Category Archives: props

You won’t find a recipe for papier mache here…

‘One cannot talk about how props are used in performances without discussing how they get there.’

Thanks to Eric Hart for this kind and thoughtful review of Props on his indispensible site ‘Prop Agenda’.

Review: Props, by Eleanor Margolies

I was particularly struck by his comment, ‘You will not find a recipe for papier-mache in this book; it is not a handbook for people who need to construct props. However, you will learn about the history of papier-mache and how it influenced the construction of props historically; currently, it is associated with the cheap nature of amateur theater, and has become a cultural metaphor for fakery and imitation.’

Even now, I haven’t quite finished thinking about papier mâché. It’s such an interesting ‘matter of concern’, touching on other problems like the cultural associations of recycling, the psychology of the ‘informe’, and the desire for infinitely malleable ‘plastic’ materials that somehow escape the constraints of materials science. Those interests are continuing in a current strand of research relating to concrete and the National Theatre…

And I continue to come across examples of the high art of papier mâché in the strangest places, such as Buckingham Palace and Wilton’s Music Hall.

It’s true that there are no recipes for papier-mâché in my book, but I am very interested in the bizarre things people have added to paper pulp in the past (nettles, straw, hemp) and in the history of ‘secret’ recipes (for papier mâché, stage blood, make up etc). In 2011, as editor of Puppet Notebook  (issue 19), I was delighted to be given permission to republish  papier mâché recipes developed by Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett (first published in the online journal Proptology).

In a fascinating interview with Ronnie Burkett by fellow puppeteer Mathieu René, also published in Puppet Notebook,  they discuss used coffee filters, PVA, shellac and the unhelpful mystique around toxic and expensive materials. Burkett says: ‘We need to make puppetry about other things – text, design, brilliant performance skills – and stop this love affair with expensive materials once and for all.’ It’s a point with relevance far beyond puppetry.

To lose my gaze in the richness of its fabric…

Props: Readings in Theatre Practice
Props: Readings in Theatre Practice

‘Props’ will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in September. I was very pleased when the designer suggested this photograph of a chair upholstered in pale green velvet for the cover, because it recalls Susan Melrose’s question about a chair on stage, something that has been in my mind throughout the research and writing of the book: ‘Does it cease to be a “theatre sign” if I observe it – and if I go so far as to “lose my gaze” momentarily in the richness of its fabric, in its pleasing curve of frame – without “translating” it into another sign?’ (A Semiotics of the Dramatic Text, 1994, page 26)