Tag Archives: history

Strike Anywhere Versus Safety Matches

If your production is permitted to use live flame, a match can be one of the most frustrating props to get right. In real life, we barely notice when it takes a few attempts to light a match, but on stage, we want the match to light up on the first stroke. First we need to know about the two main types of matches: safety vs strike anywhere.

What is the difference between safety matches and strike-anywhere matches? A match requires a mix of chemicals in order to ignite, including phosphorus. On a strike-anywhere match, all the chemicals are contained in the head. On a safety match, the phosphorus is not on the match head, but rather on a special striking surface. It is only when you draw the match against that surface that you have the correct combination of ingredients. A strike-anywhere match can be lit against any surface with enough friction; a safety match needs a strike plate containing phosphorus.

Safety match versus Strike Anywhere Match
Safety match versus Strike Anywhere Match

The above picture shows the visual difference between the two. The head on a safety match (top) is a solid color; usually red or blue, though newer ones can be green. The head of a strike anywhere match is red with a white tip; the white tip is the phosphorus.

In theatre, we want consistency, and most productions opt for the strike-anywhere match. You can light it off of a sheet of sandpaper; I found 300 grit is pretty good. A lot of shows will tape small rectangles of sandpaper on various hard surfaces around the set so the actor can light the match wherever they are. With a safety match, the chemicals on the striking plate are consumable, so the matches get progressively harder to light unless you switch out a fresh strike plate every so often.

Using strike anywhere matches takes some foresight, since it has gotten nearly impossible to just run out to a store and buy them. You probably need to order them online. They are not difficult to find, but they may take a few days to ship because of regulations against sending them by air.

You can buy in bulk, though they tend to lose their effectiveness over time. For optimum storing, keep them in an airtight container or bag along with a pack of silica gel desiccant.

As far as the historical accuracy of matches, both types appeared at basically the same time. The nineteenth century saw a lot of change and evolution in matches. You can find a lot of information online, but be careful with what you read; many sites will have interesting trivia about matches, but will neglect to tell you which matches were widely used and which were expensive novelties.

Basic archetypal wood matches using white phosphorus were widely used between 1830 and 1890. Many nineteenth century match boxes did not contain a striking surface, but rather had a loose piece of sandpaper inside that one used to light it. They also needed to be kept in an airtight container, so you would not see piles of loose matches out in the open.

The strike anywhere match as we know it came around the beginning of the twentieth century, as the use of white phosphorus was banned around the world and alternatives were found.

Safety matches began appearing around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Besides keeping your matches dry and making sure you have the correct striking surface, the other way to help your actors light a match is to use matches with a larger head and a sturdy shaft. Kitchen matches will often use thicker wood for their body than “standard” matches. Camping matches are typically beefier too; however, if they are “windproof”, it will be harder to blow them out, which can be dangerous onstage. Fireplace matches have some of the biggest heads; their shafts can often be nine inches or longer, but you can cut them down to whatever length you need.

One final disclaimer: the use of live flame onstage should only be done when you have the approval of the venue and the local fire marshal. Many jurisdictions will not allow any fire at all, even a single match. You need to take all possible precautions, including having someone backstage on “fire watch”, standing ready with a fire extinguisher. Wherever the actor disposes of the match, whether an ashtray or other container, you should fill with a bit of water, non-flammable gel (like Vaseline), or sand. The proper flameproofing of all props, scenery, and costumes around the match is also vital.

Original Romeo and Juliet Props Found

If you’re a Shakespeare buff or just interested in theatrical history, you may be aware that archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology are currently excavating the Curtain Theatre. The Curtain is one of the earlier theatres used by Shakespeare, and its well-preserved remains are filling in a lot of gaps about our knowledge of Elizabethan theatre. It has already yielded some surprises: the stage is rectangular, not circular as previously supposed. And last week, you probably saw the news articles exclaiming that props from the original Romeo and Juliet were unearthed. Is this true? Or rather, how likely is this?

Bone comb found at Curtain Theatre, (C) MOLA
Bone comb found at Curtain Theatre, (C) MOLA

Continue reading Original Romeo and Juliet Props Found

The Scenic World, 1886

The following article first appeared in the 1886 edition of The Cornhill Magazine.

The Scenic World

[F]ifty years ago, scenery decorations and properties were all of the rudest kind… Much of the extraordinary change that has taken place within twenty years is owing to the resources of science being applied to the stage. This is illustrated by the progress made in lighting… It is difficult to conceive the contrast to all this in Garrick’s day, when the stage was lit, not by footlights, but by four large chandeliers, which hung over the heads of the players. This was a rational system, for the faces were effectively lit up, and the scenery left dim and indistinct. But then these were the old foolish times when nobody cared for scenery, but for the play only and the actors.

Then any stuff would do for dresses—the coarsest was most effective—for there was but little light to see the texture. In Macready’s dress in ‘Virginius,’ now in Mr. Irving’s possession, the armour was of pasteboard covered with tinfoil, and the dagger of wood. There was a scarf of red serge, a linen tunic and sandals, &c. The whole could not have cost a couple of pounds. But a rich dress would have been wasted, and now the searching rays would display the poverty of material. Hence the introduction of rich and costly stuffs which makes the actress’s bill for dress now as high as that of a lady of fashion in the season. Hence those superb plushes and velvets of many tints, the brocades, the rare ornaments.

In the pantomimes we see whole bands of young ladies with their helmets, shields, and breastplates—no longer of pasteboard—made of a brilliantly polished silvery metal which reflects the bright rays of the limelight. This metal is costly enough, and these suits of armour cost a good deal. Stage jewellery now is a regular manufacture, and though many actresses wear real diamonds, it need not be said that the mimic stones are more effective. Sham furniture looks more like furniture on the stage than the finest that could be ordered from Maple’s. It would take too long to expound this, but in illustration it may be said that at the Théâtre Français there is a property clock for a boudoir elegantly painted and made of papier-maché, and which cost five or six hundred francs…

Nowadays there are regular costumiers, and when a play is brought out a contract is made with the person who makes and hires out the dresses at a fixed charge, and takes them back at the close of the season. They are then hired again to inferior theatres in town or country. This system is particularly adopted in the case of pantomimes, when some hundreds of dresses are required, which it would be quite too costly a business to buy outright for only a few weeks’ use. At the end of the season they are purchased, with the pantomime itself, scenery and properties, for some provincial theatre. They thus return again and again to the costumier’s store, and can be finally used for fancy balls, private theatricals, &c.

Smith, Elder, & Co., ed. “The Scenic World.” Cornhill Magazine 1886: 281-83. Google Books. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.

Video History of IATSE

If you have a spare half hour, check out this video history of IATSE. It was made by members of IATSE themselves. I’m not entirely sure when it was actually produced, but it had to have been somewhere around the late 40s.

The video features then-President of IATSE, Richard Walsh, as he is visited by the ghost of John Williams, the first President of the union in 1893. The history of IATSE is more than just about the union though; it is also a history of changing theatrical technology from the days of gaslight to our modern world.

Review: Blue-Collar Broadway, by Timothy R. White

I just finished reading Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater by Timothy R. White. It is a thoroughly fantastic read for anyone interested in the history of technical theatre and Broadway. Rather than another history of shows and stars, White lays out the history of scenery studios, prop shops, costume shops, lighting rental houses, rehearsal studios, and more. While many audiences (and producers) think that a show is just conjured up through imagination, White understands that imagination only becomes reality when you can hire skilled craftspeople and give them the space and tools to make it happen.

This is not just about Broadway. As any theatre technician can attest, Broadway is more of a brand than a location. Shows are built out in the regional theatres and shipped to New York. Tours have their technical rehearsals in performing arts centers far from Manhattan. As we learn in this book, it was really only the heart of the twentieth century when Broadway shows were built, rehearsed, and performed solely in the area around Times Square.

Prior to that, the work was done all over. White profiles one business, Armbruster Scenic, which provided painted drops to companies all over the country, despite its location in Columbus, Ohio. In the early half of the nineteenth century, every town had its share of stock theatre companies giving regular performances.

Yet, as White carefully details, it wasn’t film, television or Broadway that decimated the local theatre industry as many of us typically assume. It was the railroad. Once this network of rails sprung up around the country, all the stuff of theatre (as well as the actors) could be shipped from city to city. It created the idea of a “national” theatre, and how could the little stock companies compete when national stars were performing just down the street? It was still a few more decades before Broadway positioned itself to be the center of American theatre, and by then, the blue-collar theatre jobs around the country had shriveled to a percentage of what they used to be.

White does a fantastic job of digging into all the details to paint a picture of the technical theatre industry at various points in time. He includes a number of maps showing where scenic studios, costume shops and footwear rental stores were located throughout the city. He focuses on two shows in particular, Oklahoma! and Evita, to highlight the state of Broadway at their respective times, and to contrast the drastic changes that occurred in just a few decades. And he maintains perspective with the larger trends in history to show how Broadway’s history was not happening in a bubble.

Blue-Collar Broadway also gives a history of some of the larger regional theatres which began appearing in the 1950s and 1960s. After all, if blue-collar theatre workers were leaving the city to work at the Guthrie, it only makes sense to explain why. The regional theatres marked a new era in American Theatre history, when all the physical production elements could be built in one facility.

Though a lot of this history seems so long ago, most of it is fairly recent in perspective. Dazian Fabrics, which opened its doors in 1842, long before the golden age of Broadway, is still selling fabric to the performing arts industry. Nino Novellino, mentioned in this book for his work on the original Evita, is still building props in the same upstate New York building as he was back then. He’s still using the same machines that his predecessor, Peter Feller, built to make armor for The Man of La Mancha.  Feller’s father worked as a stagehand at the Metropolitan Opera, probably around the same time Edward Siedle was the technical director there. And Siedle was touring the US as a props hand before Broadway was Broadway. So we’re not very far from the beginning of Broadway’s history.

One aspect I missed from the book was any talk of opera, or other performing arts outside of theatre. The rise of the Metropolitan Opera as a national institution was simultaneous with the rise of Broadway, and many theatre technicians flow back and forth between the two. When talking about where all the scenery, costumes and props come from, and what keeps stagehands employed, surely the Met could warrant a mention. I’m sure there just wasn’t room in a book already overflowing with information.

Blue-Collar Broadway offers so many other avenues to explore in our collective history. It is truly a one-of-a-kind book for any worker in the performing art who wants to know what our predecessors did. It’s also a fine read for anyone who needs to convince the higher-ups of the validity and necessity of our work. As White writes, “While plenty of show ideas have sprung from inscrutable seeds of divine inspiration, the mundane reality of the finished Broadway show is far less glamorous. Every single show to have raised its curtain on Broadway was crafted through a long, sometimes painstaking process of rehearsal and construction within workshops and rehearsal studios. Even the most well-conceived show must be built to exist, and it must be built by craftspeople.”

Blue-Collar Broadway by Timothy R. White
Blue-Collar Broadway by Timothy R. White