Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Props: Not for the Faint of Heart

I find myself repeating a lot of themes, oddly enough. I'm almost certain I've written about props before. But they just keep popping up.

I feel the need to reiterate how odd our work is sometimes. I think good properties masters should be up for Tony awards too. (Maybe they are? Or is it all lumped under Production Design?) Either way, it's fascinating to me how long it takes to recreate almost any everyday, normal action onstage so that it looks real. A few examples:

Getting dressed in the morning.
Cleaning a room.
Making a meal.
Pouring a drink.
Sitting down.
Standing up.
Using office supplies.

The list goes on and on. It seems like a strange bunch of things to pick on, but if you really stop to think about how long it takes to figure out exactly how to choreograph almost anything onstage, it just points again to the bizarre nature of the business. So not only are we trying to make movements look realistic yet 'clean,' but then we have to make it look clean when people use objects. And sometimes, a moment will curl into a thorn that sticks in a director's side until opening.

Take - oh, I don't know...gardening, as an example. There tends to be one moment, item or action that a director will fixate on in any given production that has very little to do with the overall majesty and story of the play. Yet it becomes a bone to gnaw on. A thorn. In this production it is a set of three small, potted geraniums, which one actress must transfer to different pots and set those pots upstage, during approximately two minutes of dialogue. Later in the play they're replaced with different pots and bigger flowers, so they'll seem to have grown.

Nothing to do with the story. But the moment has an edge held to it now, an importance in the director's mind, because it has not yet been done right; the props are wrong, the action isn't accomplished quite as he envisions, or any other reason. An unimportant moment, a tiny detail in a huge play, on an enormous, towering set. Three little geraniums.

I suppose there will be those audience members who come more than once, who might notice that the flowers grow and blossom from act one to act two. Some writers do the same thing in their books and call it a 'cookie'; a special treat for the observant. I suppose there will be at least one man or woman, each night, who sees Miss Maudie potting those flowers and think of their own gardening and identify with her. It does tell us it's early summer. It does put flesh on the bones of the world. I suppose, in the end, if it didn't look just right - well, it would look fake. And the moment something looks fake is the moment Mr. and Mrs. Audience remember they're watching a play. In that moment, they're no longer watching Scout and Miss Maudie; they're watching two people playing pretend. In that moment, we fail.

How apt it seems in some moments to pause, take a breath, and remember that if we want to tell the story we must truly hold, as 'twere the mirror up to nature...when it comes to details like that.

...I guess it's not unimportant, after all.

5 comments:

Monica said...

"a tiny detail in a huge play, on an enormous, towering set. Three little geraniums"

LOL--isn't that the truth! My favoritte is when they get stuck on such detail that a truly important moment or entrance is down played. It's the proverbial forest for the trees.

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