Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Prop Master

The Prop Master by Amy Mussman
The Prop Master by Amy Mussman

I’m surprised more props people do not know about The Prop Master by Amy Mussman. No other book more clearly defines how to be a prop master in a contemporary setting. With a publish date of 2008, it is also amongst the most up-to-date props books out there. I feel strongly that if you read and reread this book as well as studying the Properties Directors Handbook by Sandra Strawn, you are armed with as much information as possible to prop a show short of actual experience. This is the book you want if you are in school and someone tells you, “You are the props master on the next show,” and you have no idea what that entails. It is amazing that until two years ago, a book like this had not been written.

Keep in mind that this book will not show you how to build any props. It focuses solely on the management and process of propping a theatrical show. Perhaps it is also useful to a prop master on a film, though I have no experience in that arena so I cannot say for certain.

The beginning of the book is filled with the important task of defining what props are, what props do, what a prop master does, what other props people do, and how it relates to the other departments and to the production as a whole. One of my favorite parts is where Mussman spells out a list of the basic props that a prop stock should have. From there, it delves into what skills and personal attributes a props master should develop to succeed. Where a props artisan can find success by perfecting various technical and vocational skills, a prop master’s greatest path to success is honing interpersonal skills and the proper forms of etiquette; in essence, getting people to “like you”. This book breaks that down into much more realistic and better-phrased terms than I just did. It breaks down the way many theatres are organized, how a props master relates to these various departments, and what is expected of a prop master in a professional setting.

From there, Mussman dives into how to achieve what is expected of you. Drawing on her over ten years of experience, it describes how to set up an ideal prop shop and how to organize your files. From there, she describes how to proceed through the process, beginning when you are first chosen as the prop master and receive a script, through rehearsals, into tech and when performances begin.

Not content with presenting all that information, she also includes safety information, a theatrical glossary, and a whole chapter of tips and tricks for prop-making.

In short, I cannot emphasize how important this book is for the beginning prop master and for our industry as a whole. If you were picking someone randomly to prop master a show, you can say, “I need you to be the prop master. Here is your instruction manual.”

As I mentioned earlier, this book goes well when combined with the Properties Directors Handbook. Read them both. I’ve written about the difference between a prop master versus a properties director; while they are distinct terms, they are often similar positions and career paths, and the information in each is complementary and often overlapping.

Review: The Theater Props Handbook

The Theater Props Handbook
The Theater Props Handbook

Perhaps no other book about theater props is as well known as The Theatre Props Handbook, by Thurston James.

The largest shortcoming of this book is that it was written in 1987. The World Wide Web hadn’t even been invented yet. The number of materials and tools which have been introduced since then is vast. The book has almost no safety information; the photographs show artisans working without gloves, respirators, dust masks or any other personal protective equipment. Many of the projects are built out of urethane foams; these days, there are much safer alternatives you can use.

This book is geared to the props person who finds him or herself having to prop a show with little to no resources. It does not deal with paperwork, reading a script, managing employees, shopping, sourcing, budgeting, labor estimates, or any of the other practical considerations a properties director must deal with. In a way, it’s almost a relic of a time when a props person must create every prop out of paper-mâché, epoxy putty, and hot glue.

Perhaps the other greatest downfall of the book is the organization and presentation. The chapters are apparently in alphabetical order, though what information is present in each chapter is a surprise. The photographs are all in black and white, small, and occasionally questionable. Looking at a few projects in the book, I find myself thinking that a few of the photographs are missing; he explains a step in the process, but his explanation is unclear and the inclusion of just one more photograph would suffice to make it clear.

On a personal note, my biggest pet peeve with the book is how the columns break. Each page is divided into two columns. Normally, one would think to read a column down to the bottom of the page and then start at the top of the page with the next column. In this book though, every section heading and photograph causes the columns to break, much like if you were reading a newspaper. It can be quite disconcerting.

Even though it is poorly organized, woefully out of date, and badly illustrated, there is still no viable alternative. Where this book excels is in its presentation of the tips and tricks that all props people use. If you need to learn about being a prop master, I would suggest Amy Mussman’s The Prop Master combined with Sandra Strawn’s The Properties Directors Handbook. If you want to learn how to be a props artisan, Andy Wilson’s Making Stage Props is a more comprehensive and organized guide to the typical materials used in the construction of props. If, however, you want a source for all the props tricks used by props masters in theatre, such as putting a fake beer can label on a can of seltzer, using lamp parts, or FEV, this remains the only book you can turn to. Books like this come only once a generation or so. Perhaps props masters are unwilling to give up their secrets, or perhaps they can’t string together a coherent sentence after years of sitting through tech rehearsals. My own theory is that props people are too busy doing props to find the time to write such a book, and when they finally leave or retire, they no longer have the inclination to write such a book. So for the time being, it seems, The Theatre Props Handbook will retain its place on a props person’s bookshelf.

In some respects, the information in this book would have been better presented in blog form, if it had existed back then. I suppose that is part of my goal with this blog. I’m trying to add to and improve on the information first written down in the Theater Props Handbook twenty-three years ago in addition to writing about my own experiences.

Review: Careers in Technical Theater

Careers in Technical Theater, by Mike Lawler, occupies a somewhat unique position in a bookshelf filled with theatre books. Rather than describe how to do the various jobs one can have backstage, it describes what those jobs are. Perhaps more importantly, it illustrates how one pursues those jobs and what one can expect with those jobs, both in terms of duty and in terms of lifestyle and compensation.

Before I focus on the chapter in props, I’d like to point out the value of the rest of the book. It is very helpful to know what all the other people in the theatre are doing, as you’ll likely deal with most of them at least once in your career. If you don’t know the difference between a stage manager and a production manager, you’ll likely waste your time asking questions of the wrong person. Likewise, for those just starting out in their careers, it can be useful to be introduced to the range of jobs that are possible backstage. Perhaps you’re more suited to be a scenic artist than a props person, but if your school didn’t have a good scenic arts program, you may have been unaware that they are a regular position in many theaters.

The chapter on props spends the bulk of its time in an interview with Jim Guy, props director of the Milwaukee Rep (and currently the President of S*P*A*M). In a way, Guy runs the idealized prop shop, and other theatres will have an adapted or stripped-down version of that shop. In that respect, it’s a good example of what one can expect in a career in props, if one is looking for full-time employment. It doesn’t touch much on a freelance career in props. This type of working career is probably more common in larger urban areas which can support several theatres, though it all depends on how far one is willing to travel. A certain number of artisans have a ” journeyman” type of career, where they travel the country spending a few months or a whole season at various companies. This happens because a lot of theatres close down over the summer, while another large group only operates during the summer. Neither can afford a full-time staff for the full year, but an artisan can make a full-time salary by always moving where the work is until a full-time position opens up somewhere.

This book was published in 2007, making it one of the more up-to-date guides to careers in technical theater. Though we had a slight case of the “major-global-economic-meltdown”s, we’ve recovered a bit since then. Theatre careers are somewhat recession-proof, in that jobs are scarce and pay is meager even in the best of times.

The information on pay is compelling, but woefully incomplete; it’s not the fault of Mr. Lawler, rather it’s that only 35 props people responded to his survey. Adding just Broadway and off-Broadway people, who are not represented here, can quickly double the entire survey. We also have no information from opera, touring shows, or the academic world, all of which are major employers of props people. Finally, we have no indication of whether any of the respondents are in unions or not. I would also like to mention that props people, particularly artisans, have an easier time freelancing and doing side gigs in other fields besides theatre. Building props for film, television, events, or retail displays uses nearly the same skills as building props for theatre, and many props artisans take advantage of this.

That being said, the information that Lawler does provide is highly useful, giving at least an indication of what an average salary for a props person is in the United States. Overall, the book does a good job of what it sets out to do, which is providing a realistic, utilitarian and concise introduction to actually working in technical theatre.

Review: Theatrical Design and Production by Gillette

Theatrical Design and Production, sixth edition, by Michael Gillette
Theatrical Design and Production, sixth edition, by Michael Gillette

I’ve decided to incorporate some book reviews into my blog. Books about props are few and far between, so these won’t be fresh reviews of books hot off the press. I will, however, start with one of the newer books. If I ever actually convince you to purchase a book from Amazon, keep in mind that by using the links in my post, I will get a small kickback from them. The price you pay will be the same, but my happiness will be higher, and isn’t that what really matters?

The Sixth Edition of Theatrical Design and Production, by Michael Gillette was published in 2008. Gillette, a retired professor at the University of Arizona, first published this seminal textbook in 1987. Though pricey (it is a textbook, after all), it has not become the go-to text for stagecraft without earning it.

My examination of it will focus solely on the prop-specific parts, though the book does cover all aspects of technical theatre. It is important to note I am looking at the sixth edition; this version has seen a substantial reworking of the properties chapter through input by Sandra Strawn in particular, and the members of S*P*A*M in general. This gives the book more authority out of any other available books on how many prop shops in American regional and educational theatres are run. Between this and Strawn’s own “Properties Directors Handbook“, you get a good sense of the “standard practices.” This chapter does well as a guide for a college class, either as a section on props in a general stagecraft class, or as a springboard for developing an entire syllabus.

The first half of the chapter deals with the process and organization of propping a show. Most prop books deal mainly with the craft side; Gillette takes the reader through the whole process step-by-step, from the moment you find out what show you are propping, through initial prop lists and planning meetings, on to rehearsals and tech, and into the opening and running of the show, ending finally with strike. Other than Amy Mussman’s The Prop Master and Strawn’s Handbook, few books lay out the process in such a clear fashion, and none have the advantage of incorporating the experience of prop directors from many of our major regional theatres.

The second half focuses on prop craft. Prop furniture construction shows four apparently common wood joints: open and closed dowel, pocket hole, and biscuit. I personally love the pocket hole; the biscuit is indispensable for long end joints, and open doweling is great for repair work, particularly on chairs. I’d like to add to his definition of a jig: “A device used [to] hold pieces together in proper positional relationship.” “Pieces” can mean either the various pieces of material you are using, or it can mean the tools and the material. In other words, a jig can also be used as a guide to keep the tool in a proper positional relationship with the material.

The section on upholstering and drapery is very informative and makes a nice comprehensive introduction to the subject. The remaining section on “crafts” seems to deal mainly with the most toxic and least environmentally-friendly materials and processes one can use in props. There is an interesting mini-tutorial on using spray urethane foam (eg, Great Stuff) to make rigid molds. Though clever, I’ve found spray foam to be finicky to work with. Great Stuff has a Threshold Limit Value of .005, making it 4,000 times more toxic than turpentine, and 100,000 times more toxic than acetone. Likewise, using heat to shape plastic, or working with fiberglass, requires much more attention to safety than Gillette implies, though to be fair, he does implore the reader to seek out proper safety procedures on their own.

He also pushes aside papier-mâché too quickly. In a comment on my post on “Coating Foam”,  Mary Robinette Kowal points out that papier-mâché on top of foam can actually be stronger than fiberglass. It is also that rare type of material and process that is both friendlier to the environment and better for your health. The paste is made from wheat, and the paper can be rescued from the trash for reuse. While the wheat-paste is usually laced with rat poison to discourage vermin from eating it, the rest of the ingredients are practically edible (note: please don’t eat papier-mâché). I’m not saying it’s a magic cure-all that can replace all other craft processes; also, I understand that Gillette is describing the current industry as is, rather than proposing a new direction it should take.

Back to the review. Information of interest to the props person can be found in other chapters of the book as well. Chapter 10 has a good introduction to the types of hand tools, power tools, and construction materials found in prop shops and scene shops. With a 2008 publication date, these are probably the most up-to-date descriptions of building materials available to the theatre-maker today, including all the synthetic and engineered products that are so difficult to keep track of. This chapter is also a better source for the safety information that is not included in the chapter on properties, with the assumption being that you would read this chapter first.

The section on fasteners, glues, construction hardware and stage hardware, though not as comprehensive as The Backstage Handbook, is more descriptive, and its use comes in describing the most commonly-used items, rather that every possible iteration. The section on safety equipment is so brief it feels like an afterthought, and does nothing to address the most common areas of concern for a beginner: the difference between impact and chemical-splash goggles, the various types of respirators, and choosing the right kind of glove for working with chemicals. Using this book for a class would certainly require supplementing it with a text like The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater by the tireless Monona Rossol. Learning how to create props without the proper safety precautions is like learning how to drive without learning to use turn signals, checking your mirrors, wearing your seat belt, or reading road signs.

Chapter 11 on scenic production techniques is also useful information for the props artisan. Though we seldom build flats, the techniques used in building flats come in handy for prop carpentry projects. Likewise, the book does a wonderful job of describing welding, soldering, and making construction drawings as well. I particularly relished the section on stressed-skin platforms and look forward to trying some of the techniques in future prop-making.

Gillette also touches on building rocks, trees, and creating objects out of foam, all necessary skills for the well-rounded props artisan. He’s a little incorrect in some of his definitions though. STYROFOAMâ„¢ Brand Foam is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company for their extruded polystyrene foam, not expanded as Gillette writes. It is usually sold in blue sheets for insulating buildings and is indeed fire resistant. Different types of Styrofoam insulation can be pink or even white, though still fire resistant. Dow also makes Styrofoam in white and green for the craft and floral market, but I could not discern the fire resistance of these kinds. Disposable foam products, like foam cups, coolers or packaging materials, are not made by Dow, hence not STYROFOAMâ„¢ Brand Foam. These are usually made out of expanded polystyrene beads, and is often referred to as “bead foam”. This is what Gillette is talking about when he refers to the course texture left from cutting through foam, or the “foam sawdust” from sawing. You can also by bead foam in large sheets similar to Styrofoam. Though both expanded and extruded polystyrene are generically referred to as “Styrofoam” here in the US, it is important to note that bead foam (expanded polystyrene) is not fire-resistant and can not be used untreated or left exposes on the theatrical stage. The multitude of plastics and synthetic materials available to today’s prop maker is confusing enough without a book as commonly used as Gillette’s muddying up the next generation with erroneous information.

The chapter on scene painting (chapter 12) is also useful for a props artisan, particularly the section on texturing. The chapter on electrical theory and practice (chapter 15), though interesting on its own, does not deal much with the kind of wiring a props person may need to do. Chapter 19 (costume construction) is notable in that it describes many of the same tools, materials and techniques necessary for soft goods work, such as curtains and drapes, Likewise, the information on millinery, costume crafts and masks is very applicable to the crafting of three-dimensional prop pieces, and may be incorporated into a lesson or class on props.

Though I’ve pointed out a few shortcomings and errors in this book, let me reiterate what an incredible resource Gillette has created in the latest edition of his book. As I said at the beginning, the chapter on props can easily become the outline for an entire class.