Tag Archives: job

Buying the Right Tools

Amy Slater cuts a fake goat apart
Amy Slater cuts a fake goat apart

Artisans have a wide range of opinions on how to choose your tools. Some feel the cheapest tools are good enough, while others feel only the most expensive tools are worth your time. I believe it’s better to have the right tool for the job, rather than trying to improvise with the wrong tool. If that means you have to buy the cheapest one because your budget is small, so be it. Better to pound in a nail with a cheap hammer than the end of your cordless drill.

When you are building your tool collection, you will most likely feel tempted to buy all sorts of tools you see in the store or read about. If you wish to “audition” a tool to figure out whether it deserves a place in your toolbox, buy the cheapest version that will get the job down. If you use it to the point where it wears down and falls apart, you know it will be worth it to invest in a more expensive and higher quality version. You will also learn why it is a cheap version and which features and specifications to look for in your next purchase. If, however, that cheap tool sits around in your tool box for a year, unused, than you can feel good that you did not spend a lot of money on a tool which you don’t actually need.

Review: Careers in Technical Theater

Careers in Technical Theater, by Mike Lawler, occupies a somewhat unique position in a bookshelf filled with theatre books. Rather than describe how to do the various jobs one can have backstage, it describes what those jobs are. Perhaps more importantly, it illustrates how one pursues those jobs and what one can expect with those jobs, both in terms of duty and in terms of lifestyle and compensation.

Before I focus on the chapter in props, I’d like to point out the value of the rest of the book. It is very helpful to know what all the other people in the theatre are doing, as you’ll likely deal with most of them at least once in your career. If you don’t know the difference between a stage manager and a production manager, you’ll likely waste your time asking questions of the wrong person. Likewise, for those just starting out in their careers, it can be useful to be introduced to the range of jobs that are possible backstage. Perhaps you’re more suited to be a scenic artist than a props person, but if your school didn’t have a good scenic arts program, you may have been unaware that they are a regular position in many theaters.

The chapter on props spends the bulk of its time in an interview with Jim Guy, props director of the Milwaukee Rep (and currently the President of S*P*A*M). In a way, Guy runs the idealized prop shop, and other theatres will have an adapted or stripped-down version of that shop. In that respect, it’s a good example of what one can expect in a career in props, if one is looking for full-time employment. It doesn’t touch much on a freelance career in props. This type of working career is probably more common in larger urban areas which can support several theatres, though it all depends on how far one is willing to travel. A certain number of artisans have a ” journeyman” type of career, where they travel the country spending a few months or a whole season at various companies. This happens because a lot of theatres close down over the summer, while another large group only operates during the summer. Neither can afford a full-time staff for the full year, but an artisan can make a full-time salary by always moving where the work is until a full-time position opens up somewhere.

This book was published in 2007, making it one of the more up-to-date guides to careers in technical theater. Though we had a slight case of the “major-global-economic-meltdown”s, we’ve recovered a bit since then. Theatre careers are somewhat recession-proof, in that jobs are scarce and pay is meager even in the best of times.

The information on pay is compelling, but woefully incomplete; it’s not the fault of Mr. Lawler, rather it’s that only 35 props people responded to his survey. Adding just Broadway and off-Broadway people, who are not represented here, can quickly double the entire survey. We also have no information from opera, touring shows, or the academic world, all of which are major employers of props people. Finally, we have no indication of whether any of the respondents are in unions or not. I would also like to mention that props people, particularly artisans, have an easier time freelancing and doing side gigs in other fields besides theatre. Building props for film, television, events, or retail displays uses nearly the same skills as building props for theatre, and many props artisans take advantage of this.

That being said, the information that Lawler does provide is highly useful, giving at least an indication of what an average salary for a props person is in the United States. Overall, the book does a good job of what it sets out to do, which is providing a realistic, utilitarian and concise introduction to actually working in technical theatre.

Props in Movies, 1922

The Property Man

Who Is Qualified to Become One?

By Ray Chrysler, Matter of Properties, Metro Pictures Corporation, 1922.

Picture a curiosity shop and you can visualize clearly the property room of a large studio. In it, one will find everything from a suit of armor to a canary bird’s nest. From it, several well-furnished homes or hotels could be outfitted. Complete with such appointments as fine linens and such accessories as art objects.

The term “prop” really covers everything. Sometimes it means a stable, another time a bull dog, a box of candy or an automobile, a work of art, of any of a million other things. In a motion picture studio, a “prop” means some object that is used in the making of the picture.

To qualify for fitness in being master of all this vast domain of materials, one must indeed have special training. The property man must be a very resourceful person, for it is up to him to know the location of any one of a thousand articles in his property room, and to be able to place his hand on almost anything that a director could call for in the work of filming a motion picture.

The property man has not as yet received his place in that limelight which seems to bathe all other studio executives. But when it is considered that a property man should have brains, initiative, and a good, retentive memory, it seems that he, too, is entitled to his share of glory. One thing is certain; he has a thousand times more worry and responsibility than his brother property man in the legitimate theatrical world.

It is from the ranks of the stage property men that many of the screen’s property men are recruited. Still there are amateurs as well who have essayed the role of property man and have made good. To become a successful property man one must believe nothing impossible. Should he receive an order to produce a set of furniture of the time of the discovery of America, he must know or find out just what style of furniture was popular in those days.

Once he ascertains just what would be proper, he attempts to locate it and if it is not to be found, he must produce it. So he prepares plans, and then turns them over to the studio carpenter shop, where the needed articles or pieces of furniture are manufactured.

On an average, the property man has about twenty-four hours’ notice of the various “props” that will be needed in a new production. Within that time two or two hundred pieces of furniture, a piano, a phonograph, a harp, a violin, twenty sets of curtains, half dozen rugs of various sizes or anything else imaginable must be in its proper place on the “set” where it is to be used. It is the duty of the Property Department to furnish all interior decorations that are not permanently attached to the walls of the Settings themselves.

To care for this conglomerate assemblage of things, there is a department head and a corps of prop boys. Every article that goes out of the prop room is checked—the name of the picture in which it is to be used, the number of the stage which it is to be set on, and the number of scenes in which it is to be photographed. This is done for two reasons: first, to keep track of the articles; and second, it is a distinctive object, so that it wll not be used conspicuously in another picture. You see it would be very poor business if a handsome hand-carved chest, which adorned a star’s New York apartment in one picture, were to be used in his Spanish castle in his next. People would say, “Well, they take their furniture right along with them, don’t they ?”

Many times articles of great value are used in pictures. These are sometimes rented from antique shops, or private collections. While they are in the studio they are in the care of the “prop” department, and checked out each day along with the rest of the studio props.

To illustrate the variety of props purchased or rented I might mention that Goldwyn recently rented a “freak” prop – a trained mocking bird for which they paid $5.00 a day (the wage of an extra man or woman).

Originally printed in Opportunities in the motion picture industry, and how to qualify for positions in its many branches; published by the Photoplay Research Society, 1922 (pp 83-84).

Historic Description of a Props Master

(originally from The Young Woman’s Journal, 1921)

The Property Man

“Props”— provides, cares for, and places in proper position on the stage all furniture, draperies, lugs, carpets, lamps, telephone, letters, documents, etc. — in fact, all articles needed in the play except the personal properties of the actor. Things only used by a single actor — such as a fan, a cane, an eyeglass, a parasol, a handkerchief, a letter, if it remains with the one person and not given to another or is not left on the stage —  these are personal “props.” A small table should be provided on either side of the stage for offstage “props,” such articles as are needed to be carried on stage, or for properties brought off stage. The property man should see that actors do not carry such “props” to their dressing rooms, but that they are left on the table provided. Stage drinks — which are made of grape juice, ginger-ale, or root beer, according to the color needed, are cared for and bought by “props” on order of the director countersigned by the business manager.

The property man should take an artistic pride in his stage picture and spend a good deal of time to secure, by renting or borrowing or making, the exact style of furniture and things needed for the play. A period play with modern furniture which one sees in stock performance is ludicrous. Charlie Millard, the veteran property man of the Salt Lake Theatre made all his properties and furnished the actors in Brigham Young’s time with even personal “props.” The stage manager furnishes “props” with a property plot containing a list of properties needed for each scene in the play.

The Young Woman’s Journal, vol 32, pp. 561-2, 1921

The Property-Man in Vaudeville Theatre

The Property-man

(from The vaudeville theatre, building, operation, management, by Edward Renton, 1918)

“Resourcefulness” should be the middle name of the individual who is competent to occupy the position of property-man in a theatre. There are other important qualifications, but this one is essential. He may be called upon to supply anything from an Egyptian mummy to a three week-old child, upon a moment’s notice. He must be a bit of a carpenter, something of an artist, a great deal of a diplomat, and he must be “on the job” from the rising of the sun to considerably after the setting thereof-in other words, this is not the place for a lazy or a shiftless man.

A property-man should have the ability to meet people pleasantly and to make a favorable impression. He should cultivate cordial relations with transfer companies, with the various merchants of the city, and with other persons from whom he is likely to need favors in the way of borrowed properties. He will be faced with the necessity of requesting loans from homes, pawn-shops, museums and other public institutions, stores and individuals. He should be able to convey the impression of responsibility- and should live up to it. To a peculiar degree, he has the reputation of the theatre in his keeping; it is absolutely essential that he call for properties loaned or rented at the time agreed upon, that he care for such articles most assiduously while they are being used and that
he return them promptly and in the same condition as when borrowed.

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