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The Prop Building Guidebook by Eric Hart

Good news, everyone! I’ve been talking with Focal Press for the past several months, and yesterday, I found out that my book was approved. It is tentatively titled The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film and TV. What’s it going to be about? I am going to lay out all the “whys” of prop building I’ve developed over the years to help you build your own props. Don’t worry; it’s going to be heavy on the “hows” as well. Everything from carpentry and metalwork, to fabric and upholstery, molding and casting, and painting too. It will be the first guide to building props that will feature color pictures. We’re living in the future now!

The Prop Building Guidebook will hit the bookshelves in February, 2013. I know, it feels like a long way off. I will also be developing a companion website and some short videos to complement the book which may debut slightly ahead of then. Until then, you’ll have to continue getting your prop fix from this blog.

So don’t worry about this blog. The world of props is a vast world indeed, and I will continue covering all the news and information here that won’t fit in my book. Some exciting things are on the horizon; the third annual NYC Props Summit is scheduled for August 26th (drop me a line if you are interested in attending). I’ve recently begun interviewing props people, and will post those in a few weeks when I get through transcribing them (transcribing video takes a long time, apparently).

So keep on reading! There’s a world of prop-portunities out there!

This blog is two years old today

It’s hard to believe this blog has been running for another year already. Last year, I summed up the first 162 posts. I’m doing the same thing again this year. If you are new to this site, or even if you’ve been checking it out for awhile, you may not know how much stuff is here; I’ve written 313 posts (that’s over 139,000 words). You can subscribe to my blog with your favorite blog reader, or sign up to get all articles through email so you don’t miss anything in the future. I add three posts a week, and as a bonus, the RSS feed and email subscriptions remain advertisement-free. I also have a Twitter feed where I share news and links about props. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, now would be a great time to leave a comment or drop an email if you haven’t yet; and if you have, feel free to leave another.

I had some things going on outside of this blog this past year. Back in September, I was interviewed at TheatreFace, and you can read the transcript at the site. I also had an article in Stage Directions magazine on the breakable phone from The Book of Grace; another article will be appearing in this February’s issue.

I really hit a nerve with the props community when I asked Why is there no Tony Award for Props? My article On sharing and secret knowledge also proved popular. 25 memorable film props was a big hit with the kids. Other feature length articles I’ve written include Challenges in making props lists for Shakespeare, Which classes should I take, Importance of photographing your work, How much should you charge for your work?, A Common Error in Making Cutlists, Buying the Right Tools, Using soft materials to mimic hard details, Building a Prop from a Photograph, applying for a NYC Theatrical Weapons Permit, and the all-important question: Why Make? I shared Some thoughts on brand-name props, Thoughts on green props, and Thoughts on 3D Printing Technology. I shared two shorter pieces On making things and Getting the shape you want,, and finally gave advice on what to do When Nothing is Happening.

I am interested in the definitions of props and the ideas behind what it means to work in props, and so I opined on what the difference is with a prop master vs prop director, how to tell whether something is a Prop or Not? and what it means when a prop is Cut! I also asked Why the term prop master?, gave my theories on the Confusions in the definition of a prop, and listed some Categories of props.

I showed some process shots from some of the projects I and others in the shop have worked on, such as faux oil paintings, a fake deer butt, a paper-tearing jig, fake french fries, a breakaway telephone, a Medusa head, an LED lighter, a fake dead lamb (part one, part two, and three), a steel headboard for In the Wake, a stuffed kitten from recycled fabric, a chandelier from Romeo and Juliet, as well as an overview of the props from The Book of Grace, and the paper props from Capeman. I also documented the process in making a blood sponge bag, how to gold leaf, faking a beer can, making a switchblade, five quick prop fixes, and ways to make crack and snow.

I took a heavier focus on safety this year, with articles on E-cigarettes, choosing the right disposable glove, all the chemicals in the world, blank-firing guns, and “A Label of Love“.

This past year saw “Props Month” at Stage Directions magazine, as well as the launching of the new S*P*A*M website. I attended the S*P*A*M conference in San Francisco, where I also got to take tours of the San Francisco Opera and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre prop shop. I also attended the  Maker Faire 2010, 2010 NYC Props Summit, and the Going Green in Theatrical Design: Set & Props Workshop sponsored by the Broadway Green Alliance.

I began offering reviews of books for props people, and started off with some of the most commonly used texts, including Theatrical Design and Production by Gillette, Careers in Technical Theater by Mike Lawler, The Theater Props Handbook and The Prop Builder’s Molding and Casting Handbook by Thurston James, The Prop Master by Amy Mussman, and Making Stage Props by Andy Wilson.

I made some drawings. This year I drew the parts of a sword hilt, illustrated categories of props, and the parts of a book. I also linked to other helpful illustrations and diagrams across the web, such as an upholstery yardage chart, 36 knots, bends and splices, mechanical sound effects, and Nokia cellphones and Legos.

I also like looking at the history of props and prop-making, and wrote the following pieces: Oldest Surviving Masks; Medieval theatre and trade guilds; Props in Henslowe’s Diary; Props in the time of Moliere; The Gore of Grand Guignol; Pre-war special effects; and A brief history of IATSE.

Finally, I reprint articles and parts of books from other authors which talk about the world of props in all its many forms and incarnations. In chronological order, these are the articles: The Property Department in an opera house in 1851; Behind the scenes at the theatre, 1861; To literally steal the show 1868; The secret regions of the stage, 1874; The End of Making Props 1883; Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Introduction, Constructing a God, Technical Rehearsals, A Singing Dragon, Dangerous Effects; The Influence of Properties upon Dramatic Literature, 1889; A Place to Buy Thunder, 1898; Behind the scenes: The Property Room, 1898; Stage Sounds, 1904; Busy Stage Workers the Public Never Sees, 1910; The Unreality of Stage Realism, 1912; Writing for Vaudeville, 1915; Play production in America, 1916; Props in Movies, 1922; Dressing interior sets for the motion picture camera, 1923; Stage-hands union, 1923.

So keep reading, and keep propping. This next year should be just as exciting!


The fake dead lamb I made for The Little Foxes was cut.

Fake Dead Lamb
Fake Dead Lamb

It wasn’t because they didn’t like it. In fact, they never even looked at it. They had decided the scene would play better without the actors eating a lamb. So they cut it.

As a props artisan, you cannot take it personally. When a prop is cut, it is cut because the play works better without it. If a director (or writer or producer) tries to keep everything in a play just because they spent a lot of money on it or someone spent a lot of time it would quickly bog the production down. Theatre history is filled with the stories of monumental failures like these, where so much money has been spent and so many famous names are attached, but the production seems to crumble under its own weight. They fail because no one was willing to make the cuts or edit away the extraneous elements.

The lamb is amongst the more spectacular of my props to be cut, but there are certainly plenty of others. Remember this guy?

wooden ratchet noise-maker
wooden ratchet noise-maker

I first made him for the 2009 production of Twelfth Night. Director Dan Sullivan wanted some period noise-makers, and we did not have much in stock. We sent this to rehearsal, but they rejected it. Again, it wasn’t because they disliked it or did not appreciate it; rather the entire “bit” where they would use period noise-makers was re-staged to be something else.

The following year, Dan Sullivan was back to direct our production of The Merchant of Venice. In one of the rehearsal reports, they requested “period noise-makers”. Not to be outdone, I dug this wooden ratchet out of our props stock and sent it up to rehearsal. It again failed to make it into the show. So despite my pride in the construction of this prop, it was cut from two separate productions.

chair from tea
Chair from Tea

I made this chair for the 2007 production of Tea: A Mirror of Soul at the Santa Fe Opera. There were actually going to be nine of these chairs; I prototyped the construction process on the first three, and then I was going to teach our two apprentices how to build them so they could make the remaining six between them both. I solved a lot of structural and design challenges in my prototype. Besides making the splat appear to be both floating and structural, you will notice that the back uprights are offset from the back legs. Usually, they are one long piece running from top to bottom, which gives chairs most of their strength. So I solved these problems and actually had the first three of these chairs built, when I found out they were cut. They hadn’t even made it into rehearsal. The reason? Most scenic designers design past their budget. They know that some elements or pieces will be cut from their design to bring the budget down. The more crafty (or sneaky, depending on your point of view) designers will actually design things that are extraneous just to have pieces to cut later on. It makes them appear like they’re willing to compromise without actually compromising the design they want. It turns out these chairs were one such element, and the designer did not realize I would build them before they were cut. I guess I’m just too fast and efficient in my work.

Please remember: it is inevitable, if you work in props for long enough, that a prop you adore will be cut from the show. Keep in mind that you are working to make the show better.

This blog is one-year old today

Tomorrow will be one year since the First Post of this blog. I now have a link to the archives of my blog, which will show the 162 posts I’ve made so far, as well as this one and all future posts. So if you miss a few days, or are new to the site, you can quickly check out all the contents. If you don’t want to miss any posts from now on, you can subscribe to my blog with your favorite blog reader, or sign up to get all articles through email. I post three times a week, and as a bonus, the RSS feed and email subscriptions are advertisement-free.

During the past year, I attended the 2009 SETC Theatre Symposium, which focused on props. My paper was presented in a panel called “Creating Props, Creating Performances“. I’ve also posted some highlights from Bland Wade’s keynote speech as well as the closing remarks. I also took part in the “first” New York City Props Summit, where I met many other props people from the city. Finally, I was hired full-time as the Assistant Props Master at the Public Theatre.

I described some of the props I made for Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, including a separate post on the bar. During Shakespeare in the Park, I made a wooden ratchet and a funerary urn trick for Twelfth Night. The big prop for The Bacchae was a dead body, which I described in two posts (part one and part two) as well as a third post showing the evolution of the head of Pentheus. Last fall, my wife and I built a three-foot tall garden gnome. I prop-mastered my first New York show, Slave Shack, and wrote an article on the set props and one on the hand props. I finished the year with a wooden table for Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult.

I’ve also made some videos for this site. I have one on blood sponges, a breakaway bottle, making a breakable glass, and a video of my father throwing a ceramic pot. One thing I hope to show more of on this blog is diagrams, illustrations, photographs and timelines of specific kinds of objects. Whether I find them online, or create them myself, my wish is to compile a sort of “quick reference guide” for commonly used props. So far, I have information on bar glassware, telephone history, 40 Styles of Chairs, mid-century kitchens, old-fashioned carpentry tools, a brief history of gift wrap, and the parts of a chair.

This blog has a number of articles I’ve written:

I also reprint articles from older books in the public domain:

I investigated when the the word “property” was first used in the theatrical sense, as well as the first time it was shortened to “props”. I’m interested in the history of props and prop-making itself, and have written about Ancient Greek theatre props, Shakespeare’s Props, and gathered a group of photographs of props in the twentieth century.

And finally, I’ve shown off the work of other people and companies, such as the Santa Fe Opera, Actors Theatre of Louisville Props Shop, a tour of the Mythbusters Shop, Ross MacDonald, Milwaukee Rep’s Prop Shop, the Internet Craftsmanship Museum, prop people across the news, interviews at Collectors Weekly, Mad Men Props, and original Stargate SG-1 Props.

There’s still dozens more posts on this site I haven’t mentioned here, so take the time, if you haven’t already, to poke around. I wanted to thank all of you who have written or talked to me over the past year about this blog; I don’t know if I would keep writing this if I didn’t know people were reading it. If you like this site, leave a comment or shoot me an email, and share it with a friend. I’d also love to hear any suggestions for topics to cover in the future (or topics to stop covering). Until next time, prop it like it’s hot!

The First Post

I started this blog for several reasons. The first is simply that there are no other real prop blogs. At least, none that I can find. And I’ve looked. I like reading blogs. I wish I could read a blog about props a few times a week. Since I can’t, I figured I’d start my own.

The second reason is that I’m working on a book about props. This blog is a way to gather my thoughts, practice my writing, and discuss things that won’t make it into the book.

Finally, I’m presenting a paper at the next SETC Theatre Symposium on props. I thought that would be a great thing to cover on a blog, and I’d like to have this well underway by that point.

Feel free to send in anything you think is of interest for this blog. Prop stories, pictures, and how-tos… if you have a portfolio you wish to share, or pictures of your prop shop or storage… if there are any books, magazines, or articles you’ve read online that you wish to share… whatever it is, send it on in to eric@props.eric-hart.com.