Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ode to the Props Master

Here's "Ode to the Props Master," my other contribution to Theater Pub's "Odes of March" show celebrating all of the different people who make theater possible.

What would Hamlet be without a skull?
What would The Seagull be without a gull?
And Hedda Gabler’s famous for her pistols,
As Laura, for her menagerie of crystal.
For farce, you need a slapstick to cause mirth;
For Sam Shepard, a buried child to unearth.
The Angel of America needs her book,
And Captain You-Know-Who must wear a hook.
What would Willy Loman be without his cases?
Or Damn Yankees sans bats and balls and bases?
R and J without a dagger is a bore,
As is Titus without gushing blood and gore.
Othello needs the fatal handkerchief,
And ingénues their smelling salts to sniff.

The Props Master takes care of all these things --
Flowers and asses’ heads and fairies’ wings.
(These are the props that you need for Midsummer;
I say this for the benefit of newcomers.)
He scrounges, cadges, buys what can be bought,
Finds everything he can, and makes what he cannot;
Brews tea, which actors then pretend is whisky,
Since real booze on the stage is far too risky.
Or he’ll take paper and dye it in more tea
So it seems from another century.
‘Tis he who knows the source to get a sword,
And fifty nifty uses for cardboard.
He sees each object’s soul; and makes it fit in
With what the director’s staged and writer’s written.

And then he lays the props upon a table
And makes for each a designated label
And a space marked by lines of masking tape
Befitting each odd item’s size and shape.
And then the props master begs and implores:
“Do not move any prop – unless it’s yours!”

If only life were like this! If only we’d
Have someone else to find the things we need
And lay them neat and tidy on a table
For us to use, and thus our acts enable;
To see to every object, trinket, token;
Keep it in trim; repair it if it’s broken.
If only we could organize our things
And place them on a table in the wings!
O world edged by these masking-tape borders!
O props master, o paragon of order!

He gives us props; let us give props to him!
For this is the whole purpose of my hymn.
I praise him for his zeal and his proclivity
For mixing discipline and creativity.
Salute him then with twenty-one fake guns
And drink his health with tea – not Jameson!
  • I chose to write the Ode to the Props Master because I thought it'd be fun to make rhymes about things (all of the different objects that the props master must find), mixed in with references to well-known plays and the props they require. Very quickly, I came up with the lines "What would Hamlet be without a skull? / What would The Seagull be without a gull?" and therefore, determined that the poem would need to be in heroic couplets.
  • Heroic couplets are FUN to write. I can totally see how Alexander Pope churned out line after line of them.
  • Only later did I realize that the form of the poem also suited the message I was trying to convey. Heroic couplets have a very orderly, neat and tidy feeling, and my poem is about how the props master keeps everything neat and organized. And then I felt very clever -- without even realizing it, I'd followed Sondheim's key principle of "content dictates form"!
  • As with my Costume Designer ode, the demands of poetic form superseded my desire to invert traditional gender stereotypes. Thus, I used the singular masculine pronoun "he" at all times to refer to the Props Master.
  • Surprisingly, I did not come up with the silly pun on "He gives us props; let us give props to him!" until very late in my process of writing the poem. This might be the most ridiculous line in the whole piece -- the semicolon adds to the ridiculousness, I think -- and thus it is my favorite.
  • My original idea for staging this piece at the Theater Pub show involved having one person recite the poem while two Assistants pulled props out of bags as they were mentioned, tossed them around, and engaged in general tomfoolery. This had to be toned down a bit for the actual performance -- the Cafe Royale didn't want us throwing things around, and we were not able to source all of the props mentioned -- but the general idea remained. Neil Higgins recited the poem, while several of the other actors that night brought out prop pieces and eventually put them into a masking-tape grid. Unfortunately, I was seated behind a pillar and didn't get to see any of this (!) but it got a good reaction from the crowd. Especially the rubber chicken that we used for the "seagull" and the baby doll wrapped in rags that was the "buried child." (Dead animals: great for comedy!)

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