Category Archives: Jobs

Do Good Work, Get Along With People, and Be On Time

Some of us props people have been talking recently about what advice to give to new props people entering the field. You need to know more than just what machines and materials to use, or what stores to shop at. This snippet of a commencement address given by Neil Gaiman was very relevant:

People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

Gaiman’s quote reminds me of another saying I’ve heard; I don’t remember the exact words, so I’ll paraphrase: “If you’re nice, you don’t always have to be right. If you’re a jerk, you have to be right all the time.” In other words, if people hate you, as soon as you make one mistake, they’ll use that to stop working with you.

Hard skills like welding, molding and casting, and upholstery can be difficult to learn when you don’t have a teacher or the resources needed. But you can always work on the soft skills that will help you get jobs: getting along with a variety of people and hitting your deadlines.

Perfecting your technical theatre resume

It’s job-hunting season in the technical theatre world, especially for those of you just graduating. SETC is only a day away, and USITT is right around the corner. If you are looking to get a gig at a summer theatre, now is the time to apply. Not next month. Now.

You need a résumé if you’re going to do this right. You can find lots of help with crafting a résumé in general, but not much on a technical theatre one specifically. Here are a few tips to help you on your way.

List your objective.

Somewhere at the top near your name, you should list what you do: prop builder, props master, stage manager, etc. Some websites will tell you listing an objective is not necessary, but for a technical theatre person, it is. Particularly when you are going to a conference or a job fair, you will probably have one representative from a company collecting all the résumés from applicants, then dividing them up between the appropriate departments back at the office. It’s helpful for them to know at a glance whether a résumé should go to electrics, carpentry or costumes. Plus, it tells them which job you are interested in. You don’t want your résumé handed to the master electrician if you want the props master to look at it.

Drop names within reason.

It is helpful to list the names of directors and designers you work with since the technical theatre world is small. Chances are, your interviewer may recognize someone on your résumé, and it will give them an idea of what kind of environments you have worked in. However, when you are just starting out, you may have only college shows listed, or the shows from one small professional gig. I’ve seen résumés where the applicant has only worked with one designer, but they list them over and over again, so that an entire column is just one name repeated on down the line. If the majority of your work is done under one or two people, they should either be one of your references, or listed just once in your work experience.

Also, don’t make a mess with all the names you drop. Any name you put on your résumé can potentially be contacted by the company interviewing you. Don’t list someone because you were in the same room as them for ten minutes. The employer may call them and be like, “Hey, you ever work with Joey Bookcase?” And that person will be all like, “No, I ain’t never heard of no Joey Bookcase!” That’s how people in technical theatre talk to each other.

Check your speling.

This should go without saying, but with the résumés I see, it unfortunately needs to be said more. If you can’t take the time to read your résumé once for spelling errors, why should an employer take the time to read it? If you don’t notice a misspelled word on the most important representation of your work, I may assume you won’t notice your prop still has a bit of wet paint on it as you hand it to the actress in her hand-dyed silk dress.

Check the work of others.

If you have no idea how to start a résumé, start looking up people in your field, especially those with jobs you aspire to. Most professionals have their résumé online. You can see how they organize it, what kind of information they list, and how they design it. Here, you can start with mine.

IATSE Job Classifications

I’ve come across the following lists of duties and responsibilities for various members of the props department in a number of places. These are the IATSE job classifications for union members working in film. I have noticed some theatres will use these as starting points to develop their own job descriptions for people in the props department as well. Property Master The duties of the Property Master shall include preparation of a hand prop breakdown, with scene allocations as per the shooting script; to research the historical period of said administered hand props; to prepare, build and procure props to be seen on camera; the repair and return of props to original condition and source; arranging for all necessary permits to convey restricted weapons; co-ordinate with the Wardrobe Department the required accessories; while on set, the Prop Master will administer props to artists, strike and reset hot sets established by the Set Decorators, with the aid of Polaroid’s, photographs or sketches; consult with the Script Supervisor on the continuity of hand props; responsible for the disbursement of the assigned budget; and delegate the work required for the efficient operation of the Department. Assistant Property Master Duties are acts as the Prop Master’s representative on the set; during pre-production helps with script and prop breakdown; in the Prop Master’s absence this person can be left in charge of the props on shooting set; makes sure that the set and props are as the Props Master wishes them to be; oversees the supplying and loading of the truck; has the ability to oversee the set and props in a camera ready condition; has the ability to oversee the set and prop continuity; and can perform these duties in an unsupervised role. Additionally, this person must hold a valid Firearms Acquisition Certificate; carry the Motion Picture Firearms Safety Course card; be knowledgeable in the building and repair of props; be knowledgeable in the handling of firearms; the safe use of firearms and the blank firing of firearms; and carries the same responsibilities for the safety of artists and shooting crew when it comes to the firing of blanks as the Props Master. Props Buyer Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Armour Must have Fire Arms Acquisition Certificate and no criminal record. Responsible for maintaining safety on set in relation to weapons and ammunition, including but not limited to determining the distance for all loads; ¼, ½ and full loads and as such providing plexi-glass shields, etc. when required. Order all weapons, permits, ammunition etc. and inspect them as a safety precaution. Responsible for the distribution and collection of the weapons to talent and background performers. Warn to the cast and crew prior to firing weapons, secure area effected. Along with performing those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Builder Work with wood, leather, and metal must have carpentry skills, and perform duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Assistant Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Men/Women or Props Crew Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master

On Unpaid Internships in Technical Theatre

By now, you have probably heard of the ruling last week in regards to unpaid internships. A court ruled that unpaid production interns on The Black Swan were entitled to back pay for their work. The New York Times has a great summary of the judges decision. The Department of Labor has a set of strict guidelines that determines whether an internship can be unpaid:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship;
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship

It is important to point out that these guidelines have been in place for a long time. This ruling has not “outlawed” unpaid internships or changed any of the law. The fact is that most unpaid internships, particularly in theatre, do not adhere to these guidelines and are illegal. They exist simply because no one is stopping them. Many are writing that this ruling is bringing that to a close (for example, this article in the Atlantic points out that companies are less likely to risk having an illegal internship program now that someone has gotten caught).

I have heard of internships where the intern’s job is to sit in the car while the shopper runs into a store so they don’t get towed. I have worked at places where all the interns have to work as waiters during a fundraising party. Simply being in a theatre or being surrounded by professionals does not constitute enough of an education to justify not paying someone for work. Giving someone the “opportunity” of listing your theatre on their resume is not enough of an experience to warrant forcing them to work for free. Rich Dionne has a good blog post pointing out the challenges of structuring an internship program so it is to the benefit of the interns.

Now I am not saying that an internship is inherently bad if it is unpaid. If one adheres to the guidelines, it can provide valuable training for less than the cost of a college or university. However, with the abundance of illegal unpaid internships out there and the relative lack of oversight (until now), even the legal internships can find themselves slipping into exploitation now and then without fear of repercussions.

Besides the exploitative nature of illegal unpaid internships, we need to consider the idea of unpaid internships in the larger sense of our industry. This HowlRound article by Holly Derr points out that having an economy where an unpaid internship is a necessary first step creates a workforce which only the privileged can take part in. When we devalue the physical labor that goes into building a show, we devalue theatre itself. If you say unpaid interns are necessary to the operations of your theatre, then you are saying you want a certain level of production values, but you do not want to pay for them. It is as if an audience member asked for tickets to the show but did not want to pay for them.

If every theatre relied on unpaid interns to create the technical side, than what jobs are we training them for? In other words, how can you ask someone to work for free in exchange for job training if all the jobs they are training for are unpaid? If we want a strong pool of technical theatre workers, then we need to start focussing resources on training them, rather than throwing them into a pool of illegal unpaid internships and seeing which ones float to the top. It is hard enough to make money in this business; we should not be starting people off by telling them they do not deserve to get paid.

How much does a prop maker earn (US Bureau of Labor edition)

Beginner prop makers often want to know how much money a prop maker earns. Even experienced prop makers want to know, just to compare their earnings to what is typical in the industry. These numbers are hard to come by because of the range of ways a prop maker can earn money, the vast variety of industries a prop maker can work in, and the wide spectrum in expertise of prop makers (a beginner prop maker who constructs apple crates is probably making a far different wage than a veteran who machines intricate aluminum mechanisms). Still, we have to start somewhere.

One of the best resources to learn about typical wages and contracts is from Sandra Strawn’s Properties Directors’ Handbook. She collected survey data from many of the regional and educational theatres around the United States. Another organization which collects a lot of data on employment and wages is the US government. This is what we are looking at in today’s post.

The United States Bureau of Labor keeps statistics on National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. Now, they do not list “prop maker” as an occupation, so we have to look at a few related and similar fields to hone in on what a US prop maker might be making. I’ve pulled some numbers from their most recent report, which was May 2012[ref], May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, United States, accessed April 1, 2013.[/ref].

First, a couple of caveats. The major one is that this data does not include self-employed workers. According to the IRS, if you get paid with a 1099, even if it is in a situation where you are “employed” by a company, they consider you self-employed. Many prop makers earn some or even all of their income in this way, so it really skews the data. I’ve found that it is the smaller and lower-paying gigs that will often pay you with a 1099 (not always true, but true more often than not), so these numbers are probably higher than what most prop makers earn.

As another caveat, if you look at the data yourself, you will find “annual mean wages” listed that make it seem like these workers are raking it in. However, these annual wages are calculated by multiplying the hourly wage by a typical “full-time” schedule, and do not reflect what someone actually earns in a year. Most prop makers do not work full-time every year, and even so-called “full-time” jobs at regional theatres are actually seasonal contracts ranging from 28-42 weeks per year. I’ve always found that the hourly wages offered me were well above minimum wage, but it is very difficult to string together enough jobs and gigs to work full-time year-round.

For the table, I looked at two categories: “Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres”, and “Motion Picture and Video Exhibition”. Neither category has a “prop maker” listing, so I chose the occupation titles which I thought a prop maker would likely be categorized under. For Theatre Companies, those categories were “craft artists” and “fine artists”, while in Motion Pictures, I chose “fine artists” and “artists and related workers, all others”. Feel free to explore the data on your own and look at other industries or occupations; I am not presenting this information as the definitive guide to prop makers’ wages, but rather as my own personal best guess of what might be the wages of some prop makers.

Occupation Title   Employment   Median hourly wage   Mean hourly wage
                Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres
Craft Artists        230             18.89                18.86
Fine Artists         100             19.03                20.67
                 Motion Picture and Video Exhibition
Fine Artists        2400             27.10                30.45
All Others           390             33.89                33.86

Despite all of my caveats and excuses, these numbers do tell us a few things. First, that the movies employ far more people than theatre. Second, that similar occupations are making around one-and-a-half times as much in movies than in theatre, at least on an hourly basis.

Another possible surprise is the small number of full-time occupations in theatre. The 330 combined craft artists and fine artists would likely include not just the people in the props shop, but also the costume shop and paints departments. That’s a tiny amount of people. Remember, though that these numbers do not include self-employed workers, of which there are many. Also, in larger markets and commercial theatre, many prop makers would be working for independent shops and studios, rather than theatre companies.