Tag Archives: managing

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.

The Properties Director's Handbook

The Properties Director’s Handbook

The Properties Director's Handbook
The Properties Director’s Handbook by Sandra J. Strawn

Props people have a new book that was just released today: The Properties Director’s Handbook, by Sandra J. Strawn. Longtime readers may be familiar with the website version of the Properties Director’s Handbook; I’ve mentioned it a few times over the years, and this blog has a link over along the sidebar.

Sandy also happens to be the technical editor for my book. Both of our books are being published by Focal Press. Between the two, they cover two of the major aspects of props: building props, and managing a prop shop. I asked Sandy a few questions about how the website came about and what we can expect from her new book.

What prompted you to first create the Properties Director Handbook website?

Sandy: I was prompted to initially start the handbook from the SPAM (Society for Properties Artisan Managers) discussions at our national conferences. As someone who has been doing this for almost three decades I realized many of our incoming prop masters were asking us “old timers” among the SPAM network many of the same questions: how to organize a shop, how to effectively manage a build, how to write a prop list and work with stage management in updates, etc. I also teach this as part of my arc of training in the prop curriculum. I found myself emailing out my handouts to folks in the business and they would often comment to me, “You should write a book.” I decided to try and compile the information in one spot and was granted a sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee to create my website. I wanted it to be a free textbook available to all those folks who teach the props classes in university programs, as well as to prop professionals or community prop people who need to understand the process of being a prop master or props director.

How has the website been translated into this new book?

Sandy: Seeing the success of my website, Focal Press expressed interest in making a book from part of the chapters I had on the website. Over the past summer I re-worked the webpage into a more condensed book form, now available online from Routledge Press and all the usual online book selling sites.

I have updated my website pretty much continuously since I created it in 2008. As I re-worked the chapters to make them over into a book, I ended up pretty much re-writing and updating everything. I did a new survey on prop salaries and contracts and that information is included in the book as well as some better illustrations of paperwork. The book covers about two-thirds of what is on the site and focuses primarily on the properties director’s process of taking a show from initial script reading through opening. These chapters tend to be the ones most viewed on my site and I think are the ones most relevant to those folks who are teaching prop classes. The web site has many more links and examples of prop lists, show reports, photographs of shops and props, and additional “chapters” on setting up a safe and happy prop shop. Anyone who utilizes the book will find the website a convenient resource for additional reading and research materials as well as interesting examples of prop work and prop shops around the United States.

I wrote this primarily as a textbook for undergraduate props training but I know many beginning prop professionals would find it useful as well. My hope is, in combination with your excellent book on the “how to do” part of making props, this book will help theatre folks understand the “how to manage” part of doing props.

What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about what a prop director/master does?

Sandy: The biggest misconception about what a prop master does is about the range of skills an effective prop master must have in order to do the job well. Not only does the person need to be able to shop, but to create props the artisans must know sewing, welding and metal working, furniture construction and restoration, plastics construction, upholstery, faux painting, radio and pneumatic controls, calligraphy, graphics layout, molding and casting, leather work, painting and portraiture with acrylics and watercolors, floral arrangement, sculpture and 3D carving, especially with foam, electrical construction and wiring, crafts, photography, fabric dyeing and distressing, matting and framing, draping, fabric layout,  pattern making, musical instrumentation, weaponry, pyrotechnics… to name a few.

Layer that on to the management side of being a props director and master, where an effective prop person must be highly organized, creative, have an eye for detail, flair for design, creative adaptability (the “what if…”), be self motivated, and be willing to do all that and more as part of a collaborative design and production process. Whew! I’m exhausted just talking about it!

There is no prop “store” where we can run out and buy all the props; eBay comes close, but our budgets are never enough and those pesky designers always want something so specific it must be created in the shop. That’s what we do as prop people.

Kushner supporters outside the Public Theater, photograph by Jay Duckworth

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Links about Props

Last night finally brought us to the opening of Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, which we’ve been in previews for since March (and rehearsals since February!). I was the assistant props master on the show. There’s been quite a stir with Mr. Kushner this past week as well; first, he was set to receive an honorary degree from John Jay College, but then the board of trustees of CUNY voted to deny it; Mr. Kushner wrote an eloquent and biting response asking for their apology; finally, Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote an editorial on the matter and opened it up to reader’s comments.  Last night’s opening even saw some protesters show up in support of Tony Kushner.

Kushner supporters outside the Public Theater, photograph by Jay Duckworth
Kushner supporters outside the Public Theater, photograph by Jay Duckworth

It’s a fascinating (and important) story if you are involved with theatre. But if you read this blog just for the props, don’t worry, I have some links for you to finish off the week:

  • Here is an absolutely fantastic inside look at the Office of Exhibits Central for the Smithsonian Institute, which fabricates the displays and exhibits for their various museums. Besides more traditional materials and methods like mold-making and fiberglass, they have also made a huge push into new technologies like 3D scanners and printers, CNC routers, fabric printers and more.
  • No Tech Magazine has posted the table of contents from an 1837 book titled The Panorama of Professions and Trades. It proposes to show all 87 types of jobs in existence (I think there were far more than that, even at that time, but I digress). What is interesting is how many of these trades remain essential skills for the well-rounded props artisan.
  • Jean Burch has posted a list of project management skills over on her Technical Direction Tidbits blog. I fell a Props Director is similar to a Project Manager in many respects, and this list shares many of the skills which a props director also needs.
  • Do you like pencils? Here’s a whole page dedicated to pencils. You can peruse hundreds of photographs of different pencils while learning their history, as well as view some classic pencil advertisements.

Why make?

This is not an article about the existential question of why we make things? Rather, it is about the more concrete question of why you would build a prop rather than trying to buy, borrow or rent it.

The most obvious reason you would make a prop is because it is simply impossible to acquire otherwise. Imaginary objects or pieces designed to specifically fit into the world of the play fall into this category. For example, during this summer’s production of Merchant of Venice, my wife made a skull which was upholstered in black velvet and bedazzled with shiny jewels. This is not the type of item you can pick up at the local Wal-Mart. Furniture in an abnormal scale or from an invented world will also need to be built for this reason.

Closely related to this category is props which need to be specific in appearance or size. If you need an oil painting portrait of your lead actor in his costume, you are pretty much forced to make it. Likewise, props with specific dimensions or furniture built in forced perspective will not be found in stores.

You may wish to adapt store-bought pieces rather than building them fresh, but beware the consequences. An object from a store will already be finished, and if you cut into it, or add parts to it, you will need to match the color and texture of the original, which may be more challenging than just mixing a paint color from scratch. Likewise, a lot of modern furniture resists easy adaptation; when you cut into what looks like wood, you discover it is actually stress-skin filled with honeycomb paper, and you have no structure inside to attach things too. If you believe your prop is going to undergo many changes during the rehearsal period, it may be wiser to build a prop designed to be adapted, rather than using a store-bought item which undergoes degradation with every change made to it.

A fourth reason for building your props is if they need to perform some kind of technical function or undergo rough treatment. Most furniture you buy was never designed to be danced on, carried around, leaned on its side or otherwise mistreated in any number of creative ways an actor or director comes up with. When I say a prop must perform a technical function, I mean things like a porcelain vase that must fall to the ground without breaking, or a table which can fold up for a quick scene change. I’m going to mention fake body parts in this category, though they can also be considered part of the first category, in that they are impossible to acquire. Legal and moral issues aside, we don’t use real body parts because they rot and smell and attract vermin. You need to build fake ones which will not degrade over time and not make a mess on stage every time they are used.

Another reason to build a prop is because the actual item is too expensive to buy or rent. Shakespeare and opera frequently rely on gold objects littered about the stage, but it would be incredibly costly to buy real gold. Real furniture, especially antiques, is built with expensive hardwoods and labor-intensive finishes which can be indistinguishable from cheaper mimicry under stage lights and viewed from a distance. Likewise, fake food is often built because, if it is not eaten, the cost of buying and preparing real food every night for every show for several weeks (or months or years) just to be thrown away is so much more expensive and wasteful than spending the time to construct a facsimile.

Finally, you may wish to give your artisans a nice project, to help their portfolio, or to give them a sense of “belonging” to the theatre. Building something beautiful or clever gives an artisan pride, and helps instill a feeling of ownership in the show which will help their morale and motivation when it comes to tech and notes and all the fiddly nonsense that nobody wants to do. If they know you will give them exciting and challenging projects throughout the season, they will be more forgiving when the “clean the paint trap” jobs inevitably come up.