Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Why the details matter

First off, my apologies, there won't be many process posts from this show. The rule of three came into effect hardcore on this show, though not in the way it usually does. This time I had a month from contract offer to opening night to put together a giant show set in an accurate, detailed home on the south side of Chicago. We did not have time, and with a picky (and famous) director, could not sacrifice quality. We did, however, have money. So I just shopped (and shopped and shopped and shopped).
Over the course of this show, while speaking to my mom, she was constantly surprised to learn how much money I was spending on little details. The characters would be speaking on I-phones, the I-phones should have protective cases. The books on the bookshelf should have titles that we would believe would be in this home, at least on the lowest few shelves where audience members would be able to read them from the front rows. All of the cabinets in the kitchen have glass fronts, which means they all need to be filled with dishes. The refrigerator needs to be full of food, including salad dressings and condiments in the door. Every time I tell my mom about details like this, especially the frustrating, difficult to find, or expensive, she sighs and asks me if anyone will really notice. "No one will leave the theatre thinking, 'it would have been a good show, except that the photographer character would never have been using that camera.'" she tells me, and I sigh, because while that is true, it's not the point.
I am well aware that if I get one or two details wrong, most people won't notice, and it won't ruin the play for the people who do notice. But, if a missing detail is obvious enough, it will take certain members of the audience out of the experience of the play for a few seconds. If you stop being lost in the play long enough to think "If she just flew in from Belgium, why are there no checked bag stickers on her suitcases, they can't have all been carry-ons" it may take you 30 seconds more to get sucked back into the story. If that moment of distraction happens during a touching moment or an important line, or the punchline of a joke, then you're missing even more. I know that the details, when they are right, don't always make the show. Often when the details are right you don't notice them at all; but I also know that when the details are wrong, you do notice. My goal is for you, as an audience member to be lost on the show, to add the details that make the world feel real without anyone noticing, to provide pieces that facilitate the action of the actors effortlessly, so that the actors are free to tell you the story that the playwright and director wanted to share.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Props Designer vs Props Master

I've been recently working on a very big, very high budget show. The set designer on this project is kind of a big deal, he has Broadway credits and TV credits and movie credits and has been working at the top end of the industry for over 30 years.

I recently had a very interesting discussion with him about the titles of props master vs props designer. Over the last few years working in Chicago I have started more and more to call myself a props designer, so I was a little taken aback when John (the set designer) told me that he found the term incredibly annoying and insulting. He feels that calling the props person a designer as well takes away from the credit he should be receiving, or in some way demeans his position as set designer. I understand his point, and while I don't completely disagree with him, I think that the situation always needs to be taken into account.

So to clarify, in my opinion there is a difference between being a props master and a props designer. When I am a props master, I expect to be working very closely with the set designer. I expect to be given research and input on what the furniture, set dressing and key props should look like. The set designer is someone who will look at photos of the 6 desks I have located, and make the final choice of which one to buy. If I am the props master, then I have a collaborative partner who will be taking more responsibility for the final look of the show (whether that credit is receiving positive praise or accepting negative criticism). I will, of course, be making many decisions about details, budget, and small hand props on my own (or else why bother hiring me), but the overall look of the production is mine to support, not to decide.

I call myself a props designer so often in Chicago, because in so many of the small storefront theatres where I work, I am not the same level of support from set designers. In so many cases, furniture, set decoration and the overall look and feel of the props are left completely to me to discuss and work through with the director. I usually make an attempt first to achieve collaboration with the set designer, sending photos and emails, and asking for research; it is only when I do not get the information I need that I start to make decisions without input from the set designer. I am perfectly happy to assume full responsibility for the final look of the show in those cases (at many theatres this has nothing to do with the quality of the designer, it is just the way labor has traditionally been divided), but with that responsibility should come the credit and title of designer.

My conversation with John helped me to clarify and articulate to myself these differences. When the conversation initially started (and for a few days after), I worried that I was being self-important and pretentious by calling myself a props designer. I worried that I should stop using the term for fear of annoying potentially important people. With a lot of thought I have come to the conclusion that the term has it's place. I need to be more careful about how I use it, and after articulating for myself where the line is between master and designer, need to apply the terms appropriately, but abandoning the term completely would be just as wrong as using it in all cases.