Tag Archives: definition

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.

Monday’s Rockin Links

I spent the weekend with my wife at Monomoy Theatre, where she is the guest scenic designer for two shows. I wish I could turn that into a segue for today’s blog post, but unfortunately, it just means I only had time to hunt down some links for you all. Maybe at the end of the summer, I’ll have a “what did you do on your summer vacation” post to hear your stories about propping summer stock shows and what not.

  • Here is an interview with Paul Alix, one of the model-makers on the new Predators movie. It also includes a video of him demonstrating some casting techniques.
  • Speaking of casting, here is Sarah Gill casting a sheep’s head. It’s from 2007 but still loads of fun.
  • Design*Sponge has great pieces on the histories of certain objects. Two recent ones include the history of the fork and the history of the curule (an x-stool, or folding stool).
  • British Antique Furniture Restorers’ Association has loads of information on antique furniture, including a glossary of terms used to describe pieces and parts.

Prop Master vs. Props Director

What is the difference between a property master and a properties director? There is some contention in the props world and theatre world at large as to the correct name to call the head of props. Some feel “props master” is a traditional term that will soon be phased out. I posit that the two terms are actually distinct and can be used to more accurately describe the different roles and jobs available in the props world.

A properties director is in charge of a props shop and oversees the artisans, shoppers, and other employees. A prop master is in charge of providing props for a show.

I’ve written before about my theory as to why we use the term “prop master”. The term prop master seems to have gradually replaced the more-dated term “property man“. The earliest known occurrence of the term “property man” was in 1749, while the term “property master” was seen as early as 1831. Interestingly though, the term “property man” has persisted all the way through the 1970s (and beyond), though in later years it was used more to describe one who worked in the props department, rather than as the head of one.

The default name for the head of props is “prop master”. “Properties Director” is a much newer term, designed to describe the head of a discrete department on par with electrics, sound, or scenery. While the momentum of tradition still causes some properties directors to be referred to as prop masters, a prop master is not necessarily a properties director. A properties director may be the props master for all the shows in a season. But in a company that does a multitude of work in a number of spaces, the properties director may hire additional props masters for some of the shows.

As an example, here at the Public Theater, Jay Duckworth is the head of the properties department. He is what some would consider the “properties director” (though due to tradition, his official job title remains “property master”). As part of his job, he is the prop master on the mainstage shows. We have a series of productions called the PublicLAB, which are smaller-budgeted, but still fully-produced, new plays that are not part of the mainstage season. We hire an additional person for each of these shows to be the prop master. This person does not become head of the department, nor does Jay cease to be in charge. Thus you can see why the distinction is important; in the Public Theatre prop department, Jay is the properties director even when he is not the prop master on the current show, and additional prop masters can be hired without altering the hierarchy of the department.

The duties of a props director are best described in “The Properties Directors Handbook” by Sandra Strawn, which I’ve linked to on the side of this website since the beginning. One of the better guides to being a prop master can be found in The Prop Master: A Guidebook for Successful Theatrical Prop Management by Amy Mussman. You will notice that there is a large amount of overlap in these two guides. Indeed, the prop master for a large Broadway show will have more employees and managerial duties than the properties director at a small regional theatre. The distinction is not meant to be a hierarchical one (ie, to imply that being a properties director is a step up in the career ladder). Rather, the distinction is neccesary to clarify the job duties of whomever is hired.

It’s like the difference between a claw hammer and a ball peen hammer. Neither is better than the other, and in most cases they can accomplish the same task. However, for the tasks which each was specifically designed, you will find subtle differences that make them perform better than the other.

As a final note, I don’t really care for the term “properties manager”. In some cases, especially academia, giving someone the title of “director” automatically places them in a different salary range. It’s a totally arbitrary bureaucratic reason. Regardless, the term “property manager” is more commonly used in real estate, and so it is confusing to use a similar term, especially when a more distinct one already exists. Second, when an organization lists a job posting for a “property manager”, you have no idea what the position actually is. Usually, the job they are describing is more akin to a props run crew supervisor (a distinct job in its own right) rather than a prop master or properties director.

It is vital that the correct job titles be more consistently used in order for people with the correct skills and career goals to find these jobs (and vice versa).

Fun Prop Quotes

Today, let me regale you with several quotes I’ve collected from mid-twentieth century books on props.

“One of the key jobs on any film set is that of the property master, and his range of activity is perhaps the largest of all. If it ‘moves, it’s mine,’ the prop man can say, on most occasions.”
People who Make Movies, by Theodore Taylor, 1967 (pg 76).

“In the property-maker’s room lives the wizard of the studio. He is always experimenting with new compositions with which to get the multitudinous effects that he is called on to supply. Latex, rubber solution, glues, Rhodoid, cellophane, resinous plastics, Perspex, and ingenuity – these are his materials. He is an inventor, a chemist, a bit of an artist, and an engineer.”
Designing for Films, by Edward Carrick, 1950 (pg. 106).

“The three basic types of properties are stage props, such as furniture, news desks, and lecterns; set dressings, such as pictures, draperies, and lamps, and hand props, which are items such as dishes, telephones, and typewriters actually handled by the talent.”
Television Production Handbook, 5th ed., by Herbert Zettl, 1992 (pg. 440).

“The most important part of any storage area is its retrieval efficiency. If you must search for hours to find the props to decorate your office set, even the most extensive prop collection is worth very little. Clearly label all storage areas, and then put the props and scenery back every time in the designated areas.”
Television Production Handbook, 4th ed., by Herbert Zettl, 1984 (pg. 28).

“As soon as the actors are free of books, important hand props (those handled a good deal by the actors) should be brought to rehearsal – or rehearsal substitutes provided – so actors can practise the use of them and save time at dress rehearsals.”
Directing for the Theatre, by Wieder David Sievers, 1965 (pg. 246).

Confusions in the Definition of a Prop

The definition of a prop is a sometimes nebulous thing. We all know that a book or an apple is a prop. But what about a purse or a built- in bookcase? And why is props in charge of manual sound effects and bushes? The confusion stems from the fact that what a prop is and what a prop shop does can be different things. To confound this, one prop shop may have slightly different duties than another; also, the duties of a prop shop in theatre are different then that of a props crew in film. As one final confusion, an individual production may see a slight modification in the duties of the prop shop based on the specific challenges in relation to the workloads of the various shops. A scene shop may build a certain prop because their shop is better equipped for its manner of construction. It is still a prop in the academic sense. After the show, it goes into the prop shop’s storage, and if used again, it is a props person that pulls it from the stock. Likewise, in a future production, the prop shop may be better equipped and can build a similar prop on their own. It is not the scene shops duty just because they built one in the past.

Keep these three confusions in mind when talking about the definition of a prop. Though usually the same, the academic definition of a prop and the practical obligations of a prop shop are sometimes at odds.