Prop or not?

Is a musical instrument a prop? Many prop masters like to say, “If you want it to look good, it’s a prop. If you want it to sound good, it’s the sound department.” We’re doing Capeman right now, which is a musical. The orchestra obviously brings their own instruments. Any instruments which are handled by the actors have been provided by us, the prop department. Is this the correct way to break down the responsibilities of the different departments? The answer is, “it depends.”

Companies which produce a lot of musicals or operas may have a separate department for dealing with the musicians’ “stuff”. Other houses may strictly state that props, and only props, deals with those matters. Finally, other places may not have a set protocol and simply decide it on a show-by-show basis.

Is a live animal a prop? A lot of theatres may automatically assign the procurement and wrangling of a live animal to the props department. Many prop departments may instead contend that “if it poops and eats, it’s casting.” in other words, the responsibility of a live animal falls to the same people in charge of live people. Of course, it may still fall to the props department, either because of tradition or practicalities’ sake. Again, there is no correct answer.

The lesson to take from these two examples is that the strict academic definition of a prop and the duties of a prop shop are not necessarily the same thing. Not everything which may be considered a prop is procured by the prop shop, and not everything done by a prop shop is a prop. Prop shops in the different disciplines of film, television and theatre have slightly different duties, and even prop shops in the same discipline may vary in their particular responsibilities.

2 thoughts on “Prop or not?”

  1. I think this question is particularly relevent to shows like “Cabaret” where the girl orchestra is part of the cast, and instruments must fit a certain design style, or “Music Man” where the marching band comes on stage playing (many possibly miming playing) as they march. I could think of others as well, “Side Man” (trumpet), “Groucho: A Life In Revie” (piano and harp), “Threepenny Opera” (an organ grinder’s box).

    I think, in particular, if it has to have a certain look or design, it must be a prop (functional or otherwise).

  2. Yes, it gets particularly tricky when a musical instrument needs to have a certain look, historical or otherwise, and be playable by a musician. In some cases, we will actually split up the responsibility, where the audio department finds the instrument, and the prop department pays for it and keeps track of it during the show, or vice versa.

    Usually, this is decided on a show-by-show basis, and it can depend on other factors, such as the budgets and time constraints of the particular departments. If the show is light on props, the musical instrument may solely be handled by props. If the show is prop-heavy, and the audio department has less of a burden, they may take over the responsibility of that instrument as a practical measure. This is why one can’t look at past productions to determine what is the prop department’s responsibility, because there may have been other circumstances and considerations that are not readily apparent.

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