Tag Archives: prop list

Nineteenth Century Prop Lists

Fourth in a series of excerpts 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. I’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 Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

A new performance being in course of preparation, the property-maker is duly furnished with a ‘plot’ or list of the articles required of his department, there being also plots or lists for the heads of other departments: a scene-painter’s plot, a carpenter’s scene plot, and a tailor’s plot, setting forth the dresses necessary to the representation. In the pantomime season, or whenever any great pageant or spectacle is to be produced, these plots are of prodigious extent. They are fairly written on long slips of paper—like the bills of fare in coffee-rooms—and may be some yards in length. The property-maker affixes his list to the wall of his workshop, and subjects it to very careful study. Every item must be considered and remembered. Here is the authentic property plot of the first three scenes of the famous pantomime of’ Mother Goose’:

  • Scene I.—Thunder, &c.; stick for Mother Goose; favours for villagers; huntsman’s whip; staff for beadle.
  • Scene II.—Golden egg; goose.
  • Scene III.—Three chairs; a knife and stick for pantaloon; a sword for harlequin; two pistols to fire behind the scenes.

And so on through a score of scenes.

‘Mother Goose’ was really a very simple affair, however. The property plot of modern pantomimes is more after this fashion:

  • Scene I.—Twelve demons’ heads; twelve three-pronged spears; twelve pairs demons’ wings; twelve tails; one dragon, to vomit fire, and with tail to move. One cauldron to burn blue; demon king’s head; one red-hot poker; four owls with movable eyes, to change to green imps; twelve squibs, to light on demons’ tails. Red fire.
  • Scene II. Fairy Scene.—Twenty-four silver helmets for ballet, eight superior; twenty-four javelins for ditto, eight superior; twenty-four silver shields, eight superior; twenty-four garlands of flowers, eight superior; silver car for fairy queen, with silver star at back to revolve; Cupid’s bow and arrows; one dove, to fly off; one plum-pudding, to walk; six mince pies, to walk; one turkey and sausages to sing and dance. White fire.

The eight superior articles, it may be noted, are for the ladies in the front rank of the ballet, who are brought more prominently before the spectators, and are usually the more skilled and comely of the troop. At the back of the stage, inferiority of aspect and accomplishment, and the evidences of time’s assaults and injuries, are supposed to escape observation.

The duties of the property-man are very multifarious. Is a snow-storm required? He provides the snow, and showers or drifts it from the flies. Are figures or objects to be seen crossing the distant landscape, the river or the bridge? He cuts them out of pasteboard and fits them with wires that may be jerked this way and that. Does the situation require a railway collision, a burning house, a sinking ship, or an earthquake? The property-man will take the order and promptly execute it. Steam shall be seen to issue from funnels, engines shall shriek, mines shall explode, waves shall mount, flames flicker, lightnings flash and thunder roar, rafters fall, and sparks and smoke and fearful saltpetrous fumes fill the theatre—all at the bidding of the property-man.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 289-290.)

What’s in a Prop Bible

What is a “prop bible” and why do we have one? We can answer the first question by answering the second; if a prop master were to disappear off the face of the earth during the preparation of a show, the prop bible would allow his or her replacement to pick up exactly where the process was left off. Thus, a prop bible would have any and all information which a prop master has picked up in the course of propping a show about the props and their various details.

Some of our prop bibles
Some of our prop bibles

The first thing a prop bible would have is a copy of the script. Like most prop masters, I like to have the script printed on one side of regular copy paper and placed in a three-ring binder. This lets me add notes, highlights, and otherwise mark up the script. It also allows me to write more detailed notes on the opposing blank page.

The next vital item to have in the prop bible is an up-to-date version of the prop list. The subject of what goes in a prop list is a discussion in and of itself. I wrote about how to read a script back in 2009; while it touches on some parts of creating a prop list, I haven’t explicitly written about the process yet. The important thing for the purposes of this article is to have a single document which lists every prop and piece of set dressing that is expected of you.

Next up is all the information the designer gives you. Drawings, draftings, research and inspiration photographs, and even verbal and written descriptions should all be collected as much as humanly possible. You may not be able to fit full drafting plates in your book, but if possible, you can print out or photocopy at reduced size or selected portion of the drafting with an indication that the full-size version exists in another location. I often do my own supplementary research; I indicate that these pictures did not come from the designer or director, as this can sometimes be an important distinction.

The daily rehearsal reports are also integral to a props bible. The stage managers will (hopefully) sum up all the prop notes and discoveries during the day’s rehearsals and send it out to everyone on the production team. This is where many of the notes about the usage and practical requirements of the hand props will come from. When someone asks “Why is Hamlet’s sword so short?”, you can point to the rehearsal report where the actor decided he would hide his sword under his cape, and a longer sword would stick out the bottom.

Other preproduction information to have copies of includes minutes from production meetings and any other meetings with the director, designers, or stage managers. Basically, any communication, written or verbal, where decisions are made about props should be included in the bible so you don’t end up making a fool of yourself by picking out a chair for a show which the director told you weeks ago was not the style he wants.

Your prop bible is also where you want to keep all the other relevant information about your production, such as the contact sheet, schedules, and any contract you may have signed.

As your process gets underway, you need to ensure that your prop bible remains up to date. You can also add information about the sources of where your props come from. If they are borrowed or rented, you can keep contact information for the source. You may also record information about stores or vendors where you buy items from. The actual financial documents, such as receipts and invoices, are not kept in the bible; in most organizations, you need to submit the original copies of these to the accounting department or some similar department. But keeping track of the budget and keeping your budget estimate up-to-date is a good thing to have in the bible. If you were to drop off the face of the earth and someone else had only the prop bible to finish the show with, he or she would want to know how much money was left to spend.

Once the show is “frozen”, you can begin the process of documenting the show. Pictures of every prop are vital, as are pictures of how the set dressing is arranged on stage. Prop preset lists and running sheets from stage management and run crew are good to have, too. If props are arranged a certain way backstage, either on prop tables or on shelves, photographs or even diagrams of these arrangements can also be included. You should list the consumables used during the show, including how much is needed per show or per week. Any sort of food, blood, or other recipe-based prop can have its recipe recorded and instructions on how to prepare it. It is especially helpful to have a pristine copy of every paper prop used, so that new copies can be made; if you have digital versions, you can burn these to a CD to keep with the bible as well. At this point, the prop bible becomes the document with which a person can recreate the props for a production down to the last detail.

In some cases, a theatre actually does remount a production it did in the past, or rent out the props as a complete package to another theatre. Even if your organization does not do that, the prop bible still comes in handy for a number of other reasons. Sometimes you want to track down the vendor of an item in your props stock; looking through old prop bibles can sometimes yield this information. Often, we get artists who remember certain props and want us to track them down. “I remember using a green table when I did Hamlet here in 2004,” a director may reminisce. “Can we get that for our next show?” You may not have worked in that props department back in 2004, but if your predecessor had kept good bibles, it would be a mere matter of looking up that show, finding the photo of the table in the bible, and matching it to an item in your stock. Or, it may reveal that such an item was actually rented in 2004, and you can call the rental place to see if it is available.

The point of all of this is that when wagering against what information you will need in the future, keeping accurate records now will ensure you always win that wager, regardless of the situation.

For more on creating and maintaining a prop bible, I highly recommend Amy Mussman’s book The Prop Master, as well as Sandra Strawn’s The Properties Directors Handbook. You can read that last one for free on the internet, and I have a link to it on my sidebar, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, now’s your chance to see what you’ve been missing.

Challenges in making props lists for Shakespeare

When faced with a new production, the second thing a props master does (after reading the play once) is read the play again and make note of all the props. I’ve written about how to read a script and make a props list before. If you’re doing Shakespeare though, it presents itself with several challenges in this method.

First is the problem with the stage directions. In modern plays, the stage directions give a large number of clues. In Shakespeare’s plays, the stage directions are more suspect. Modern Shakespeare scholars understand that finding the “definitive” version of many of his plays is a problem that may never be solved. Theories exist that some versions are pirated copies from an audience member who transcribed the play during a performance. Other theories suggest that actors wrote down their own parts from memory and compiled them into a single version. In any case, the versions we perform today are merely the “best guess” of what was originally performed. The stage directions themselves were probably added by a later editor based on the stage manager’s notes of what was originally performed.

In Titus Andronicus in Act III, Scene 1, we see the stage direction:

[Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand]

Some directors treat Shakespeare’s text as sacred as modern playwrights’ and will ask for two heads and a hand in the props list. Others, recognizing that the stage directions are less authorial and possibly even a corruption of the original work, will either keep, change, or omit the stage directions on a scene-by-scene basis depending on what works best for the production.

What this means is that the initial props list you generate from your first reading (before meeting with the director, designer or stage managers) will have a lot of question marks:

Act/Scene character prop qty. notes
III.1 messenger heads 2 ?
III.1 messenger hand 1 ?

The second challenge in making a props list for Shakespeare’s plays is in how he layers rich visual imagery on top of the action of the scene. His metaphors often weave in and out of the reality on stage, making it difficult to know (and open to the interpretation of the director) what objects are used in a scene and which are merely mentioned by the character.

For instance, take Mercutio’s famous speech in Act I, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate-stone

On the fore-finger of an alderman,

Drawn with a team of little atomies

Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;

Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs,

The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,

The traces of the smallest spider’s web,

The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,

Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,

Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,

Not so big as a round little worm

Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut

Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

Now, it would be silly of a prop master to add all these things -  a hazel-nut chariot, cricket’s bone whip, etc. – to the props list. However, there are plenty of passages throughout Shakespeare where it is far less obvious when a character is alluding to a real object on stage or merely waxing poetic. In many cases, it can be up to the director to make that decision.

The final challenge with propping a Shakespeare play is how widely different the interpretations of a single play can be. Hamlet can be played in Elizabethan Denmark, or modern-day Wall Street. It would be very embarrassing to bring an armload of rapiers to the first day of rehearsal if the director has set the play in Nazi Germany. It is vitally important to find out the setting and time period which your production will be set in before you begin generating a props list. Even then, you have no way of knowing what props they will want merely by reading the text.

How to read a script

A prop master develops a prop list by reading the script. The director, designer, and/or stage manager may come up with their own prop list; you still need your own so you can get working right away, and so you can make sure the rest of the production team has considered all the props that may be in the production.

First off, if your script comes with a prop list in the back, don’t use it. These are from the original production. The design and direction of your production will certainly be slightly altered, and can even be totally different.

Read the script twice. The first time is for fun, to get an overall feel of the play. You want to be able to have an intelligent conversation about the play with the rest of the design team. You don’t want to be the one at the meetings going, “Wait, Juliet is a girl?” The second time you read through it is to start noting props. Have your own copy of the script so you can mark it as you read. This script should live in your prop bible. Mark the page number of the prop on the prop list for easy reference later.

You can find props references throughout the script. The scene descriptions will give descriptions of the set furniture and some set dressing. The stage directions will tell you what hand props are being used, and how they are used.  The character descriptions can give more clues about hand props, and can also hint at possible costume props. Even the dialogue can hold additional prop notes.

Look for clues on how a prop is used, and what it needs to do. If a chair is introduced on page 3, and on page 42, a character leaps on top of it, that needs to go on your prop list. A designer will usually decide what a prop must look like, but it is up to you to figure out what the prop needs to do. The director will also determine what a prop needs to do in rehearsal, but it helps to know as soon as possible if anything on your list will take some time or effort to build or acquire.

One final bit of advice comes from Bland Wade, who reminds you to consider all the ramifications of a stage direction, rather than what is merely written down. When a script says a character enters “smoking”, you need to ask what kind of cigarette he has. Where did it come from: a pack, a cigarette case, a friend? Where do the ashes go? Does he light it on stage? With a lighter or matches? What kind of lighter? Where does he extinguish it? In an ashtray or the floor? One simple stage direction can lead to a page’s worth of props.