To Prop or Not to Prop

To prop or not to prop… That is the question…

by: Vivienne Vermuth

Kitten Deville by Derek Jackson Photography
Kitten Deville by Derek Jackson Photography

There’s nothing like watching stagehands bring out a huge oversized prop or set piece before an act is performed… It sets the mood for the performance and gets the crowd buzzing about what to anticipate! On the other end of that scale however, it’s just as big a letdown to see that huge prop dismissed or not utilized to its scintillating potential. Or is it?

Burlesque is all about the tease, the show, and the glam; whether it be in sparkling costumes, glittery makeup, or over the top sets and props. More and more performers are seen with big stage production pieces, with performers like Dita Von Teese leading the way in large-scale glittering props, such as her signature martini glass and her makeup compact. However… the question that is commonly asked… are big props necessary? In order to answer this, one must first make a checklist.

First up- venue restrictions.  Each time I choreograph a number, first thing I check is venue restrictions. Where is the most likely of places I am to perform this piece? If you live in a city setting like New York City, Jonny Porkpie had this to say -“I don’t have any numbers that require a large prop, but that’s probably partially because I live in New York, where the backstage can be small, the taxis very expensive, and the subways have a lot of stars.” Lugging around props is a major make or break point… If you own a big truck and don’t mind the extra show load, fabulous! If not, you may be finding yourself borrowing or scrounging to find suitable transport.
Next on the list- Why are you using said prop? “I always warn newer performers against rushing to use great big props in some effort to ‘raise the bar’ for themselves. I have seen many performers upstaged by their props.”, warns Tigger! of New York. I agree; large props are best suited to performers with a great deal of stage experience. Ostrich feather fans, sparkly umbrellas; even trash can lids can serve as great smaller stage props to add spice without overwhelming yourself and the audience. Also consider the costume/song, does it absolutely just call out for props? Additionally, do you have a lot of prop heavy performances in your repertoire? “I feel too many props in one show kills the effect of having a prop,” says Kitten DeVille of California. “I also have seen too many girls relying on their prop to do all the work while they just pose.” Kitten brings an excellent point… Props are great, but if they cannot be fully used to their potential and worked thoroughly, they can be a hindrance.

Lastly- Do you interact with your prop, is it well thought out, and does the prop serve as an essential part of the performance? Props are tools, and they are only as good as the performer using them.  As Penny Starr Jr. of California puts it, “I may remember the prop, but I rarely remember the act surrounding it. The prop should serve the act; the prop should not out-shine the performance.”

Midnite Martini by Derek Jackson
Midnite Martini by Derek Jackson

If you are going to use a prop, make sure it is sturdy (so that it will not fall apart on stage), is stage worthy (please don’t bring me you crudely hand-drawn sign), and it big enough to be seen by the back row (How am I supposed to read the title of that paperback from 100 feet away?). Some of my favorite big props – Midnite Martini of Colorado uses an aerial hoop to perform beautiful striptease, Viva la Muerte of Chicago uses a coffin in her tribute to Creepshow, and Lexa Lusty of Dallas uses multiple boxes and suitcases to contort in and out of before being stuffed into a suitcase and wheeled offstage. I highly suggest searching these folks and others (Angi B Lovely, Lula Hoop Garou, Roxi D’Lite, Catherine D’Lish, Lola Van Ella, etc.) and check out how they make use of their props.  Jonny Porkpie teaches a great class called the Arc of the Tease, in which he talks about the best use of props being using them at least twice- the first to introduce it, then coming back to it at the end as part of the reveal so that the audience can understand its function as it’s related to you. One of our burlesque legends Big Fannie Annie says it best, “Props have always been done, and I think it adds [to the performance] if it is done well and with good taste!” If you choose to use props, large or small, keep it simple, use them to best advantage, and enlist the help of fellow performers to ensure you don’t go prop-overboard! Also, use YouTube, vimeo, and other resources such as burlesque hall.com, burlesque411.com, 21stcenturyburlesque.com and other sites to keep current and get inspired by other performers with amazing props!

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