Tag Archives: products

Product versus Process

I heard a story awhile back from a fellow props artisan. A large company was in town, putting on the kind of show that required hundreds of specialty props, all created specifically for their production. They started out working with one of the larger prop shops in the area. The shop was good, but they were still not happy with a number of the props; the performers themselves needed to talk directly to the artisan in order to give all the details and needs they were looking for. When the prop was finished, they wanted to be able to use it in rehearsal for a bit, then work with the artisan again to suggest changes and ask for modifications.

The large prop shop wasn’t set up to do business like this. They were used to taking drawings and draftings from a designer, constructing the prop, and delivering it to the theatre. They could certainly deal with the changes and additions that happen in every production, but the kind of individual one-on-one experimentation with props throughout the rehearsal process that these actors wanted was beyond their capabilities. This is where the fellow props artisan comes in. He was able to provide this kind of daily collaboration. He would talk through the prop with the performer, making notes and asking questions, then head to his shop for the rest of the day. The next morning, he would bring a newly constructed prop to the performer who would try it out and then suggest new changes and additions based on what was learned.

This is the difference between props as a product and as a process, and it is one of the reasons why good props artisans will always be needed. In one case, you are “ordering” a custom prop from a prop shop. In some ways, it is just like you would buy some of your props off of eBay or from a catalog. Having this shop continually make changes and modifications becomes expensive, inconvenient, or even downright impossible. Even if all of the props are built by an outside group, you will still need an artisan on hand who can modify and work with the props to make them do what the show needs them to do. Having an artisan on hand also allows the props department to be a bigger part of the whole collaboration. Like a conductor who lowers the volume of the trumpets or speeds up the tempo at certain parts in the music, an artisan can alter the weight or balance of a prop, change the color, or add a secret handle between rehearsals.

I’m not trying to knock commercial prop shops in this post, but rather make a point about the continuing need for artisans in an age where our industry is seeing more and more computerized fabrication. CNC routers and 3D printers are great technologies, and hold even more promise in the future, but they are no replacement for a good props artisan. They create products. They don’t replace the process.

A CNC router can cut an intricate shape out of a piece of plywood with very precise measurements, and it can do it a thousand times with no difference between all the pieces. A props artisan is more than just his ability to cut out a shape drawn on a piece of plywood. A props artisan takes the needs and wants of a prop, balanced with the input of the director, the designer, the actor and the stage manager, and weighs it against the limitations of the theatre, the shop, her skills, and all the resources available to her. She chooses the materials and techniques which best fit all of these requirements to construct the prop. And she does it knowing that it may need to be changed or modified later, or even cut entirely from the show.

A smart props artisan will keep on top of the changes in technology and tools available to him and learn when to integrate them into his process. We’ve integrated computer printers into our manufacturing of paper props. Even with all the amazing things one can do with graphics software, artisans still use a surprising amount of non-computerized techniques to add life to paper props. A good artisan uses all tools and methods available to him rather than altering the prop so it can be manufactured by a certain machine.

Thoughts on Green Props

I hate the word “green”. I believe the “green” movement has largely been co-opted by marketers and advertisers in an attempt to sell the same stuff in a new feel-good form. “Green” bottled water and “greener” disposable packaging still has a negative effect on the environment and community.

That being said, I whole-heartily subscribe to what “green” should mean. We can’t pretend that things disappear when you put them in the garbage, and you have to understand that everything comes from somewhere else; how it is made (or mined, or harvested, etc.) has a real impact on people’s lives.

Every bit of lumber we use means less trees somewhere else. In some cases, they come from a place where trees are replanted to replace the ones taken, and a whole group of people are able to make a living for their families. In other cases, entire ecosystems are destroyed as forests are removed, and the native people who live there are pushed aside and left with nothing to sustain them. This is true of all materials. Being green is not some feel-good philosophy to make animals smile. Choosing greener products is a declaration that the materials you buy for making props are less important than razing a village and giving cancer to children.

As props people, we are already predisposed to being green. We collect and reuse things from the past that were destined for the dumpster. We keep our budgets down by trolling thrift stores, eBay, and Craigslist. We let others borrow, rent and buy the items we’ve accumulated. We are largely pack-rats; the only reason we get rid of things is because we physically run out of room to store it in our already overstuffed storage areas.

Being green is also safer. If a product releases toxic chemicals when being used, chances are it also damages the environment in its creation. A shop which chooses less-toxic alternatives in its materials and supplies, which provides proper safety equipment and ventilation, and which is aware of the affects of what it uses (by studying and maintaining its MSDS collection) is already greener than a shop which doesn’t.

For more practical tips and additional information about green theater, you can explore the following links. None of them have to do with props specifically, but combining the information on scenery, costumes, and offices will give you a good start.

Some Thoughts on Brand-Name Props

Let’s imagine you were dressing the set in a realistic manner for a contemporary home. It would be ridiculous to do so without any brand name products. If you step into any random house of the type your characters live in, you will find yourself swimming in a sea of logos and packaging of distinctive colors and shapes. Even something as innocuous as a bookcase can be recognized as IKEA simply by its appearance.

The fact is, to deliberately omit brand names from a contemporary set is not only difficult and time-consuming, it is not realistic. If you carefully construct “look-alike” logos and names, you will merely draw attention to the props. The same holds true if you fill your set with generic brands (such as “Beer” brand beer) – not to mention the fact that a household with all generic products is actually an anomaly and the very opposite of generic.

As you do your research, try to take notice to all the brands around you. Also think about how ingrained some brands are in the fabric of our culture. If a character is drinking a Coca-Cola, you think he is thirsty. If he is drinking an invented brand of cola, you might suddenly wonder if his choice of brand has some significance. It’s distracting.