by: Mr. Snapper
In truth, this article should be titled “You and Your Prop,” because you are more important. Of all the prop disasters I have seen (and been party to, by the way), the superfluous prop that draws focus from the performer pains me the most.
There are two very important questions any performer should ask herself before building or acquiring a prop for an act:
- Do I actually need this prop?
- Will it fit in the car?
I would argue that question number one is vastly more important than question number two. Far too often I see burlesque performers struggle with or against their props. These performers seem to be missing the simple truth that a prop should exist in service to an act, not the other way around.
“Prop” is short for “property,” and if your property is owning you on stage, you have it backwards. Even performers for whom props are everything — stage magicians, for instance, or Carrot Top — the personality and showmanship of the performer must be at the fore. (And yes, I just said Carrot Top has showmanship.)
To prevent this prop disaster from happening, let’s run through a little checklist, shall we?
- Am I hiding behind my prop? Sometimes we compensate for a lack of self-confidence onstage by putting the focus on something else. For me, that something else is occasionally my comedy partner, Mr. Buddy.
In all seriousness, this requires a bit of self-reflection and honesty. Let’s say you’re doing a pirate number. Are you hoping the audience spends more time looking at your chest full of booty rather than your chest and your booty? Would you feel naked without your prop? Nevermind if you’re actually naked.
If you were only allowed to use your prop at the very beginning and very end of your act, and had to keep it tucked away upstage the rest of the time, could you do it?
On a related note …
- Is the act only the prop? Maybe it’s not compensating for a lack of self-confidence. Maybe there’s really just no act there, just an awesome prop. Maybe that chest of pirate booty is an authentic 17th Century strongbox full of gold bullion. If you spend the entire time doing little more than gesturing to it, you’ve got a problem.
Once upon a time, a producer and friend asked Red to do a number to the song “Nose Full of Nickels,” a comedy/novelty song that clocks in at a whopping two minutes, twenty-nine seconds. The idea was to have a large nose onstage that would “sneeze” nickels all over the stage.
We built the nose. Red pulled a green boa out of one of the nostrils. Pretty funny. At the climax of the song, she pulled a release and forty or fifty plastic nickels dropped from the nose.
She did the act thrice, and permanently shelved it. The nose darkened our dining room as a reminder of a fact that was as plain as the nose … well, as plain as the nose in our dining room. An act has to be more than just a prop.
- Is the prop necessary to my story? If you’re doing Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger I see before me?” speech as a striptease, you will need some sort of dagger. Probably covered in rhinestones. If your “prop” is actually set dressing, leave it at home.
There’s a dramatic principle called “Chekhov’s Gun.” The great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once remarked that if there is a gun onstage, it had damn well better go off at some point, or else your audience will spend the entire time fixated on it.
Likewise, if you bring a prop onstage and just leave it there, sad and alone for the duration of your number, the audience will spend all three minutes or whatever wondering what you’re going to do with it. If you don’t need the prop, lose it.
- Am I suffering from a sunk cost? Another deep, introspective-type thing to consider. You know how sometimes you invest a bunch of time and/or money in something, and at some point you want to quit it, but you hate to because “I’ve invested so much in this, I will have wasted all that time/money/emotional attachment on some douchebag I moved in with”? That is a sunk cost.
Sometimes you need to detach yourself and move on from that prop (or bad relationship or whatever). The time and money (or emotional investment or whatever) you’ve put into it can’t be reclaimed, but you will have learned from the experience, and can take those lessons to your next prop (or … you get it).
I’ve abandoned a few projects in the middle only to start over from the beginning, having learned what mistakes not to make. Expensive? Yes. Time consuming? Yes. But that’s the School of Hard Knocks, and the price of DIY. Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And he would know: He paid someone crap wages to invent the lightbulb for him!
None of this should suggest that a certain prop can’t inspire an act, or be essential to the storytelling. One of my all-time favorite acts is Venus DeMille’s Lady Godiva number, where she spends the entire time bouncing slowly and seductively on a hobby horse.
In another favorite, Jewel of Denial slowly rides out to “Bicycle Race” on a blinged-out tricycle before dancing her ass off.
Red Snapper and I do “Every Sperm is Sacred” with a giant Jack in the Box and singing sperm puppets. The props are part of a story that Red tells through her showmanship.
The key to success with a prop is integration. The prop has to be woven into the fabric of what you’re presenting onstage, along with your music, costume, choreography, make-up, etc. All of these things exist to support you and the story you’re telling. When it clicks, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When it doesn’t, it’s death.
We asked Mr. Snapper to critique two performance videos by the lovely and brave Vivienne Vermuth (who volunteered to be critiqued) for the use of props in the performances. Here’s what he had to say:
Frenchie. The diploma is a fantastic gag, and the sort of thing I love seeing. Putting that much work into a prop that only lasts one number is magical.
The one note I would give is to make the makeup apron stylistically consistent with the costume, hair, diploma, etc. Would Frenchie wear a black apron? I think not. Even if it were standard issue gear from the beauty school, she’d make it uniquely Frenchie. Same too with the brushes! Give them a little Frenchie flair!
Vendetta. Great act, and really nothing for me to say! I dig the Isis wings, and the confetti tubes at the end were a great choice.
Regarding the mask: Sometimes you want to bling out a prop, but sometimes you need something to just look like what it’s supposed to be. This is one of those times when I wouldn’t suggest going crazy with rhinestones or anything like that. I guess the rule of thumb would be how presentational or representational is the act? Presentational is like old school Broadway. Jazz hands and sparkles. You are presenting something on stage. Representational is like a Hitchcock film. Frayed hemlines and dirty walls. You are representing a slice of life onstage. It’s a spectrum, with Divine at one end, and Norman Reedus at the other. (And now I want to see Darryl team up with a drag queen on The Walking Dead.)
If a burlesque act is presentational (and most are) you can’t have too many rhinestones. If Viv was doing V for Vendetta as a Broadway number, she could cover every inch of the mask with Swarovskis. Since she’s doing a more representational take on the character (albeit with a corset and Isis wings), using the mask as is is the right choice.
More on Props: http://pincurlmag.com/to-prop-or-not-to-prop