This article comes from a 1927 article in The Christian Science Monitor. It has some interesting examples of how props people shopped and sourced articles from nearly ninety years ago. I was also amazed that a university had classes in props back then.
Haunting the antique shops is a regular part of the duties of the “property man” in any well-organized theater, and “property hunting” forms part of the curriculum of Yale University Theater, established last year under the direction of Prof. George P. Baker, formerly of Harvard University.
One student in charge of properties is given a crew of from six to eight assistants, varying according to the size of the production. Early in the year it is the business of “props” to make friends with all the second-hand men and antique dealers in town and find out those who are willing to rent their goods for a small nightly sum.
As soon as the list of “props,” furniture and small article need in the play, has been made out, the crew assembles and two or three are chosen to visit the antique dealers. The explorers roam the town, up State Street and down Grand Avenue, and across to Chapel Street in excited quest of trophies that may range from hair trunks to sofas and strings of shell for a what-not, from ladder-back chairs to weaving looms or a case for an opera hat.
Some of the articles are bought outright and added to the theater’s permanent collection, appearing from year to year. These are staples, such as spinning wheels, carved chests, artificial flowers, dishes, firearms, sets of “book-backs” for sham library shelves, pottery, electric doorbells and telephones, beside innumerable small adjuncts such as writing materials, sewing and knitting paraphernalia, photographs and knives, all of which are classified and kept in marked boxes, ready for such directions as “Tooby enters from the garden carrying a bouquet of roses. Tiptoeing to the table, he places them carefully in a bowl and, seizing the paper knife, begins slitting the mail.”
Costume plays make heavy demands on the property pantry for family portraits, reticules, antimacassars, highboys, marble-topped tables, rag rugs, nail kegs and other household incidentals, a list of which sounds like a will in probate.
For such as these, the antique shop, the Salvation Army store, even the junk dealer has his uses, and in some cases near-by villages are scoured for specimens of the period. One scene laid in the middle of the last century was supposed to take place in a mid-western “parlor,” and called for a clock with a scene painted on the front. It was found in a shop in West Haven and brought in, lurching dejectedly, but embellished with a brave sweep of ocean. It was so decrepit that no one thought of stuffing the spring with cotton. In the middle of the play it suddenly came to life, ticking sonorously through the entire act, much to the actors’ discomfiture.
Old houses which are being torn down are a prolific source of “props” and are especially useful to the scene designer. Mantels, cornices, doors, window frames, and even entire fireplaces often are bought up for a song, later to be utilized as part of a “set.”
In one case the designer was in despair over a garden scene where he must produce a fountain. The usual expedients such as canvas stretched on wire netting and painted produced dolefully squat dolphins. Papier mache succeeded little better. Finally, happening to pass the weedy yard where a house was being torn down, the designer saw the very thing he wanted lying half matted in grass.
He strode in, bargained with the wrecking company, and carried his find back to the theater. For $2 he had bought what nearly a week’s work had failed to achieve.
Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 1927; “Yale Theater ‘Props'”, special correspondence, page 8.
Put ten prop makers in a room and you’ll get ten different stories of how they became a prop maker (you’d also get one hell of a party). I thought I would share my own convoluted path of how I have gotten here.
My parents are both artists: potters by trade. They fed my brother and I a steady diet of art supplies growing up. We would transform all sorts of boxes and other random objects into vehicles and machines for our stuffed animals to use. One of our favorite toys was He-Man. I remember desperately wanting the Castle Grayskull playset when it first came out. Of course, a toy that large was far too expensive; nonetheless, we kept pleading. Finally, my dad started building his own version of Castle Grayskull for us. I think he used chicken wire over a wooden base, coated with a mix of papier-mâché and plaster.
They often gave us bits of clay to sculpt and shape on our own. When I got old enough and wanted a job, my dad put me to work making production molds for his cast pieces, and then casting the pieces.
In junior high school, we still had this class called “Industrial Arts”, in which twelve-year-old children are allowed to cut wood on a bandsaw and squirt hot plastic into injection molds. I remember the feeling that was awakened in me when I cut a fancy letter “E” out of a piece of pine in that class. It was a two-part revelation; first, I discovered how these wooden objects were created, and second, that I possessed the ability to create them. I also cast a piece of iron in green sand, doing every part of it except the actual pouring of the molten metal. It gives a kid a lot of confidence to have a cast iron object and be able to say “I made that.”
In my first year of high school, after choosing all the necessary classes for my preparation to be a college student, I found one free period. A buddy and I convinced each other to take wood shop. During the first half of the year we studied and practiced drafting. The second half, we built a bookcase. From scratch. We had to draft the piece out and make a cut-list, select and buy our lumber, plane the surfaces, join the edges, cut the pieces to size, make the joinery, assemble it, and apply the finish. It was all pine wood, with no plywood or MDF; the back was made with a whole bunch of boards tongue-and-grooved together. I still have that bookcase.
I began my undergraduate career as an engineer, but grew bored with the lack of hands-on work I thought it would entail. I was living and working with a lot of the theatre and film kids. We had a film club, which consisted of a bunch of us running around filming goofy things with a camera. I thought some theatre classes would help me make better films. Along the way, I grew to appreciate theatre more than film, and ended up graduating with a degree in theatre and an emphasis in scenic design.
After a few years of working as a stagehand, carpenter and electrician, I went back to graduate school for scenic design. After the first year, I got a summer job at the Santa Fe Opera as a props carpenter, building furniture and other large items. That was when it kind of clicked in my head that making props was what I really loved. It was the combination of technical skills and creative thinking in the context of a collaborative art form that really drew me in. The variety of daily tasks kept me engaged in a way that a job where I built the same thing over and over again would leave me bored.
Okay, you can’t read my whole book online. But I do have two whole chapters you can check out on The Prop Building Guidebook’s companion website.
What are these chapters, you may ask? Well, as you can imagine, prop making covers a vast amount of information, and choosing what to put in and what to leave out was one of my biggest challenges. We could have made the book longer, but that would have pushed the price up, which we didn’t want to do. We could have made the pictures smaller, but that would not be good either. In the end, we decided to take the last two chapters and put them up on the website for free. This way, the book can remain affordable, the pictures can remain a decent size, and you get a sneak peek at some of the book. These chapters have been edited and proofed just like everything else in the book, they just appear online rather than in print.
The two chapters are called “Formal Training” and “Maintaining a Portfolio”. The first digs through the tricky question of what kind of training or schooling you may wish to pursue to become a better prop maker. Vocational classes, colleges and universities, graduate schools and more are talked about here. I also look at the various types of jobs and work one can get. I present information useful whether you wish to be a prop maker for film, television, theatre or any of the related industries, and whether you wish to pursue a full-time job or work as a freelancer on different gigs. It can be a tricky field to navigate, so I try to present as much information as I’ve gleaned along the way.
The second chapter gives an introduction on creating and maintaining a portfolio of all the work you do. I discuss both online sites and paper portfolios; though paper portfolios have become far less prevalent these days, I’ve still used them in the last couple of years, both in applying for work and in hiring people. This chapter also discusses photography and how to take better pictures of your work. A bad picture of a good prop can make it look like a bad prop.
I’ve decided to incorporate some book reviews into my blog. Books about props are few and far between, so these won’t be fresh reviews of books hot off the press. I will, however, start with one of the newer books. If I ever actually convince you to purchase a book from Amazon, keep in mind that by using the links in my post, I will get a small kickback from them. The price you pay will be the same, but my happiness will be higher, and isn’t that what really matters?
The Sixth Edition of Theatrical Design and Production, by Michael Gillette was published in 2008. Gillette, a retired professor at the University of Arizona, first published this seminal textbook in 1987. Though pricey (it is a textbook, after all), it has not become the go-to text for stagecraft without earning it.
My examination of it will focus solely on the prop-specific parts, though the book does cover all aspects of technical theatre. It is important to note I am looking at the sixth edition; this version has seen a substantial reworking of the properties chapter through input by Sandra Strawn in particular, and the members of S*P*A*M in general. This gives the book more authority out of any other available books on how many prop shops in American regional and educational theatres are run. Between this and Strawn’s own “Properties Directors Handbook“, you get a good sense of the “standard practices.” This chapter does well as a guide for a college class, either as a section on props in a general stagecraft class, or as a springboard for developing an entire syllabus.
The first half of the chapter deals with the process and organization of propping a show. Most prop books deal mainly with the craft side; Gillette takes the reader through the whole process step-by-step, from the moment you find out what show you are propping, through initial prop lists and planning meetings, on to rehearsals and tech, and into the opening and running of the show, ending finally with strike. Other than Amy Mussman’s The Prop Master and Strawn’s Handbook, few books lay out the process in such a clear fashion, and none have the advantage of incorporating the experience of prop directors from many of our major regional theatres.
The second half focuses on prop craft. Prop furniture construction shows four apparently common wood joints: open and closed dowel, pocket hole, and biscuit. I personally love the pocket hole; the biscuit is indispensable for long end joints, and open doweling is great for repair work, particularly on chairs. I’d like to add to his definition of a jig: “A device used [to] hold pieces together in proper positional relationship.” “Pieces” can mean either the various pieces of material you are using, or it can mean the tools and the material. In other words, a jig can also be used as a guide to keep the tool in a proper positional relationship with the material.
The section on upholstering and drapery is very informative and makes a nice comprehensive introduction to the subject. The remaining section on “crafts” seems to deal mainly with the most toxic and least environmentally-friendly materials and processes one can use in props. There is an interesting mini-tutorial on using spray urethane foam (eg, Great Stuff) to make rigid molds. Though clever, I’ve found spray foam to be finicky to work with. Great Stuff has a Threshold Limit Value of .005, making it 4,000 times more toxic than turpentine, and 100,000 times more toxic than acetone. Likewise, using heat to shape plastic, or working with fiberglass, requires much more attention to safety than Gillette implies, though to be fair, he does implore the reader to seek out proper safety procedures on their own.
He also pushes aside papier-mâché too quickly. In a comment on my post on “Coating Foam”, Mary Robinette Kowal points out that papier-mâché on top of foam can actually be stronger than fiberglass. It is also that rare type of material and process that is both friendlier to the environment and better for your health. The paste is made from wheat, and the paper can be rescued from the trash for reuse. While the wheat-paste is usually laced with rat poison to discourage vermin from eating it, the rest of the ingredients are practically edible (note: please don’t eat papier-mâché). I’m not saying it’s a magic cure-all that can replace all other craft processes; also, I understand that Gillette is describing the current industry as is, rather than proposing a new direction it should take.
Back to the review. Information of interest to the props person can be found in other chapters of the book as well. Chapter 10 has a good introduction to the types of hand tools, power tools, and construction materials found in prop shops and scene shops. With a 2008 publication date, these are probably the most up-to-date descriptions of building materials available to the theatre-maker today, including all the synthetic and engineered products that are so difficult to keep track of. This chapter is also a better source for the safety information that is not included in the chapter on properties, with the assumption being that you would read this chapter first.
The section on fasteners, glues, construction hardware and stage hardware, though not as comprehensive as The Backstage Handbook, is more descriptive, and its use comes in describing the most commonly-used items, rather that every possible iteration. The section on safety equipment is so brief it feels like an afterthought, and does nothing to address the most common areas of concern for a beginner: the difference between impact and chemical-splash goggles, the various types of respirators, and choosing the right kind of glove for working with chemicals. Using this book for a class would certainly require supplementing it with a text like The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater by the tireless Monona Rossol. Learning how to create props without the proper safety precautions is like learning how to drive without learning to use turn signals, checking your mirrors, wearing your seat belt, or reading road signs.
Chapter 11 on scenic production techniques is also useful information for the props artisan. Though we seldom build flats, the techniques used in building flats come in handy for prop carpentry projects. Likewise, the book does a wonderful job of describing welding, soldering, and making construction drawings as well. I particularly relished the section on stressed-skin platforms and look forward to trying some of the techniques in future prop-making.
Gillette also touches on building rocks, trees, and creating objects out of foam, all necessary skills for the well-rounded props artisan. He’s a little incorrect in some of his definitions though. STYROFOAM™ Brand Foam is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company for their extruded polystyrene foam, not expanded as Gillette writes. It is usually sold in blue sheets for insulating buildings and is indeed fire resistant. Different types of Styrofoam insulation can be pink or even white, though still fire resistant. Dow also makes Styrofoam in white and green for the craft and floral market, but I could not discern the fire resistance of these kinds. Disposable foam products, like foam cups, coolers or packaging materials, are not made by Dow, hence not STYROFOAM™ Brand Foam. These are usually made out of expanded polystyrene beads, and is often referred to as “bead foam”. This is what Gillette is talking about when he refers to the course texture left from cutting through foam, or the “foam sawdust” from sawing. You can also by bead foam in large sheets similar to Styrofoam. Though both expanded and extruded polystyrene are generically referred to as “Styrofoam” here in the US, it is important to note that bead foam (expanded polystyrene) is not fire-resistant and can not be used untreated or left exposes on the theatrical stage. The multitude of plastics and synthetic materials available to today’s prop maker is confusing enough without a book as commonly used as Gillette’s muddying up the next generation with erroneous information.
The chapter on scene painting (chapter 12) is also useful for a props artisan, particularly the section on texturing. The chapter on electrical theory and practice (chapter 15), though interesting on its own, does not deal much with the kind of wiring a props person may need to do. Chapter 19 (costume construction) is notable in that it describes many of the same tools, materials and techniques necessary for soft goods work, such as curtains and drapes, Likewise, the information on millinery, costume crafts and masks is very applicable to the crafting of three-dimensional prop pieces, and may be incorporated into a lesson or class on props.
Though I’ve pointed out a few shortcomings and errors in this book, let me reiterate what an incredible resource Gillette has created in the latest edition of his book. As I said at the beginning, the chapter on props can easily become the outline for an entire class.
It’s that time of year again; summer is winding down and school is about to start. If you’re one of many who are in college or graduate school, you may be wondering what classes you should take to help you be a better props person. Hopefully, I can help.
It should go without saying that if your theatre department offers a class in props, you should take it. If you go to a school that has multiple types of props classes, even better.
Other departments in your theatre program may have classes you can take as well. Mask-making, costume crafts, puppet building, scenic carpentry, etc. Even if you take a regular costume class, you will learn how to sew. You may also discover that you prefer working in costumes rather than in props. Part of going to college is to expose yourself to new experiences and career possibilities; you should keep an open mind and not rationalize your choices based on what you think you should be doing or what others expect of you.
Many props people I know who studied theatre in college focused on scenic design. They continue working in props as a way to pay the bills in between design gigs. Others, such as yours truly, find they actually prefer being a props person rather than a scenic designer. Scenic design classes are very helpful for a props person. First, the scenic designer is the main person a props master deals with on a show, so knowing how they work and how they arrive at their choices will help you deal with your designer better; it will give you a common vocabulary to speak with. Second, a designer comes up with a concept, and works out the details based on that concept and overall look. As a props person, you continue filling in the gaps of the design down to the tiniest details. Being able to think like a designer will help you take in the design as a whole and use it to decide what magnets to put on the refrigerator, or what color to stain the end table. If the designer wants a lamp, it is more efficient if the props master presents three options which fit the design of the play, rather than three completely random choices.
If your school offers a technical direction class, that is good for a props person as well; you can learn the project management skills which will help you as a props master and the ability to develop construction drawings from a designer’s drafting, which can assist you as a prop artisan.
The fine arts department is another place where you can find classes to take. Many arts departments are very particular about who takes their classes; in fact, if you are a junior or senior and not an art major or minor, they might not let you take any of their classes. But if you do manage to work your way in, classes in sculpting, mold-making, metal-work, mixed-media and found-object assemblage and the like will behoove you greatly.
In addition to practical arts classes, art history is an excellent class to broaden your prop knowledge. In fact, any sort of design history or theatre history classes will expand your knowledge base.
If you attend a liberal arts school, do not give up the opportunity that your general education classes may present. Rather than taking easy or basic courses in the other departments, look for the ones which are secret prop-classes in disguise. Classes in sociology, anthropology and history which focus on domestic life or the objects used by various cultures in the past or present. In my own undergraduate years, I fulfilled one of my humanities requirements with a class entitled, “Japanese Anthropology through Film,” which gave me a great crash course in contemporary Japanese life and pop culture, as well as some great reference books which will come in handy when I do a play set in Japan.
Remember: a props person is always learning, and every experience can enrich not just our vocation, but our lives as well. Have a good school year, and stay classy.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies