I have recently been reading about the three different types of knowledge which a mastercraftsperson should possess (originally suggested by Nick Hunt and Susan Melrose 1 and applied to props by Eleanor Margolies 2). These include technical knowledge, emotional-affective knowledge, and interpersonal knowledge. At any moment during a props person’s day, they may have to use all three types to navigate a situation or solve a problem.
Technical knowledge is the one we are most familiar with, and the one we devote most of our time studying and training for. These are the hard skills, such as welding, sewing, and sculpting. They also include knowledge of materials and knowing how to choose them, how to visualize projects in three dimensions, and how to break apart projects into smaller components.
Technical knowledge is the easiest to teach and learn. You can use a tool over and over again until you get the hang of it, and you can compare your results to pictures of other projects built with the same techniques.
Emotional-affective knowledge means understanding moods and feelings, and how to create them. In props, we need to discern how the prop functions in the production and figure out what the director and designers are trying to achieve. This is difficult when you are in your workshop, divorced from the rest of the elements of the play. You may have a drawing or some research, but you may not have the full context of the production. It helps immensely to read the play and to look at the drawings for the rest of the design. You should know what part your prop plays in the world and what it needs to do; not what it needs to do technically, but what kind of information it needs to communicate to the audience, or what emotions it needs to evoke.
How do we teach this? Emotional-affective knowledge is best gained through experience, and we can help young prop builders by allowing them to shadow us to production meetings or when we communicate with designers. All prop builders can benefit from having access to draftings, renderings, and models of the design so they can see the full picture. Most helpful is when you can hear the designers and director talk about the play and their particular production. Here at Triad Stage, we have a Meet and Greet with designer presentations on the first day of rehearsals, which is always illuminating.
Interpersonal knowledge is mostly gained through experience. A props person needs to consider how the actor feels about the prop and how an idea can be suggested tactfully. We should possess the ability to read the room, whether in tech or a meeting; how to get your designer to trust you and your decisions and skills; how to communicate where you are in your process; how to convey confidence that you can solve a problem versus how to clearly ask for more resources. You occasionally reach an unsolvable problem; a director who trusts your skills will accept your explanation of why the problem is unsolvable. A director who does not trust your skills may think you are simply not smart enough to solve the problem, or that you do not want to do the work. It does not matter if a director or designer understands the technical side of theater so much as it matters whether they have faith that you understand the technical side.
Most importantly, we need to learn how to say “no”. Most of us are taught to never say no, but we still need to do our jobs. Some requests violate the laws of physics, others are impossible for budgetary or technical reasons. A more accurate way to phrase this problem is “how to make your director never hear ‘no’.” This combines all three forms of skill. You need the technical knowledge to know what is possible for your shop to accomplish. You need the emotional-affective knowledge to grasp what the director actually wants. And you need the interpersonal skills to engage them in a discussion that leads to a solution that everyone feels will benefit the show.