Props to You

In the guard activity, props can help set the scene and make a huge impact on the audience. But using props also requires proper planning and manpower.

Does your performance need propping up? Is your show in need of additional “props” from the audience? Do oversize props in a band, color guard, percussion line or drum corps increase the show’s appeal? Its performance level? Its score? Props in pageantry help transform performance venues into other worlds while they help performers transport audiences through time, spaces and even multiple planes.

More than a decade after Clayton, Ohio’s Northmont High School Winter Guard recreated the Vietnam Memorial Wall in a highly emotional performance, fans still marvel at its successful integration of props. Director Tracy Wooton remembers how the props moved from idea to implementation.

“Props were used to create atmosphere,” he explains. “The goal was to change perspective of the audience from the normal viewing of color guard.”

Platforms and ramps were conceived as a third performance dimension while the Wall itself supported the concept and created atmosphere. Wooton describes the mechanics of what became, in the show, a “living” wall.

“Four-way stretch black Lycra covered the wall and matched the fabric in the performers’ costumes—this helped define the role of the performer as part of the wall,” Wooton says. “The dimensions of both height and pitch were exact scale of the original, just stopping at the edges of the floor. Overlapping slits were made every eight feet to allow for entrances and exits. Our hope was that through the performance, the audience would experience the concept to its fullest.”

Props helped bring the show to life, to a fifth place championship fi nish and to the collective memory of the pageantry community.

SURF’S UP

For Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps, executive director Bob Jacobs designs “with the end in mind.” For example, “in 2000, we carried 16 sections of chain-link fence around the country for the entire summer to create a modern-day interpretation of a bull-ring-turned-basketball- court for our ‘Re-inCARMEN-ation’ production,” he says. “We followed that up, for several seasons, with rolling backdrops before creating huge beachside rolling gazebos on the fi eld for our 2003 ‘Down the Shore’ production.”

But that was just the beginning: In 2004 a gigantic red vinyl curtain was drawn to reveal an entire drum corps of marching Elvises, and then in 2005, 30-foot-tall red, white and blue flags created a backdrop for “foam rubber fireworks” in an “Evening at the Pops” extravaganza, Jacobs adds.

Last summer Jersey Surf’s “Snapshots from an American Journey” used props to chronicle the corps’ journey from New Jersey to the West coast for the Drum Corps International Division II World Championships. “The props helped bring these snapshots to life, with each one depicting a musical segment and corresponding theme as the story moved from east to west,” Jacobs says.

Jersey Surf’s staff members have “all become visual thinkers,” Jacobs says. “In a game where there are more visual points than musical points, props sometimes become one of the obvious ways for us to fill in the blanks for the audience, depending on the material we’re performing.”

In the early design stages, Jacob says that his staff spends a considerable amount of time and energy talking about the storyline of the production as well as the venue in which the championship-week performances will be held. “Once we’ve established the basis for the story we’re trying to tell during our 10-minute performance, we then discuss the enhancements we’ll need in order to bring the story to life: coloration, textures, mood, visual stages, visual and musical focal points.”

Designing props for football stadiums is both an opportunity and a challenge, “foremost among them being the creation of a sense of scale large enough to project to an audience which is usually seated a fairly long distance away from the performers,” Jacobs says. “Generally speaking, fl ag designs, props and costume selections must be bold and somewhat obvious as we can’t depend on fine line detail when we’re working on such a scale. We’re always mindful of the fact that as props grow larger, they also grow more expensive and more challenging to transport, deploy and utilize in a live  production. A small detail like the size of a stadium entrance gate at a given venue can become a major barrier to success if it is not considered when props are being discussed and designed.”

BUILD IT AND THEN COME

As with many scholastic performing units, Northmont had a guard parent who was also the high school woodshop teacher. He “organized the engineering and construction of all the props,” Wooton says, emphasizing that prop construction “needs to be professionally engineered and supervised for stability and for the safety of the performers as well as for the aesthetic appeal.”

The props were stored in the woodshop and used at every rehearsal. A crew of 10 dads showed up 30 minutes early and stayed 30 minutes late every rehearsal to put up the props and then to take them down. Wooton used a rental truck to transport the structures to shows. That was the easy part. “For setup and teardown at shows, our prop crew had 20 members,” he says.

Jersey Surf, on the other hand, works with The Art Department in Mount Holly, N.J., a creative services agency that creates large, digitally printed fabrics for props, flags, costumes and floor tarps for performing units around the world.

“Because we really love the added production value that the props provide, we have gone the extra mile to utilize them even when it’s been less than convenient,” Jacobs says. “As we continue to refi ne our storytelling skills and as we continue to find new and creative ways to integrate the use of these sorts of props, we hope to expand the scope of what we’re doing to increase the quality of the experience for the audience, which will then translate into an increase in the quality of the experience for the members.”

So do props improve competitive scores? “We’ve been doing this long enough now to know that if the audience is having fun and the performers are sharing their love of performance with the audience, the scores will take care of themselves,” Jacobs says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David G. Hill has been a pageantry fan, volunteer, writer and now blogger for 35 years. He has served in media roles with both Drum Corps International (DCI) and WGI Sport of the Arts. He was the volunteer chairman of the DCI South Championships for six years in the late 1980s. His pageantry blog, Field&Floor, has been online for five years.

Photo courtesy of The Art Department.

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