Tag Archives: budget

Has There Ever Been an Honest Property Man?

The following is taken from an article which first appeared in The Daily Evening Telegraph in 1871:

The Property Man has always been in some sort the black sheep of the theatrical flock. The question, has there ever been an honest property man? has even been mooted. We find this appreciation of his labors to result chiefly from the irregular manner that the master of properties has of keeping his accounts. As a general thing, indeed, he does not keep any at all, or if he does it is by a system of book-keeping so very double that no one but himself can untie the knot. He is allowed to purchase his small stores from a fund furnished him by the theatre, and to obtain larger articles on credit, bills of all to be rendered weekly, after being vised by the stage manager, to the treasurer. But the articles required are so numerous and are in many cases of so trifling a character that no one but himself can keep the run of them.

One of the most prized accomplishments of a stage manager is the ability to keep down these bills, but the very sharpest of those gentlemen is to a degree at the mercy of the Property Man who understands his business. A list a yard long is demurely handed to the stage manager, with a request for his signature. How is he to know if the articles have all been used, or that they cost the price affixed? A finer point still, how is he to know that they had not already been stored away in the theatre? So, if the manager should even check the items off, one after the other, demanding a full explanation of each, he might be still very wide of the mark.

Experienced men know this, and do not attempt to audit their property bills in that manner. Some managers as a regular thing coolly deduct a certain per cent of the total. This they say is for errors, and the property men are mostly too polite to dissent. Managers generally, however, learn by experience about what it costs to run the different orders of plays. Spectacle and sensation drama cost most; tragedy next, and comedy least. Knowing the bill of fare they have at the time been giving to the public, they know what their Property Man’s bill should be, and if, judged by these rules, it be exorbitant, they remonstrate with the logic of precedent. This will not cover, however, the important point before mentioned—the accumulation of old stores that may often be recharged as new.

There is a story in one of Dumas’ novels of a man travelling on horseback with a girl seated before him on the beast, and another behind him. He is met by a person who asks if those young women are virtuous. The man on horseback says that he thinks the one in front, being continually under his eye, is, but for the one at his back he can say nothing. In like manner the Property Man’s accounts, as far as relates to what is really bought for the occasion, may be correct, but for what is not bought, and yet for which the theatre has all the same to pay, the manager has, in nature, nothing to say.

Originally published in The Daily Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, May 12, 1871, pg 5.

Spend All the Monies

A few years back, I was working on a project in a facility that had a number of groups using the space. There was a group of students doing the props and furniture for a show, and they were so proud of how far under budget they had come. They were given $300 to do all the props and furniture, and they had only spent $30.  Here’s the thing though: it looked like they had only spent $30, and spending a bit more money could have made it look a whole lot better.

We talk about the importance of not going over budget, but we rarely talk about the flip side: not using enough of your budget. As props people, we are always looking for a great deal or a bargain that other mere mortals may think impossible. And it’s great to get an item for a fraction of the price you would normally pay… if it looks like the full-priced item. If you have $300 to spend, it should look like you spent $3000.

It’s a great skill to try and produce as much as possible for as little money as you can. If you have zero budget and you only spend $30 on all the props and furniture, that’s quite the achievement. But if you are given a budget of $300 and you still come in with the $30 solution, it makes me wonder what happens when you have a budget of $1000. Or $3000. Or $10000. Are you still going to show up with the $30 solution? Because managing larger budgets has its own set of skills: knowing when to buy nicer materials, or when to buy certain items to save time fabricating them; paying money for little details that make your prop look more like the real thing; hiring extra help or outside contractors to help you get more done in the same limited time frame.

It makes sense if you compare it to your other resource: time. If you only have two hours for a project, you will probably come up with a very creative and inventive solution, albeit not a very impeccable one. Now, if you have two weeks for the same project, imagine showing up with a prop that looks like you whipped it out in two hours. You wouldn’t let your time go to waste just to prove you can make a prop with minimal effort, so don’t let your budget go to waste just to prove you’re a spend-thrift.

With time, we are almost always working right up until the props are taken from us (or the audience is being seated). I usually have a few notes left on my to-do list by Opening Night because I can always find things to improve. The show is certainly fine if I never get around to them; I just find it difficult to declare, “Everything in this show is perfect, and I can stop working on it.”

The same is true with the budget. I allocate all the money I have to specific items; I don’t leave any large chunks sitting around (other than contingencies, which I build into the budget). Of course, as rehearsals progress, the budget shifts around; items are added or altered, I discover solutions that allow me to save money, etc. If a change requires me to spend more money than I was anticipating, I take that money from something less essential. However, if new conditions cause me to save more money than I was anticipating, I find somewhere else to spend it. Maybe I was using a cheap solution for a nonessential prop, and now I can buy a nicer version for stock that I know I will use in later shows. Maybe I buy some hardware that I was planning on fabricating, and save myself some time that I can use elsewhere. Or maybe I just buy some more dressing, because you can never have too much dressing. If everything works out, by the time I get to opening, my budget is pretty much on the nose.

Sometimes, things are cut or changed at the last second, and the opportunity to spend the money never comes up, and I come way under budget. I don’t just run out and start buying random things. The important point is that I had plans for that money. You should have a plan for how you are going to spend every dollar in the budget given to you, rather than trying to avoid spending any dollar. You can tell when things were done for cheap.

Stage Properties Expenses

1716 Prop Expenses

Last week, I shared photographs of some of the historic props at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. One additional artifact in their collection is this account report for the stage prop expenses incurred during three shows at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1716.

Stage Properties Expenses
Stage Properties Expenses, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The text, as best as I can decipher, reads:

Wednesday, County Wake

  • paid for Ballad, 3 pence
  • for Blood, 2 pence

Thursday, The Rover

  • The use of A Great Picture, 2 shilling and 6 pence
  • paid the Carriage to the house & back, 6 pence
  • For A Quarter of A pound of Counters by Order of Mr. Wilks, 1 shilling

Friday, King Lear

  • For A Truss of Straw, 1 shilling
  • Lightning, 6 pence
  • For Blood, 2 pence
  • For Switches, 2 pence

The final total for the three days of performances is 6 shilling and 3 pence.

The bill is signed by the three managers of the theatre, Robert Wilks, Colley Cibber and Barton Booth (no relation to Edwin and John Wilkes). There is additional text added in pencil that reads, “June 1st 1716 Thurmond’s Benfit.”

A few months ago, I posted a magazine article which listed a tongue-and-cheek imagining of some of the props stored backstage at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1709.

The Most August Links

I am in North Carolina for a few more days, but return to New York City next week, so I will have more time (and a real computer) to spend on writing. Until then, here are some useful sites to satisfy your prop-reading needs:

PDN’s Photo of the Day has some wonderful photographs of Pamplona’s San Fermin festival, where giant puppets run around beating children.

Speaking of puppets, Project Puppet has a great tutorial on adding facial features to your puppet characters. It covers everything from cutting the shapes out of soft foam, to patterning and covering them with fleece.

Rich Dionne continues his series on budget estimates in theatre with one of the hardest variables to estimate: the cost of labor to complete a project.

Some brief, but interesting, prop facts about the upcoming Fright Night remake. I also found another article which has some additional fun facts.

I did not Desert you

I am currently in the desert of Arizona. It’s time for another S*P*A*M conference, and this year, our hosts are Childsplay Theatre. I will report on all things of interest sometime later next week. For now, enjoy these sites of interest from the comfort of your own home.

Rich Dionne tackles the many methods for making a budget estimate in theatre. I discovered I use a mix of these methods when I deal with the fuzzy world of estimating the costs of props for a show.

In an earlier issue of their magazine, Make published a primer on working with carbon fiber (aka graphite fiber). They have now posted the entire article for free on their website.

This is interesting: why are there no guns in MoMA? It’s a podcast looking at the role of design in guns. What I found fascinating is how the manufacturing of guns is what really began the standardization of parts and machines in the industrial age. Despite their role and importance in modern life, museums of design like MoMA do not display any guns.

The Monster Mummies of Japan is a strange diversion into the history of imaginary taxidermy in Japanese temples.

Finally, who can resist color photographs of Manhattan in the 1940s?