Friday, March 29, 2013

"Ignore that Man Behind the Curtain!"

This is something of a diversion from my usual Books, Movies, Movies, Books motif, and yet, not quite.

This summer I’ll be teaching a portion of a kids’ summer camp. The portion I’ll be handling is props and sets. Yes, it is a kids’ theater summer camp. And I don’t suspect these are your usual set of kids at summer camp. The last group of young people I worked with at this theater were anything but typical. I was gauche enough to ask one of them, “so, what do you wanna do when you finish school?” (Thank heavens, I didn’t say, “what do you wanna be when you grow up” although he may have seen through the question.) The young person just sort of looked at me like I was some sort of asymmetrical alien and said, “I AM an actor.” These kids are the real deal. Precocious, intensely mature at times, fun-loving, vibrant, intense… and serious about their craft.

During the intensive, the young people write, perform, and direct their own one-act plays. And I’ll be there as a facilitator of props and sets made from pulled/found objects. Perparing for the summer intensive made my little gerbil begin to come out of hibernation and put his wee little gerbil brain toward thoughts of facilitating, building, and thinking about props and sets as they help to construct a story.

(This is the part where I lap over into Books, Movies, Movies, Books.)

Whether it’s film, stage, or on paper, it really is an interplay of all of the moving parts: acting, script/dialogue/writing, sets/scene/setting, lighting, sounds, direction. Everything has to be firing on all cylinders or the performance, (or book),  is going to clunk.

And it’s nice if all of these things sort of hang together. In a stage production of THE SECRET GARDEN, I was blown out of my seat by the sets. In it, they chose to go with ghostly silhouettes for the set – shadowy windows with billowing sheers, actors in wispy white to represent those who were ghosts, minimalist designs. The music has an ethereal, ghostly quality to it with a background that could be the ghost of a mother… or the wind in the trees.

In the stage production of THE LION KING, the actors, sets, and costumes become one, with the actors taking on the role of puppeteers to create the undulating effects of a herd of gazelle. Their human legs become animal legs. The hands of many manipulate massive puppets, (or are they costumes?) to trick the viewer into seeing a giraffe.

Alternately, in the film, SIXTH SENSE, you may want to re-watch it. I will not spoil it for anyone who has not seen it yet, but I suggest you look at the use of the color red. Is it a portal?

And in the book, THE GIVER, by Lois Lowry, scene and set play a pivotal role in the story. Again, no spoilers from me, but you may want to read it, then think about how one would create a set and props for the stage production. I was props master for that production locally and it was an amazing adventure!

On my own desk, there is a growing theatrical stage. Brown paper has twisted and morphed into mushrooms and a twisted, brown paper sparrow is flying from one door of the book shelf. There is a theme amongst all of these creatures. It has something to do with the twisting of words on paper to create an alternate reality.

A common question that gets circulated among writers is “what music do you write to?” Here’s my question. “What props do you use to help create your stories?”

So that’s my new advice to writers, young actors, and creative people in any branch of the arts and sciences. Bring the entire ensemble together. Don’t forget to turn on some music every once in a while, but also, don’t forget to run a string through all of the moving parts and see where it takes your creative mind.

And the title of this blog? It is an hommage to The Wizard of Oz. I just came from seeing OZ at the theater. The opening credits are inspiring. The rest of the film... meh, but I may go back to see it again, because you can never tell in one viewing - or reading - what magic you may have missed... behind the curtain.


  1. Since my first trip to a Broadway show, back when I was a kid, I've been fascinated by the theater, and theater types. Interesting angle, and great advice!

  2. Fun post, Sofie! I don't actually use any writing props per se, though my husband gave me a replica of Hermione's wand for a Christmas present. Music may start out inspirational but quickly dissolves into white noise. Do motivational pictures apply? I've got a serious "Tutor Kitty" pic that watches over me when I'm writing. Regarding props IN your writing, I agree it's far too easy to be so caught up in a particular aspect of writing that you forget to fill in the background. After all, it's "background," but contains the word "ground" and provides the ground/base for the scene. Without it, you and your characters might as well be in a white box. I was particularly caught by "run a string through all of the moving parts and see where it takes your creative mind." What a lovely way of putting it. Thanks for another thoughtful post.