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Student Blog: An Open Letter to Amateur Historians

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We're tasked with maintaining the historical integrity of the production, but the storytelling is always our first duty.

One of my favorite genres; for movies, TV, or stage productions, is period dramas. Most of my favorite movies are period pieces- and over the past few years I've been very fortunate, as historical stories like Bridgerton, Little Women, Emma, Marvelous Ms. Maisel, and more have come into popularity over the quarantine period of the pandemic. However, one thing I experience quite often as a stage properties student is questions from friends of mine who aren't involved in entertainment, but are quite invested in historical accuracy.

For instance, I recently found myself playing the devil's advocate in a discussion with a friend of mine who is deeply interested in military history. After watching the Netflix series adaptation of Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone, he was vexed at the inaccuracy of historical elements. While I had not (and still haven't seen) the series, it's a fantasy, with a historical aesthetic based loosely in the early 1800's, perhaps in the Napoleonic era. My friend, Austin, pointed out that the military ranks in the show had complicated embroidery and appliques on their uniforms; something that is impossible to create en masse without complex machinery. Yet, if this technology exists in this fictional world, why are they using simple weaponry such as bows and arrows? It's a valid question, even though the show is quite obviously fantasy-based.

As students, artisans, and experts in the artistic production side of the entertainment industry know, these types of questions are pervasive. Keen-eyed fans of shows and films are quick to point out inaccuracies, and I would be lying if I said I didn't do the same thing as a lover of history as well. However, the main assumption is that costume makers, set designers, and properties masters just don't know their facts, when practically all of us would argue the exact opposite. In fact, we are often the biggest champions for sticking to historical accuracy in a film.

You see, in the development of any form of entertainment is a large hierarchy. As artisans, our job is to use our skills to help tell the bigger story. When the bigger story is created by a team of artistic directors, producers, and writers, their opinions about worldbuilding come first before ours as the builders. Many of us will take note of the requests and directions from our higher-ups, and gently inform them if something the request specifically is incorrect for the time period or era in which the production is set. However, the story will always come first, and it's our duty to fulfill our job, even if something might be a little incorrect.

Jay Duckworth, also known as "The Proptologist" online (@proptologist on TikTok), is a stage props professor at Pace University and was on the props team for Hamilton. In this video, Jay describes exactly the plight of artisans. We're tasked with maintaining the historical integrity of the production, but the storytelling is always our first duty. This is why things can't always be 100% perfect, and for good reason too!

I will always be the first to defend a series, film, or production for historical inaccuracies or illogical details. If you are like me or my friends, you always notice these things, and hopefully now you might be a little more willing to let it slide next time you might see something imperfect in a TV show or movie.


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From This Author Student Blogger: Emma Thomas