Tag Archives: rehearsal

Rehearsing the “Props” – 1911

The following article first appeared in The New York Times, August 27, 1911.

Two Hundred Men Required to Handle the Inanimate Objects Used at the Hippodrome Show

Every year when the Hippodrome’s production—always bigger and better than every other Hippodrome production—is being got ready something new develops to excite the interest of the stage managers and the newcomers in the company. This year the rehearsing of the stage hands has attracted the attention of those in power back of the curtain, and in the intervals between the practice of the actors and singers and the animals the stage has been given over to the head property man, the stage carpenter, and the chief electrician, that they might put their forces in trim for next Saturday’s opening.

The show this year, according to Louis Bauer, the head property man, will require about 200 men to “work” it properly. Sixty of them are property men or “clearers,” about the same number are needed in the electrical department, and the rest are the “grips,” who set the scenery, and the engineers. As everybody who is acquainted with the back of the stage knows, property men, stage hands or “grips,” and electricians have separate duties, prescribed by the laws of their unions.

The property men are going to have more work than usual with the present show, they think. There is, for example, one “grass mat” that weights fully three tons, and requires sixty men to roll and move it off or on the stage. It is constructed of rag carpet and raffia, woven in alternate strips. The property men have to learn to put it in place in an astonishingly few number of seconds, and to take it up and move it from the sight of the audience in even fewer seconds.

Then there are seven more “ground cloths”—carpets that cover the whole big stage—that have to be put down and taken up several times during the performance. And every man in the property department must know when the public performances begin just which place along the edge of a “ground cloth” is his and just how to unroll the unwieldy carpets and roll them up again so as not to interfere with his neighbors.

The system by which the stage hands work has been in a process of development ever since the Hippodrome’s first season. It has been found expedient to divide the forces into two sections, one for each side of the stage, and to give each man a number. The “properties” and the pieces of scenery are numbered to correspond with the men who are to handle them, and each man is taught what he is to do at every minute during the show.

When a scene is being set or “struck” no orders can be given by the heads of the deparments because of the size of the stage and the distances the workers have to cover. All of the “cues” for the stage hands are given by lights worked from the electrician’s bridge, way up on one side of the stage, in an alcove built in the wall. Most of the changes of scenery are made in absolute darkness, a condition seldom required in an ordinary theatre, and the men have to know their way around in the pitch blackness of a crowded stage. During the rehearsals that have been going on this week the stage hands have gone through their work in the light first until their supervisors have been satisfied that they know their duties. Then they have been rehearsed over and over in the dark. The show this year will have seventeen scenes, and in order to keep the entertainment within reasonable time limits, it has been necessary to cut the time of changing scenes to the minimum. One-half a minute for movable parts of the stage. And the biggest scene is the hope of the managers.

The rehearsals of the stage force have included rehearsals of the engineers—about thirty-five of them—in tending the pumps that fill and empty the big tank, and the hydraulic lifts that control the movable parts of the stage. And the animal men, the trainers and caretakers of the 200 horses, elephants, camels, oxen, sheep, geese, and other assistant actors have had their rehearsals at intervals between the training of the singers and dancers and the hard-working stage hands.

These rehearsals will be kept up assiduously until the time for the opening Saturday. And, usually, they are continued at intervals for several weeks after the first performance, the stage director, believing that the actual work at the performances needs supplemental practice between times. The people back on the stage at the Hippodrome have very little play time from noon to midnight. That they like it is evidenced by the fact that most of this year’s staff, both acting and “working,” is made up of people who have been at the big playhouse for several seasons.

Originally published in The New York Times, August 27, 1911.


What is pepakura? Pepakura (or ペーパークラ) is a Japanese word which refers to the art of papercraft. In papercraft, you cut and fold paper (or heavier card stock) apart and glue the pieces together to create a three-dimensional object. This is different from origami (折り紙) in which a single sheet of paper is folded into a shape without cutting or gluing.

A papercraft Uzi printed from the internet
A papercraft Uzi printed from the internet

Papercraft first began appearing in magazines as printing became ubiquitous. It really boomed during World War II when paper remained one of the few materials to not be rationed in the US. When I was younger, I received a book called Make Your Own Working Paper Clock, in which you cut the book apart, assemble according to the instructions, and you are left with a working clock made completely out of paper (and a few paper clips). It took me awhile to work the courage up to actually start building it; I was in my late twenties when I began. Unfortunately, our apartment building burned down, including most of that book, and all I was left with was the center wheel.

Besides being a fun hobby unto itself, the ideas behind papercraft can find their way into props. Paper, card stock and cardboard are inexpensive materials which are easy to manipulate, so they lend themselves to quick mock-ups. You can whip together a quick papercraft model to help you figure out the scale and proportions of a complicated prop, or to help you determine complex angles and measurements. They can even be used for quick rehearsal props. Last year–no kidding–we made a Victrola with a giant cardboard horn coming out of the top for Merchant of Venice rehearsals. It allowed the director and actors to see whether that large of a prop would work with their intended staging before we committed to purchasing an expensive antique.

The finished papercraft Uzi
The finished papercraft Uzi


In addition to making your own models, you can search for papercraft models all over the internet; most come in common PDF or graphics files which you simply print out and start building. They can also feature colors and graphics to spice up your model. I recently finished the scale model Uzi pictured above in such a manner. It even features a removable magazine clip:

Uzi and a magazine
Uzi and a magazine


The term “pepakura” became more popular in the West with the introduction of a computer program from Japan called Pepakura Designer. The software takes a 3-dimensional object and turns it into a papercraft model; it arranges the individual pieces on pages you can print out, draws lines showing where to cut and fold, and even adds tabs for glue. Everything is labeled as well, so assembly is straightforward.

One of the more common sources of 3D objects for pepakura are video games. With the software, a hobbyist can print out the armor of his favorite video game character and wear it around. They began developing it into a construction method all its own, yielding strong and light-weight pieces. The basic method involves stiffening the outside with resin, then filling the inside with layers of fiberglass or some other stiffener; water-based materials are less popular because they warp the paper. Rather than tread the same steps already trod, I’ll point you to lists of resources which are far more comprehensive than I could hope to provide. The Replica Prop Forum has collected a huge thread of pepakura links, tutorials and tips. As I write this, it contains eleven pages of great information. The second great repository of pepakura information is at the 405th, an online community for people who build guns and armor from the HALO video games.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Technical Rehearsals

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts on constructing a giant “Talepulka” idol and introducting the series when you are finished here!

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

The first feature of an operatic production to have the benefit of a rehearsal is the scenery. As soon as the scenic artist and the scene-painters have finished their work the stage-manager orders a scenic rehearsal. This might be called a performance of an opera without music. The scenes are set up and changed, light effects tried, and mechanical properties like Talepulka, the “Lohengrin” swan, and the “Siegfried” dragon “worked” and tested until all goes as smoothly as it should at a performance. This is a rehearsal for the men who set and change the scenes—the master-machinist and his subordinates—and for those who manage the light effects—the gas-engineer and the “gas-boys”—and for the property-master and his men. Before the scene can be set it is necessary to “run the stage,” that is, to get everything in the line of properties, such as stands of arms, chairs, and tables, and scenery, ready to be put in place. If there is a “runway,” which is an elevation like the rocky ascent in the second act of “Die Walküre,” or the rise of ground toward the Wartburg in “Tannhäuser,” it is “built” by the stage-carpenters; and for this purpose the stage is divided into “bridges”—sections of the stage-floor that can be raised on slots. Meanwhile the “grips,” as the scene-shifters are called, have hold of the side scenes ready to shove them on, and the “fly-men” who work the drops and borders are at the ropes in the first fly-gallery.

The scene set, it is carefully inspected by the scenic artist and stage-manager, who determine whether any features require alteration. A tower may hide a good perspective bit in the drop: it may be found that a set-tree at the prompt-centre second entrance will fill up a perplexing gap—but changes are rarely needed after the scene has been painted, because a very good idea of it was formed from the model. The length of a scenic rehearsal depends upon the number of the light-effects and mechanical properties. For instance, in the first act of “Siegfried” the light-effects are so numerous and complicated that it is a current saving in opera-houses that the success of this act is “all a matter of gas.” When all effects and contrivances of this kind have heen thoroughly tested, the stage-manager gives the order: “Strike!” The “grips” shove off the side-scenes, the flymen raise the drops, the “clearers” run off the properties and set-pieces, and the stage-carpenters lower the bridges. The scene of the second act is immediately set, and the time required for the change of scene noted. If the change is not so quickly accomplished as it should be, it is repeated until the weak spot in the work is discovered.

When all know their parts, the stage is at last given up to features of the productions other than the scenery. The work is performed with scenery, light-effects, properties, chorus, ballet, and supers, but without the principals and orchestra, the solo répétiteur being at the piano. There are two or three such “arrangement” rehearsals for drilling the chorus and supers in the stage “business.” These rehearsals are followed by two in which the artists take part; the final test being the general rehearsal with orchestra. Then at last the work is ready for production.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

When to give real props to actors

When should you begin providing the real props for a production? At the very latest, the actors should have the final versions by the first day of tech. If the size or weight will change, the actor may not feel comfortable using it without adequate preparation. If the color is going to change, the lighting designer may have to adjust the light cues.
When you can’t provide the final prop, the rehearsal prop should be as close to the real one as possible. Depending on what kind of prop it is, the properties you need to match need not be replicated in exact detail. For example, a rehearsal table can simply be a piece of sheet goods cut to the correct width and depth and set on a base of the correct height.

One type of prop you should not hesitate in introducing is weapons. Stage combat items should be provided as soon as the actors begin fight rehearsals. Swords, especially, can be very particular, and a slight difference in weight or balance can alter even simple choreography.

So why wouldn’t you provide all the real props by the first rehearsal? The main reason is simple logistics. You cannot buy, borrow or buid all the props for a show between the time you receive the designs and rehearsals begin. You need to prioritize what props they need to practice with and which can wait. In addition, the designs (especially for props) can be late, and may not come in until after rehearsals have begun. Some directors prefer not to have final props before rehearsal; they use rehearsal time to work out what they want the props to be. It helps to build a rehearsal prop which can be adapted easily. There are some directors we work with where we give them a rehearsal prop right away, even before he or she requests it; we know they will not make a decision until they have something tangible in their hand which they can compare against (“it should be bigger than this”, or “more purple please”).

Another reason you may not want to provide the real thing is when it is a large set prop, or it is built into the set somehow. If it’s a rental and you need to save money by only renting it for the minimum amount of time, you might also keep it out of rehearsals until closer to tech. Breakaways should be saved for tech. You can arrange for a special breakaway rehearsal to allow the actor to see what they should be mimicking during regular rehearsals. This is true of other special effect and trick props which the show might call for. Actors and stage management are being introduced to a lot of elements on the first day of tech, so the more props you can show them beforehand, even if only once, the better.

Sometimes, you can provide the real prop but in an unfinished form. It may be unpainted or needs to be reupholstered, or it just needs more details and decoration unrelated to its function. In these cases, you can allow the actors to rehearse with the unfinished prop for awhile and then take it away to finish it on their days off.
I’ve only provided what I know on this subject. What are your insights or opinions on the matter?