Props to any show are as vital as the scenery, lighting, sound and costumes. A prop to a show can be such an important aspect to the plot. In some cases, the storyline may even be about a prop. I’ve been a Props Master for a few shows and let me tell you, it’s not as easy as some may think. It’s definitely not just going out and buying a bunch of props on the list. It’s about finding and creating objects that are time appropriate and physically appealing to the eye and finding the best and most authentic props while staying within a budget. It should be treated like building the scenery for a show or designing costumes. It’s all about creation. Here are some tips of my own, taken from personal experience.
The first thing to do before anything else is read the script and mark down any props that may be described, used or in the notes. This is where you create your first version of the props list. I say “first version” because things can be added later on by the director. Sometimes, a props list will be handed to you by the director without you really having to do much work, but often times you create it yourself. Once you feel you have everything written down, it’s best to split up the list according to when the prop makes an appearance or what page number it falls on. This keeps things organized and will be very helpful later on when making props tables backstage.
The second phase after you create the list is to sit down with the director and have a discussion on his visions for each prop and also discuss anything the director may want to add. This is a very important part and it’s where the real collaboration happens. It’s always important to be on the same page with this. Once this happens and you receive a budget, it’s time to start searching for and acquiring the props. I always like taking the list and splitting it between props I may own that could be useful, props I need to order online, rent or find in shops, and things I may need to make. Then the actual, physical search begins, which isn’t always from the comfort of your own home.
As I’m looking for things and finding things, I always send the director photos. It’s extremely important to get their approval before making any purchases. When searching, it always helps if you have connections or relationships with certain theaters or companies or have people who do. This way if you have access to their props, it’s always helpful to rent or borrow things. It keeps the budget in a good place. I usually don’t like buying things unless it can be used again or if I have no other choice but to buy.
The searching and buying phase is a fun one. You come across so many cool shops, antique stores, flea markets and warehouses. Some really fun memories and stories to look back on involve car rides and trips to pick up props. It can be a really interesting day trip in some cases. Which reminds me, it’s important to have a car. Sometimes, large set pieces can be considered props as well, or the Props Master is responsible for obtaining it, so having a vehicle or large vehicle makes it much easier to pick things up. You don’t want to have to be searching for a ride. There is always a lot of driving involved in theatre in general, I’ve found, so it’s important you don’t get into something you can’t handle.
It’s also a lot of fun buying supplies and making things. As long as it’s authentic looking and has the director’s approval, it should be good to go. In fact, I’ve learned about just how authentic one should be when making something. For example, if you’re making a letter for Sally to mail to her father who she hasn’t spoken to in 20 years, then write a letter from Sally to her father. The audience may not see it, but it’s a mental thing for the actor and is an efficient and thoughtful way to make a prop. Make it as real as can be. It doesn’t hurt.
There is also such a thing as “practice props” meaning props used in rehearsals but won’t be the official prop used in the performances. This usually can happen when an actor needs something to practice with and they don’t want to ruin the actual prop, or the actual prop is still trying to be obtained. This can get confusing when the real props start coming in. As long as you have an organized area or labeled props tables, even in rehearsal, then things should run smoothly. The last thing you want is to mistakenly bring a practice prop to the venue. This can be confusing for the actors and also just add clutter to the backstage space. Only bring what you will use.
Usually, during rehearsals, it’s an SM/ASM task to track props as they appear in scenes or take notes on any props that come up while blocking a scene. When stage managing, personally, I always list all props mentioned in a scene after blocking it and then I use that list as a guideline or order of what the Props Master should buy next. Those props get recorded in daily rehearsal reports. In other words, the Props Master will always know what props are top priority and need to be used next for practice. This tracking also helps when setting up locations for the props tables.
When tech week hits, the ASM should usually have some kind of backstage paperwork to help backstage duties run smoothly regarding props and set pieces. The Props Master puts together labeled props tables and makes sure all moving set pieces are in the correct place and ready to go. When an actor is about to go on stage, they should be able to pick their prop up right at the closest props table. One of the biggest complaints in theatre history usually happens after an actor walks off stage, and that is usually the fact that they don’t put their prop back on the table or they put it in the wrong place. This can cause massive confusion and sometimes, it just happens and there is no way around it. Do I have tips for this? Not really. All I can say is that you should always make an announcement to actors about this beforehand. Leaving the props on the table just makes everyone’s life so much easier.
I don’t believe this is the only way to handle props or this is the best way to be a Props Master, however, approaching it this way has always been successful for me. I’d say this is the standard way of doing things and hopefully this offers some useful tips and advice. I understand everyone has their own ways and I respect and learn new things from people and productions all of the time. That is part of the beauty of working in theatre and with different people. You learn different approaches. In general, It’s awesome handling props and so many people obtain cool props collections after doing it. It’s important to understand how serious props are to a show. It’s a department I love working in and continue to work in whenever the opportunity comes along.