Tag Archives: organization

Duties of a Property Man, Utah, 1921

The following comes from The Young Woman’s Journal, a self-described “organ of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations”. It was originally published in October, 1921, in Salt Lake City, Utah. I kept in the opening paragraphs so you get a sense of the context which the article was written, then I skipped ahead to the portion dealing specifically with props.

Technique of Play Production

by Maud May Babcock

The community theatre in the days of Brigham Young, was unique. The Latter-day Saints had an organization with such fine ideals and gave performances of such excellence that there has been no equal in theatrical history, and the theatre of Brigham Young stands today the admiration and wonder of the entire world. Have the mighty fallen? We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage to commercial theatrical enterprise. Instead of leading, showing how communities could entertain themselves and by so doing develop a taste for only the best in music and drama, we are amused by demoralizing vaudeville, and unreal, sentimental “canned” drama. Today our taste is as low as anywhere in the United States. Verily we are what we feed upon! The Mutuals are making splendid effort to help our communities come back to their own and make their own entertainment.

There is a tremendous waste of time and effort in our Ward societies because of the lack of organization, and systematic procedure in our entertainments.

Organization in heaven, in the church, in the world spells efficiency. A successful amusement center depends upon its organization. In our dramatic activities, our organization must consist of the following officers:

  • Director
  • Business Manager
  • Stage Manager
  • Stage Carpenter
  • Property Manager
  • Electrician
  • Scene Painter

The Director and Business Manager should be very carefully selected by the local Mutual Officers, and these should be responsible to them alone. All the other officers are appointed by the Director and responsible to him or her.

The Property Man—”Props”—provides, cares for, and places in proper position on the stage all furniture, draperies, rugs, carpets, lamps, telephone, letters, documents, etc.—in fact, all articles needed in the play except the personal properties of the actor. Things only used by a single actor—such as a fan, a cane, an eyeglass, a parasol, a handkerchief, a letter, if it remains with the one person and not given to another or is not left on the stage—these are personal “props.” A small table should be provided on either side of the stage for offstage “props,” such articles as are needed to be carried on stage, or for properties brought off stage. The property man should see that actors do not carry such “props” to their dressing rooms, but that they are left on the table provided. Stage drinks—which are made of grape juice, ginger-ale, or root beer, according to the color needed, are cared for and bought by “props” on order of the director countersigned by the business manager.

The property man should take an artistic pride in his stage picture and spend a good deal of time to secure, by renting or borrowing or making, the exact style of furniture and things needed for the play. A period play with modern furniture which one sees in stock performances is ludicrous. Charlie Millard, the veteran property man of the Salt Lake Theatre made all his properties and furnished the actors in Brigham Young’s time with even personal “props.” The stage manager furnishes “props” with a property plot containing a list of properties needed for each scene in the play.

This article first appeared in “The Young Woman’s Journal”, October, 1921.

Congratulations Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

The musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson recently won two Lucille Lortel Awards for both Best Musical as well as for best set design by Donyale Werle. Just yesterday, the Broadway version was nominated for a Tony award for best set design as well. Since I was the assistant props master on the off-Broadway incarnation (and the Broadway production was almost a direct transfer), I thought I’d write a bit about the props and set dressing of this award-winning scenery.

The props themselves were not too challenging (well, maybe some of them were); really, when you think of the set for Bloody Bloody, you think of the set dressing. It did not just cover the stage, it exploded out into the audience.

It’s interesting how the set dressing evolved during the show’s journey to Broadway. The show had a 2006 workshop at Williamstown Theatre Festival and a 2007 one at New 42nd Street Studios. It premiered in an LA production by CTG in 2008. We first did it at the Public in 2009 (I did some artisan work on that production) before its off-Broadway premiere in 2010. Every step of the way, the set design evolved and grew, and elements of the set dressing traveled from production to production.

So when the show got to us in 2010, we not only built, bought and otherwise acquired a whole theatre’s worth of stuff, we also unpacked several boxes worth of detritus that had accumulated during the previous incarnations. I took a few photographs of the upstage wall and assembled it into a panorama so you can see just a tiny portion of the amount of dressing and detail which went into this show.

Back wall of the Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson set
Back wall of the Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson set

To place that wall into context, I also have a photograph of the set taken from the back row of the Newman Theatre.

View from the back row
View from the back row

I could try to remember the details of all the set dressing pieces, but it turns out Time Out Magazine has a wonderful slide show of the Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson set with descriptions by Donyale Werle, so check that out instead. Amongst the clutter was the horse from the Public’s production of Kicking a Dead Horse as well as parts of the body I worked on for The Bacchae.

When this production closed, it was time to pack it up for Broadway. Normally when preparing our show documents, we would photograph and list all the set dressing; that would have been a monumental and difficult task in this case (we would have to write sentences like “a piece of duct tape is attached to a rope and stretches down to a horse which has a beer bottle underneath it”). Luckily, Donyale is highly organized and took most of her own reference photos and described them in a way that made sense to her. We just had to inventory, pack and label everything so the Broadway team could unpack it in their theatre.

They obviously added a whole lot more as well; the sum of all our items would only fill a small portion of a Broadway house. The New York Times covered the set design of the Broadway version as well as creating an interactive tour complete with narration by Donyale and her team.

When nothing is happening

It happens. It’s rare, but it happens. You get to work or your studio, and nothing is happening. You have no upcoming projects, the phone isn’t ringing, your emails are all answered, and you have no meetings. It is especially prevalent this time of the year, when half the country seems to be out of town or hunkered down in their homes for the holidays. You can spend all day watching Netflix, or you can take advantage of the downtime with some things you never have time for but which will improve your shop and skills in the long run. Here are some of my favorites.

Clean. I know you clean your shop every day (right?). And you probably do a big clean every week (when you have time). Still, there always seems to be something dirty in your shop no matter how often you clean, so here’s your chance to empty the vacuum cleaner, scrape the paint traps, and dust the tops of the chandeliers.

Maintenance. I’m talking about sharpening the chisels and oiling the pneumatic staplers. All tools require some maintenance, even if it’s only needed once or twice a year. If you don’t know the current state of your tools, now is a good time to check each one and make a list of what needs fixing and what needs replacing. It’s also a good time to get rid of those random tool parts from tools you no longer have that every shop somehow accumulates (or put them in your big bin of “found objects to use as prop parts”).

Organize. I don’t mean to imply that your shop isn’t already the paragon of proper organization. It doesn’t hurt to check all your bins of bolts to make sure they only contain the right sizes and cull out all the random bits that have found their way into the wrong drawers. While you’re at it, make sure you can close all the drawers; if one seems to be constantly overflowing, now is a good time to think of a way to divide up the contents and reorganize your hardware. It is also a good chance to take stock of how your supplies are faring and whether you need to order anything new (if your shop doesn’t have someone who does that).

Learn a new skill. This is one of my favorites. No matter how advanced you are, there is always something in the world of props that you’ve never quite mastered. Maybe it’s an artisan skill, such as welding or fabric draping, or maybe you just want to brush up on Excel or CAD. It’s your choice whether you want to just practice or if you want to take on a whole project utilizing your new skill so you have something to show for it at the end. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you can undertake an improvement to your shop, such as building new shelves using a saw you haven’t used before.

Tinker. Closely related to learning a new skill is tinkering. Maybe you want to experiment with different ways to pull of an effect which didn’t quite work in your last show, or maybe you just want to check out some new blood recipes you found on the internet. The world of props has a whole host of tricks and effects which can always use improving. Perhaps you can finally solve the problem of making a cell phone ring on cue.

Read. If you know what shows are coming up in your season, you can get a jump on them by reading the scripts now. When we’re in the thick of it, it can be hard to read a script for fun without stressing over every prop that is mentioned in it (all the needles just fell off the Christmas tree at once! How am I going to pull that off?). Alternatively, you can peruse the books on your shelf or look up information in other places about the time period of your upcoming plays to make yourself more informed about the context. Even if you don’t have any shows you want to prepare for, the prop master has an endless supply of reading material which can inform his or her profession. And hey, if you’re really bored, why not look through the archives of my blog to catch up on any articles you may have missed?

Scout new sources. Maybe being in the shop is the last thing you want to do when there is nothing going on. If you don’t have to be there, now is a great time to check out stores, flea markets and other suppliers that you otherwise haven’t had the chance to. It is especially nice this time of the year, as the throngs of holiday shoppers have gone home and discounts can be found.

Portfolios. A props person should always have an up-to-date portfolio, even if one is not actively seeking employment. A lull between shows is a good time to make sure of this.The least you can do is gather all the photographs you can find of past shows. Portfolios aren’t just for individual artisans; it’s a good idea to have a “shop” portfolio as well.You can show off what your shop has done in the past to tours which come through, or in presentations to groups, or at conferences such as USITT. It also doesn’t hurt to brag on your accomplishments to your bosses and the higher-ups every once in awhile. Even if you can’t think of a specific reason to keep a portfolio, you don’t want to be caught in a situation where someone asks to see examples of your shop’s work and all you have is a dusty photograph from a 1982 production of Christmas Carol.

Feeling Creative and Design Patterns in props

I focus a lot on the “building” and “making” of props on this blog; it’s time for a bit of information about the organizational and motivational part of the job.

43 Folders is a website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work. It’s great if you’re a prop master trying to get more organized or motivated at work, or a props artisan trying to manage your time and energy better.

I found one post in particular to be interesting. The Problem with “Feeling Creative” talks about how “creative work” is still work. There are a lot of books and blogs out there which want to inspire you to feel artistic, but the only way to really get creative work done is by hard work and perserverance.

Merlin Mann, the author, writes:

The athlete got good not by reading reviews of headbands, but by waking up early, lacing shoes in the dark, and hitting the track to train hard. While the surgeon got good not by watching reruns of Trapper John, M.D., but by slogging through medical school, residencies, and hundreds of hours of face time with patients, colleagues, and mentors. “Feeling” had nothing to do with it.

He continues his post by introducing the idea of “design patterns”, commonly used in the fields of architecture, design, and software engineering. As he explains:

By documenting and categorizing the things that “tend to work” within a given context (and within a given set of constraints), individual patterns can provide the basis for a pattern language that encourages flexible problem-solving that discourages the costly and time-consuming tendency to reinvent the wheel.

It got me thinking about props, and whether there are any design patterns in our fields. The paperwork and prop plots used by propmasters have become fairly standardized throughout the industry. Prop artisans have tried-and-true techniques for building chairs, casting an actor’s head, or distressing leather. Props running crew layout their prop tables in much the same way throughout the country.

For your homework this weekend, think of any other design patterns which may exist in props. Think of some things which you wish had design patterns, or things you wished could be taught in schools to upcoming prop professionals. Write all about it in the comments below.