Tag Archives: prop shop

The Properties Director’s Handbook

The Properties Director's Handbook
The Properties Director’s Handbook by Sandra J. Strawn

Props people have a new book that was just released today: The Properties Director’s Handbook, by Sandra J. Strawn. Longtime readers may be familiar with the website version of the Properties Director’s Handbook; I’ve mentioned it a few times over the years, and this blog has a link over along the sidebar.

Sandy also happens to be the technical editor for my book. Both of our books are being published by Focal Press. Between the two, they cover two of the major aspects of props: building props, and managing a prop shop. I asked Sandy a few questions about how the website came about and what we can expect from her new book.

What prompted you to first create the Properties Director Handbook website?

Sandy: I was prompted to initially start the handbook from the SPAM (Society for Properties Artisan Managers) discussions at our national conferences. As someone who has been doing this for almost three decades I realized many of our incoming prop masters were asking us “old timers” among the SPAM network many of the same questions: how to organize a shop, how to effectively manage a build, how to write a prop list and work with stage management in updates, etc. I also teach this as part of my arc of training in the prop curriculum. I found myself emailing out my handouts to folks in the business and they would often comment to me, “You should write a book.” I decided to try and compile the information in one spot and was granted a sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee to create my website. I wanted it to be a free textbook available to all those folks who teach the props classes in university programs, as well as to prop professionals or community prop people who need to understand the process of being a prop master or props director.

How has the website been translated into this new book?

Sandy: Seeing the success of my website, Focal Press expressed interest in making a book from part of the chapters I had on the website. Over the past summer I re-worked the webpage into a more condensed book form, now available online from Routledge Press and all the usual online book selling sites.

I have updated my website pretty much continuously since I created it in 2008. As I re-worked the chapters to make them over into a book, I ended up pretty much re-writing and updating everything. I did a new survey on prop salaries and contracts and that information is included in the book as well as some better illustrations of paperwork. The book covers about two-thirds of what is on the site and focuses primarily on the properties director’s process of taking a show from initial script reading through opening. These chapters tend to be the ones most viewed on my site and I think are the ones most relevant to those folks who are teaching prop classes. The web site has many more links and examples of prop lists, show reports, photographs of shops and props, and additional “chapters” on setting up a safe and happy prop shop. Anyone who utilizes the book will find the website a convenient resource for additional reading and research materials as well as interesting examples of prop work and prop shops around the United States.

I wrote this primarily as a textbook for undergraduate props training but I know many beginning prop professionals would find it useful as well. My hope is, in combination with your excellent book on the “how to do” part of making props, this book will help theatre folks understand the “how to manage” part of doing props.

What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about what a prop director/master does?

Sandy: The biggest misconception about what a prop master does is about the range of skills an effective prop master must have in order to do the job well. Not only does the person need to be able to shop, but to create props the artisans must know sewing, welding and metal working, furniture construction and restoration, plastics construction, upholstery, faux painting, radio and pneumatic controls, calligraphy, graphics layout, molding and casting, leather work, painting and portraiture with acrylics and watercolors, floral arrangement, sculpture and 3D carving, especially with foam, electrical construction and wiring, crafts, photography, fabric dyeing and distressing, matting and framing, draping, fabric layout,  pattern making, musical instrumentation, weaponry, pyrotechnics… to name a few.

Layer that on to the management side of being a props director and master, where an effective prop person must be highly organized, creative, have an eye for detail, flair for design, creative adaptability (the “what if…”), be self motivated, and be willing to do all that and more as part of a collaborative design and production process. Whew! I’m exhausted just talking about it!

There is no prop “store” where we can run out and buy all the props; eBay comes close, but our budgets are never enough and those pesky designers always want something so specific it must be created in the shop. That’s what we do as prop people.

In a Graveyard of “Props”, 1904

The following comes from a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I’ve previously posted a portion of this article; I wonder if E. L. Morse is related to the Charles Morse in this ad?

How are the mighty fallen! This is the first thought that comes to him who crosses the threshold of the gloomy old “property shop” in Twenty-ninth Street, where the trappings of past theatrical kingdoms and make-believe monarchies lie mold and unnoticed, stripped of all their former glory.

In front of you, as you enter, is the once haughty helmet of a Richard III or the breastplate of a Julius Caesar, or mayhap a necklace of pearls that was wont to encircle the neck of some dusky, passionate Cleopatra. It is a place full of suggestion, of splendor long forgot—this burial ground of discarded “props.” It is not one of the so-called “sights” of New York, but it contains more of interest than nine-tenths of the wonders proclaimed so blatantly by the megaphonic expositors who shout from the lofty, glistening coaches that roll up and down our avenues every day.

A dingy little hole! If you showed it to the ordinary provincial who had come to “see the town,” it’s ten chances to one he would turn up his nose in disgust and hasten away to find delight in one of the gilt-edged glass-covered palaces that adorn the street corners of Gotham.

But if the contents of this quaint, over-crowded little room could speak, what secrets, what choice morsels of gossip they would give up! They would make the memoirs of a famous actor or actress read like a missionary tract. They’ve been in the seats of the mighty and have taken part in the battles of the strong. That crown you see nearly hidden on the dusty shelf used to rest on the brow of a genius; that dagger, hanging harmless on the smoky wall, peeped every night for six months from the girdle of a woman who was the idol of thousands.

To find this storeroom of relics is no easy thing to do. If a kind friend tells you the address, even then the puzzle is not solved. The shop is not dignified by an entrance on either Twenty-ninth or Thirtieth Street, though it lies squarely between the two. While you are getting to it you think of underground dungeons such as you have read about in the wonderful Arabian Nights stories. After you have stood in the street looking blankly at the number to which you have been directed, you decide to display your ignorance and ask aid of the man in the ground-floor shop. The man looks up from his wares, partly impatient and party amused that any one should want to get into the dirty old “prop shop,” as he calls it.

“It’s back of the house,” he says, jerking this thumb loosely over his shoulder.

You thank him and leave him to find your way to the back. The door under the stoop is dark and forbidding, but beside it is a clew in the form of a faded wooden sign, so faded that the letters it bears are hard to make out. The words are “E. L. Morse, Theatrical Properties.” Evidently, Mr. Morse is not overanxious for anybody to find him.

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.

Finding a Job in Film (for Prop Makers)

If you ask ten prop makers how they began building props for film, you will get ten different answers. It usually involves some combination of luck, timing, and knowing the right person. While theatre has seasonal employment, apprenticeships and internships which you can find advertised as well as job fairs which feature employers that regularly hire prop people, the world of film has no such thing. You can’t learn about it in a book (believe me—I’ve looked). So how do you get started?

I also want to add that I am writing this as I figure it out; I am pretty much a prop maker for theatre, and my film credits are, well… I haven’t done any film. But this is similar to how I began to get work in the display and exhibition world, and that kept me fairly well employed for a few years. So if any of may readers have advice to add, I’m sure all of us, myself included, will be grateful for it.

To start, find out where the props are being built. Continue reading Finding a Job in Film (for Prop Makers)

Childsplay Theatre

I am back from the 18th (or 19th?) official S*P*A*M conference. This year’s host was Jim Luther, the Prop Director at Childsplay Theatre in Arizona. On the Saturday of the conference, he led us on a tour of his props shop and their facilities.

Welcome to the props shop

The front room of the shop is the “clean” room, which also had a number of props out for display. Jim showed us some pieces as we looked around. Continue reading Childsplay Theatre

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.