Stage Props and Usability

Recently I was working on the prop committee for a local production of The Music Man. This served as a nice break from my usual reading-and-writing-heavy free time activities, but it also provided a few lessons in usability that I thought I’d share here.

Making Perfect the Enemy of Good Enough

Engineers (and sometimes technical writers) can be guilty of working so hard to make something perfect that they delay getting a product out the door. Being an occasional overachiever, I found myself in danger of exactly this behavior a few times while seeking props for the play. The challenge was deciding whether props needed to be “authentic” for the play’s time period or merely needed to be good enough to look convincing for a stage play.

Books and newspapers

In the event you haven’t seen the 1962 movie with Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, one of the lead characters works as a librarian in “River City, Iowa” in July 1912.

Assuming that the books of the time were hardcovers, the director wanted 15-20 plausible books for the scene. I had that many, but most of them were titles from the mid-20th century or later. Would the audience notice or care? In the end, I pulled a couple books that had brightly colored print on the spine or large titles where their age would have been a dead giveaway (Dune did not exist in 1912). The rest of my hardcover titles were hard to read or looked old enough that they wouldn’t attract too much attention to themselves in the scene. The actors, too, mostly kept the spines of the books facing away from the audience.

Finding newspapers for the show became a challenge as well. Newspapers in 1912 didn’t use color or modern automobiles. I ended up at the Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in Orlando, where they were selling newspapers compiling stories and advertisements from the time of the famous steamship sinking. While the director disagreed with me about whether the papers were date-appropriate (the script said July 1912 and Titanic sank in April that year), I solved the issue by removing the cover pages with references to the ship, leaving only period-correct advertisements visible.

One Size Does Not Fit All

At one point in the play Professor Harold Hill, the fast-talking “music man” salesman, gets a teenager in River City to make a portable music stand for a marching piccolo player. They probably sell those now, but I needed to develop something that would work and look like a high-school student built it. I settled for a somewhat flexible C-clamp with a common music clip (which, my brother-in-law informed me, was called a lyre. Throw in a screw, washer, nut, and some black electrical tape, and voilà! Stagecraft magic.

Music Stand

The clamp fit my thin, middle-aged arm just fine, but as luck would have it, the younger man playing the role was more muscular. What fit on my upper arm only fit on his forearm. Fortunately, from a play perspective, that actually worked better, so I got lucky. However, if it hadn’t worked or fit, I would have had to try something else.

Reading the fine print

Multiple pieces of paper are passed around in this play: a couple notes to River City’s mayor; one from the main character to her little brother; a hotel bill that Harold Hill passes off as a testimonial to the school board; and a set of papers another salesman tries to use to implicate Hill in wrongdoing.

Again, how “real” did those need to be? This was more of a challenge to my inner perfectionist than was probably necessary.

After a discussion with the director, it was decided not to use standard 8.5-by-11-inch printer paper because that sort of color/paper wasn’t available at the time. I went shopping for a couple different types of paper: a faded white and a faded yellow. The white paper would server for the personal items, the yellow for the more official “evidence” against Hill.

I got a little carried away with the hotel bill passed off as a testimonial, taking the time to find out what hotel rates would have been in Iowa in 1912 (yes, I consider this “fun”) and I tried to use time-appropriate fonts for a document really only the lead actor would see.

Music Man Hotel Bill

For the “evidence” against Hill, I ended up pulling up a real (unrelated) Supreme Court decision from 1912 and just adding a play-appropriate list of participants for fun:

Court Case

Again, all this work wasn’t really necessary because the audience doesn’t see this stuff. I didn’t have to make myself crazy with this many details. However, in my mind, I justified my over-exuberant detail work with the rationale that if the details looked plausible visually, the audience might not take too close a look at the actual words. I’m not the only one to do this. The people on Star Trek add a lot of details that are never seen by television audiences, such as including crew member names on starship dedication plaques.

Does Any of This Relate to Technical Writing?

You might not be making stage props any time soon. However, you might need to write a speech for someone besides yourself or develop instructions for someone working in an environment different from your office. It helps to take a moment to reflect on whether words or content that works for you will work for the end user.

Alternatively, you might have to write or design a document that’s simply for conceptual layout or you might have to create a quick draft of a paper just to get a project started. How much detail or work you put into something will often be a function of the size of the job, the audience needs, and the amount of time you’re given to complete the task. By all means, give it your best effort, but don’t go overboard unless you’ve got the time…and the need.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Stage Props and Usability

  1. 1) There may be props in my office related to whatever novel I’m writing, which only I will ever see, to get me in the right frame of mind.

    2) Dune in River City! Make it so.

    • Bart Leahy says:

      Seventy-six Fremen led the big parade
      With a hundred and ten Shai-huluds right behind…
      They were followed by rows and rows of crysknife virtuosos
      There were blades of every shape and size…


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