Tag Archives: classes

Yale Theater “Props”, 1927

This article comes from a 1927 article in The Christian Science Monitor. It has some interesting examples of how props people shopped and sourced articles from nearly ninety years ago. I was also amazed that a university had classes in props back then.

Haunting the antique shops is a regular part of the duties of the “property man” in any well-organized theater, and “property hunting” forms part of the curriculum of Yale University Theater, established last year under the direction of Prof. George P. Baker, formerly of Harvard University.

One student in charge of properties is given a crew of from six to eight assistants, varying according to the size of the production. Early in the year it is the business of “props” to make friends with all the second-hand men and antique dealers in town and find out those who are willing to rent their goods for a small nightly sum.

As soon as the list of “props,” furniture and small article need in the play, has been made out, the crew assembles and two or three are chosen to visit the antique dealers. The explorers roam the town, up State Street and down Grand Avenue, and across to Chapel Street in excited quest of trophies that may range from hair trunks to sofas and strings of shell for a what-not, from ladder-back chairs to weaving looms or a case for an opera hat.

Some of the articles are bought outright and added to the theater’s permanent collection, appearing from year to year. These are staples, such as spinning wheels, carved chests, artificial flowers, dishes, firearms, sets of “book-backs” for sham library shelves, pottery, electric doorbells and telephones, beside innumerable small adjuncts such as writing materials, sewing and knitting paraphernalia, photographs and knives, all of which are classified and kept in marked boxes, ready for such directions as “Tooby enters from the garden carrying a bouquet of roses. Tiptoeing to the table, he places them carefully in a bowl and, seizing the paper knife, begins slitting the mail.”

Costume plays make heavy demands on the property pantry for family portraits, reticules, antimacassars, highboys, marble-topped tables, rag rugs, nail kegs and other household incidentals, a list of which sounds like a will in probate.

For such as these, the antique shop, the Salvation Army store, even the junk dealer has his uses, and in some cases near-by villages are scoured for specimens of the period. One scene laid in the middle of the last century was supposed to take place in a mid-western “parlor,” and called for a clock with a scene painted on the front. It was found in a shop in West Haven and brought in, lurching dejectedly, but embellished with a brave sweep of ocean. It was so decrepit that no one thought of stuffing the spring with cotton. In the middle of the play it suddenly came to life, ticking sonorously through the entire act, much to the actors’ discomfiture.

Old houses which are being torn down are a prolific source of “props” and are especially useful to the scene designer. Mantels, cornices, doors, window frames, and even entire fireplaces often are bought up for a song, later to be utilized as part of a “set.”

In one case the designer was in despair over a garden scene where he must produce a fountain. The usual expedients such as canvas stretched on wire netting and painted produced dolefully squat dolphins. Papier mache succeeded little better. Finally, happening to pass the weedy yard where a house was being torn down, the designer saw the very thing he wanted lying half matted in grass.

He strode in, bargained with the wrecking company, and carried his find back to the theater. For $2 he had bought what nearly a week’s work had failed to achieve.

Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 1927; “Yale Theater ‘Props'”, special correspondence, page 8.

Stan Winston School Videos

The Stan Winston School offers classes out in California for a number of crafts. Stan Winston Studios is, of course, famous for many of its movie creatures and animatronics, such as the Terminators, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the aliens from Alien, and many more. The classes they offer fit their specialties, such as sculpting, creature design, large-scale puppetry, painting and so on.

For those who can’t afford to head out to California and attend monster-making school, they have hours and hours of videos on their website. They offer a number of options for viewing the videos; everything from subscribing for a year of unlimited video watching ($300) to buying a DVD of a single lesson ($40). Previews of all the lessons are available for free viewing so you can check them all out. Below is a pretty fun one of foam fabrication, where Ted Haines constructs a Tyrannosaurus out of upholstery foam.

It seems like a great option to augment your skills since these kinds of classes usually aren’t offered at the local Learning Annex.

Read my book online now!

Okay, you can’t read my whole book online. But I do have two whole chapters you can check out on The Prop Building Guidebook’s companion website.

What are these chapters, you may ask? Well, as you can imagine, prop making covers a vast amount of information, and choosing what to put in and what to leave out was one of my biggest challenges. We could have made the book longer, but that would have pushed the price up, which we didn’t want to do. We could have made the pictures smaller, but that would not be good either. In the end, we decided to take the last two chapters and put them up on the website for free. This way, the book can remain affordable, the pictures can remain a decent size, and you get a sneak peek at some of the book. These chapters have been edited and proofed just like everything else in the book, they just appear online rather than in print.

The two chapters are called “Formal Training” and “Maintaining a Portfolio”. The first digs through the tricky question of what kind of training or schooling you may wish to pursue to become a better prop maker. Vocational classes, colleges and universities, graduate schools and more are talked about here. I also look at the various types of jobs and work one can get. I present information useful whether you wish to be a prop maker for film, television, theatre or any of the related industries, and whether you wish to pursue a full-time job or work as a freelancer on different gigs. It can be a tricky field to navigate, so I try to present as much information as I’ve gleaned along the way.

The second chapter gives an introduction on creating and maintaining a portfolio of all the work you do. I discuss both online sites and paper portfolios; though paper portfolios have become far less prevalent these days, I’ve still used them in the last couple of years, both in applying for work and in hiring people. This chapter also discusses photography and how to take better pictures of your work. A bad picture of a good prop can make it look like a bad prop.

So check out the bonus chapters of The Prop Building Guidebook when you can. And don’t forget to pre-order your copy if you haven’t already!

Which Classes Should I Take

It’s that time of year again; summer is winding down and school is about to start. If you’re one of many who are in college or graduate school, you may be wondering what classes you should take to help you be a better props person. Hopefully, I can help.

It should go without saying that if your theatre department offers a class in props, you should take it. If you go to a school that has multiple types of props classes, even better.

Other departments in your theatre program may have classes you can take as well. Mask-making, costume crafts, puppet building, scenic carpentry, etc. Even if you take a regular costume class, you will learn how to sew. You may also discover that you prefer working in costumes rather than in props. Part of going to college is to expose yourself to new experiences and career possibilities; you should keep an open mind and not rationalize your choices based on what you think you should be doing or what others expect of you.

Many props people I know who studied theatre in college focused on scenic design. They continue working in props as a way to pay the bills in between design gigs. Others, such as yours truly, find they actually prefer being a props person rather than a scenic designer. Scenic design classes are very helpful for a props person. First, the scenic designer is the main person a props master deals with on a show, so knowing how they work and how they arrive at their choices will help you deal with your designer better; it will give you a common vocabulary to speak with. Second, a designer comes up with a concept, and works out the details based on that concept and overall look. As a props person, you continue filling in the gaps of the design down to the tiniest details. Being able to think like a designer will help you take in the design as a whole and use it to decide what magnets to put on the refrigerator, or what color to stain the end table. If the designer wants a lamp, it is more efficient if the props master presents three options which fit the design of the play, rather than three completely random choices.

If your school offers a technical direction class, that is good for a props person as well; you can learn the project management skills which will help you as a props master and the ability to develop construction drawings from a designer’s drafting, which can assist you as a prop artisan.

The fine arts department is another place where you can find classes to take. Many arts departments are very particular about who takes their classes; in fact, if you are a junior or senior and not an art major or minor, they might not let you take any of their classes. But if you do manage to work your way in, classes in sculpting, mold-making, metal-work, mixed-media and found-object assemblage and the like will behoove you greatly.

In addition to practical arts classes, art history is an excellent class to broaden your prop knowledge. In fact, any sort of design history or theatre history classes will expand your knowledge base.

If you attend a liberal arts school, do not give up the opportunity that your general education classes may present. Rather than taking easy or basic courses in the other departments, look for the ones which are secret prop-classes in disguise. Classes in sociology, anthropology and history which focus on domestic life or the objects used by various cultures in the past or present. In my own undergraduate years, I fulfilled one of my humanities requirements with a class entitled, “Japanese Anthropology through Film,” which gave me a great crash course in contemporary Japanese life and pop culture, as well as some great reference books which will come in handy when I do a play set in Japan.

Remember: a props person is always learning, and every experience can enrich not just our vocation, but our lives as well. Have a good school year, and stay classy.