Tag Archives: etymology

Prop Master vs. Props Director

What is the difference between a property master and a properties director? There is some contention in the props world and theatre world at large as to the correct name to call the head of props. Some feel “props master” is a traditional term that will soon be phased out. I posit that the two terms are actually distinct and can be used to more accurately describe the different roles and jobs available in the props world.

A properties director is in charge of a props shop and oversees the artisans, shoppers, and other employees. A prop master is in charge of providing props for a show.

I’ve written before about my theory as to why we use the term “prop master”. The term prop master seems to have gradually replaced the more-dated term “property man“. The earliest known occurrence of the term “property man” was in 1749, while the term “property master” was seen as early as 1831. Interestingly though, the term “property man” has persisted all the way through the 1970s (and beyond), though in later years it was used more to describe one who worked in the props department, rather than as the head of one.

The default name for the head of props is “prop master”. “Properties Director” is a much newer term, designed to describe the head of a discrete department on par with electrics, sound, or scenery. While the momentum of tradition still causes some properties directors to be referred to as prop masters, a prop master is not necessarily a properties director. A properties director may be the props master for all the shows in a season. But in a company that does a multitude of work in a number of spaces, the properties director may hire additional props masters for some of the shows.

As an example, here at the Public Theater, Jay Duckworth is the head of the properties department. He is what some would consider the “properties director” (though due to tradition, his official job title remains “property master”). As part of his job, he is the prop master on the mainstage shows. We have a series of productions called the PublicLAB, which are smaller-budgeted, but still fully-produced, new plays that are not part of the mainstage season. We hire an additional person for each of these shows to be the prop master. This person does not become head of the department, nor does Jay cease to be in charge. Thus you can see why the distinction is important; in the Public Theatre prop department, Jay is the properties director even when he is not the prop master on the current show, and additional prop masters can be hired without altering the hierarchy of the department.

The duties of a props director are best described in “The Properties Directors Handbook” by Sandra Strawn, which I’ve linked to on the side of this website since the beginning. One of the better guides to being a prop master can be found in The Prop Master: A Guidebook for Successful Theatrical Prop Management by Amy Mussman. You will notice that there is a large amount of overlap in these two guides. Indeed, the prop master for a large Broadway show will have more employees and managerial duties than the properties director at a small regional theatre. The distinction is not meant to be a hierarchical one (ie, to imply that being a properties director is a step up in the career ladder). Rather, the distinction is neccesary to clarify the job duties of whomever is hired.

It’s like the difference between a claw hammer and a ball peen hammer. Neither is better than the other, and in most cases they can accomplish the same task. However, for the tasks which each was specifically designed, you will find subtle differences that make them perform better than the other.

As a final note, I don’t really care for the term “properties manager”. In some cases, especially academia, giving someone the title of “director” automatically places them in a different salary range. It’s a totally arbitrary bureaucratic reason. Regardless, the term “property manager” is more commonly used in real estate, and so it is confusing to use a similar term, especially when a more distinct one already exists. Second, when an organization lists a job posting for a “property manager”, you have no idea what the position actually is. Usually, the job they are describing is more akin to a props run crew supervisor (a distinct job in its own right) rather than a prop master or properties director.

It is vital that the correct job titles be more consistently used in order for people with the correct skills and career goals to find these jobs (and vice versa).

Confusions in the Definition of a Prop

The definition of a prop is a sometimes nebulous thing. We all know that a book or an apple is a prop. But what about a purse or a built- in bookcase? And why is props in charge of manual sound effects and bushes? The confusion stems from the fact that what a prop is and what a prop shop does can be different things. To confound this, one prop shop may have slightly different duties than another; also, the duties of a prop shop in theatre are different then that of a props crew in film. As one final confusion, an individual production may see a slight modification in the duties of the prop shop based on the specific challenges in relation to the workloads of the various shops. A scene shop may build a certain prop because their shop is better equipped for its manner of construction. It is still a prop in the academic sense. After the show, it goes into the prop shop’s storage, and if used again, it is a props person that pulls it from the stock. Likewise, in a future production, the prop shop may be better equipped and can build a similar prop on their own. It is not the scene shops duty just because they built one in the past.

Keep these three confusions in mind when talking about the definition of a prop. Though usually the same, the academic definition of a prop and the practical obligations of a prop shop are sometimes at odds.

Why the term “prop master”?

Why do we use the term “property master”? In our modern world of “directors”, “managers”, and “heads”, why use the word “master”? Where does it come from?

The term “property master” is in reference to the old European guild systems. In a guild, a person would apprentice to a master for several years, learning the trade. He (or she) would then become a journeyman, traveling from one master to the next, practicing their craft in exchange for housing and a daily wage. Finally, one would apply to the guild for membership, often having to complete a masterpiece showing competence in your given trade. Only a master could run their own shop. Thus, a props master denotes one who is proficient in the craft of props, and is qualified to run a props shop.

Did props people actually belong to a guild in the Middle Ages? Probably not; as seen in my previous post, guilds supplied the props for Medieval pageants. Thus, the bread was supplied by the master bakers, and the ships provided by master shipwrights. A “property-master” would be redundant. It would appear that the term did not exist while guilds were predominant in Europe.

The term “property” was used in a theatrical sense since at least 1425 A.D. We have evidence of what these properties are from the late Middle Ages on through the Elizabethan Period. We know that the companies accumulated and stored props, that they commissioned special props from the guilds, and that the actors themselves would supply a lot of the more personal props. However, we don’t know the term for the person who would head the organization of all these props. Perhaps there was none, and the duties were split between the owners, managers, and artists of the company.

We first hear about a general “property-man” in 1749. W.R. Chetwood’s A General History of the Stage describes a property-man as “the person that receives a bill from the prompter for what is necessary in every play; as purses, wine, suppers, poison [etc.]”. The earliest occurrence of the term “property-master” I could dig up is in England in 1831. This sentence appears in “The Royal Lady’s Magazine”:

The other parts were filled as usual, Curioni being the Idreno, and Lablache the Assur. Curioni makes a woful [sic] mistake in dressing himself like a Cherokee Indian: somebody should instruct him, that there is more than one India, and that he errs in thinking he is king of that which is in the west. Talking of costume, cannot the property-master find something more resembling a crown than the bottomless tin-pot which is at present stuck on Arsace’s head.

The Royal Lady’s Magazine. July, 1831 (pg. 56)

It would appear than that the head property-man began to be called a property master well after the guilds had begun their decline. This terminology is also confusing because a props shop does not operate as a guild in the legal sense. Some occupations, such as electricians or contractors, are required to be licensed, which is similar to the requirement that a crafts-person belong to a guild in order to participate or run a shop. A property master does not need a license nor any specific schooling or degrees to operate.

Unofficially of course, a props career still operates like a guild in many ways. I began as an “apprentice in props”, followed by a property carpenter journeyman position at the Santa Fe Opera. The Actors Theatre of Louisville where I once worked also hires journeyman. (Check out “The Wanderers“, an interesting look at the modern revival of journeymen artisans in Europe.) The idea, if not the name, of journeyman can be seen in the career paths of many theatre artisans as they travel from theater to theater taking a variety of seasonal and over-hire positions to build their resumes and portfolios.

You don’t hear a lot about formal apprenticeships anymore, where a beginner spends five to seven years cleaning the shop of a master in exchange for knowledge and housing. Many theaters have apprentice programs (sometimes called “internships”) which last for a season or a year, some of which are quite good. There are of course, many other theaters which hire apprentices and interns and use them merely as cheap labor, imparting no guidance or knowledge whatsoever. We all like the satisfaction of solving a problem on our own, but the value of being taught the basics in the beginning cannot be underestimated. It is highly inefficient for so many people to be reinventing the wheel every year in theatre, especially when there so many more worthy prop challenges.

But I digress. What I’ve described here is the most reasonable sounding theory I’ve heard on why the head of a props department is called a “property-master”. If you’ve ever heard your own theories, or heard additional evidence either for or against this one, let me know!


Props and plots

I’ve written previously about the first use of the word “property” in the theatrical sense. But what about the shortened form of the word; when were they first called “props”?

The Oxford English Dictionary places its earliest written appearance in 1865, in a book called The slang dictionary; or, The vulgar words, street phrases, and “fast” expressions of high and low society. Many with their etymology, and a few with their history traced. It says simply,

Props, stage properties. Theatrical

Obviously, it would have been in common verbal usage before this. I wonder if the dictionary considers “props” a fast expression of high or low society. Looking at the frequency of its appearance in writing, it would appear the word was well-accepted by the mid-1880s.

We get a much more comprehensive definition in the Otago Witness (a New Zealand newspaper) in 1886. It also describes “plots” as they are used at the time.

“Props,” the abbreviation in use for “properties,” is a very important term. Everything stored at the theatre for use on the stage is a “prop”; these are the manager’s props. The actor’s props are the articles of clothing which he has to provide for himself. These vary according to the status of the company; managers of repute providing everything except tights and a few other articles, while needy managers like their company to have a “wardrobe” of their own. “Plot” is used with a somewhat peculiar significance. There are a number of “plots” to every play. Thus the “scene plot” is a list of the various scenes. The “flyman’s plot” is a list of the articles required by the flyman, or man in the “flies.” There is similarly a “gasman’s plot.” The “property plot” includes all properties used in the piece, and the prompter is responsible for their all being to hand at the proper time. The least important of the prompter’s duties, indeed, is to prompt.

Property plots themselves have been referenced much earlier (as early as 1847), and the idea of drawing up a bill of all props for a show has been seen as far back as Shakespeare.

Stage and Set Design for Castle of Perseverance

First use of “Property” in the theatrical sense

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word “property” in the theatrical sense first appeared around 1425 A.D.  In the prologue to the play, The Castle of Perseverance, the second flag-bearer announces to the audience:

Grace, if God wyl graunte us, of hys mykyl myth,
þese parcellis in propyrtes we purpose us to playe
þis day seuenenyt

(emphasis mine)

This transcription comes from The Macro Plays, edited by Frederick James Furnivall and Alfred William Pollard, published in 1904. You can see the original manuscript below:

first known written appearance of properties in the theatrical sense in the Castle of Perseverance
first known written appearance of "properties" (in the theatrical sense) in the Castle of Perseverance

In a modern translation offered by Alexandra F. Johnston, we have:

Grace, if God will grant us of his great might,
On scaffolds with costumes the roles we will play
This day sevennight

While certainly clearer in meaning, this translation has the unfortunate side effect of replacing “properties” with “costumes”, thus nullifying the Oxford English Dictionaries assertion of the word’s first appearance. Still, I think we can give the OED a little more scholarly weight in this instance.

According to Wikipedia, The Castle of Perseverance is not only the earliest known full-length vernacular play in existence, it is also important for its inclusion of a set drawing. The drawing is also one of the earliest known surviving examples of its kind. It hints that the play may have been performed in the round.

Stage and Set Design for Castle of Perseverance
Stage and Set Design for Castle of Perseverance