Making a props portfolio part 1

Having a portfolio of your work is a must for finding new jobs as a props artisan. I’ve broken the process of putting a portfolio together into two parts. Today’s part will focus on what to put in your portfolio, while the second part will show how to present your portfolio.  I’m not going to say this is the best or even the correct way to make a portfolio; it’s my way. But I’ve shown my portfolio to many professionals who have reviewed it, and I’ve gotten all my jobs with it, so this guide is coming from some experience.

What goes in your portfolio? In simplest terms, everything you’ve ever built. Of course, one day, you will have built too many props to include them all in. And some things you’ve built you just may not want to put in. So a more refined description of your portfolio is that it is a representation of what you have built in the past to show what you are capable of building in the future. If a props supervisor looked at your portfolio without ever meeting you, he or she should have a good sense of what you can make for them.

For instance, if you are a carpenter, you want to show a variety of carpenter-related skills: carcass-construction, trim carpentry, complex curves and shapes, drawers and doors, lathe work, et al. Obviously, we seldom choose what kinds of props we want to build, and when you are just starting your portfolio, you do not have much to choose from, but this is important to keep in mind as you update and refine your portfolio. You may wish to remove a prop, but it might be the only example of, say, engraving in your portfolio.

Not all props are constructed by a single person. If you collaborated on a project, you can still show it in your portfolio, as long as you are clear as to what your part was. A common example is when a carpenter builds a piece of furniture and a soft-goods artisan upholsters it. If your extant of the collaboration extends to “sanding” or “holding something in place,” it’s better not to try to pass that prop off as something you made.

Should you show non theatre-related work? Certainly, if you created something outside of theatre but in a similar set of circumstances, feel free to include it. For example, work in a display or exhibition company, crafts-work for other industries, such as model-making or product design, can easily fit in a props portfolio. Class work can certainly be included if it’s of a high quality. For the beginning artisan, you may not have many examples of “props”, but you have examples of projects where you used prop-like skills. Even an experienced artisan may wish to include some non-theatre work. When we work in props, we seldom get to pick and choose our projects. You may be a whiz at blacksmith work, but you haven’t had the opportunity to use those skills on a specific prop. You can include an example or two of your personal blacksmith projects in your portfolio to showcase these skills, as long as it augments your theatre-related work, rather than overshadowing it. A colleague was telling me once how he got a portfolio from a woodworker. It was filled with beautiful examples of fine furniture. When he asked the woodworker how long it took him to make a particularly interesting desk, he replied, “18 months.” – not terribly useful for theatre work! There are plenty of artisans who are much more skilled than you at any number of techniques. What makes a prop artisan unique is the ability to pull off his or her work in the time frame and circumstances of theatre.

When I say something “goes in” your portfolio, what I mean is a photograph. The bare minimum for every prop is a photograph of the final piece. When I say “final piece”, I mean the piece after you are finished with it; I have a few props in my portfolio that show the prop in its unpainted state. You should be taking pictures of every prop you make right before it leaves your hands. This doesn’t mean you will be using this picture; you may wish to take another picture after it’s been painted, or get a picture of it on stage with actors. However, you never know what circumstances may arise; you may never get another chance to take a photograph of your prop, so always take one while you have the chance. You may wish to photograph your props in front of a neutral background, or with more flattering lights. Again, you can certainly do this if you have the time and inclination, but do not take a pass on photographing your prop on the day where you don’t have time to dig out the backdrop. A photograph of a prop on your desk amidst a pile of tools and dust is better than no photograph at all.

A nice example of an onstage shot from my portfolio
A nice example of an onstage shot from my portfolio

In addition to a photograph of the final piece, there may be other ancillary material you wish to include. As mentioned above, photographs of your prop on stage are a great way to show your prop in action, and can be much more visually interesting. Some props only make sense when shown in the larger context of the stage. You may also wish to show process shots of your prop. This is great when you are working with a technique that is interesting or difficult, or your prop might have some sort of underlying structure or feature you wish to show off which is not apparent in a photograph of the final piece.

Other materials you can include are drawings, draftings, and photographs you were given or which you came up with as a reference for your prop. I try to make photocopies of the draftings I build my furniture from so I can scan it into my computer later. It is okay if these drawings are scribbled with notes and changes. Some people prefer these to untouched reference materials, as it gives a glimpse into your working process. You may have a very simple prop you made, and you don’t think it’s interesting enough for your portfolio. However, when you combine it with a photograph of what the designer presented you with, it may be a perfect example of how you can replicate an object in a timely manner and with limited resources.

You will want to include some sort of text with every prop in your portfolio. At the very least, you should list the name of the show and which theatre it was for. I also like to list the scenic designer; theatre is a small world, so a prospective employee will probably recognize some of the designers. “Such-and-such designer is great, did you enjoy working with him or her?” “I heard this designer makes a lot of changes to his or her props. How did this affect you?” I like to list the year I made the prop as well.

If you wish to include a bit of description, you can write about which materials you used, or describe any particular challenges or special techniques you used in the construction. Your description is not only useful to an employer flipping through your portfolio, it can also be used as a “cheat sheet” by yourself during your interview, as a way to remember all the interesting and challenging things about the props you’ve built. It’s also very important that you are clear about your involvement in the prop. Many times, we build things collaboratively, and you don’t want to make it seem like you built a prop by yourself if you didn’t. It’s perfectly acceptable to have collaborative props in your portfolio; working together with other artisans is an important skill, and you want to show off that ability if you have it. Just make sure to be absolutely clear what you contributed, and what was done by someone else. Again, theatre is a small world, and some supervisors may remember a prop from someone else’s portfolio that you have included in yours.

In part two, I’ll show how to organize, layout, and present your portfolio.

3 thoughts on “Making a props portfolio part 1”

  1. Eric, good post!
    I have a couple of comments to through in from looking through alot of portfolios. Make sure the pictures are good images – I realize that were not necessarily professional photographers, but blurry or grainy photos really detract from what the portfolio is trying to convey.
    Second, I tend to like to see the blurbs that credit the others on the project as well. It certainly can open up a conversation about who you have worked with, but it also reflects the collaborative issue. Besides, no matter what shot you take you are including other peoples work, and that should be credited.
    Third, I think text is dependant on the medium of your portfolio. If you have an online portfolio, or a CD then you need to describe what is special about the photo. If you are presenting the portfolio in person then the text can be much more basic. You want to focus the attention of the person reviewing your portfolio on you – not reading your portfolio.

  2. Thanks for the good advice, Jean!
    Grainy or blurry photographs definitely take away from a portfolio. You don’t want to be in an interview saying, “You can’t see it in this photo, but…” I think it’s important enough that I’ll be devoting a future blog post on how to take good photographs of your props.
    It’s interesting that you suggest crediting others on a project too. I always try to make it clear in my portfolio which parts I’ve built, and which parts were added by others. It never occurred to me to refer to them by name, though. It’s a good idea.
    Having text dependent of the medium is a great idea too. Each medium has its advantages and disadvantages, and a portfolio should take advantage of that. Printed portfolios can have tangible materials, like swatches or paint samples, and you can be there in person to explain everything. Digital portfolios need to be self-explanatory, but can include more multimedia if you’re so inclined.

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