Beg, Borrow, Buy, or… (1948)

The following first appeared in a 1948 issue of Players Magazine:

By Joe Zimmerman. Temple University. Philadelphia, Penna.

For most educational theatres, borrowing properties is the most expedient method of securing properties, and the one by which the greatest number and variety of items are made available. Most non-commercial theatres rely primarily on borrowing for their properties. But a good many designers find that borrowing is a good deal of work, and at least in their experience, seems to require a lack of dignity and “professional manner” that is no great argument in its favor.

Borrowing, however, may also be handled as a self-respecting manner of securing properties, with dignity and some pride, if it is done properly. The “art of borrowing” is both a concept and a fairly specific technique. Continue reading Beg, Borrow, Buy, or… (1948)

Props for the Weekend

First things first, a lot of you have noticed that the original publication date for The Prop Effects Guidebook has come and gone, but you still cannot order it. It turns out there was some problems with the printers, so the book needs to be reprinted, meaning its release is postponed for the time being. So sorry! If you come to USITT, my publisher will have one copy at their booth you can look through, or you can hunt me down and I will tell you everything that is in the book.

‘Props’ go to Wheaton: Exhibitions celebrate stage, movie, TV artistry that usually goes unnoticed – Last week I was in Massachusetts for the opening of the “Props and Fine Art from Movies, Television and Theatre” exhibition I was a part of. Besides my props, it also features work from Jay Duckworth, Ross MacDonald, and Carl Sprague, who were all at the opening with me, as well as Randy Lutz, Buist Bickley, and Annie Atkins. The show runs through mid-April, so check it out if you’re in New England!

EXCLUSIVE: Discovery Props Master Mario Moreira, Part 1 – This interview with the props master for the newest Star Trek series is a lot of fun, and it features some great drawings and prototypes of the props as they were developed. The second part of the interview is up as well.

The Goblet of Fire – I did not realize that the original Goblet of Fire from the Harry Potter films was carved from a solid piece of English Elm by the Head Propmaker. Many of the film’s actual props are on display in London at the WB Studio Tour. Unfortunately, this link does not go into too much detail into the Goblet’s construction, but it’s still pretty cool.

Ancient Stage Properties, 1912

The following comes from a 1912 issue of The New York Times:

British Museum Contains Rich and Interesting Collection of Curious Relics.

Not the least interesting of the thousands of exhibits at the British Museum are those connected directly or indirectly with the stage. There is nothing in the Babylonian section pertaining to the subject, but the Egyptians supply us with what is probably the oldest wig in the world; a wig, it is true, that was in no way connected with the drama, but one that will compare favorably with the finest creations of the theatrical perruquier. Strangely enough, the tresses are made of plated crêpe hair, exactly similar to that used by modern actors for mustaches.

In the Graeco-Roman department may be seen the cosmetic box of a Roman lady. The white and flesh-colored chalks and rouges are similar to those used for “making up” in the days previous to the invention and manufacture of grease paint. There are also two objects of the theatrical life of the past that have their replicas in the theatres of the present day. One is a thin, oblong slab of stone bearing the Latin words “Circus plenus,” which was occasionally to be found outside a Roman circus, and corresponded to the familiar modern notice “House Full.” The other is a plain ivory disk displayed in the Egyptian room, but which would hardly attract attention. This common-looking object is a theatre check or pass, but whether of a temporary or permanent character cannot be ascertained.

Much the richest department in stage objects, however, is the Graeco-Roman, where one case of stage exhibits may be seen. Here are to be found specimens of the masks worn by actors, which were modeled according to strict rules. They were made of terra-cotta, and must have been very uncomfortable to wear (Editor’s note: We now know the actual masks were made of linen. The terra-cotta masks were models which were never actually worn). There are also numerous statuettes in bronze and terra-cotta of actors wearing their masks in the various characters they impersonated, in addition to models of masks of every description and kind. A good idea of the manner in which plays were staged in those days may be gathered from the scenes from plays as depicted on vases and a terra-cotta lamp. In the wall cases may also be seen various objects illustrating the gladiatorial combats in the arena, also the swords, helmets, and badges of those doughty champions. In addition, there are also several specimens of the discus, the throwing of which was one of the features of the late Olympic meeting, and of the weights held by the athletes in the jumping contests.

To come to more recent times, there is in the British mediaeval room a beautifully carved casket made from wood of the mulberry tree in Shakespeare’s garden, which was presented to David Garrick when he received the freedom of Stratford-on-Avon. A little further along, in the Ethnological Gallery, may be seen a very fine collection of marionettes and puppets used in the Javanese theatres. The figures are articulated, and worked by means of thin sticks attached to the limps. The Javanese are passionately fond of these shows, which are even more popular in Java than the old-fashioned “Punch and Judy” used to be in this country, or “Guignol” in France. In fact, they very much recall the fantoccini or puppet shows which delighted our forefathers.

In this same gallery are many quaint costumes and masks worn in primitive dances by the savage races of the globe, the most remarkable of which are perhaps some tortoiseshell masks fashioned to resemble crocodiles (Editor’s note: This is a horrible way to describe other cultures. I leave it in to remind us that much of our knowledge of non-Western cultures originally came from racist sources, and this type of thinking may still color our current views, even when the language has been made more politically-correct). Although these dances were generally of a religious character, they were nevertheless essentially pantomimic, and bear some analogy to the mystery play of mediaeval times.

“Ancient Stage Properties.” New York Times, 29 Sept. 1912, p. S4. The New York Times Archives,

USITT Props Lab 2018

At this year’s USITT Conference, we will be conducting the first ever Props Lab on the Stage Expo floor. Jay Duckworth, last year’s Early Career Honors speaker, has organized a dynamite team of props experts and myself to provide demonstrations and hands-on activities. A lot of these sessions have already filled up, so sign up quickly!

Thursday, March 15


Welcoming Our Robot Overlords with Adam Daley, support by Karen Rabe

Overcoming fear of new technology and integrating it into our work with robots and quick Prototype. Hands-on with 3D printer, Rapid Prototyping 3D Printing/Robot Making for Props. Learn how to use this equipment, when you need to build a model at ¼” scale, idea exchange.

1:00pm-2:30 pm

Welcoming Our Robot Overlords with Adam Daley, support by Karen Rabe

2:45pm-4:00 pm

Small Food Casting – “Berries” with Michelle Bisbee, support by Abbey Plankey.

Learn fast and effective casting process using Smooth-On OOMOO 30 Fast Set. Take home your very own freshly cast berries!


Small Food Casting – “Berries” with Michelle Bisbee, support by Abbey Plankey.

Friday, March 16


Prop Gizmology Pew, Pew! with Thomas Fiocchi, support by Liz Hastings

How to design and execute cosplay weapon props without stinking up the place. Learn a seven-step process going from research, design, scaling, to engineering, constructing, and finishing your prop weaponry. We will discuss different methods, materials, and techniques to create world-class props in your budget and time frame. Woodworking, foam working, steel techniques, creative gizmology, it is all in this session!!!

1:00 pm-2:30 pm

Prop Gizmology Pew, Pew! with Thomas Fiocchi, support by Liz Hastings

2:45 pm-4:00 pm

Prop Gizmology Pew, Pew! with Thomas Fiocchi, support by Liz Hastings


Small Food Casting – “Berries” with Michelle Bisbee, support by Abbey Plankey.

Saturday, March 17


Stage Combat and Safe Weapons with stage combat specialist Rick Sordelet, support by Jay Duckworth.

Safe stage combat and weaponry. Don’t end up a horrible statistic.


Blood Pack Demos with stage combat expert Rick Sordelet, support by Jay Duckworth.

Tricks with blood bags with stage combat expert.


Simple Pneumatics with Eric Hart, support by Jay Duckworth

Eric will introduce the principles of pneumatic prop design and demonstrate everything from simple puffs of dust to more complex movement using pneumatic cylinders and solenoid valves.

About the presenters

Adam Daley is a Mechanical Engineer turned Prop Master who has worked for companies ranging from Pacific Coast Theatre Festival to Utah Shakespeare Festival. In his free time, he mentors for FRC First Robotics and builds electric guitars.

Michelle Bisbee is an active member of S*P*A*M and a pillar of the props community.

Thomas Fiocchi has been the Props Technologist at Ohio University, training future props artisans, since 1997.  He worked for a decade as a props artisan at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC, and at McCarter Theater in NJ.  He operates Fiocchi Sword and Prop, doing custom stage combat weaponry and freelance props out of Athens Ohio.

Rick Sordelet is the top Fight Director in the country. He has 54 Broadway shows to his credit. He has staged all of Disney Theatrical productions, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, Aida, and The Little Mermaid.

Eric Hart is the props master at Triad Stage and visiting professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He is the author of “The Prop Building Guidebook: for Theater, Film, and TV” and “The Prop Effects Guidebook.” He has built props for numerous theatres on and off Broadway and throughout the United States.

USITT Props Lab
USITT Props Lab

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies