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Digging Deep: Breaking down a script for prop design

Jay Duckworth • Answer BoxDecember 2020 • December 2, 2020

“It’s just such a strange location, and oddly specific.“ “What is?“ I asked my boyfriend. “The show I’m working on has the location as 2.5 miles northwest of Lebanon, Kansas.” Just as a wild guess, I asked him to look up the geographic center of the United States, and boom, that was it. 

There is nothing superfluous in a script. When I read a script for my prop work, I mark it with three different color highlighters. Yellow—to mark all props. Red—to mark all perishables. Blue—to mark all reference material. This allows me to get as much insight as I can on a show. Today, I’m going to focus more on the blue reference/research information. 

Yellow = All Props
You should highlight all the props that are written in the script as well as items that are not mentioned but create the environment. Let’s say your show takes place in a bar, even though the bar is just mentioned you will need to include all of the cumulative items that make up the bar. Not only for rehearsal but more importantly budget as well. Bottles, glassware, towels, barstools, taps. Some of these items may be included in the model or drawings you are given. But if you are reading the show in advance and the designer is not on board yet you should think of everything that could be there. It’s a lot easier to cut items after you budget than to add.

Red = Perishables/Consumables
Perishables and consumables are the props and items that will be used up in a show. This covers any letter, envelope, newspaper, or written note. Any drink, glass, cup, food, candy, pills I consider consumable. I try to make sure that any of the glasses or cups or anything breakable has at least two backups. It may not break on stage; but it could break off-stage or even when the crew is cleaning up between shows. 

Blue = Reference Information
Blue covers every indicator of information that supports the narrative, no matter how trivial it seems. It may seem trivial to you, but there is not one word in that script that hasn’t been scrutinized and picked apart by the writer, director, and the actors. One example happened when I was working on the Sunshine Boys and the costume designer and I were talking the day before the first production meeting. I was confused by some of her choices since the look was very late 1980’s. When I asked her why she chose the mid ’80s, she picked up the script and read me the intro where it stated that ‘it was a New York City apartment in the mid ’80’s’. I explained that the Mid 80’s was the range of streets in NYC and that the character Al mentioned that his daughter just bought a new 1974 Cadillac. She thanked me and quickly changed her designs for the next day’s meeting. 

Also, not only is the year in terms of time periods important; we have to dress a set for each season. Are there winter coats on the coat rack? Umbrellas in a stand near the door? If someone is folding laundry, what are the clothes like? Do we want to draw attention to one article of clothing as foreshadowing something in the narrative?

The older green and newer white Lucky Strike cigarette packages

Then we have to look into the person’s economic situation. Let me just share this with all the young designers—just because your characters are poor does not mean they are dirty. There are so many different ways to indicate a person’s economic status. We should just try and be more creative. (Steps down from soap box). We also need to be aware of the economics of the place our show is set in. In 1923 Germany, at the height of German hyperinflation, the exchange rate between the dollar and the mark was one trillion marks to one dollar! People were burning stacks of money because it was cheaper than buying firewood; (Really, look it up.) In the United States, during World War II, there was an effort to recycle rubber, iron, and copper for the war effort. Lucky Strike cigarettes changed its familiar green label to white to show they were saving copper for the troops. Years later, this was found to just be a marketing campaign. All above are important prop considerations.

Leopold receiving the banner from Emperor Henry VI

It’s all in the Details
Research is my favorite part of the prop design process. You find out so many incredible details that can texture your design and deepen the experience of the show. Even something as simple as a white flag of surrender has the meaning of “we ask for mercy” and pirates flew black flags to indicate that no mercy would be given. Austria’s flag is a field of red with a horizontal white stripe through it. Legend has it that at the end of a battle during the Crusades in the late 12th century, Leopold V, Duke of Austria, took off his tunic and raised it up on a pike to indicate that they won the day. Every inch of the garment was covered in blood except for the white area where the Duke’s sword belt covered the tunic. The new emperor Henry VI granted Leopold the privilege to adopt these colors as his new banner, that later would become the flag of Austria. Some people maintain that Austria’s flag has been modeled after a blood-soaked tunic.

Zhuge nu, a Chinese repeating crossbow

Research Slays the Challenges
Think of problems, challenges, as zombies and you have a crossbow and each bit of research is a crossbow bolt. Those without crossbow bolts will feel overwhelmed when surrounded by zombies, but you will be fine if you can pull out a research crossbow bolt. Especially if you have a zhuge nu, a Chinese repeating crossbow. Oh you didn’t know that they had those, well check out the research….  

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