The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Christopher Haig, Prop Master, Arden Theatre Company
by Rachel Gallagher
“One of the key jobs on any film set is that of the property master, and his range of activity is perhaps the largest of all. If it ‘moves, it’s mine,’ the prop man can say, on most occasions.” People who Make Movies, by Theodore Taylor, 1967.
Being a prop master is a job where a person is in charge of getting and handling all props for a show. Properties, or “props” for short, are all the items used on a stage or set from hand held items to furniture. The job is very important because props really help tell the story and tell the audience more about what is happening in the play. There could be any number of props a prop master would have to be in charge of, from one to hundreds. These prop masters are some of the most important people on set and without them, propping would be chaotic. These people are invaluable when working in the theater. I had the opportunity to interview Chris Haig, an experienced prop master in Pennsylvania, about his work in the prop field.
Chris Haig is currently a prop master at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has had extensive experience in the field of props and often is a set designer as well. When asked why he went into the business he responded by saying, “I have always had an affinity for physical objects. Things. Knick-knacks. Baubles. I’m intrigued by their history, by the hidden stories inside them, by the mystery of their former owner”. Before starting his career in props, Haig had been involved with theater for over 25 years. He started by singing in the Philadelphia Boys Choir where he had the opportunity to sing at renowned venues such as the Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall. After he left the choir, he dove into the world of theater headfirst and auditioned for as many community theater shows as he could. For the shows he didn’t get into, he was continuously helping backstage, learning stagecraft helping with sets and props.
Haig later went to study at the University of the Arts in his hometown of Philadelphia. As a student, he was required to complete crew hours and volunteered to be prop master because he enjoyed it. UArts is also where Haig began scenic designing by working with student productions. During his time as a prop master at UArts (before the times of Google and Amazon), he learned the art of going out and scavenging for props at random places. One of the first things he learned as a prop master was to ask all the questions and get all the information before heading out to shop. “It was a tough lesson when you walked across town to a thrift store, found an awesome looking teapot for Three Sisters only to have the designer say it was all wrong when you got back,” says Haig.
Haig also volunteered in prop storage his junior year restocking, cleaning, and categorizing the mess of random props. This job is where he learned much of his organization and time management skills. After graduation, Haig continued acting, and when he wasn’t acting he was freelancing as a set designer and prop master. He soon discovered that he was getting much more work designing than he was going to auditions and performing, so he gave up acting to pursue as career in design full time. After college, Haig freelanced around Philadelphia for six years designing props and sets.
Now he is currently employed at the Arden Theatre Company where he is constantly busy with their shows. “It’s difficult to do outside shows given the full time work load here. I usually take one outside props gig in the middle of the season to work at Theatre Horizon where I started my professional props career.” When the Arden Theater Company is in season, he is almost always busy propping for them.
A typical day for Haig involves working from ten in the morning to around seven or eight at night doing whatever is needed of him in the props department. When he gets into work, he starts by replying to rehearsal and performance reports he had read the night before. If any shopping needs to be done for the production, he tends to do that before he gets into work. He then creates a to-do list that he splits between himself and his intern. He usually gets his intern started on a project and returns to his computer for the rest of his work. If he’s just beginning a show he’s most likely making a prop list, but if a show is in the works he’s more likely to be searching for props online. Haig is usually taking on three shows at a time, so there’s always something to be working on. When the online work is done, he usually goes to the shop, checks on his intern’s progress, and continues his own work. Depending on what the day calls for, the rest of his tasks could be anything from hunting in prop storage or working on his own projects.
Haig is also in charge of renting props out to other theaters and school in the area, “This means meeting renters, filling out rental agreements, collecting rental fees and getting them loaded up and on their way.” He is always working on something. Haig is a great example of how prop masters and set designers are so important to the theater. It’s a lot of work and a stressful job because there’s always more to be done, but someone’s got to do it.
As a prop master, there are many skills you need to perform the job efficiently. I asked Haig what he considers to be the most important tools in prop work. Haig believes that one of the most important things is communication skills. He says, “As a prop master you have to know what questions to ask your designer and director to get all the information you can from them. You have to be a good listener and note taker. You don’t want to have to ask a question twice so make sure you hear and understand what they are saying and get clarification in the moment if you don’t.” The second skill is patience because it takes time and effort to find and make the perfect props. A director won’t be satisfied with everything all the time and sometimes the props made don’t even make the final cut. To this Haig advises, “Things are always changing and you have to be able to roll with the punches. DO NOT TAKE IT PERSONALLY. You’ll never make it in this field if you do.” As a prop master Haig also says organization is crucial.
You will have to manage materials, know where to find things, handle money, personnel, and so many other factors that are involved in the production. Also, keeping your office and shop organized will be extremely beneficial to your work. The last skill Haig considers important is your physical and imaginative stamina. Not only will a prop master be lifting and moving heavy props, but you also need to have unique problem solving skills and creative thinking. You will also need to be crafty because propping can involve any skill from sewing to carpentry. It takes a lot of time and effort to be a prop master, but it is not an impossible task, dedication is just required.
I asked Chris what the most challenging part of being a prop master is. He responded with trying to manage personal life and work life. He says, “This job demands a lot of your time and energy. I often have to turn down requests from friends to hang out or family visits due to work. Finding the right balance where you can do your job effectively while also maintaining a personal life is difficult but not impossible.”
Aside from challenges as a whole, there had to be a challenging prop Chris had to come across in his years of prop mastering. “I have received many impossible requests from directors and designers over the years. When those things come along, I find as many options and alternatives as I can find so that I’m not showing up empty handed. You never want to tell the designer or director „no’ right off the bat.” He has yet to come across an impossible prop, but there is one thing he does not work well with: fabrics. To avoid problems in this side of props, he hires people who love to work with soft good props, which is a great way to avoid problems.
Along with all the challenges, there have to be some rewards. Haig said the most rewarding part of the job is audience reaction to props they see. “I had an awesome moment while watching opening night of David Mamet’s The Cryptogram. When the 10 year old boy pulls out his father’s knife, a sharp gasp went through the audience. You could see everyone tense up as the boy played with the knife because it was big and ‘dangerous’ when in reality it was very dull. The moment and knife were also mentioned in a review of the show which is always a rare treat for a props master.” As a performer myself, I think this is the most rewarding aspect for an actor as well. It seems like all people who work for the theater want that rewarding audience reaction, because that’s really why we’re all here isn’t it? We all just want to put on an amazing show.
Prop masters have to work with many people involved in the performance. They have to deal with directors, scenic designer, actors, and many other people. As prop decisions begin to develop, there is almost an inevitability for conflict. I asked Haig if he had ever encountered problems with directors and scenic designers over prop choices. He said the best way to deal with these situations is to present several options. Once you give them the options, it’s their job to make the final decisions. “It’s really not the prop master’s job to interject in that discussion except to let them know the parameters of the situation regarding what can be afforded or completed in a timely way” he says.
There are so many props and each prop is so unique in itself. Think of all the props you might see in a show. Have you ever wondered where they all go? Well, mostly all of them return back to a prop storage room to be put away until the next show they’re needed for, but I was curious to ask Haig if he has ever personally kept props after a performance. “As I’m writing this, I’m looking up at a head that has been sliced in half and the top hinged open to reveal the man’s brain. It’s one of my favorites from A New Brain” he says. Haig says his office is filled with props he’s held onto for sentimental value, mostly things he’s crafted rather than bought. I would love to see all the props he’s created, because just by being amazed at the prop storage at my own school, I can’t imagine what he might have at his prop storage.
In my props class, we have learned a lot about how props can come from anywhere, randomly, at any time. My teacher, Ron DeMarco, has many stories to share about his past prop experiences and I certainly learned how scattered propping can be from my assignments in class where I had to search for my own crazy props. I asked Chris if he had any great prop stories of his own to share. Here is the story he sent me:
“For Freud’s Last Session, we recreated Sigmund Freud’s London study in exact detail. This required over 200 ancient antiquities and artifacts. We found some replicas online, some things at flea markets and thrift stores that could work and we built several artifacts mentioned specifically in the script. The coolest part of that show, however, was partnering with The University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. They allowed me to visit their vaults and borrow 17 larger sized artifacts from their collection to fill out the set. In exchange, I was asked to deliver a lecture along with the museum’s curator about researching and recreating Freud’s collection of artifacts for the show. It was an amazing accomplishment to get to speak about my work in such a respected setting to an audience of theatre and antiquity lovers.”
It’s so amazing where the world of props will take you. Everyone has someone who has inspired them to continue work they’re passionate about. For me, my inspiration comes from my own theater teachers and directors who have taught me everything I know. One of the people who inspired Haig in the field of props was a woman named Amy Mussman. Amy Mussman is a prop master and the author of a book called The Prop Master: A Guidebook for Successful Theatrical Prop Management. Mussman was a mentor of Haig’s at the Delaware Theater Company. He was a stage carpenter at the theater and he would watch Mussman making props and giving them incredible details. He would often help her with whatever she might need in her prop work when he was there. Another person who inspires Haig is the author of The Prop Building Guidebook and his name is Eric Hart. Haig says, “He’s got a great talent for creating amazing props and teaching others how it’s done” and he really believes Hart “brought the world of props to the masses”. Haig believes that both of these books mentioned are a must read for people involved with props.
Prop mastering is hard work and takes a very specific talent. It’s not a job for everyone, but for some people, it can be a great job to have. The last thing I asked from Haig was a piece of advice for people who would like to start a career in props. “Never stop learning,” he says. “This job requires you to become an expert on something new every day. Have a thirst for information and knowledge. Research history. Watch documentaries. Talk with experts and professionals in other fields. Never stop learning. Oh, and be nice to people. Nice people get asked back.”
Just from interviewing Chris Haig I have come to realize how hard it is to be a prop master. It might be hard, but because there are always shows, there is a constant need for people to prop them. It sounds like a great job to have in theater because you are still working but there is so much more than the aspect of performing. Props can really make or break a show and how that is determined is all on the prop master. I hope to try propping a show myself one day. I think it would be something I would enjoy. I’d like to thank Chris Haig for letting me interview him, it was very fascinating to learn so much more about the world of props.
Photograph Citation: Stanley, Tom. “Penn Museum, Arden Theatre Company, and Freud’s Obsession with Antiquities.” Penn Museum Blog. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.