Friday, July 22, 2011

Prop Actor

Years ago I was cast in a play that required me to chain smoke and to chain tea drink (It was a British play). Early in rehearsal I asked if I could have cigarettes and matches and teacups and spoons and saucers.
            "Oh, that’s right,” the director said to the stage manager, “David’s a prop actor so he’ll need that stuff.”
Since my goal was simply to get that stuff, I chose just then not to discuss the phrase “prop actor”.
But it has stayed with me.
Not only am I a prop actor during the staging of a play and in working out the so-called “business” of blocking, but I am also a prop actor from the very beginning of the actor’s creative process.
And the creative process begins with characterization.
I am not the character, regardless of what anybody says. But the character needs my authentic, responsive lifestuff if he is to live in the created reality of a production. My first concern is: how do I animate the lifestuff part of me that overlaps with the central lifestuff part of the character?
Well, if you’re a prop actor, you do it with a prop.
So: I want to turn myself, as much as I can, into, say, Gaev from The Cherry Orchard. What part of me utterly comprehends and can fully embody an essential part of who Gaev is?
Well, what’s important to Gaev?
He loves the cherry orchard, he loves his sister, he wants life to be the way it was when he was a child and everything was perfect. There’s that telling moment in Act I when he touches the old bookcase and delivers a heartfelt speech to it.
My childhood was anything but idyllic and closer to Lopakhin’s peasant upbringing than Gaev’s childhood with the gentry. And I have never wanted to escape my adult life to go back to the life of my childhood.
But among my things I still have an excelsior-stuffed cloth marionette that my mother made for me when I was six years old and had fallen in love with puppetry. Clarence. And Clarence has come to represent for me whatever was tender and good about my childhood.
To bring David/Gaev to life, I go to the box where Clarence is kept and my fingers open it gently. He is a precious old thing, home made and faded, and I respond to him with a fingertip touch as I lift him out of his box. That touch lightens my arms and lifts my spine. The eyes and smile painted on his cloth face put a sparkle in my eyes and an uncomplicated smile on my lips, both of which Gaev shares.
As I touch Clarence's little blue pin-striped shirt and matching cap, my fingers become uber-responsive and gentle. I remember the apron my mother cut up to make the cloth tabs that connect the segments of his arms and legs. How simple for me to touch his face, to lift his arms, and then to turn and see my sister Jane watching from across the room. She smiles at me. She knows what Clarence means to me. How easily we share an understanding of childhood when we were each other’s best friend. I smile simply, uncomplicatedly at/with her.  And I am impelled to say, in a voice that Clarence colors and softens, “Dear Old Clarence, you have stood by me for nearly sixty years—my friend, my confidant. You have known my innermost secrets, my never-spoken thoughts. I salute you.”
And effortlessly I look at my own bookcase—from Ikea and without character—and let it become finely carved antique rosewood as my fingers--and Gaev's--touch it delicately and I turn to see Lubov smiling at me, sharing with me our childhood, and I proclaim in Gaev's voice, “Dear Bookcase….”

Notice I’m not talking about feelings and emotions. The David Lifestuff that Clarence touches off/animates/activates is more complex than feelings and emotions. If I tried to think about how important Clarence was to me, or if I tried to feel how much I loved Clarence and my sister, what I would likely get is a jumbled mess of generalized emotion and not direct sensory response to the things of my world. Which is what acting is. I am a prop actor and I want my creative human complexity to be animated in the same way that my actual human complexity is: through senses responding to significant stimuli—through "props".
When I actually take Clarence out of his box and put him on a shelf in a room where there are (imagined) family members to whom I can turn as I touch him, my spine changes, my sense of touch heightens, my heart swells and “escape to childhood” activates within me and through me: I turn this part of me into that part of Gaev.
Through the prop that is Clarence.

Another example with another kind of “prop”:
Alvina Krause taught acting for nearly thirty-five years on the stage in Speech 100 of Annie May Swift Hall. I was hired to teach at Northwestern exactly ten years after her retirement.
Soon after being hired, I walked alone into empty Annie May Swift Hall. I went down the center aisle. Slowly. Generations of her students sat invisible and silent in those seats, watching me. I got to the stage and I walked right to the center of the floor. I sensed myself in the presence of the history of that great school. My feet planted solidly on the same old floor where she had spent her life teaching. My spine straightened, my ribcage lifted. I reached out to the dark wooden doors at the back of the room. And I was fired with determination to become the future of acting teaching at Northwestern.
How to activate in me Macbeth’s driving desire to rule Scotland?
Fortunately, I am a prop actor and Annie May Swift is my prop. So I stand again on the stage of Annie May Swift. I see again the faded blue velvet curtains over the windows. I smell the polished wooden door at the back, hear the banging of old radiators and smell their dusty steam in winter time. Annie May Swift is my “prop” and my heart lifts to meet her and my determination to succeed at teaching grows as my spine straightens. Annie May activates the David/Macbeth part of me that wants to rule that place and to propel it into a future as glorious as its past.
If I stand in my little living room in LA trying to feel like what it must feel like to want to rule Scotland, I will fail for I will generate only a mass of emotion. My job is to turn that living room into that great old room at Northwestern and to let that magnificent “prop” activate the David Lifestuff that can become Macbeth. The details that add up to “Annie May Swift” activate responses in my human totality—which, yes, includes feelings and emotions, but which is so much more complex than that—that I transfer to the Scottish turf my feet are walking on, to the hills of Scotland that I see on the horizon, to that little village of cottages near the lake toward which I reach my arms, to the vast blue sky above the land that lifts my spirit. Until I want to rule Scotland and until I'll do anything to get there.
And all in my small LA living room.
And, by the way, how this helps me come to a deep personal comprehension of the tragedy of Macbeth the man!

Note: Responding to Clarence does not turn the whole human being Me into the whole human character Gaev and Annie May Swift does not activate in me all that Macbeth needs me to be. But they begin the process. These “props” bring the human being who I am directly to the human beings who they are; these "props" root the whole human me in the further work of full human characterization of them. 

And that's why I'm glad I'm a prop actor.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Wonderful, David! Thank you! This took me back... to Annie May Swift... that great place... that great tradition... at that great school... Sigh. : ) Your insight and guidance and inspiration are golden. (with a tinge of purple...)

  3. Props, costumes, wigs, scenery etc. are tools the playwright and/or director offers the actors so that they can use them to develop tactics/obstacles to achieve their characters' 'must-haves' from and with those other characters with whom they share scenes.
    To begin with a (prop)tactic without a strategic goal, (what must I FIGHT FOR in this scene with this other LOVED ONE) i.e. Gaev must have his sister's caring love even if it is distilled to pity. He must prove he deserves her care. Bookcase, slippers, puppet, no matter. The audience sees people in conflict because actors have made choices about how to enter the conflict. Props et al add color and flashing facets to the people engaged in dramatic relationships. Talk about Thorton Wilder's Our Town. Costumes, chairs and platforms. What's an actor to do? This: Fight for 'love' from the all-important others, as the character requires their 'love.'
    Until I can identify that strategic quest with each and every scene partner, my tactics will have a weak foundation. What does Mrs Webb need from Emily as they clean string beans? Emily needs too.
    Who uses Wilders invisible beans well to express her gains and losses as the scene unfolds?
    Make great choices with props and costumes, and let others call you a 'prop actor.' Ground those choices in drama = life or death = high stakes love = a play worth watching.

  4. Hey David,

    I missed this one somehow. . .and it is very topical for me currently. I am working on Mrs. Winemiller from "Summer and Smoke". (Tennessee Williams - hooray.) In the most literal sense, many scenes in the play involve props that evoke something much more than their most basic taste, smell, sight, sound - an ice cream, a beautiful hat. Her youth was made up of soft, draping fabrics and ice cream socials, brushed kid gloves and feathered and flowered hats. On some level, attainment of some echo of these things is all she has to look forward to - on another level I see them as symbolic of the small battles she wages every day to maintain a place and maybe control of her family. I am working with material things that made/make me happy - luscious bright scarves, lipstick (no, my lips are not naturally orange), a beautiful hibiscus bloom, etc. And I'm really trying to find the kinesthetic connection to my spine and hers. (Where have you heard that before?) Because they bring her joy on several levels and take her back to a time in her life that was not bewildering and upsetting and lonely. Getting/winning these things brings back the spine that served her so well in her youth. I am a visual and tactile person. In this case I find it especially helpful, but no matter the case I hope always to be a prop actress too.

    Now, I would appreciate your help. I don't see Mrs. Winemiller as "a crazy person". It's too pat for her to be nothing other than a mean old selfish crazy lady. Obviously she is not normal. But she is not "insane" in the stereotypical sense. She is intelligent and selectively lucid when needed. She was a beautiful, young belle once who was loved, pampered and spoiled to the extent that she became a pampered, spoiled adult with no life skills thrust into a life of responsibility. While she retreats into a childish state, it doesn't mean she doesn't love and want to be loved. In my opinion she spends much of the play trying to gain attention/love and to keep her family tied to her. Because what would happen to her if she were left completely alone? So she uses the weapons she has to thwart Alma's struggles to find her own love and demand her husband's attention. I don't believe she understands the real damage she is doing to her daughter. Her mind operates at a smaller level.

    I am somewhat stuck on her final scene in the play, Part II, Scene 3. By this point you could say that she has triumphed. Alma's relationship with John Buchanan is not to be and further, Alma no longer occupies Rev. Winemiller's enforced pedestal - the one Mrs. Winemiller used to occupy. She and her father no longer share the "comradeship" they once did. She has re-established/cemented her place in the family circle and drawn that circle tighter around her. As the scene closes, I believe Mrs. Winemiller gets a glimpse of the real depth of her daughter's pain. If there is ever a time that brings back echoes Mrs. Winemiller's life with her beautiful baby girl (and all the sensory images that evokes), this would seem to be it. Those last two lines seem to hold out an opportunity - but I'm having trouble figuring out exactly what the opportunity is. . . I'm exploring several things - but it's not right. What do you think? --Judy