The Art of the Artless

The kind of projects that I really get off on make me wonder sometimes what kind of a props master I really am. Sure, I can get into gold-leafing something, or re-uphostering. I enjoy figuring out how to make things do tricks, like light on fire or break away… but what I really love are arranging things so that they don’t look arranged at all.

I think thats where the magic really is, right? In the places where it feels like someone has been living on the set. Or where something was roughly tossed down, or shoved in a corner. Believe me, thats never true. That blanket thrown on that chair in scene 3? Yeah, its sewn on. Those clothes stuffed under the bed? They’re glued down.  Broke-ology, which I wrote about a while ago, was a really good example of this phenomenon. Not only was the set covered with artful clutter, it changed as the show progressed.

Animals Out of Paper, seen below, had clutter that was manically cleaned up at the top of the show, so it had to be precisely placed and rehearsed with the actor. Read: they had rehearsal clutter

Most recently, on Orpheus X, There was a shrine at the base of an I-Beam, which was certainly an intense experiment with artful clutter:

Because it gets shoved aside at the end of the show, the shrine had to get replicated each day. And it was clearly noticeable when it was slightly off. The accumulated objects have a quality of being both thrown down, and carefully placed.

To deal with it, we ended up meticulously photographing each object (particularly the orientation and layout of each bunch of flowers), and the making small sharpie spikes with labels where they rested on the floor. Each night before the show, our lovely ASM Terri has to re-set the shrine with the photographs.

What I love about this part of my job is that it is about the way in which props are placed, not just the props themselves. The first time the shrine got shoved out of the way after I had documented it, I actually gasped a little in rehearsal, because the arrangement had been so precious to me. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think that if we had not taken that level of care, those things would not have felt like a shrine at all.


About meredithries

Meredith is a set designer living in Brooklyn, NY. See her work at: This is a repurposed old blog. Because continuity is important. Malaprop is a malapropism
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3 Responses to The Art of the Artless

  1. Lara Haworth says:

    I love the evocation of a prop’s inner life – and the understanding that it can be most carefully activated by precise interaction. Yes, exactly how a prop is dead one way, and alive another. And whether its magic, or sorcery, or one girl who speaks the language – But what I like most about this piece is that I can hear, really hear, your little gasp in rehearsal – I mean, actually hear it, on a cassette tape in some precious compartment in my brain/ear/memory. I’ll be replaying it all day.

  2. gisele says:

    I love the way you talk about your work and I am very interested by the “poetry” of props because I have mostly directed ‘in the round’ plays (quite a long time ago). Have you worked on ‘in-the-round’ projects?

    • meredithries says:

      absolutely. same rules apply. only more so. also, in the round, the way things get set is really important — what with crazy pathways for performers and audience.

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