By Mike Lawler
In one sense props is a shortened version of the slang noun propers—which means, basically, respect. For a classic example of its use, just have a listen to Aretha Franklin’s seminal soul rendition of “Respect,” in which she advises her man he had better be ready to give her her propers when she gets home. In the theatre, though, props is an abbreviation of the word properties, as in stage properties. It is a fitting if generally overlooked coincidence, for those toiling in the land of stage props certainly deserve their share of, well, props.
The props department
Stage properties include hand props, set dressing, costume accessories, furniture—actually just about everything that appears on the stage that’s not an actor, a costume, a dog, or an element of the set. A theatre’s props department consists of a department head (known variously as the master or mistress, manager, director, or designer) and any number of props artisans with diverse skills. The number of artisans working in a shop, and their properties specialties, will depend largely on the size and budget of the theatre, the length of the season, and the skills and needs of the props master.
Jim Guy, properties director of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, has a full-time prop staff that includes a carpenter, a shopper, a soft props specialist, a crafts specialist, a graphics specialist, and one person who works in many different areas, including electronics. This enables Guy to concentrate on the bigger picture, dealing directly with designers, directors, budgets and—his favorite part of the job—set decoration.
“Set decoration can and should be really rich and detail-oriented,” he says of his affinity for putting the intimate touches on scenery. “It can be a major contributor to the effect that the play has,” he says. Other props departments throughout the country have shops that are variations on Guy’s setup at Milwaukee Rep, but not all have the budgets to retain such diverse staff. In smaller shops the props master has a very hands-on job.
All props departments, regardless of the theatre, are responsible for a wide range of tasks. “I need to be a master of every trade,” says Michelle Moody, properties manager of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina from 2003 to 2006, and now a freelance prop artisan who was working for the Tulsa Opera this fall. “The ultimate properties manager is comfortable painting, building, welding, sewing, shopping, carving, electrifying, and going to meetings.”
Aside from the actors themselves, every physical item that appears on stage is covered by three departments: scenery, costumes, and props. Any prop that is carried by an actor (known as a hand prop) is the responsibility of the prop shop; any piece of set dressing, including furniture, that is not built by the scene shop is built, found, or refurbished by the prop shop; any costume accessory not built by the costume shop (such as a walking cane), is provided by the prop shop. They are even responsible for food that appears on stage, including devising its preparation. Each and every prop must also be researched thoroughly to ensure its authenticity in terms of the era and specifications in the text.
A typical properties department will have a storage room full of stock props, including furniture, weapons, soft goods, and most everything else you can imagine. Ideally, they will also have a shop equipped with tools to build items that may range in size from large furniture to the smallest bag or coin.
Working with others
In terms of the range of projects for which it is responsible, the work of a props department is perhaps the most diverse area of a theatre’s production team. Properties personnel are faced with making decisions on how to handle sometimes very elaborate and difficult tasks.
“Props is the area of theatre that I believe—more than any other—crosses over, or is affected by, the other areas of theatre,” says Guy, who has run the prop shop at Milwaukee Rep since 1998. Props people have to be nimble and able to think quickly on their feet, because the obstacles they must overcome to prop a show will crop up in many different areas.
Props may affect costumes, scenery, lighting, and stage management, so the work of the prop shop requires effective communication with designers, directors, stage managers, technical directors, production managers, and costume directors. Off the top of his head, Guy cites a few typical questions that have roots in other departments. “You know, will the armoire fit through this door for the scene shift? Is the top of this coffee table too reflective? Does this have to be a battery-operated lamp on the desk? Does the sword goof up the hang of the coat? Is the gun too big or too heavy to put into a pocket? We go everyplace.”
What this means, in short, is that superb communication skills are a must for the properties director. “I find that sharing information with everyone is usually the best approach,” says Moody.
Jennifer Stearns-Gleeson, props manager for Centerstage in Baltimore, agrees that communication throughout the process is essential. “You have to stay on top of this, or you will be wasting a lot of time working in a bubble that will burst once all the parts come together in tech,” she says.
Not unlike technical theatre in general, props is all about being prepared. “There’s no guarantee when they ask for something in rehearsal, and then say, ‘Oh, but it’s going to be all the way upstage, and nobody’s ever going to stand on this chair,’ ” says Guy. “You get to third tech, and all of a sudden, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ happens.” Thus he makes certain the props that come out of his shop are built to exacting standards that will allow their use in virtually any situation. “Our assumption is that everything is going to be played as if the audience is going to breathe on it.”
Like the costume shop, the props department works closely with performers in order to meet their needs—at times altering designs in order to increase comfort, accommodate disabilities, and more precisely fit the demands of the production. Guy recognizes that the props department’s work can enhance an actor’s performance and thus the power of the production itself. “It helps them get into and stay in character and feel supported by the stuff that’s around them,” he says.
Technology and props
“Low tech,” says Jim Guy, “is best tech.” Guy is for the most part immune to the charms of computer-controlled prop gadgetry. “We do use a fair amount of radio control and pneumatics, and a little bit of hydraulics,” he admits, “but we’re not doing anything with computer-controlled devices. When we start to introduce computerized stuff for use on stage, that adds a level of complication that I think we can generally do without.”
Which is not to say that Guy’s prop staff doesn’t use computers. They do, a lot, especially for graphics work. They create custom newspapers and magazines, and even reproduce famous paintings—sometimes altering the images to fit the design concept. “We just morphed our leading lady’s face into a pre-Raphaelite painting,” he tells me.
Guy believes that technology such as this is best used in the service of the performer, who can hold a realistic newspaper or periodical and feel more in the world of a period piece. “A few years ago we did Last Night at Ballyhoo, and that opens in Atlanta, Georgia in 1939 on the weekend that Gone With The Wind premiered,” he says. “We were able to exactly reproduce the December 22, 1939 Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So the actor actually had in his hand the newspaper the character would have read that day.”
And Guy’s shop will use gadgetry on stage when it serves the show. For a 2004 production of Richard III, the director wanted a prop corpse to ooze blood during a scene. Guy’s shop rigged the body, which was fitted with a cast face of an actor in the show, with a blood reservoir and a small, almost silent twelve-volt pump activated by radio control. “That body bled on cue,” Guy says.
An ideal props department may not exist, but good props masters know what they need in order to supplement their own skills as well as free up their time so they can deal with the logistics of running the shop.
“My goal is to hire people who are better at what they do than I am at what they do,” Guy explains. Having the right staff enables leaders like Guy to give accurate cost and time estimates. It also gives the shop a reputation of quality and craftsmanship that lends itself to trust on the part of other production personnel such as the production manager and technical director. “My job is to know enough about what the people in my shop do, to be able ask them realistically to do things, and know what their process is,” says Guy. He also believes that fostering the proper creative atmosphere is essential to getting the most out of his prop team. “We respect these individuals as artists,” he says. “They feel invested in what goes on stage.”
But not all theatres can afford seven full-time staff members in the prop shop, as Milwaukee Rep has. Guy is fortunate to work at a well-established LORT theatre that has an annual operating budget of over $9 million. At Playmakers Rep, things are different. The theatre, which is part of the University of North Carolina’s Department of Dramatic Art, operates on a budget of just over $1 million, and so is able to employ only a properties manager and one prop carpenter and welder full time. A student assistant and work-study part-timers help fill in the gaps.
“Props departments are often forgotten when planning a theatre, I’ve decided,” says Moody. Guy, for his part, seems to agree. “There is only so much money to go around,” he tells me, as we talk about whether or not prop artisans in his shop and around the country are paid what they are worth.
“A good props person can always get work,” Guy believes. What type of formal training, if any, a props artisan should seek, on the other hand, is a more difficult subject. Guy, who began the M.F.A. props program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1991 and headed it until 1998, points out the advantages of graduate study.
“If you go into the right program, you can benefit from the experience of someone who was or is a professional in the field,” he says. “And you have the safety net of the academic world. That is, you are allowed to fail.” He explains that the diversity of training in a typical three-year graduate program can provide the student with a much broader base of experience than could possibly be gained in the same amount of time in the professional world.
Graduate training is not the norm among prop artisans, though. “Most prop people I have found probably have undergrad degrees from theatre departments, and then they earn while they learn,” Guy tells me. “They learn the job on the job.”
“There are very few students who have more than a passing interest in props once they learn how much work goes into it,” says Moody, who graduated from West Virginia University with an M.F.A. in scenic and properties design—a common discipline coupling. “Those that do want to continue usually have a props temperament.”
No matter how much training you have before you take your first prop shop job, Moody has some final advice:
“Make sure you get paid for it once you’re out of school,” she warns. “There are too many people who will take advantage of your desire to learn—and the truth is, there are very few people who know how to do props.”
Mike Lawler is a theatrical electrician, scenic carpenter, writer, and founding member of the Wisconsin Story Project. This article is part of a series on design and production careers he wrote for Dramatics between 2005 and 2008. For more on backstage jobs, check out Lawler’s book Careers in Technical Theatre, which grew out of his work for the magazine.