Last week I attended the 25th conference for the Society of Properties Artisan Managers. It was hosted by a number of Chicago theaters this year, so I got to tour some of their spaces. First up is the facilities at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, located on the Navy Pier.
The following is taken from an article which first appeared in The Daily Evening Telegraph in 1871:
We have left ourselves little room to speak of the “hand props.” They are literally almost infinite. Whatever is used in life is needed to show the “very body of the age” upon the mimic scene. The depository of these cheap wonders is always on the prompt side, and as near the first entrance as possible. It is called the property-room, and while in it the subject of our sketch owes no allegiance, or at least pays none, to the stage manager himself. There are other rooms for the storage of larger articles, and such things as are not continually in demand.
Unless the Property Man is a person of great method, the “props” are apt to become scattered all over the theatre. There are such numbers of them, and almost every fresh piece so adds to the numbers, that unless they are ruthlessly weeded out at short intervals, they fill every available corner of stage room. Some property men are like certain housekeepers—they hate to destroy anything, thinking that some time it may turn to be of use. In that case the man keeps on filling up the place until he can’t find anything or can’t turn around. He then leaves in disgust, and another official coming in has a grand house-cleaning.
As regards “hand props” our man has a nightly list of articles, on what scene they are to be used, and by whom. The call-boy furnishes these articles to the proper parties, and collects them afterwards and returns them to the property-room. The rule is that calls shall be made in the green-room, and that the boy shall hand the “props” required to the individual at the time of calling him. In fact, however, the actor prefers to personally look up his props, so as to have a little more margin of time than the call would give him. But green-room matters, although important, scarcely belong to the subject under consideration.
Originally published in The Daily Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, May 12, 1871, pg 5.
I came across some interesting prop-related illustrations in a series of books called The Shakespeare Rare Print Collection, which was published back in 1900. The first shows a performance in progress on the stage of the Red Bull Playhouse circa 1672. I’m not really sure this is a Shakespeare play, since the drawing was made during the Restoration Theatre period well after his death.
You can see some minimal hand props, like a cup and a lantern, as well as plenty of swords and musical instruments. The picture shows a complete lack of furniture though, as well as any sort of scenic element.
The other illustration shows specimens of fans “as referred to in the notes on the Merry Wives of Windsor.”
This drawing was made in 1786. It is fascinating how much variation there is in such a seemingly simple hand prop.
What, exactly, are we looking at? Fans of the Nintendo Wii may recognize these as vaguely resembling the remote used to play games on that system (known as the “Wiimote”).
Flashback a few years. I was working on the off-Broadway production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Fans of the show will know that it has just a bit of set dressing, so you can imagine that the props department had their hands full. We had made it past tech and into previews, but changes were still occurring. The various sight gags at the beginning of Act II (when Andrew Jackson has just become President and is in the White House) were still evolving. A note came down that they wanted to add Wiimotes for one of the background characters to be playing with. Easy enough, right?
Well, our budget was fairly shot at the moment. We couldn’t really justify the $40+ per Wiimote (they wanted two) for a background gig. We searched high and low for used ones, ones to borrow, and even broken ones. At one point, someone found “candy” versions (a fake Wiimote filled with candy), but these proved to be too diminutive for our purposes.
“Hey,” I said. “I can make something really quick, so they at least have something in their hands while we continue searching.” I cut some shapes out of a 2×4, added some upholstery tacks as buttons and a small cross cut out of MDF for a directional pad, gave it a coat of gloss white spray paint, and called it good.
We ended up running out of time to find better ones. No one gave us any notes to improve these “stand-ins”. Opening night came. Watching the show, you couldn’t really see what was in the actor’s hands during this scene, even if you knew to look for them.
Flash forward. The show transfers to Broadway. All the props get recorded, packed and trucked off. I get tickets to see it. I pay attention to the beginning of Act II to pick up on any changes. The Wii gag is still there, but I can’t make out the props. “It’s Broadway,” I think. “They probably just bought two Wiimotes with their big budget.”
Flash forward again. It’s been over a year since the show closed and the props are still in storage. My boss pushes to get them back as the chances of a transfer diminish. After several go-arounds, he finally arranges for a trip out to the storage facility to pick up some of the items to bring back to our stock. Most of the hand props are packed into a few boxes, and we don’t really know what is in them (the boxes are labelled “action props”, which is Broadway’s term for “hand props”).
We unpack the boxes and guess what I find? Hint: It wasn’t a pair of “real” Wiimotes.
I am not sure what the moral of the story is. It is certainly an interesting side note to add to the list of strange ways and circuitousness routes which objects take on their way to the Broadway stage. Perhaps it is also a small reminder that you should always do your best work, because you never know where a prop may end up. Perhaps, too, it reveals how “theatre magic” can be created even with decidedly un-magical items.
Or maybe it’s just a funny-looking prop with an interesting story.
Props can be divided into several categories, which may make the realm of props less overwhelming. Because of the diversity of traditions and practices in the hundreds of theaters that put on shows, a props person may not be responsible for some of these categories. This is also not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the duties of a props person, rather it is a list of all the kinds of props (For example, in union houses and many other theatres, the props department is responsible for sweeping the stage. I haven’t added that to this list).
The props in the different categories come from different places. Many of the hand props come from the text, or are requested by the stage manager or director during rehearsals. The set designer is usually asking for the set props, trim and set dressing. Often, actors themselves will ask for certain props, particularly personal props. Let’s look at some of these categories:
Hand – Hand props are any props manipulated by one or more actors on stage. A book, a gun, and a wine glass are all hand props. Hand props can be consumable or perishable prop, which means they need to be replaced every night, such as food which is eaten or a letter which is torn up. We can also look at costume (or personal, or “propstume“) props like purses or belts as a subcategory. These require special consideration with the costume department to determine who is responsible for both providing and paying for them. manual/special effect, practical
Set – Set props include all the furniture on stage, and any other “objects” which are a part of the set. It also includes furniture-like objects, such as rocks which are sat on. The lines between “set” and “props” are the most blurry in this category, as some sets have “built-in” furniture, and more abstract or metaphorical sets have less reference points for determining what is “prop or not”.
Trim – Trim props hang on the walls, like curtains, blinds, or pictures.
Set dressing – The set dressing is the items and objects on the stage which the actor doesn’t handle. The easiest way to think of this is in an apartment set. The floor, walls, doors and windows are the set. The furniture is the set props. All the knick-knacks on the dresser, books on the shelves, and plates in the sink are the set dressing. If an actor picks a set dressing item up, it becomes a hand prop and is treated differently. The set dressing can include practicals, which are electrical props (like lamps, chandeliers, and wall sconces) that actually work. Also included here are rugs, carpets, and other floor coverings. Set dressing is used more to flesh out the characters and setting rather than push the narrative forward. While it is up to the set designer to describe and lay out what the set dressing is, it is often left to the props master to choose and arrange the individual items. Set dressing is an art and a craft of its own, and in some cases (especially in film) can be a person’s exclusive job on a production.
Personal – A personal prop is a prop an actor carries to develop their character. Sometimes these are called for in the script, but often it is the actor who is requesting it. A pipe, a cane, or a fan can are examples. Some actors are notorious for picking a prop or two at the very first rehearsal to play with.
Greens – Whether real or artificial, the props department is oft responsible for plants, leaves, bushes and flowers. Obviously, if the set calls for a life-sized tree to fill the stage, the props department can defer to the scenic department for its construction.
Manual special effects – Bursts of smoke, remote-controlled rats, artificial fires in fireplaces, or any other manual special effect is generally the responsibility of the props department, though depending on the scope or means of achieving said effect, there may certainly be overlap with any number of other departments. Breakaway props may also fall in this category.
Manual sound effects – Though increasingly rare in these days of recorded audio, if a sound effect is generated off-stage by an actor or crew member, the props department is responsible for the apparatus that creates that noise. Older props shops still have the various crash-boxes, thunder sheets, and wind machines that fall under this category. You can see pictures of some of the machines that created stage sounds in one of my previous posts.