I’ve come across the following lists of duties and responsibilities for various members of the props department in a number of places. These are the IATSE job classifications for union members working in film. I have noticed some theatres will use these as starting points to develop their own job descriptions for people in the props department as well. Property Master The duties of the Property Master shall include preparation of a hand prop breakdown, with scene allocations as per the shooting script; to research the historical period of said administered hand props; to prepare, build and procure props to be seen on camera; the repair and return of props to original condition and source; arranging for all necessary permits to convey restricted weapons; co-ordinate with the Wardrobe Department the required accessories; while on set, the Prop Master will administer props to artists, strike and reset hot sets established by the Set Decorators, with the aid of Polaroid’s, photographs or sketches; consult with the Script Supervisor on the continuity of hand props; responsible for the disbursement of the assigned budget; and delegate the work required for the efficient operation of the Department. Assistant Property Master Duties are acts as the Prop Master’s representative on the set; during pre-production helps with script and prop breakdown; in the Prop Master’s absence this person can be left in charge of the props on shooting set; makes sure that the set and props are as the Props Master wishes them to be; oversees the supplying and loading of the truck; has the ability to oversee the set and props in a camera ready condition; has the ability to oversee the set and prop continuity; and can perform these duties in an unsupervised role. Additionally, this person must hold a valid Firearms Acquisition Certificate; carry the Motion Picture Firearms Safety Course card; be knowledgeable in the building and repair of props; be knowledgeable in the handling of firearms; the safe use of firearms and the blank firing of firearms; and carries the same responsibilities for the safety of artists and shooting crew when it comes to the firing of blanks as the Props Master. Props Buyer Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Armour Must have Fire Arms Acquisition Certificate and no criminal record. Responsible for maintaining safety on set in relation to weapons and ammunition, including but not limited to determining the distance for all loads; ¼, ½ and full loads and as such providing plexi-glass shields, etc. when required. Order all weapons, permits, ammunition etc. and inspect them as a safety precaution. Responsible for the distribution and collection of the weapons to talent and background performers. Warn to the cast and crew prior to firing weapons, secure area effected. Along with performing those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Builder Work with wood, leather, and metal must have carpentry skills, and perform duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Assistant Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Men/Women or Props Crew Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master
By now, you have probably heard of the ruling last week in regards to unpaid internships. A court ruled that unpaid production interns on The Black Swan were entitled to back pay for their work. The New York Times has a great summary of the judges decision. The Department of Labor has a set of strict guidelines that determines whether an internship can be unpaid:
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship;
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship
It is important to point out that these guidelines have been in place for a long time. This ruling has not “outlawed” unpaid internships or changed any of the law. The fact is that most unpaid internships, particularly in theatre, do not adhere to these guidelines and are illegal. They exist simply because no one is stopping them. Many are writing that this ruling is bringing that to a close (for example, this article in the Atlantic points out that companies are less likely to risk having an illegal internship program now that someone has gotten caught).
I have heard of internships where the intern’s job is to sit in the car while the shopper runs into a store so they don’t get towed. I have worked at places where all the interns have to work as waiters during a fundraising party. Simply being in a theatre or being surrounded by professionals does not constitute enough of an education to justify not paying someone for work. Giving someone the “opportunity” of listing your theatre on their resume is not enough of an experience to warrant forcing them to work for free. Rich Dionne has a good blog post pointing out the challenges of structuring an internship program so it is to the benefit of the interns.
Now I am not saying that an internship is inherently bad if it is unpaid. If one adheres to the guidelines, it can provide valuable training for less than the cost of a college or university. However, with the abundance of illegal unpaid internships out there and the relative lack of oversight (until now), even the legal internships can find themselves slipping into exploitation now and then without fear of repercussions.
Besides the exploitative nature of illegal unpaid internships, we need to consider the idea of unpaid internships in the larger sense of our industry. This HowlRound article by Holly Derr points out that having an economy where an unpaid internship is a necessary first step creates a workforce which only the privileged can take part in. When we devalue the physical labor that goes into building a show, we devalue theatre itself. If you say unpaid interns are necessary to the operations of your theatre, then you are saying you want a certain level of production values, but you do not want to pay for them. It is as if an audience member asked for tickets to the show but did not want to pay for them.
If every theatre relied on unpaid interns to create the technical side, than what jobs are we training them for? In other words, how can you ask someone to work for free in exchange for job training if all the jobs they are training for are unpaid? If we want a strong pool of technical theatre workers, then we need to start focussing resources on training them, rather than throwing them into a pool of illegal unpaid internships and seeing which ones float to the top. It is hard enough to make money in this business; we should not be starting people off by telling them they do not deserve to get paid.
Beginner prop makers often want to know how much money a prop maker earns. Even experienced prop makers want to know, just to compare their earnings to what is typical in the industry. These numbers are hard to come by because of the range of ways a prop maker can earn money, the vast variety of industries a prop maker can work in, and the wide spectrum in expertise of prop makers (a beginner prop maker who constructs apple crates is probably making a far different wage than a veteran who machines intricate aluminum mechanisms). Still, we have to start somewhere.
One of the best resources to learn about typical wages and contracts is from Sandra Strawn’s Properties Directors’ Handbook. She collected survey data from many of the regional and educational theatres around the United States. Another organization which collects a lot of data on employment and wages is the US government. This is what we are looking at in today’s post.
The United States Bureau of Labor keeps statistics on National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. Now, they do not list “prop maker” as an occupation, so we have to look at a few related and similar fields to hone in on what a US prop maker might be making. I’ve pulled some numbers from their most recent report, which was May 2012 1.
First, a couple of caveats. The major one is that this data does not include self-employed workers. According to the IRS, if you get paid with a 1099, even if it is in a situation where you are “employed” by a company, they consider you self-employed. Many prop makers earn some or even all of their income in this way, so it really skews the data. I’ve found that it is the smaller and lower-paying gigs that will often pay you with a 1099 (not always true, but true more often than not), so these numbers are probably higher than what most prop makers earn.
As another caveat, if you look at the data yourself, you will find “annual mean wages” listed that make it seem like these workers are raking it in. However, these annual wages are calculated by multiplying the hourly wage by a typical “full-time” schedule, and do not reflect what someone actually earns in a year. Most prop makers do not work full-time every year, and even so-called “full-time” jobs at regional theatres are actually seasonal contracts ranging from 28-42 weeks per year. I’ve always found that the hourly wages offered me were well above minimum wage, but it is very difficult to string together enough jobs and gigs to work full-time year-round.
For the table, I looked at two categories: “Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres”, and “Motion Picture and Video Exhibition”. Neither category has a “prop maker” listing, so I chose the occupation titles which I thought a prop maker would likely be categorized under. For Theatre Companies, those categories were “craft artists” and “fine artists”, while in Motion Pictures, I chose “fine artists” and “artists and related workers, all others”. Feel free to explore the data on your own and look at other industries or occupations; I am not presenting this information as the definitive guide to prop makers’ wages, but rather as my own personal best guess of what might be the wages of some prop makers.
Occupation Title Employment Median hourly wage Mean hourly wage
Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres
Craft Artists 230 18.89 18.86
Fine Artists 100 19.03 20.67
Motion Picture and Video Exhibition
Fine Artists 2400 27.10 30.45
All Others 390 33.89 33.86
Despite all of my caveats and excuses, these numbers do tell us a few things. First, that the movies employ far more people than theatre. Second, that similar occupations are making around one-and-a-half times as much in movies than in theatre, at least on an hourly basis.
Another possible surprise is the small number of full-time occupations in theatre. The 330 combined craft artists and fine artists would likely include not just the people in the props shop, but also the costume shop and paints departments. That’s a tiny amount of people. Remember, though that these numbers do not include self-employed workers, of which there are many. Also, in larger markets and commercial theatre, many prop makers would be working for independent shops and studios, rather than theatre companies.
- http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm, May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, United States, accessed April 1, 2013. ↩
For those of you in school for theatre, it is not too early to start thinking about summer employment. Even though snow is still on the ground and it gets dark at 4 pm, this is the time of year that many summer festivals, theatres and operas begin recruiting for their production positions and internships. To my international readers, I am sorry this post only deals with US jobs and internships.
Whether looking for summer work or for immediate work, Backstage Jobs should be one of the sites you check daily. By now, most of the major and legitimate theatres have learned to post any and all technical and production-related jobs to this site. It is completely free to view every job posting. The site admin also does a bang-up job of keeping spam and unrelated postings from appearing.
Speaking of spam, the Society of Properties Artisan Managers maintains a list of which of their member theatres offer props internships. This is a comprehensive list of all internships, not just summer ones, so be sure to check the commitment dates for the theatres you are interested in.
Artsearch is another big mainstay of technical theatre job postings. Though you should avoid job posting sites which require you to pay to view listings, this is the one exception. If you are currently in school, your school will probably have login information you can use (this is often true if you are an alumni as well).
In addition to job listings online, you may wish to think about applying and interviewing for jobs during one of the two big conferences. Though these are held in March, now is the time that you should be registering for the conferences, booking your hotel and making your travel arrangements. The two major conferences for theatre technicians are USITT and SETC.
This year, USITT is held March 20-23 in Milwaukee. The conference is meant for technicians and designers for all aspects of live performance. Part of the conference includes a massive stage expo, where companies and employers have booths to show off what they do. This is where you can meet and greet with the people in charge of these companies; many of them use USITT to do some of their recruiting for summer internships and apprenticeships.
The SETC conference will be held March 6-10 in Louisville, KY. SETC is meant for all aspects of theatre, including acting and directing, so it is not focused on just the production side. While the exposition hall is much smaller than USITT’s, it does have a job fair you can sign up for. Companies have small tables where they list the job openings they have, and you sign up for times to interview. You then spend the rest of your time meeting with employers all over the convention center to interview for these jobs. You can interview for as many or as few jobs as you have time for. I actually got hired at the Santa Fe Opera for the first time at the SETC job fair.
These websites and conferences have jobs at all skill and pay levels; even the internships can vary widely in how much you are paid. While it may seem your acting friends are constantly taking low-to-no paid internships, as a technical theatre person, you should always be paid for your work. Plenty of paid opportunities exist at all skill levels if you look for them.
If you ask ten prop makers how they began building props for film, you will get ten different answers. It usually involves some combination of luck, timing, and knowing the right person. While theatre has seasonal employment, apprenticeships and internships which you can find advertised as well as job fairs which feature employers that regularly hire prop people, the world of film has no such thing. You can’t learn about it in a book (believe me—I’ve looked). So how do you get started?
I also want to add that I am writing this as I figure it out; I am pretty much a prop maker for theatre, and my film credits are, well… I haven’t done any film. But this is similar to how I began to get work in the display and exhibition world, and that kept me fairly well employed for a few years. So if any of may readers have advice to add, I’m sure all of us, myself included, will be grateful for it.
To start, find out where the props are being built. Continue reading