In order to put on a successful theatre performance, a lot of things need to come together properly. The right script has to be performed by the right actors with the right stage direction. However, it is also worth remembering the importance of the way that the stage is dressed.
The choices that are made by the set designers and prop management team can help to shape the way that the audience views the story and the themes of the piece. Props can completely change the way that a character is perceived when they are on the stage. Great props can become iconic in the theatre community. So let us take a brief look at some of the most iconic props in stage history:
Yorick’s Skull in Hamlet
The image of Hamlet talking to a skull is one of the most enduring images in theatre. It is often used in promotional material for performances of the play, because the image is so easily associated with the scene from Hamlet.
Yorick’s skull is used to prompt a discussion about life and death. A human skull is instantly recognisable, so the audience will immediately know that the bones belong to a person and not an animal. However, it is not possible to identify a specific person just by looking at their skull. This prompts Hamlet to muse over the idea that we are all equal in death.
The use of a prop skull helps the audience to see both the similarities and the differences between the live prince and the dead jester. Although synthetic skulls are normally used for this particular prop, real human skulls are sometimes used. In 2008, David Tennant famously played opposite the skull of deceased pianist André Tchaikowsky, who had donated his own skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company upon death.
Rocking Chair from the Woman in Black
A rocking chair is used in The Woman in Black to add dramatic tension to the performance. By taking an ordinary household object and making it do something that is unexpected, the director is able to scare the audience without having to resort to anything more overt. Members of the audience will find it very easy to relate to a rocking chair, because it is a piece of furniture that they may have previously owned or used. The relatability of the object helps to make it even more terrifying when it is used in the performance!
Handkerchief from Othello
The handkerchief that Othello gives to Desdemona near to the beginning of the play is not only a prop; it is an important plot point. This means that the prop manager must take great care to choose a handkerchief which is perfect for the part. Shakespeare describes the handkerchief in the text, so it is important that the prop is true to these words. In the text, the handkerchief is described as being white with red strawberries embroidered onto it.
The handkerchief itself symbolises a lot of different things to the characters of the play, and therefore the presence of the handkerchief alerts the audience to the fact that an important plot point is coming up.
Carrot in Waiting for Godot
In Waiting for Godot, a carrot takes on a whole new meaning. A seemingly innocuous root vegetable is suddenly transformed into the basis of a philosophical discussion between the characters. During the scene, the actors will usually nibble on the prop, and therefore the prop must be replaced for each performance. However, the prop team must still place a lot of thought into finding the right carrot for the piece, as the shape and size of the vegetable can affect the comedic or serious sentiments of the scene.
Helicopter in Miss Saigon
The stage manager, director and prop department must all work together to create a workable concept for the helicopter scene in Miss Saigon. It is not feasible to use a full-sized working helicopter for the iconic scene; however the impact of the scene is crucial to the narrative. Creative solutions need to be used in the performing arts to create the perfect balance between impact, budget and feasibility. When it is done right, the helicopter scene should blow the audience away completely.