When you are new to performing, having a lot of props is the easiest thing to do, as you think the use of props will help use up the time in the song or help tell the story better than your actions or choreography will. In general, it works the other way – it just hides you – the more you grow as a performer, the more you’ll see that when it comes to props, less is more!
The general rule of thumb when it comes to props is that if it takes longer than a minute to set up a four minute act (and possibly longer to strike it) then there are too many props. You really only need one or two key pieces. So let’s take a look at some of the main areas of ‘proppage’…
A lot of performers think that to be ‘burlesque’ you have to have a fan dance and are tempted to splash out on an expensive pair of fans without getting the fundamentals like wrist action down first (as a result look like they are doing semaphore with expensive fans). A lot of performers use fans really effectively, look at Dolly Rose, Mia Merode and Darkteaser who make fans look like clouds floating on their fingertips, and also Missy Malone, who also runs fan dance workshops around the country. If you are doing a fan dance routine, then fans are obviously essential; but if the fans are an after-thought to a routine that has a whole different narrative, then leave them out (there’s nothing worse than watching a prop-heavy act, which then moves on to a fan segment once the other props have all been held up for a few seconds and exhausted!). Another thing to think about is how you take off items (if you are doing this with the fans). Fans can be held nicely in one hand ensuring cover while the other is free to untie ribbons or straps. Always leave your reveal for the end and NEVER do any floor work with fans if you are only wearing a merkin or c-string as the audience will see everything – and a whole lot more… Better wait until you are standing again and remove your pants ready for your C-string/merkin end reveal.
Table and Chair
A lot of performers use a table and chair in their routines. Ask yourself how you can use them effectively. If you are sitting on a chair behind the table, it will cover you up and you’ll have to work extra hard to make your actions seen (can the chair be moved to the side? And what are the best sightlines for the audience?). Is the table necessary? Is the chair necessary? How can you work these props into your routine so you are not just sat for 10 seconds at the start of a routine? How can you re-use them? Do you bring them on yourself as part of the routine? etc… Check out FooFoo LaBelle, she runs chair dancing workshops that will enable you to incorporate chairs more effectively into a routine if you want to do this.
Bottles feature a lot in routines – as in a catalyst for a change of pace, character or style and as a pour in a finale. We would definitely say think about how you ‘discover’ this prop to make it different from every other performer who uses a bottle… eg, how do you pick it up? Is it on your person already? Is it on a table in the audience? And one other thing you might want to check – some theatres do not allow glass on stage, so it might be worth having a ‘back up’ bottle (if your ‘regular’ prop is glass) that’s made in a safer material as there’s nothing worse than having to clear up smashed glass off a stage (yes, every little minute bit has to be cleared so another performer doesn’t tread in it).
Please DO NOT US A SCREEN. We want to see all the action and using a screen is as bad as walking off the stage mid-routine and coming back wearing something different half a minute later. It leaves the stage as dead space and makes it look like you haven’t thought the act through.
Being a fire performer, you will obviously need to have been trained (it goes without saying! RedSarah runs expert workshops which include fire safety around the country), but if using fire on stage, you will also need to be insured to the hilt and provide a risk assessment which includes provisions for the storage and transport of your fire equipment to the stage and back. As yourself: are you trained (and trained does not mean you had a few goes when you were pissed with a friend)? Is fire crucial to your act (or are you just adding it as it is dangerous and visual)? Are you insured? And does the venue / promoter allow for fire? You’d be surprised how many times fire has been ‘sneaked’ into someone’s performance only to land the producer in a whole heap of trouble after.
If at all possible, avoid messy stuff on stage – think about the stage maid who will be there scrubbing so the next act doesn’t slip over. Fake food products can be very effective (and they don’t go off!) and you can customise (which means you can glitter them up if you feel the need!). Liquids like water and blood products are also banned in some theatres so think about ways which you can have an alternative (again, glitter?). But if you really must get messy you might like to think of ways of protecting the stage and having a towel at hand directly as you come off stage so you don’t tread/drip water/liquid or blood through the entire building.
More than 3 Props
In general, more than three props is too much (except in certain circumstances). If you find yourself holding up a prop to synch a line from the lyrics, you have gone too far (after all, you’re not in the audience of the Rocky Horror show now, throwing rice, cards, lighters, etc on cue – if you do this on stage it’ll look like this, but worse!).
Remember, you only have on average four minutes on stage and the switch over between performers sometimes has to be less than a minute (which means setting up one act, striking the last) so use your choice of props effectively.