In fields such as graphic design, design briefs are used to define the scope of the project. A design brief is a collection of information defining the intended results of a project, as opposed to the aesthetics.
A good prop master or artisan has internalized the process of creating a design brief. The most important consideration in determining the construction of a prop is figuring out what the prop needs to do. For more complicated props, it may be helpful to actually create a design brief.
The first and most important part is asking questions to determine a prop’s needs. Suppose you want to create a table. Your questions may include:
How tall does it need to be?
What size is the top?
How is it used?
What is the finish on the table? Stain? Paint? Raw material?
What material is it made out of? More appropriately, what material is it supposed to look like it is made out of?
Most props artisans know that when a table is requested, you should automatically ask the following questions as well:
Will actors be climbing on top of it?
Will actors be dancing and jumping on top of it?
How many actors at a time will be on it?
I swear, some directors only want tables so they have a place for actors to dance.
If you were just building a regular table, the information you need for your design brief may be complete. As this is a theatrical table, you have some additional questions to ask:
How does it need to come on and off stage?
Where is it stored backstage?
Where is it being built?
Why does the last question matter? Most props are built in one location (the prop shop) and transported to another location (the stage). Whenever you are transporting an item, it needs to fit through the smallest opening in that path. Often that is a doorway or an elevator. If the stage is on the second floor of a theatre with only a tiny passenger elevator, you need to build the table so it fits in the elevator and can be reassembled once on stage.
Other props will have different questions to ask. The important thing is to determine exactly what a prop needs to do.
Back in 2007 when I was working at the Santa Fe Opera, we were mounting a new opera called Tea: A Mirror of Soul. It had a heavy Asian influence, with scenes taking place both in Japan and in China. I was given a drawing of a chair, which they needed nine copies of.
If you study the drawing, you’d notice a few things. First, it’s rather small. Normally, a chair is eighteen inches off the ground; this is only twelve. Second, the back stiles for the circular back are offset from the back legs (if you don’t know what a stile is, check out my “parts of a chair” diagram). Wooden chairs usually have a single piece of wood running from top to bottom in the back for strength. Where the back meets the seat is the point where a lot of stress is placed on the chair, so relying on the strength of a joint rather than a solid length of wood is inviting trouble. Finally, you may notice that the back has pieces floating in the air. That’s always an engineering challenge.
The seat of the chair was two and a quarter inches thick. I decided to skin the top with a piece of quarter-inch plywood and the bottom with eighth-inch lauan, so the interior frame had to be one and seven-eighths inches thick. That gave me a nice big chunk in the back to attach my back stiles to. I also added some bolts through the joint for extra reinforcement.
The rest of the joints were glued and doweled.
Next came the fun part: the back. We (the props master, master carpenter, and I) needed to figure out a way to make the back pieces appear to be floating. As I mentioned above, I was making nine of these chairs, so the process had to be repeatable as well. The master carpenter was also making a throne with this same cut-out design in it, so he began developing a jig so we could rout the design out of a solid piece of wood. We had discussed using plexiglass in the middle so the pieces would actually look like they were floating, but that would not be strong enough. Instead, we would hide a steel frame inside and have small pieces of steel connecting the pieces. Between the distance of the audience, the sightlines, and the smallness of the gaps, a few pieces of quarter-inch rod steel painted black would be as close to invisible as we could make it.
The photograph above shows David Levine, the master carpenter, working out the jig. Note that he’s not actually cutting yet, which is why his dust mask and goggles are off. It was a complicated, multi-piece jig with several steps involved, but the results were beautiful and consistent.
For the back ring, I sandwiched poplar boards on either side of a piece of quarter-inch plywood, with the grain of each side running perpendicularly to the other. In other words, I made a giant Oreo cookie out of poplar, with a creamy plywood center. The interior back pieces were cut out of a solid piece of poplar, made by gluing several boards together. I put this in the jig and cut my design out.
Before I had cut out the back pieces, I had routed the channels in where I would hide the steel rod. The channels were as deep as the diameter of the rod, so once they were in, the whole back could get a coat of Bondo and be sanded smooth, and no one would be the wiser. The steel rod continued sown into the stiles and up into the “horn” at the top so the whole back could be tied together with the same steel structure.
I cut the top horn piece out of a solid chunk of poplar, which I made by laminating two boards with their grains running in different directions.
Looking back, even as I write this article, I see a number of things I would do differently, or at least experiment with to see the results. As with any complicated prop, you learn a lot just by building it, but because you will never build the exact same prop again, it can be hard to assimilate that learning into your overall experience. As it turned out with this prop, I had only finished three of the nine chairs by the time they were cut from the show. It seems the stage was getting too cluttered, and the chairs were one of the more extraneous elements, so away they went.
That meant I got to keep two of the chairs, which let me test just how long my construction would actually hold up. The back on one of them did eventually break away from the seat, though not where I thought it would. I contemplated building more of a steel structure, but worried that the extra weight would either make it too heavy to carry, or even make it more likely to break; picture using a crowbar versus a stick of wood. The crowbar is extremely good at separating two pieces of wood from each other, where a stick of wood is just as likely to break itself before pulling the wood apart. Now look at a chair. The point where the back meets the seat is the focal point of a lever formed by somebody leaning back in the chair. If the stiles were metal (like a crowbar), it might tear the seat apart if you leaned back too hard.
But I digress and ruminate too much. Enjoy the pictures of the chair.
We do not invent things whole cloth out of the depths of our brains. Every idea we have is formed by making connections with all the experiences we have absorbed. Every book we read, play we watch, conversation we have, event we witness, song we hear – all of this fills our head and swirls around, sometimes for years, before getting regurgitated as a new flash of inspiration. We are seldom cognizant of how this works. The bizarre surreality of our dreams are a testament to that. But even dreams are simply what we already know, broken into tiny pieces and stitched back together in the most arbitrary fashion.
This is how our knowledge is built. Nothing springs forth from inside us. Rather, the knowledge already exists outside of us. It is our ability to use this knowledge and make new connections and discoveries with it that makes us useful. Some may argue it is the knowledge itself that keeps us employed. It’s true that some who jeaulously guard their tricks and formulas, methods and materials can keep a small monopoly on their services. But as the majority of knowledge can be discovered from other sources, the usefulness of these people disappears once someone with the same knowledge comes along. This is not to say knowledge is not important. Obviously, a prop maker needs a large base of knowledge. They take the time to learn all that is needed for their craft and seek out information which others may not care to discover. But that is merely the first step; what makes a successful prop maker is how they use that knowledge, how they experiment and integrate the various nuggets of information they hold to form new discoveries and inventions.
We should not think of our brains as fortresses, jealously guarding our secrets until the day a coworker spills them all and renders us useless. Rather, we should think of the sum of human knowledge as something we can all draw from and contribute to.
Consider this. You find a map which leads to a treasure. It takes you ten years to reach the point marked on it. Once there, you discover another map. You can keep this information to yourself; while you follow the path on the second map, anyone who wants to undertake the same quest must first take ten years following the first map just to reach the same point you have already reached. If you had revealed the second map at the beginning, that person could have spent those same ten years helping you follow the second path, perhaps even finding a shorter route than you would have found on your own.
Some may argue that it is more important to seek knowledge on your own than have it handed to you. This is of course true; the ability to seek and understand is great indeed. What matters less is what knowledge we are seeking. The information we start with is often taken for granted. The truths we take for granted were hard won before our time. We have the benefit of accessing all the discoveries acquired before our birth. Should not the next generation have that same benefit, even if it includes our own discoveries? Discoveries which we may have spent most of our lives on? Should we spend our most passionate and fruitful years learning which plants are poison and which are edible? Or should we spend them inventing delightful recipes to make with them? And should our children reinvent the same recipes, or spend the time creating cheaper and healthier versions of these recipes? The virtue comes not from discovering the same knowledge that our forefathers discovered, but rather from discovering any knowledge at all. We should never egotistically assume we have learned all there is to learn about our craft. Rather, by arming the next generation with our discoveries, we allow them to spend their passionate and fruitful years making new discoveries. More often than not, we work long enough that we can still benefit in our own lives with some of their discoveries.
When something has already been figured out, isn’t it inefficient to spend more of our limited time on earth figuring it out again? There is so much more that needs to be figured out on this world, and desperately so.
Often, choosing the material for your prop can be the most difficult part of the process; it will in fact determine the process. Choosing the wrong material can lead to added expense, additional labor and a whole lot of headaches. It can even result in a prop that does not look or perform as it should, with the only way to fix it being to rebuild it from scratch.
How do you know which materials to build your prop out of?
Next Friday, I’m flying to North Carolina to take place in the SETC Theatre Symposium. This year’s theme is “The Prop’s the Thing: Stage Properties Reconsidered”; how can I not participate? I’m hoping to bring back all sorts of interesting and useful information for this blog. Also, since I’ll be busy getting ready for this, my postings for next week will probably be shorter than usual.
My paper is called, “Devising a Mental Process for Approaching a Prop.” It’s part of a larger goal of writing a book about props dealing with the choices we need to make before building a prop. Essentially, rather than dealing with specific techniques like carpentry or upholstery, my book will be about how you decide whether you will use carpentry or not on a specific prop.