joint – Where the cover panels meet the cover spine.
  • spine – The back part of the cover where the text block is attached. It’s what you see when books are on a bookcase.
  • back face – The back section of the dust jacket. The portion of the cover underneath is the back cover panel.
  • head – The top of the book
  • tail – The bottom of the book