The hardest props in the world are often the ones that seem the most manageable. Things that appear all the time in our everyday lives: books, backpacks, newspapers, cardboard boxes. People LOVE using boxes in plays. I guess it makes sense, they’re cheap (or appear to be), easy to obtain (or seem to be), and have a lot of dramatic potential. By dramatic potential I mean that, you know, they can hide things, things can appear from behind them, they can make shapes and walls, they have an everyday life patina easily manipulated through the magic of theater, they have a texture that can feel either natural or industrial… etc etc.
But here’s the thing about cardboard boxes (and the other props I listed earlier… I could go on forever about books and book shelves, but that’s for another time): because everyone has seen and interacted with them, everyone has their own idea of what a cardboard box looks like. Furthermore, most people assume that everyone knows what they think a cardboard box looks like, so they don’t really give extensive information about it, and it an be kind of tough to vocalize or put in a rehearsal report, and then you get to tech and the cardboard box is all wrong and it becomes the prop with an endless series of notes… etc etc.
Also, the majority of the time, an actor is dealing very intimately with your box (it is, say the box that comes down from the attic with all of their precious memories in it), so they need to get tricked out like you wouldn’t believe. You end up adding dividers, padding, reinforcement, weight, and endless pieces of dressing that essentially sit INSIDE the box and are only seen by the actor. But, they have to be accurate or they will ruin the mood. And make you look like an idiot for not even being able to dress out a goddamn cardboard box. Clearly, I’ve had a few of these doozies lately.
But, actually, I wanted to talk about sets made of cardboard boxes. I’ve been working recently on a show called The Last Cargo Cult at The Public Theater. The design is essentially 500 square feet of boxes, rising to a height of 18 feet, and creating a “caldera” of boxes. Here’s an early shot of the set to give you a sense of volume:
OK, so the first thing we did was head out to chinatown and dumpster dive on recycling night (this was complicated by the fact that they work from 10 to 6 at the Public, so we missed the good pickins, which tend to come out a little later).
Anyways, all of those boxes basically came from that haul — it was mostly Fresh Direct boxes (which we had to turn inside out when we assembled them, since there’s nothing more LES loft than Fresh Direct), diaper boxes, and boxes from expensive furniture.
What we really needed, was a bunch of boxes from asia, to make it look more like a warehouse full of chinese knock-offs. So we had to fake it. I ended up taking research about the graphics and logos on these boxes (which are really beautiful, with modern wrap-around designs in one or 2 colors), making stencils and stickers, which we then used to paint and decorate the boxes. Some photos below of the boxes. Suffice to say, I inhaled a lot of paint.
So, that definitely started to add texture and variation to the set. Also, it made it feel more localized. After doing a bunch of these, though, it was clear that there also needed to be some consistency in the piles. Consistency in shapes as well as logos. This is the thing about props like boxes: you think that you have solved the problem, but usually there’s a variety of solutions that have to work together. So, here’s a couple of sets of matching boxes that we made, as if one company was shipping a bunch of goods:
Thats about when I stopped working on the show to go into tech elsewhere, but I am pretty pleased with the stacks of boxes with matching graphics. I’ll let you know if I’m in on more of the changes. I predict: palettes, dollies and carts, tarps, and those straps to bind sections of the boxes together. But who knows.
The real punchline to the whole situation is that I’m in the middle of moving, so I went home everyday from making cardboard boxes to pack cardboard boxes. I think it had a pretty strange effect on me: I needed all my stuff to be in matching bankers boxes this time. Well made, reinforced, easy to assemble, no packing tape needed. Now my room is a set for American Buffalo.
A brief helpful note at the end of this for anyone dealing with boxes on a set (or in real life, for that matter):
1. ALWAYS invest in the good kind of packing tape. Like crappy garbage bags, crappy packing tape is definitely not worth it. Also, get a few different kinds, including the brown plastic and the brown paper kind. Everyone has different ideas about what packing tape looks like. Go figure.
2. Mysteriously hot glue and cardboard are really good friends.
3. If its a hand prop that has to last, reinforce your box. Believe me. Particularly since hand-prop boxes are almost invariably a custom size, you need to be planned out to reinforce. Foam core and hot glue. And be prepared for changes. And they WILL break it.
4. Craft paper is not the same color as a cardboard box. Never has been, never will be.
5. Come armed with research to the first meeting you have if you know theres going to be a box. Sometimes, they will find one in the room thats the right thing. This actually happens a lot. When it does, make sure you measure it so you can replicate it. Every box has an individual personality, I know that sounds crazy, but respect it.