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1.6: Stage Properties

  • Page ID
    55843
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    Categories of Props

    Stage properties, or “props,” are those items that are not permanently attached to the scenery, or costumes, that add to the visual picture of the shows. If that definition seems a bit vague, you may have discovered why props are such a varied and interesting section of technical theatre. Props can be divided into the following categories by their use in the final show:

    • Set Props / Furnishings: These are large items that are rarely, if ever, moved by the cast in the course of the show. These include tables, chairs, settees etc.
    • Set Dressing: These are items that are not touched by the actors but complete the look of the set. These include books on a book case, pictures on a wall, fancy plates in a china cabinet, etc.
    • Hand Props: These are items carried by and used by the actors in the course of stage directions or stage business. These include such things as a cell phone an actor uses, a coffee mug they drink from, a journal in which they take a note, etc..
    • Costume Props: These are items that are not generally considered clothing, but would be designed by the costume designer and worn by the actors. These include hats, eye glasses, wallets, pocket watches, etc.

    Some props have additional requirements which they must meet. These additional categories of props are a description in addition to any item above.

    • Practical Props: Any item that is a practical prop is also one of the other categories listed. A practical prop is one that must perform its real-world function. For example, a cell phone (hand prop) that an actor needs to hold and imagine that they are using to make a call is not practical. However, if that cell phone needs to ring on cue, it is now practical hand prop. Similarly, a lamp that sits on the stage is set dressing, until it is determined that it must also turn on. Generally, if the prop must light up or make a noise, especially if cued somehow from off stage, it is considered a practical prop.
    • Consumable Props: Like practical props, consumable props fit into an additional category. A consumable is one that is “used up” over the course of one or more performances. Food that is eaten by the cast on stage is an example of a consumable prop, as are letters that are torn to pieces by the cast. If a show has a practical flash light, its batteries and lamp would be considered consumable.
    • Rehearsal Props: Often the “real” props are not available for the rehearsal period. In those cases where the actors need certain props to rehearse, but do not have access to the real prop, a substitute, or rehearsal prop, is acquired. Rehearsal props need to be approximately the same size and weight as the real prop, but are generally a cheap substitute that does not have the correct look. For example, even though a play may be set in the 1800s, the cast could rehearse with a modern composition book instead of a period diary, assuming the composition book was approximately the same size as the final prop will be.

    One of the most confusing things about props is that an item, such as a hat, may be in different categories depending on the show. For example, if the hat is attached to a mannequin in a window and never touched by the cast, it might be considered furnishings. In another show, the hat may be hanging on a hat stand, but not used by the cast, making it set dressing. Yet, another show, an actor, playing a maid, might hand the hat to another actor who carries it off stage with them, making it a hand prop. In a final example an actor might wear the hat, making it a costume prop.

    Another confusing layer is what department will supply that hat. As the costume department often has more hats in their storage, they may supply that hat regardless of its use in the show. Props may be supplied by the props department, the scenery department or the costume department depending on the prop and the production team. Some props may take collaboration between departments. For example, a table lamp may be supplied by the scenery department but may be wired and made practical by the electrics department. In all cases, clear communication between departments, facilitated by the stage manager, is essential. Often all the designers and department heads will meet to examine the prop lists developed by each department and the stage manager. At this point they will collaborate on who will supply each prop.

    Creating a Prop List

    A prop list, can be created much like we were creating our breakdowns. If so, it might look like this:

    Initial Prop List

    Page

    Prop

    Type

    Note

    2

    Bed

    Furnishings

    With curtains

    2

    Chest of Drawers

    Furnishings

    2

    Table with 2 chairs

    Furnishings

    2

    Assorted decorations

    Dressing

    2

    Small Looking Glass

    Hand

    3

    Hat

    Costume

    3

    2 other hats

    hand

    3

    Bolster

    Hand

    "not very protuberant"

    5

    Rasher of Bacon

    Hand

    5

    Box of matches

    hand

    almost empty

    5

    candlestick

    hand

    with small candle

    6

    Pork Chop

    Hand

    6

    Gridiron

    Hand

    6

    Fork

    hand

    7

    Tea things

    hand

    7

    2 receipts

    hand

    8

    Roll

    Hand

    Eaten

    8

    Pipe

    Hand

    14

    2 trick dice

    hand

    always roll 6

    15

    2 trick coins

    hand

    always heads

    15

    additional coins

    hand

    16

    Letter in envelope from Margate

    hand

    envelope will need to be replaced nightly

    18

    Letter in envelope from Margate

    hand

    Envelope will need to be replaced nightly

    19

    Letter in envelope from Margate

    hand

    Envelope will need to be replaced nightly

    Like many shows, this initial prop list is mostly hand props. Hand props are the most obvious props in the script. Set dressing is almost non-existent on the list. Set dressing props are determined by the scenic designer based on his or her design, and will often be presented as a list to the prop department.

    You might notice that the gridiron is used several times in the show, yet only appears on the prop list once. That is because if it appeared several times, the prop department would supply a new gridiron for each use. Similarly, since there are three letters form Margate, the prop department will supply three, which is what the show requires.

    After this list is created, the production team will decide who will be responsible for acquiring each prop. For example, there are three hats, one a costume prop and two hand props. The costume department might decide to provide all three hats so that they work together to create a pleasing image on stage. Similarly, the scene shop may decide that such a large piece as the bed is too large to be built in the prop shop, and decide that it will be created in the scene shop.

    Acquiring Props

    There are basically three methods of acquiring props for a show: build the prop, buy the prop, or borrow the prop. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. After determining which department will provide the prop, the department will examine the script to determine which method should be used to acquire the prop.

    Building is perhaps the easiest method to understand. The script is examined, the prop is sketched, and then the department builds it. This method allows the prop to be created to meet the exact needs of the show. In some cases, this is the only method available, especially when doing a fantasy or science fiction based show. The disadvantage of this is that it can take a great deal of time and expertise to build certain props, which may be a limiting factor. One other consideration is that it is sometimes most costly to build a prop rather than buying it. For example, it is possible to melt wax and dip wicks to create the candle for the prop list. This task however would likely a props artisan several long days to create the one candle needed for the show. It is probably much more cost effective to spend a few dollars buying a candle.

    Buying the prop is often the fastest method of acquiring a prop, especially if you are doing a play set in contemporary times. With the advent of internet searches, even historical reproductions can often be quickly purchased and shipped to the theatre. The challenge with buying props is that stage performances are often much harder on a prop than real life. There is a stereotype in musicals of people dancing on tables. The average table that you buy is not strong enough to have several people tap dancing on it for 8 performances a week for many weeks on end. In that case, even if the table was purchased, the scenery or property department would have to spend time reinforcing and strengthening the table. It is not uncommon however to purchase a prop and modify it for use. For example the hats needed may be purchased as a simple hat, and the costume crafts person may add flowers, and hat bands and other embellishments to make it suit the play.

    The last category is borrowing a prop. If you are located in a major theatre, film or television market there are often prop rental companies that have an extensive supply of all sorts of varied props. Often these companies have a website that you can peruse to find what you need. If you are not in a major market, it is common for props people to build a relationship with all the other theatre’s nearby and contact them to see if they will rent out their props to your production. When renting props, you will have to provide the rental company with proof of insurance so that if the prop is damaged, they will be able to replace it. Additionally, rental agreements usually prohibit the prop from being changed in any way. This means that if you don’t like the color of the prop, or some other decoration you are stuck with it. The other challenge with renting props is the cost. Props are generally rented by the week. To save money, producers usually do not like to rent the prop for more than a week before opening night, which means the cast will have limited abilities to rehearse with it. The producer will need to be involved in any rental as there are required legal agreements that must be signed. In general, it is the producer’s responsibility to sign and pay for these items, not the prop technician’s.

    Another type of borrowing is to “borrow” the prop from the theatre company’s own storage. After a show closes, many companies take the props from the production and store them in a prop storage room. These props can then be used as rehearsal props or as show props for future productions. Different theatres have different rules on modifying props from storage, but they are often far more flexible than a rental company would be.

    One last note on borrowing props: it is not a good idea for the prop technician (or any production team member) to loan a prop to a production. Too often, this is the prop that is accidentally broken. Since there is not legal agreement, or proof of insurance issued, there is no recourse or ability to have the prop repaired or replaced. Certainly, in no circumstance should a theatre ever borrow (or rent) a truly irreplaceable and unrepairable prop. There are too many things that could go wrong.

    At some point, the stage manager will create a list of those props that are needed for rehearsal. In some theatre companies it is the responsibility of the stage manager to acquire rehearsal props, and in some theatres it is the responsibility of the prop department. Regardless, when that list is generated, rehearsal props need to be provided to the rehearsal room as soon as possible.

    Revised Prop List

    This prop list is updated to show how the prop will be acquired, if it is practical or consumable.

    Page

    Prop

    Type

    Note

    Pract.

    Cons.

    Rehers

    Buy

    Build

    Rent

    2

    Bed

    Furnishings

    With curtains

    X

    2

    Chest of Drawers

    Furnishings

    X

    2

    Table with 2 chairs

    Furnishings

    X

    2

    Assorted decorations

    Dressing

    2

    Small Looking Glass

    Hand

    X

    X

    3

    Hat

    Costume

    X

    X

    3

    2 other hats

    hand

    X

    3

    Bolster

    Hand

    "not very protuberant"

    X

    5

    Rasher of Bacon

    Hand

    X

    X

    5

    Box of matches

    hand

    almost empty

    X

    X

    X

    X

    5

    candlestick

    hand

    with small candle

    X

    X

    6

    Pork Chop

    Hand

    X

    X

    6

    Gridiron

    Hand

    X

    X

    6

    Fork

    hand

    X

    X

    7

    Tea things

    hand

    X

    7

    2 receipts

    hand

    X

    X

    8

    Roll

    Hand

    X

    X

    X

    8

    Pipe

    Hand

    X

    14

    2 trick dice

    hand

    always roll 6

    X

    X

    15

    2 trick coins

    hand

    always heads

    X

    X

    15

    additional coins

    hand

    X

    16

    Letter in envelope from Margate

    hand

    envelope will need to be replaced nightly

    X

    X

    X

    18

    Letter in envelope from Margate

    hand

    Envelope will need to be replaced nightly

    X

    X

    X

    19

    Letter in envelope from Margate

    hand

    Envelope will need to be replaced nightly

    X

    X

    X

    Prop lists are in flux throughout the rehearsal process up to opening night. The stage manager is often sending out updates, and there will be many meetings and discussions about props.

    Props in the Theatre

    Eventually all the props (along with the set, and the costumes, and the actors) will move into the theatre. Generally props are stored in a room of their own, or in a specially constructed cabinet. It is important that the props crew organized the prop storage area so that each prop in the show (and any back-up props or additional supplies (like batteries)) have a specific place that they live. A list of all the items in the prop cabinet needs to be created. When a prop leaves the storage area it must be signed out by a prop technician. When the prop is returned, it should be signed back in. It is very easy to not bother checking props at the end of the night, but if the prop crew does not, something will eventually be lost. A helpful trick is to take a photo of the properly loaded prop storage area and keep the photo(s) with the list. People are often much faster to noctice if something is out of place compared with the photo than notice an error on the list.

    For the performance, props will often be placed on prop tables so that they are easily accessible and in the correct location for whomever is grabbing or replacing a prop. The prop table should be laid out exactly the same way every performance so that each prop as its own, clearly defined space. One way to do this is to cover the prop table with butcher paper or craft paper. Once the prop table has been laid out, trace each prop with a thick black marker, and label what it is. This makes it easy to spot missing props, or misplaced props because they traceout brings the organizational structure to everyone’s attention. Ideally there will be a prop table on each side of the stage so that someone does not have a long distance to go to grab the prop they need.

    Additional Materials


    This page titled 1.6: Stage Properties is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christopher R Boltz.

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