Why is there no Tony Award for Props?

Imagine The Phantom of the Opera without the chandelier, the organ, the boats, or the mirror. Imagine Les Misérables without guns or the breakaway chair. Imagine other shows without the props. These are all shows that have won Tony Awards for their Set Designs. But what would they be without the props?

First, let us consider why there is no props or props design categories in awards ceremonies. Historically, props have been the realm of the set designer. In addition to walls and floors (and sometimes ceilings), the set designer is responsible for describing and designing all the props. Though the actors may request them, or the director finds he or she wants them, or the stage manager discover a need for one, the set designer has the first and final decision on the “look” of the prop. Of course, the prop master is frequently finding all the possible options, and in the end, the set designer is merely choosing between the two or three options which the props master has presented. Also, many set designers do not go into nearly enough detail that the props master doesn’t find him or herself filling in the gaps. Sometimes the hardest job can be taking a thousand possibilities and turning them into a single reality. Some set designers love to give the props master a stack of research images to serve as design “inspiration”, which forces the prop master to do all the legwork.

In many modern settings, the set designer is far too busy to deal with the minutia of all the various props in a production. It often falls to the first or even second assistant to research, design and draft the furniture and special hand props. Many times, a prop master will deal solely with one of the assistants through the entire process to hone the selection of all the props. Even with the undivided attention of an entire assistant, the prop master is still forced to make many design decisions.

Some productions have begun recognizing the need for a distinct props designer. Otherwise, the props remain lumped within the set design purview, even when their design is undertaken by completely separate people. There remain shows where “set design” encompasses the designing of the props; in other cases, keeping the two together makes as much sense as combining architecture and interior design. Sound design used to be undertaken by the second assistant in the lighting department; it has since broken apart and is now recognized as its own discipline with its own category at most awards ceremonies. Props is far older than sound design. In fact, it predates the idea of a “scenic designer” in most cultures and theatre traditions. You can do Hamlet without scenery, but you can’t do it without a skull.

A year after the Tony’s were founded, they introduced an award for Best Stage Technician. In 1950, Joe Lynn won a Tony for his work as master propertyman on Miss Liberty. The last award for this category was given in 1963. Joe Lynn remains the single props person to have won a Tony in its 63 year history.

Most of the other New York-based theatrical awards are equally deficient in their recognition of props and prop design. The Drama Desk Awards, the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle all neglect to include props as a category. In 2004, Faye Armon was recognized as part of the design team for Bug, becoming the only person to win an Obie for props. She is, arguably, only the second New York props person to ever be awarded for her work.

Other cities and regions are similar in their non-recognition of props design. The Drammy Awards began in 1979 to recognize Oregon theatre. In 2006, they awarded Andy Berry for Properties in Underneath the Lintel. The Acclaim Awards in Cincinnati began in 2006.  They gave an award for Properties to Shannon Rae Lutz in 2010 for Great American Trailer Park Musical. These are the exceptions to the rule, however.

Neither Chicago’s Jeff Awards, nor Los Angeles’ Drama Critics Circle Awards recognize props or props design. The South Florida Carbonell Awards, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards, Boston’s Elliot Norton Awards, San Diego’s Craig Noel Awards and Washington DC’s Helen Hayes Awards are equally remiss in their recognition of the value of props to a theatrical production.

I can go on – and I will; The Barrymores in Philadelphia, Boston’s IRNE Awards, the Ivey Awards in Minneapolis, the Henrys in Colorado, and St. Louis’ Kevin Kline Awards follow the trend set by the Tony’s by not giving awards to prop designers. This is not unique to the United States;  The Laurence Olivier Awards, London’s equivalent to the Tony’s, does not give awards to props or any theatre technicians either.

So my question to you is this: should there be a Tony Award for Props? Why or why not?

7 thoughts on “Why is there no Tony Award for Props?”

  1. Using your example of Yorick’s skull in Hamlet: yes, any production would suffer without it, but how would you rank one specific skull prop against another? Is one made using modern materials better than, say, Tchaikowsky’s actual skull? No doubt prop technicians deserve recognition, but I think there are inherent difficulties in incorporating that recognition within broad-based award programs like the Tony’s. Perhaps a more technician-specific awards program would be more satisfactory than pushing for recognition within existing awards shows that have historically rebuffed prop masters.

  2. It’s true that singling out specific props for awards would not really belong in a broad-based ceremony like the Tonys. It’s better left in more technical-specific arenas. In fact, conferences like SETC, USITT and KCACTF already recognize the work done on props for anyone who submits an entry.

    But I’m talking more about the work done on all the props in a show. Props designers already exist, but none of the awards ceremonies have a Props Design category. In many cases, a show does not have a props designer, but the prop master is still acting as a designer. On one extreme, a set designer may design the floor and the walls and leave the choice of furniture up to the director and the prop master. The prop master needs to work with the director to choose the couch, rug, lamp, fridge, counters, stove, as well as all the hand props; one would also need to work with the costume designer to ensure the colors all work together and with the lighting designer for the same reason.

    That sounds like design to me. You would not give an architect an award for what an interior designer did in one of the rooms.

  3. You can add the Richmond Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards to the list of regional theatre awards that don’t recognize the work of the props designer/master/artisan (whatever name you choose). I think props design should definitely be an award category. I feel like we do a ton of work for an ounce of recognition. Many people in & out of the business seem to think that props is a job that anyone can do, but you can tell the difference in shows where someone put thought into the props vs. one where they just provided the necessities. Perhaps an award would help to legitimize the work in the eyes of others and offer the recognition we deserve.

  4. I’ve struggled with the recognition question for years. For a while my mantra was “if a critic notices the props, then I’ve done something wrong.” They should be a seamless part of the whole. But lately I’ve felt like I’ve done a lot of good work that, yes, should be recognized as part of the scenic elements. And, yes, it bugs the sh*t out of me when the set designer gets credit by an outsider for work that I’ve done (NB: I work in a small theater where I am the props designer and the set designer is a separate person who does not give me a list). While I agree that one particular prop may not be better, if as a whole the design elements are particularly spot on perfect, yes, that should win some sort of award. That’s what we do for performances, right? Anyone can say Hamlet’s words, but to be Olivier?

  5. I definitely agree that more and more, what I do as a props master is becoming design work. In my work in small (and not so small) Chicago storefront theatre, I do most of my own research, and all my own shopping and building. Working with set designers usually consists of discussions about general concept at the beginning of the process, running large pieces past them before purchasing and discussing notes and changes with them during tech.
    Anything that is not set dressing or furniture usually doesn’t concern the scenic designer at all, and for some shows that is a lot of stuff.
    There are complications of course. I worked on a show recently that had a small set, so the set designer took on acquiring all the furniture, and there are countless things that fall right between set and props that in some theatres I would take care of and in some theatres would fall to the TD. I think these complications are minor though. There is collaboration in all areas of design but we still manage to separate the other areas out enough to recognize exceptional work.

  6. As I write this there is a small tear of joy glistening in my eye…I LOVE this website. Thank you Eric for the time you have dedicated to your website and sharing all of this fabulous information. I am new to the theater biz and had no idea that I would love it so. I love the challenges presented every season. I love the research involved. I love engineering the ‘impossible’! I love being able to fabricate a pump action shotgun out of an airsoft rifle that actually shoots an umbrella out of the barrel from the trigger. I love being able to fabricate a Kandarian Dagger out of balsa wood and Loc tite power grab that puts the movie prop to shame. My only dismay with the theater industry is the gross negligence the Prop Designers receive when it’s time to recognize the outstanding contributors each year. I definitely vote for a Prop specific award added to any and all theater award presentations. I have actually started my own personal battle here on the Gulf coast of Florida…I am determined to get my name in the program! Lol, What the heck do we have to do to get the world to understand the uniqueness of our craft?? Thanks again for such a great site!

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