Why make?

This is not an article about the existential question of why we make things? Rather, it is about the more concrete question of why you would build a prop rather than trying to buy, borrow or rent it.

The most obvious reason you would make a prop is because it is simply impossible to acquire otherwise. Imaginary objects or pieces designed to specifically fit into the world of the play fall into this category. For example, during this summer’s production of Merchant of Venice, my wife made a skull which was upholstered in black velvet and bedazzled with shiny jewels. This is not the type of item you can pick up at the local Wal-Mart. Furniture in an abnormal scale or from an invented world will also need to be built for this reason.

Closely related to this category is props which need to be specific in appearance or size. If you need an oil painting portrait of your lead actor in his costume, you are pretty much forced to make it. Likewise, props with specific dimensions or furniture built in forced perspective will not be found in stores.

You may wish to adapt store-bought pieces rather than building them fresh, but beware the consequences. An object from a store will already be finished, and if you cut into it, or add parts to it, you will need to match the color and texture of the original, which may be more challenging than just mixing a paint color from scratch. Likewise, a lot of modern furniture resists easy adaptation; when you cut into what looks like wood, you discover it is actually stress-skin filled with honeycomb paper, and you have no structure inside to attach things too. If you believe your prop is going to undergo many changes during the rehearsal period, it may be wiser to build a prop designed to be adapted, rather than using a store-bought item which undergoes degradation with every change made to it.

A fourth reason for building your props is if they need to perform some kind of technical function or undergo rough treatment. Most furniture you buy was never designed to be danced on, carried around, leaned on its side or otherwise mistreated in any number of creative ways an actor or director comes up with. When I say a prop must perform a technical function, I mean things like a porcelain vase that must fall to the ground without breaking, or a table which can fold up for a quick scene change. I’m going to mention fake body parts in this category, though they can also be considered part of the first category, in that they are impossible to acquire. Legal and moral issues aside, we don’t use real body parts because they rot and smell and attract vermin. You need to build fake ones which will not degrade over time and not make a mess on stage every time they are used.

Another reason to build a prop is because the actual item is too expensive to buy or rent. Shakespeare and opera frequently rely on gold objects littered about the stage, but it would be incredibly costly to buy real gold. Real furniture, especially antiques, is built with expensive hardwoods and labor-intensive finishes which can be indistinguishable from cheaper mimicry under stage lights and viewed from a distance. Likewise, fake food is often built because, if it is not eaten, the cost of buying and preparing real food every night for every show for several weeks (or months or years) just to be thrown away is so much more expensive and wasteful than spending the time to construct a facsimile.

Finally, you may wish to give your artisans a nice project, to help their portfolio, or to give them a sense of “belonging” to the theatre. Building something beautiful or clever gives an artisan pride, and helps instill a feeling of ownership in the show which will help their morale and motivation when it comes to tech and notes and all the fiddly nonsense that nobody wants to do. If they know you will give them exciting and challenging projects throughout the season, they will be more forgiving when the “clean the paint trap” jobs inevitably come up.