Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

8: Props and Effects

  • Page ID
    11149
  • Properties, or “props,” are crucial design elements for stage productions. Anything
    an actor handles, carries, or manipulates that is not attached to the walls or floors is
    considered a stage prop. Because actors interact with props, they are also elements
    that the audience often pays close attention to. They are highly visible and equally
    important to storytelling, so careful attention must be paid to their selection and
    function.

     

    Stage props are broken down into several categories. The first is set props. Set props
    include furniture and large-scale elements that may be moved by an actor or technician
    during the show. The second category of properties is set dressings, also known
    as “decorative props.” Set dressings include items such as wall art, window curtains,
    and shelves of books. These items are decorative in nature and are not typically
    handled during the performance. The final categories are hand props and personal
    props. Hand props are handled by performers and can be almost anything from
    something as simple as a pencil, to something more complex like a weapon, to anything
    in between. Hand props must be durable enough to be used throughout the
    technical rehearsals and run of a production. They must also be easy to use for the
    actor or technician who operates them. Personal props are a subset of hand props
    and are items of a personal nature that enhance a character. Often these items are
    chosen in concert with the costume designer. Sometimes personal props stay with
    the actors costume and are always carried by the actor during the production. These
    items include things such as cigarettes and lighters, wallets, combs, and parasols.

     

    Some play scripts include a properties list of items needed for production. Often,
    this list is reprinted from a professional production and includes the properties from
    that incarnation of the show. If a list is not provided, one can be created through a
    careful close reading of the script, noting each item required for the scenes. Prop lists
    of this type are created by the scenic designer or, if involved, a prop designer. Once
    a list of required items has been made, any research needed to clarify the look and
    function of items can be done. Many plays take place at a certain historical period
    of time. We refer to this as “period drama.” If your play recreates the feeling of an
    historic era onstage, then many of your prop elements could be things that you are

    unfamiliar with. They are also likely to be much harder to find than a modern item.
    Period props may have to be researched and built from scratch rather than located.


    Even if all of the needed items are commonly available, most props used in a live
    production have been altered in some way to make them “stage worthy.” Plays tend
    to be written about extraordinary moments in the lives of their characters, moments
    in which the characters are on the precipice of some great undertaking or struggle.
    In these moments the characters often behave extraordinarily. They stand on chairs,
    slam doors, throw glassware, or dance on tables. The props of the show must be able
    to withstand this unusual usage, show after show. Chairs, tables, and other household
    items are often reinforced for stage use. Remember, borrowed items must be
    well cared for and alterations to them may not be possible.

     

    Consider This
    Several types of prop artisans are common to the theatre. Each individual has a special
    skill and methodology for the creation or acquisition and delivery of the needed items for
    a production. Often props can be purchased for a show from retailers, thrift stores, and
    online sources. Some prop masters are brilliant at sourcing items and can find whatever
    may be required. These people tend to be great researchers and will search tirelessly for
    items they need. Others are builders and will likely try to create the bulk of the required
    items. These artists are masters of a wide variety of materials, construction techniques,
    and paint effects. All prop masters must have strong organizational skills. Prop tracking
    lists can be very complex, and constant communication with the rehearsal room and
    shops about the evolving needs for props is vital.

     

    The scenic designer and props designer provide visual research to the director and
    prop artisans for planned props. During the rehearsal process, actors are given approximations
    of the show props that will be used for performances in order for them
    to become familiar with those items and incorporate them into their performances.
    These rehearsal props should mimic the actual intended prop as closely as possible
    in scale, weight, and function. Prop masters usually do not include actual show props
    in rehearsal rooms for fear of loss or damage. Rehearsal props are naturally subject to
    some abuse as the actors actively explore their potential use in the production. 

     

    Once the needed props have been established, collected, and altered for stage use,
    they are ready to be used in technical rehearsals. Props are set out, maintained,
    cleaned, and stored by the prop crew or backstage run crew. Usually, long tables are
    set backstage near entrances and exits and props are arranged on these tables for
    quick access by cast and crew. These tables can be covered in butcher paper so props
    can be kept track of by drawing a line around them and labeling the place on the
    table where they sit. Further organization can be achieved by using tape to outline
    sections of the table and labeling them by scene or by actor. This system allows for
    all items to be placed in the same area for easy location and identification as well as
    provide visual shorthand to recognize any missing items from the table prior to a

    performance. Once props have been set for a performance, both the stage manager
    and the actors perform a “prop check” to visually check to ensure everything needed
    is ready to go.

     

    There’s More to Know
    Common prop elements such as glassware, silverware, and dishes must be carefully
    washed after each performance so that germs are not passed among the cast. Items like
    pipes or cigarette holders should be carefully labeled so they are not shared by multiple
    performers. All food and beverages should be refrigerated to keep them fresh and safe.
    In addition, people working on a production are often subject to health issues as they are
    getting enough rest and are stressed during production periods. Anything you can do to
    keep everyone healthy is a worthwhile investment.

     

    Food and drink props are common to the theatre. The prop master should ask the
    stage manager to survey the entire cast who touch or eat any food or drink props,
    or consumables, to discover any dietary restrictions and allergies. Whatever is ultimately
    chosen for the food prop seen onstage needs to be something that no one
    will have a negative reaction to and can be kept hot or cold accordingly and handled
    safely for each performance. 

     

    The term “consumable” can also be applied to anything used up or destroyed during
    a performance such as burning letters or blank ammunition that is fired. Confetti
    is also considered a consumable. Breaking down these items into their own subcategory
    helps us to track amounts required and the cost of these items for each
    performance as well as for the entire rehearsal period and run of shows.

     

    There’s More to Know
    Blank-firing weapons are guns that have had their barrel plugged and are not able to
    be loaded with a live round. These weapons are available in many styles and calibers to
    match common and period weapons. All replica weapons must be treated with respect
    and great care. Theatres should have a procedure in place for exactly how the weapon
    will be used and accounted for. Weapons should be kept under lock and key as much as
    possible, and only personnel who need to handle the weapon should be allowed to do so.
    Although a piece of blank ammunition does not have a bullet as a projectile, it is still a controlled
    explosion occurring in the chamber of the weapon and may propel it’s wadding
    and other debris at the speed of a bullet. When this explosion occurs, an envelope of hot
    gas and burning powder flashes out in all directions from the barrel, creating potential
    danger for anyone in proximity to the weapon. Blank loads are also very loud. The hearing
    of anyone in proximity to the weapon when fired should be protected.

     

    Weapons are also prop-based special effects that need special care and attention.
    They are common to many theatre productions, and, although they have always
    been dangerous items to manage, the current problems facing our society in regards
    to public shootings have made even handling a plastic replica gun a danger for any
    public performance. When a blank-firing weapon is used on stage, specific training
    for the entire company occurs in order to ensure that everyone knows how to stay safe
    around such an effect. It should also be said that a weapon capable of holding a live
    round rather than a blank should NEVER be used in a production. Other weapons
    such as swords, daggers, and even kitchen knives should always have their edges
    dulled and tips blunted for general safety.

     

    Special effects are associated with props. Often special effects rely on motors and
    machinery, and so they are also considerations for the set and lighting designer.
    Common theatre special effects include atmospheric effects such as theatrical fog
    and haze and practical effects such as snow, rain, and fire. 

     

    The responsibilities of special effects are often shared between several production
    departments. Water effects such as rain, ponds, showers, and sinks often involve
    the master electrician, both for the installation of associated electrical equipment
    for pumps, filters, and heaters, but also, from a safety standpoint, their expertise is
    needed as water and electricity don’t mix well and can add up to significant danger.
    When needed, a constant pressure flow to practical faucets might be accomplished
    via a hose to an existing water source or by creating a closed pressurized system by
    using a garden sprayer.

     

    Weather-based effects have been used in theatre for many years. Thunder, though
    now usually recreated with a recorded sound effect, was traditionally created using
    a “thunder sheet,” a large sheet of thin metal that was struck or distorted to produce
    the sound. Practical rain can be accomplished by a system that is essentially an
    overhead sprinkler system. However, containing and circulating water is a tricky undertaking
    and has huge implications for electrical safety.

     

    Fire effects are another area that requires specific expertise to produce a reliable and
    safe effect. Any live flame likely requires a special permit to be granted by your local
    fire marshal. Permits for small naked flames, such as those from a candle, match, or
    cigarette lighter, are reasonably common requests, and depending on your specific
    production, may be fairly easy to acquire if the proper conditions and procedures
    are met. LED candles and battery operated torches and fire effects have become
    quite convincing and are commonly available as practical and safe alternatives to
    live flame. Audiences today are often very put off by smoking of any kind onstage.
    They have become very accepting of miming smoking without ever actually lighting
    a prop cigarette. Non-nicotine e-cigarettes can also be a convincing alternative.

     

    Unlike rain, snow is a fairly easy effect to achieve onstage with convincing results.
    A snow cradle is rigged from a batten above the effect area. The cradle is then manipulated
    to drop a snow-like substance. Depending on your needs, a manufactured
    snowflake product made from plastic, Styrofoam beads (static causes these to stick

    to everything), or even dried potato flakes could be used. Snow cradles are also often
    used to drop flower petals or confetti. Snow machines that produce miniature
    soap bubbles are also convincing, but the collected soap can be slippery on the stage
    floor.

     

    techtheatrem8i1.png

    A simple fabric snow cradle

     

    Breakaway props like sugar-glass bottles or glassware are common for fight scenes
    and are commercially available. These props require careful planning with the performers
    to keep everyone safe. The production needs to order enough of these
    expendable items for sufficient experimentation and practice. It is possible for an experienced
    prop artisan to make custom sugar-glass items for a production, but it has
    become an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

     

    Consider This
    When glassware is required onstage, it is often advisable to use a plastic or acrylic alternative
    to actual, breakable glass. Unless you are “clinking” glasses, they will be convincing
    replacements and can prevent what otherwise can be both a safety hazard and a time-consuming
    cleanup onstage.

    Breakaway furniture and collapsing crates may be made either from a soft wood
    such as balsa, or can be pre-broken and held together lightly so actors won’t be injured
    by their impact. Many extra breakaway objects should be kept on standby and
    for rehearsals.

    Productions using weaponry or breakaway props and furniture also require an expert
    in stage combat to work with the cast and crew to carefully plan the actions
    involved so they are convincing for the audience as well as repeatable and safe. 

     

    Atmospheric effects, such as fog, smoke, and haze, have become very common to
    in productions. Theatrical fog can be produced in several ways. Fog machines that
    vaporize a liquid by heating it are used frequently. These units are safe, reliable, and
    inexpensive to run. This type of fog can be run through a cooling unit, which allows
    it to hang or drop toward the floor rather than rise as a vapor. Dry ice (CO2) can be
    employed to create a cool fog that falls and hugs the stage floor. Liquid nitrogen can
    also be used to produce a pressurized fog effect that can be useful for magic appearances.
    Smoke and smoke machines are often used as interchangeable terms with
    fog, though smoke effects should accurately be categorized as pyrotechnic effects.
    Haze is used to thicken the stage atmosphere. It allows the lighting instruments’
    beams to be seen. The look of a rock concert is achieved through the use of haze.
    Hazer units are similar to fog machines but continuously put out a light vapor distributed
    over a large area.

    techtheatrem8i2.png

    A fog machine

     

    For Further Exploration
    James, Thurston. 1987. The Theater Props Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Theater
    Properties, Materials, and Construction. White Hall: Betterway Publications.
    “Instructables - How to Make Anything.” n.d. Instructables.Com. Accessed August 16,
    2018. https://www.instructables.com/.

    • Was this article helpful?