Curators of Everyday Objects: The Work of Prop Masters

by Larry Heyman
in Props
Armillary sphere circa 1775 made by Charles Lincoln in London (photo:National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection)
Armillary sphere circa 1775 made by Charles Lincoln in London (photo:National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection)

In Uncle Vanya, a character comes onstage, moves to the sideboard and takes the small brass teapot from its perch atop a samovar. She adds tea, decants water from the spout on the side, pauses and pours tea into a low, wide teacup. The cup is large, not modern, with a matching saucer... and on the edge of the saucer she places a large lump of sugar. When the tea is served, the lump is placed carefully in one’s mouth, as one sips the hot, dark tea. It’s a ritual. It is something no longer done. But to someone in the audience, it is a memory. A tiny piece of a long-forgotten reality.

In The Man Who Came to Dinner, the character Sheridan Whiteside has an assistant. During one of the interludes in the play, she has a few moments of business at a desk. When looking for standard stage business, we considered having her open mail but realized how many letters we’d need and eliminated that idea. Searching for other things to do, we realized that there were a few fountain pens in a box on the desk. We had ink in the shop. I took a few minutes and asked the actress if she’d ever filled a fountain pen; she hadn’t. This bit of business was something that was done daily by people using fountain pens prior to the advent of the ballpoint.

These minutiae; these seemingly meaningless details are to a large degree, the world of props. 

You might ask why it matters; students certainly have. Why does this level of detail—what some might consider a “luxury” in the realm of quickly produced, budget challenged theatre—matter? Every prop master will give you a slightly different answer colored by their own experiences and approach to the job. What I tell my students is this—it matters because what we’re creating on the stage is the world in which the show exists. Whatever it is we’re doing, the show has a reality in which it exists and it’s our job to research, manufacture, procure, restore, and curate the objects that populate that reality. Prop people are curators of everyday objects across decades and centuries.

There’s A Book For That
The challenge for prop masters and designers is not limited to realism. Shows set in imagined worlds, and fantasy must have props as well. Props often act as anchors, providing actors with small touchstones they can use to connect themselves and the audience to the world that’s been created. It’s always fun for me when I’m watching someone else’s work, either onstage or in a film and I see a medieval weapon or tool make an appearance either in a fantasy world, or a world depicted as the distant future. Books such as Treasures from the Tower of London An Exhibition of Arms and Armour, and Samurai Weapons: Tools of the Warrior not only offer insight into lesser known weapons but also headgear, face shields, and other accessories and ephemera of a distant age. The prop person’s bookshelf is often filled with volumes such as these.
Absinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Conrad As a curator of everyday objects, a prop person may keep even more arcane books handy. One such volume for me is a book calledAbsinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Conrad III. Not only does the book trace the drink’s scandalous history, it also features images of it being served, depictions in art, and photographs of the glasses, trowel spoons, pitchers, and decanters used to serve it. Also helpful is a description of how it’s decanted. The book sat on a shelf for years; an oddly insightful opening night gift from a director who understood my prop master’s fixation with detail. And then we did Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a show in which the drink is served. The prop master, as the curator of everyday objects, is able to clarify such moments for actors, directors, and run crew in order to create a fully authentic experience. Not only was I able to find and buy the right utensils, but I was able to show the server how to properly dispense and we were able to create a convincing green beverage in the shop, that could be used in the show.

At times the moment is much less recent; not as immediate or reality-based but of similar importance for characters and audience. In a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale set in the late middle ages, we might find Leontes late in the action, alone in his study where he works surrounded by timekeeping devices and astronomical paraphernalia of the period. The director’s concept is that the character has become obsessed with the passage of time. As such, he’s gathered devices and apparatus to mark it. There are armillary spheres, hour glasses, nautical looking devices, a medieval tower sundial with a cord gnomon, and a shepherd’s sundial, small enough to fit in a pouch or pocket. In reality, each of these objects might have been manufactured hundreds of years apart and on different continents, but in the world of the play, they exist in one place, owned by one man. A designer and prop master with a good understanding of the history of such objects, and the art of making them would not have to resort to imagining them out of thin air. They might be found on various websites that detail the horology and its origins, or in a book such as The History of Clocks and Watches, by Eric Bruton. By finding and curating each of these objects on stage the prop master tells a story that fills in blank spaces and gives subtext. Tangentially, the actor can interact with the objects surrounding him, giving him “business” but more importantly, depth.

Details of Memories
If you were to ask 10 prop masters to identify the skills and interests that set them apart and prepare them for a job curating the objects used in plays, musicals, operas, and film, I suspect you’d get 10 very different answers. My answer is particularly unsatisfying for people who like to make lists. I’m not sure there is a single list, but I think prop masters as a group are observers of human nature, gatherers of obscure facts, and walking memory catchers; we gather ephemeral images and details and keep them until we need them again. People love memories—even if they’re not their own. 
Thorne Room: French Anteroom of the Empire Period, c. 1810 (photo: Art Institue of Chicago)

I had a discussion among prop masters in which I mentioned the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was a little overwhelmed by the number of people with dear memories of that exhibit. The Thorne Rooms are 68 miniature rooms depicting period interiors from the 13th Century to the 1930s. They are fascinating for the painstaking, realistic, miniature detail. But there’s also the chance to glimpse into another world, another time, another reality where people lived, ate, slept, and carried on much as we do. Humankind shares a common past which fascinates us. Prop masters have the amazing opportunity to recreate pieces of that past and tap into the collective memory of audiences and observers. More than simply finding objects to use on stage, we find the details that fill the voids in our memories, and for a moment hold us suspended in a past that we long to visit once more.