The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Props in the Desert: Randy Lutz and the Santa Fe Opera
by Sam Weisberg
In the middle of the desert, The Santa Fe Opera puts on world-renowned productions of new operas and standards from the traditional repertoire, and at the center of their props division is Randy Lutz, the company’s Properties Director, keeping singers supplied with top-of-the-line stage properties to be used in rehearsal and performance. Continue reading →
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.
Earlier this month, I shared an article about a busy prop shop in midtown Manhattan, circa 1898, which was owned and operated by a woman. It reminded me that I’ve neglected to research the contribution of women to the world of props throughout the centuries.
Just as “property man” was the common term for one who works in props from the early 1600s through World War II, so too does “property woman” appear in the descriptions and literature on theatre. The Oxford English Dictionary tracks its earliest usage to a one-act play published in 1795 titled New hay at the old market. An actor playing a prompter speaks the line:
Oh ! that alters the case. Well, let it be handsome; do you mind? Stud it with brass-nails, and cover it with the best Morocco—and tell the Property-woman to put a good soft velvet cushion in it, dye hear ?
I’ve dug up an even earlier reference from 1780. In his Remarks upon the Present Taste for acting Private Plays, R. Cumberland, Esq., writes:
Happy author, who shall see his characters thus grouped into a family-piece, firm as the Theban band of friends, where all is zeal and concord, no bickerings nor jealousies about stage-precedency, no ladies to fall sick of the spleen, and toss up their parts in a huff, no heart-burnings about flounced petticoats and silver trimmings, where the mother of the whole company stands wardrobe-keeper and property-woman, whilst the father takes post at the side scene in the capacity of prompter with plenipotentiary controul over PS’s and OP’s.
The use of the term “property-woman” appears in both America and England throughout the nineteenth century up through the early twentieth century. In many instances, it is the gender equivalent of “property-man”, describing anyone who works in props, from what we consider today to be a property master, to a property artisan and even a run crew person who handles and tracks the props backstage during a performance. In other cases, it appears to define a more specialized backstage role, used interchangeably with “wardrobe woman” and even “dresser”.
In today’s theatre, we have ceased using these gender-specific terms, and have switched to more descriptive titles, such as properties artisan, properties carpenter and properties director. However, you occasionally hear the term “property mistress” used clumsily in place of “property master” when the property master is a woman. It turns out this term was actually used fairly frequently in the early twentieth century. An example comes from a 1921 article in Century Magazine, by George P. Baker:
Just before a piece goes into rehearsal it is read to the artistic and producing force as well as to the actors, all of whom watch it for the special problems it may have for them. Immediately after the reading, copies of the play are handed to the costumer, designer of scenery, property mistress, the person in charge of lighting, and the stage-manager. As soon as possible, these meet individually with the author to make sure that they know exactly what he wants, and, as groups, to establish their plans cooperatively.
While the twentieth century may seem late in the game for women to take charge of props, keep in mind that the idea of a property master in general did not take shape until the mid-nineteenth century. People may have had the duties of a property master, but it fell under a different job (usually the prompter or an assistant).
Strangely, the term all but disappears throughout the middle of the century, only to start popping up again in the late 1980s. By the twenty-first century, more and more theatre companies were switching the job title to the more appropriate (and gender-neutral) “properties director” to describe the person in charge of the props shop. Individual shows still use the term “property master”, and most Playbills and programs use that term whether it was a man or woman doing the job. “Property mistress” shows up only in informal usage and in fluffy news articles.
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).
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies