The following comes from a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse property shop is long gone.
Maker Must Know a Lot
Any one who thinks the making of properties requires only mechanical skill is vastly wrong. The artisan must know much about the art and customs of the time in which the action of the play takes place. If the scene is in Venice, he must not make a vase that looks as if it had come from Grand Rapids, Mich., or some other American manufacturing center. If he has to furnish to a follower of Richard Plantagenet an axe or spear it would never do to make one such as a North American Indian used on the scalps of the early settlers.
When Mr. Morse undetakes to furnish properties for a play, the book of the play is given to him, just as it is to the actor or the scenic artist. He reads not only the play itself, but any books that may gibe him information about the customs and arts of the people and times. He tries to absorb as much of the atmosphere of the play as he can before he begins work on the articles themselves. In short, he does not merely copy. He creates.
He not only molds the properties. He designs them. Before he thinks of forming the final objects he makes a miniature model of the entire scene. If a visitor once sees one of these tiny models he wonders why such things ever should be thrown away. But, as the skilled artisan has told him, they generally are tossed aside when the job for which they were made is finished.
When I say “the first property maker”, I mean in terms of a professional person who earns a living making props. People have made props throughout history in many theatrical traditions; they certainly haven’t appeared from nowhere. Many traditions probably sustained quite a class of artisans devoted to the theater, particularly in Ancient Greece and Rome. Certainly too, there are many forms of theatre outside of our Western traditions. What I am looking at is the first group of people known as “property makers” who could make a living building props for professional theater. For that, we must look to the origins of what, in many ways, has become our idea of modern theatre and performing arts, the Elizabethans.
The pinnacle of Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre centered around the monarchy, which hired many types of artists to perform at Court, festivals and pageants, and licensed other forms of entertainment throughout the city. Though various officers were tasked with this job earlier, the first official “Master of the Revels” with an independent office was SirÂ Thomas Cawarden in 1544. The office and storage facilities were consolidated to aÂ dissolved Dominican monastery at Blackfriars. Cawarden was known for his skill in taking sketches and turning them into fully-realized productions. This required a whole “production team”, as well as the ability to communicate the needs of the stage to a group of skilled craftsmen who understood the special considerations which theatre requires. After Cawarden’s death in 1559, the office moved toÂ the priory of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell.
The office moved several times throughout its history; in 1608, it came to be located in the Whitefriars district outside the western city wall of London. The Master of Revels at the time,Â Edmund Tilney, described that the Office:
…consisteth of a wardrobe and other several [i.e. separate] rooms for artificers to work in (viz. tailors, embroiderers, property makers, painters, wire-drawers and carpenters), together with a convenient place for the rehearsals and setting forth of plays and other shows….”
[Halliday, F. E.Â A Shakespeare Companion 1564â€“1964.Â Baltimore, Penguin, (1964)]
Tilney also noted that the office served as a residence for the Master and his family, as well as other personnel.
The records kept by the Office of the Revels informs much of what we know about the artisans hired to furnish the theatre with its physical “stuff” and the money spent on materials. It was not just writers and actors who were beginning to develop into a new profession at this time, but a whole range ofÂ carpenters, tailors, plasterers, wiredrawers, painters,Â plumbers and others who were becoming a new “theatrical artisan” class. Some of these artisans appear in the records steadily employed for periods of thirty or even forty years.
One of the first artists to be listed in the Revels records as a “property maker” is a man named John Carowe (orÂ Carow or Caro). He was first employed in 1547 for the coronation of Edward, and continued to work as a property maker, joiner and carver until his death in 1574. In these records, “property making refers” not just to hand props like heads and swords, but also to the custom construction of stage furniture and large scenic devices (such as wagons and hell-mouths). In this account of expenses paid between December 1573 and January 1574, we see some of the things Carowe has provided to the Revels:
John Caro, Property maker, for money to him due for sundry parcells Holly and Jug for the play of Predor.–Fishes counterfet for the same, viz Whiting, Place, Mackarell, &c.–A payle for the castell top–Bayes for sundry purposes,–Lathes for the hollo tree–Hoopes for tharbor and top of an howse,–A truncheon for the Dictator,–Paste and paper for the Dragons head,–Deale boordes for the Senat Howse,–A long staf to reach up and downe the lights,–Fawchins for Farrants play–Pynnes styf and greate for paynted clothes,–Formes ii. and stooles xii, &c.–In all lxixs. ixdÂ [69 shillings, 9 pence].
Carowe was also in charge of overseeing other property makers, as we can see in this account of the 1572 Christmas Revels,Â separatedÂ into individual projects:
Propertymakers: Iohn Caro, Iohn Rosse, Nicholas Rosse, Iohn Rosse Iunior, Thomas Sturley, Iohn Ogle, Iohn David forÂ Caro.
Propertymakers, Embroiderers, and Haberdashers: Iohn Caro, William Pilkington, Iohn Sharpe, Iohn ffarington, Iohn Tuke,Â Iohn Owgle, Iohn David for Caro, Ione Pilkington
Propertymakers, Embroiderers, and Haberdashers: Iolin Carowe, William Pilkington, Iohn ffarrington, Iohn Tuke, IoneÂ Pilkington, Thomas Tysant, Iohn David for Caro.
You can see one of the property makers is named John Rosse, and another John Rosse Junior; like many crafts at this time, the evidence points to fathers passing their skills along to sons to keep the theatrical traditions alive. It would seem that Carowe made some of his props in his own shop, which must have been thriving, while others were constructed in the Revels Offices mentioned at the beginning.
This is the third excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. Iâ€™ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.
Stage PropertiesÂ by Dutton Cook, 1878
The maker of properties, although an important aid to theatrical representations, is never seen by the audience; he is of scarcely less value to the stage than the scene-painter, but he is never called before the curtain to be publicly congratulated upon his exploits. His manufactory or workshop is usually in some retired part of the theatre. He lives in a world of his ownâ€”a world of shams. His duty is to make the worse appear the better article; to obtain acceptance for forgeries, to create, not realities, but semblances. He does not figure among the dramatis personÃ¦; but what a significant part he plays! Tragedy and comedy, serious ballet and Christmas pantomime, are alike to him. He appears in none of them, but he pervades them all; his unseen presence is felt as a notable influence on every side. He provides the purse of gold with which the rich man relieves the necessities of his poor interlocutor, the bank notes that are stolen, the will that disinherits, the parchments long lost but found at last, which restore the rightful heir to the family possessions. The assassin’s knife, the robber’s pistol, the soldier’s musket, the sailor’s cutlass, the court sword of genteel comedy, the basket-hilted blade that works such havoc in melodrama, all these proceed from his armoury; while from his kitchen, so to speak, issue alike the kingly feasts, consisting usually of wooden apples and Dutch-metal-smeared goblets, and the humbler meals spread in cottage interiors or furnished lodgings, the pseudo legs of mutton, roast fowls or pork chopsâ€”to say nothing of those joints of meat, shoals of fish, and pounds of sausages inseparable from what are called the ‘spill and pelt’ scenes of harlequinade.
Of late years, however, our purveyors of theatrical entertainments, moved by much fondness for reality, have shown a disposition to limit the labours of the property-maker, to dispense with his simulacra as much as possible, and to employ instead the actualities he but seeks to mimic and shadow forth. Costly furniture is now often hired or purchased from fashionable upholsterers. Genuine china appears where once pasteboard fabrications did dutyâ€”real oak-carvings banish the old substitutes of painted canvas stretched on deal laths and ‘profiled,’ to resort to the technical term, with a small sharp saw. The property-maker, with his boards and battens, his wicker-work and gold leaf, his paints and glue and size, his shams of all kinds, is almost banished from the scene. The stage accessories become so substantial that the actors begin to wear a shadowy lookâ€”especially when they are required to represent rather unlife-like characters. Real horses, real dogs, real water, real pumps and washing tubs are now supplemented by real bric-Ã -brac, bijouterie, and drawing-room knick-knackery.
Faith has been lost, apparently, in the arts of stage illusion; the spectators must be no longer duped, things must be what they seem. But this system of furnishing the stage with actualities, or of combining the real with the imaginary, with a view to enhancing scenic effect, is not absolutely an innovationâ€”at least, some hints may be found of it in Addison’s account of the opera of his time. While allowing that an operaâ€”and entertainments dependent upon spectacle for their success were included in that termâ€”might be extravagantly lavish in its decorationsâ€”its only object being ‘to gratify the senses and keep up an indolent attention in the audience’â€”he urged that common sense should be respected, and that there should be nothing childish and absurd in the scenes and machines. ‘How would the wits of King Charles’s time have laughed to have seen Nicolini exposed to a tempest in robes of ermine, and sailing in an open boat in a sea of pasteboard! What a field of raillery would they have been let into had they been entertained with painted dragons spitting wildfire, enchanted chariots drawn by Flanders mares, and real cascades in artificial landscapes! A little skill in criticism would inform us that shadows and realities ought not to be mixed together in the same piece; and that the scenes which are designed as the representations of nature should be filled with resemblances and not with the things themselves. If one would represent a wide champaign country filled with herds and flocks, it would be ridiculous to draw the country only upon the scenes and to crowd several parts of the stage with sheep and oxen. This is joining together inconsistencies and making the decoration partly real and partly imaginary.’
Pursuing the subject, he relates how sparrows have been purchased for the opera houseâ€”’to enter towards the end of the first act and to fly about the stage… to act the part of singing birds in a delightful grove.’ Upon a nearer inquiry, however, he finds that, ‘though they flew in sight, the music proceeded from a concert of flagelets and bird-calls which were planted behind the scenes.’ So many sparrows, however, had been let loose in the opera of ‘Rinaldo,’ that it was feared the house would never get rid of them, and that in other plays they might make their entrance in very improper scenes, so as to be seen flying in a lady’s bed-chamber or perching upon a king’s throne. ‘I am credibly informed,’ he continues, ‘that there was once a design of casting into an opera the story of Whittington and his Cat, and that in order to it there had been got together a great quantity of mice; but Mr. Rich,”the proprietor of the playhouse, very prudently considered that it would be impossible for the cat to kill them all, and that consequently the princes of the stage might be as much infested with mice as the prince of the island was before the cat’s arrival upon it; for which reason he would not permit it to be acted in his house.’ In conclusion, he mentions a proposal to furnish the next performance of the opera with a real orange grove from Messrs. Loudon and Wise, the Queen’s gardeners at this time, and to secure a number of tomtits to personate the singing birds,’ the undertakers being resolved to spare neither pains nor money for the gratification of the audience.’
(Dutton Cook. â€œStage Properties.â€Â Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878:Â pp. 287-289.)
It’s easy to think how hard it is to get started building props. Tools and machines are expensive, materials are hard to work with, and there are just so many to choose from. But think of this: the vast majority of materials we work with today were unavailable before World War II: all manner of plastics, all foams, all our composite materials, even our glues and paints. Nearly every kind of coating and adhesive has some form of synthetic polymer in it; before that, we had hide glue, wheat paste and rubber cement (well, after the 1900s that is). Even plywood as we know it was not something you could just go out and buy. It existed, but it was made by the carpenter himself, by laying up layer after layer of thin veneers.
Think too of the tools we have available to us. Electricity and pneumatics have given us incredible power and speed in the palms of our hands. The industrial revolution and machine age have brought us standardized parts and precision unimaginable in previous times. Even our simple hand tools have benefited; a hand saw blade today is produced more quickly, cheaply, and precisely than before the industrial age. The steel it is made from is stronger and more consistent (and far less expensive).
From the weapons used by Alexander the Great to conquer the world, to the furniture found in Versailles, our museums are filled with amazing items created with nearly none of what our props artisans have available today. We can purchase a sheet of metal from a hobby shop which is superior in properties than the metal used by Genghis Khan to create his weapons which conquered the world. We can buy a Dremel tool for a pittance; imagine how envious the people who built the first railroads would be to see such a tool.
So if you are just starting out with prop making, or want to practice doing more of it, don’t wait until you can afford the fancy tools or can master the most modern materials. Think about what you can do with what you have, rather than what you can’t with what you don’t.
On the second full day of this year’s S*P*A*M conference, we watched a presentation by Rebecca Akins. Ms. Akins has designed costumes for Childsplay Theatre (our host in Arizona) for the past twenty-five years, and has been constructing costumes, puppets, costume props and masks for at least that long as well.Â She divided her presentation in two parts. The first was on materials and methods she’s used in the past which she now knows to be hazardous to your health. The second was on “new good things”, which are less-toxic replacements for these.
One of her earlier shows was a production of DevilsÂ in 1971. She created latex masks, Celastic armor, and sprayed the costumes with aniline dyes. Anyone who has worn latex knows it does not allow the skin to breathe, and the latex masks were very uncomfortable to the actors with the heat and build-up of sweat underneath. Aniline dyes are extremely toxic, and spraying them is a great way to fill your lungs with poison, especially with little ventilation and no respirator.
Ms. Akins used Celastic a lot in those days, starting with Celastic mitres, crowns and wigs for The BalconyÂ in 1969, through at least 1981 with masks for a production of The Pied Piper. For those who are unfamiliar, Celastic is a fabric impregnated with plastic. When you soak it in a solvent, it becomes soft and flexible, hardening to a stiff but lightweight shell when the solvent evaporates. The toxic part is not the Celastic itself, but the solvent used to soften it; common choices include acetone and methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). All solvents are harmful to humans, and can enter the body through the skin, lungs, stomach or eyes. Not all gloves will protect against them, and not all respirators are designed to filter out their vapors.
She mentioned a material I had never heard of called “blue mud cement”. It is a powdery mixture of asbestos fibers and “spackle-y” binders; when mixed with water, the paste will dry hard and lightweight (it was originally developed for plumbing pipe insulation). For a 1974 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she created forms in chicken wire, wrapped them in plaster bandages, and coated the whole thing with blue mud cement.Â It sounds like a mix between Bondo and chopped fiberglass, except that it’s, you know, asbestos.
Cutting and carving Styrofoam with a hot knife or wire is another technique she described; the fumes created when Styrofoam melts are fairly toxic.
In 1984, Ms. Akins worked with fiberglass for the first time to create a mascot head for a Phoenix sports team. Fiberglass creates strong and lightweight shells, but she found the individual particles got into her skin and clothes and irritated her immensely, and the resins used give off a lot of fumes while curing; it is also an inhalation hazard when sanding the hardened fiberglass. She used fiberglass again in 2002 with more adequate protection (ventilation, a respirator and thick sleeves), but decided it was too much of a hassle to continue working with it.
The second half of her presentation dealt with “new good things”, that is, newer materials which attempt similar results with less toxicity. Examples include Fosshape, Thermaflex (or Wonderflex), leather, fabric, paper and silicone casting gels.
Fabric is another less-toxic material. She uses soft sculpture a lot for puppets; fabric, thread, fiber fill (stuffing) and paint are the only materials needed to make three-dimensional shapes.
She showed us a number of examples of “found objects as materials”. An old leather handbag became a dog mask, a group of woven baskets transformed into a camel, and dryer hoses turned into snakes and an elephant’s trunk. Though using found objects has long been a staple of propmaking, Ms. Akins reminded us it remains a fairly non-toxicâ€“and environmentally friendlyâ€“method, even today. Below is a photograph of a dog mask made out of wooden bowls.
In 2004, she began using Fosshape to make a head for a production of Big Friendly Giant. Like Themaflex and Wonderflex, Fosshape is a plastic-impregnated fabric which becomes soft and pliable when heated, and retains its shape when cooled. In many ways, it is similar to Celastic, except you use boiling water or a heat gun to soften it, rather than a bucket full of solvents.
Finally, she described her first forays into using silicone mold materials. She would make a model in clay, mold it in silicone, and then cast it in resin. In one case, she mixed resin and Bondo together to make a puppet head; this gave her a translucent pinkish head which looked a lot like skin.
At the end of her presentation, Ms. Akins reminded us that whatever materials and methods you choose, you should endeavor to make the prop with as much care as possible. She left us with these closing words: “The more gorgeous a thing is, the more respect it is treated with.”
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies