I actually enjoy watching the Tonys. I wrote this not out of bitterness, just as an annual reminder that the technicians, crew and artisans of theatre make a lot of the “magic” happen. We already receive little recognition in the playbills; to be ignored by this and most other major theatrical award ceremonies is a huge oversight.
I sometimes think this helps lead to an atmosphere where directors and producers think magic just “happens” and that theatre tech can accomplish anything. They think it’s perfectly reasonable to request a new prop on Saturday night and have it by Sunday morning. Or to give a paint note before dinner break and have it be done and dry by the time they are back on stage. Or my favorite, that any item imaginable can be found in the “prop room” that you have hidden away.
Of course, many of the recipients of Tony Awards take the time to thank the crew and technicians, knowing that their hard work helped contribute to the success of the production. Some even take the time to thank individuals. Last night, Andrea Martin thanked the rigger for Pippin in her Tony acceptance speech. In 2011, Sutton Foster broke into tears while thanking her dresser. That’s not bad when you consider they only have 75 seconds to thank everyone in their life.
The Tonys used to honor technicians and craftspeople. The Tony Award for Best Stage Technician began in 1948 at the second Tony Awards ceremony, and ended in 1963, being received by 14 individuals. Joe Lynn won in 1949, making him the only props person to win a Tony. Peter Feller won the the Tony Award for Best Stage Technician for Call Me Madam. In 1984, he won a Special Tony Award in recognition of his “theater stagecraft and magic” for over 40 years.
Other stage technicians have also been recognized through special Tony Awards. Some include P.A. MacDonald (set construction) in 1947, Edward Kook (lighting) in 1952, Thomas H. Fitzgerald (lighting) in 1976, and Walter F. Diehl (president of IATSE) in 1979.
The Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre have also been used to recognize technicians. IATSE won the award in 1993. In 2003, it was given to wig and hair stylist Paul Huntley. In 2007, wardrobe supervisor Alyce Gilbert and CEO of Hudson Scenic Studios Neil Mazzella both won. Last night, one was awarded to Peter Lawrence, the Production Stage Manager on Annie, and over 20 previous Broadway productions.
Congratulations to Donyale Werle for her Tony Award win last night! The whole design team of Peter and the Starcatcher came away with Tonys as well. Congratulations to the whole team as well, including Paper Mâché Monkey, as well as the Broadway Green Alliance. I’ve written about all these people and groups here in the past because I’ve worked with them previously, and I love what they do. Here is Donyale’s acceptance speech from the 2012 Tonys:
Here is a video showing the set for Peter and the Starcatcher as it is built in the shop:
Last night was the 65th Annual Tony Awards. As longtime readers of this blog know, there is no Tony Award for props, whether it’s props design or prop mastering (actually, there is very little recognition of the craft and labor of backstage theatre overall, but I digress). Instead, I will look at the Tony Award winners for Scenic Design, which encompasses the world of props.
Congratulations to Scott Pask, designer of The Book of Mormon, for his Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical. Scott is the designer for both Shakespeare in the Park shows this year, which began preview performances just this past week. I couldn’t find his acceptance speech online anywhere, so in lieu of that, here is a video in which he talks about the scenic design of The Book of Mormon.
The winner for Best Scenic Design of a Play went to Rae Smith for War Horse. I highlighted some video of the horse puppets from this show back in 2009 when it was still on the West End. It’s worth watching again, because the puppets are really, really cool. The link also has some information on the puppets’ creators, Handspring Puppet Company, which incidentally, won a Special Tony Award last night as well.
Her acceptance speech is online, though I can’t seem to embed it. You can browse to it from the Tony Awards video gallery though.
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.
To place that wall into context, I also have a photograph of the set taken from the back row of the Newman Theatre.
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.
Tomorrow, the nominees for this year’s Tony Awards will be announced. Once again, there will be no category for Prop Design, or recognition of props people in any capacity. The only time a props person has ever been recognized at the Tony’s was in 1949, when Joe Lynn won for his work as master propertyman on Miss Liberty in the (now defunct) category of “Best Stage Technician”. I first wrote about him in my article asking “Why is there no Tony Award for Props?” and I thought I would write a little more about what I know of him (especially now that I’ve added a “Joe Lynn” page on Wikipedia).
He was born in August of 1887 and died in 1969. His career in props began in 1915, and by his own account, he has worked on hundreds of Broadway shows.
In 1936, a dramatic version of the novel Ethan Frome was put on at the National Theatre. It was staged by Guthrie McClintic, with scenic design by Jo Mielziner. The stage was covered in snow, and I wrote about Joe Lynn’s solution to the snow in a previous post:
After much trial and error, they arrived at a mixture of white cornmeal, ground quartz and powdered mica flakes.
The Eve of St. Mark
Joe Lynn was the prop master of the 1942 production of The Eve of St. Mark at the Cort Theatre. It was directed by Lem Ward, with scenic design by Howard Bay. The May 22, 1943, issue of The New Yorker featured a short article on the letters which Lynn created for this production.
Every day, and twice a day on matinée days, he has written a real letter for the use of Mary Rolfe, who plays the girl, and she has added a few words of her own before sealing it. There’s no need for any of this super-realism, you understand; a sheet of paper with a few random scribbles on it would be good enough to fool even the people in the front row.
The show ran for 307 performances, and Joe wrote a letter for each one; when the show went on tour, the prop man for the road company was ordered to follow in this tradition. The July 5, 1943, issue of The Princeton Bulletin reveals that Lynn had donated three of these letters for their exhibit on Maxwell Anderson, the author of The Eve of St. Mark. You can read the issue online or download a PDF of it.
Death of a Salesman
1949 saw Lynn again working with Jo Mielziner as well as director Elia Kazan for the Broadway premiere of Death of a Salesman at the Morosco Theatre. In his 1965 memoir, Mielziner writes about the difficulty in finding a particular icebox for the show:
[T]hey were hard to find, even in the best junkyards. However, [Lynn] told me not to worry: “We’ll allow ourselves enough time so that if we can’t find one, we can make it.” A good property man like Joe Lynn is incredibly versatile; what he can’t find, he must–and can–make.
You can see the icebox–and other props which Lynn built and acquired–in the photograph below:
Joe Lynn was the props master on the 1949 production of Miss Liberty at the Imperial Theatre. This show was directed by Moss Hart, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and the sets and costumes were designed by Oliver Smith. The show itself was not very well received, and the Tony Award which Lynn received for the show was the only nod the show got at the awards; it was the same year South Pacific had come out, which snatched up ten Tony’s.
Joe Lynn worked again with Kazan and Mielziner on the 1955 debut of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Morosco. Besides its importance in the history of American theatre, the show is also noteworthy for being Ming Cho Lee’s first paid Broadway gig. In Designing and Painting for the Theatre, by Lynn Pecktal, Lee himself tells us:
Then I did a bar in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that was very important. A portion of the bar lifted up and it was all catty-cornered on a raked platform. Joe Lynn, the prop man on that show, said we would have to build it because we would never find it. And I drew the bar so accurately that he was able to build it straight from the drawing and it worked, which was a marvelous compliment.
Lee is being a little modest here. In USITT presents the designs of Ming Cho Lee, Delbert Unruh tells us:
Warren Clymer had left the studio and Lee was assisting on all of the shows, but it was his drafting of the complicated bar unit for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that got him his first paycheck. The bar had to open up at the flip of a switch and it was sitting on a raked stage. Lee prepared the drafting of the bar and it was sent to Joe Lynn, the legendary Broadway prop man. Lynn came to the studio to discuss the props for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and told Mielziener, “This kid is OK. I can build from this drawing.” He became the second assistant in the studio at $75.00 per week and now felt fully vindicated in the eyes of his father and stepfather.
So in his own small way, Joe Lynn had a part in Ming Cho Lee’s success, a path which would lead to Lee becoming one of the father’s of contemporary American scene design.
Other Broadway productions
Nobody thinks to include props people and other stage technicians in their databases, so searching for other shows which Joe Lynn has worked on involves going through the original Playbills from the time period. A few I’ve found include:
A New Life
written and directed by Elmer Rice
Scenic Design by Howard Bay
Send Me No Flowers
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
directed by James Dyas
Scenic Design by Frederick Fox
Under the Yum-Yum Tree
Henry Miller’s Theatre
directed by Joseph Anthony
Scenic Design by Oliver Smith
The Private Ear and The Public Eye
directed by Peter Wood
Production Design by Richard Negri
For Send Me No Flowers, the credit is listed as “special props by Joe Lynn and Dunkel Studio Associates”. Anyone who has access to other Playbills of the time and can search for shows Joe has worked, I’d love to hear about it. For that matter, anyone who has further information or anecdotes about the only Tony Award—winning props master, drop me a line.
Update (July 31, 2014):
The article originally stated Lynn was born on February 2, 1898, and died March 15, 1984, which was totally wrong. I’ve updated the post with the correct information.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies