In part two of our “Summer of Hamilton” series, Jay Duckworth, prop master at the Public Theater, dives deep into the role of paper in Hamilton.
As a Props Master, you try and read through a script and see where the big “what ifs” are, but there is always a human factor that you just can’t predict. In Hamilton, one big “what if” was the song “Burn.” In the song, Eliza Hamilton carries a coal scuttle onstage in which she burns the letters between herself and Alexander Hamilton. Getting those letters to burn in just the right way, for just the right amount of time, was my job.
But first, some background: The one factor that I kept seeing through Hamilton was the amount of writing and paper props. My team and I set our sights on finding out everything we could about paper and printing in the American colonies. We wanted to find the interesting facts and practical uses of paper. For example, playing cards were only printed on the front, and it was a fact that a destitute mother would identify her child by using a playing card before she would abandon the child in a church or on a wealthy person’s doorstep. If she tore the card in half, it signaled her intention to someday return with her half and be reunited with her child. If the card was left whole, it meant the child was completely abandoned and the mother would not return.
Ben Franklin provided many paper-related services to the colonies. One was to write frequently for newspapers (and his famous Almanac) to keep people informed. He often wrote under pseudonyms, writing to the editor on one side of a current affair and then replying with the opposite side of that issue, using a different name, to the same paper. He also started the postal service, making sure newspapers and mail could cross boundaries faster. Historians frequently cite the rising literacy rate in the American colonies, noting that by the end of the 18th century the colonial literacy rate was higher than that in Britain. All of these things created a greater demand for paper. Franklin, no dummy, bought up or invested in at least 18 paper mills that helped supply the colonies.
Now, how does this relate to Hamilton? Well, every text, post, email, Instagram, tweet that we send out today had its paper equivalent in the 18th century. All the secret notes, love letters, maps, military orders, proclamations, treaties, checks, receipts… ad nauseam. Everyone needed paper. But your status and wealth would determine what type of paper you used. Washington and Jefferson had paper of a different weight and color than did Hamilton, who used a lighter weight and less bleached paper when he was first starting out at his clerk position at the top of the show. Rochambeau’s map of Yorktown was a different paper altogether.
The importance of paper in Hamilton culminates in the song “Burn,” in which Eliza Schuyler Hamilton burns, onstage, all of the letters that she received from Hamilton. (Earlier, in Act 1, you can see love notes being put in a small chest before the wedding.) The challenge was: How could we get the papers to burn realistically, and without setting the stage, or Phillipa Soo, the actress playing Eliza, on fire?
My idea was to use a coal scuttle since it had a large opening at the top to hide any compartments we wanted. At first, the “fire” was an LED light and a small smoke machine. This way we could control the light and smoke; the letter she ignited went down a hidden slip and was contained. But it just didn’t look real at all. It’s so hard to replicate flame. Then stage manager James Latus said, “Can we just burn the letters and keep it simple? So that’s what we did.
I went through a bunch of different paper weights and sizes until I found the one that burned for exactly two minutes and nine seconds (the length needed for the song) and then extinguished, so that Eliza could exit in a blackout, with the ash heavy enough not to rise out of the coal scuttle when she walks off.
The actual letters carried on stage by Eliza went down a slip I made of tin in the front end of the scuttle. They never even get near the flame. The lantern she carries onstage, which she uses for ignition, has two rings on top, and one is covered in leather knot work – not for decoration but because the ring right above the lit candle gets too hot. The second ring, covered in leather, stays cool to the touch so at the end of the song she can grab the leather covered ring and carry the lamp off without burning herself. Also, if her candle ever went out, I made sure to attach two matches and a strike pad to the inside of the lantern using double-sided tape. If the flame should go out, all Eliza has to do is relight the candle.
So when you see Hamilton and the song “Burn” comes on, nudge the person next to you and whisper “two minutes and nine seconds.’ If they respond with a thumbs up you know you are sitting with a theater geek like us.