Tag Archives: set design

What’s in a Prop Bible

What is a “prop bible” and why do we have one? We can answer the first question by answering the second; if a prop master were to disappear off the face of the earth during the preparation of a show, the prop bible would allow his or her replacement to pick up exactly where the process was left off. Thus, a prop bible would have any and all information which a prop master has picked up in the course of propping a show about the props and their various details.

Some of our prop bibles
Some of our prop bibles

The first thing a prop bible would have is a copy of the script. Like most prop masters, I like to have the script printed on one side of regular copy paper and placed in a three-ring binder. This lets me add notes, highlights, and otherwise mark up the script. It also allows me to write more detailed notes on the opposing blank page.

The next vital item to have in the prop bible is an up-to-date version of the prop list. The subject of what goes in a prop list is a discussion in and of itself. I wrote about how to read a script back in 2009; while it touches on some parts of creating a prop list, I haven’t explicitly written about the process yet. The important thing for the purposes of this article is to have a single document which lists every prop and piece of set dressing that is expected of you.

Next up is all the information the designer gives you. Drawings, draftings, research and inspiration photographs, and even verbal and written descriptions should all be collected as much as humanly possible. You may not be able to fit full drafting plates in your book, but if possible, you can print out or photocopy at reduced size or selected portion of the drafting with an indication that the full-size version exists in another location. I often do my own supplementary research; I indicate that these pictures did not come from the designer or director, as this can sometimes be an important distinction.

The daily rehearsal reports are also integral to a props bible. The stage managers will (hopefully) sum up all the prop notes and discoveries during the day’s rehearsals and send it out to everyone on the production team. This is where many of the notes about the usage and practical requirements of the hand props will come from. When someone asks “Why is Hamlet’s sword so short?”, you can point to the rehearsal report where the actor decided he would hide his sword under his cape, and a longer sword would stick out the bottom.

Other preproduction information to have copies of includes minutes from production meetings and any other meetings with the director, designers, or stage managers. Basically, any communication, written or verbal, where decisions are made about props should be included in the bible so you don’t end up making a fool of yourself by picking out a chair for a show which the director told you weeks ago was not the style he wants.

Your prop bible is also where you want to keep all the other relevant information about your production, such as the contact sheet, schedules, and any contract you may have signed.

As your process gets underway, you need to ensure that your prop bible remains up to date. You can also add information about the sources of where your props come from. If they are borrowed or rented, you can keep contact information for the source. You may also record information about stores or vendors where you buy items from. The actual financial documents, such as receipts and invoices, are not kept in the bible; in most organizations, you need to submit the original copies of these to the accounting department or some similar department. But keeping track of the budget and keeping your budget estimate up-to-date is a good thing to have in the bible. If you were to drop off the face of the earth and someone else had only the prop bible to finish the show with, he or she would want to know how much money was left to spend.

Once the show is “frozen”, you can begin the process of documenting the show. Pictures of every prop are vital, as are pictures of how the set dressing is arranged on stage. Prop preset lists and running sheets from stage management and run crew are good to have, too. If props are arranged a certain way backstage, either on prop tables or on shelves, photographs or even diagrams of these arrangements can also be included. You should list the consumables used during the show, including how much is needed per show or per week. Any sort of food, blood, or other recipe-based prop can have its recipe recorded and instructions on how to prepare it. It is especially helpful to have a pristine copy of every paper prop used, so that new copies can be made; if you have digital versions, you can burn these to a CD to keep with the bible as well. At this point, the prop bible becomes the document with which a person can recreate the props for a production down to the last detail.

In some cases, a theatre actually does remount a production it did in the past, or rent out the props as a complete package to another theatre. Even if your organization does not do that, the prop bible still comes in handy for a number of other reasons. Sometimes you want to track down the vendor of an item in your props stock; looking through old prop bibles can sometimes yield this information. Often, we get artists who remember certain props and want us to track them down. “I remember using a green table when I did Hamlet here in 2004,” a director may reminisce. “Can we get that for our next show?” You may not have worked in that props department back in 2004, but if your predecessor had kept good bibles, it would be a mere matter of looking up that show, finding the photo of the table in the bible, and matching it to an item in your stock. Or, it may reveal that such an item was actually rented in 2004, and you can call the rental place to see if it is available.

The point of all of this is that when wagering against what information you will need in the future, keeping accurate records now will ensure you always win that wager, regardless of the situation.

For more on creating and maintaining a prop bible, I highly recommend Amy Mussman’s book The Prop Master, as well as Sandra Strawn’s The Properties Directors Handbook. You can read that last one for free on the internet, and I have a link to it on my sidebar, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, now’s your chance to see what you’ve been missing.

Why is there no Tony Award for Props?

Imagine The Phantom of the Opera without the chandelier, the organ, the boats, or the mirror. Imagine Les Misérables without guns or the breakaway chair. Imagine other shows without the props. These are all shows that have won Tony Awards for their Set Designs. But what would they be without the props?

First, let us consider why there is no props or props design categories in awards ceremonies. Historically, props have been the realm of the set designer. In addition to walls and floors (and sometimes ceilings), the set designer is responsible for describing and designing all the props. Though the actors may request them, or the director finds he or she wants them, or the stage manager discover a need for one, the set designer has the first and final decision on the “look” of the prop. Of course, the prop master is frequently finding all the possible options, and in the end, the set designer is merely choosing between the two or three options which the props master has presented. Also, many set designers do not go into nearly enough detail that the props master doesn’t find him or herself filling in the gaps. Sometimes the hardest job can be taking a thousand possibilities and turning them into a single reality. Some set designers love to give the props master a stack of research images to serve as design “inspiration”, which forces the prop master to do all the legwork.

In many modern settings, the set designer is far too busy to deal with the minutia of all the various props in a production. It often falls to the first or even second assistant to research, design and draft the furniture and special hand props. Many times, a prop master will deal solely with one of the assistants through the entire process to hone the selection of all the props. Even with the undivided attention of an entire assistant, the prop master is still forced to make many design decisions.

Some productions have begun recognizing the need for a distinct props designer. Otherwise, the props remain lumped within the set design purview, even when their design is undertaken by completely separate people. There remain shows where “set design” encompasses the designing of the props; in other cases, keeping the two together makes as much sense as combining architecture and interior design. Sound design used to be undertaken by the second assistant in the lighting department; it has since broken apart and is now recognized as its own discipline with its own category at most awards ceremonies. Props is far older than sound design. In fact, it predates the idea of a “scenic designer” in most cultures and theatre traditions. You can do Hamlet without scenery, but you can’t do it without a skull.

A year after the Tony’s were founded, they introduced an award for Best Stage Technician. In 1950, Joe Lynn won a Tony for his work as master propertyman on Miss Liberty. The last award for this category was given in 1963. Joe Lynn remains the single props person to have won a Tony in its 63 year history.

Most of the other New York-based theatrical awards are equally deficient in their recognition of props and prop design. The Drama Desk Awards, the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle all neglect to include props as a category. In 2004, Faye Armon was recognized as part of the design team for Bug, becoming the only person to win an Obie for props. She is, arguably, only the second New York props person to ever be awarded for her work.

Other cities and regions are similar in their non-recognition of props design. The Drammy Awards began in 1979 to recognize Oregon theatre. In 2006, they awarded Andy Berry for Properties in Underneath the Lintel. The Acclaim Awards in Cincinnati began in 2006.  They gave an award for Properties to Shannon Rae Lutz in 2010 for Great American Trailer Park Musical. These are the exceptions to the rule, however.

Neither Chicago’s Jeff Awards, nor Los Angeles’ Drama Critics Circle Awards recognize props or props design. The South Florida Carbonell Awards, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards, Boston’s Elliot Norton Awards, San Diego’s Craig Noel Awards and Washington DC’s Helen Hayes Awards are equally remiss in their recognition of the value of props to a theatrical production.

I can go on – and I will; The Barrymores in Philadelphia, Boston’s IRNE Awards, the Ivey Awards in Minneapolis, the Henrys in Colorado, and St. Louis’ Kevin Kline Awards follow the trend set by the Tony’s by not giving awards to prop designers. This is not unique to the United States;  The Laurence Olivier Awards, London’s equivalent to the Tony’s, does not give awards to props or any theatre technicians either.

So my question to you is this: should there be a Tony Award for Props? Why or why not?

Midweek Link Roundup

Still recovering from my trip out west. Enjoy other people’s webpages for the day:

Musings of a jobbing designer

Martin Morley kept a blog over at Sceno:graphy.org (now no longer updated). He provides a fascinating look at life as a scenic designer in the UK from 1968 to the present. In addition, he has dipped his toes into the world of prop-making as well during his career. In one post, he gives a brief glimpse into how prop-making happened at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in the late 1960s:

I found I had an aptitude for prop making and polystyrene carving which was just coming into its own for 3D work. This was of course long before the days of vac forming. Pretty well everything was made in house with the exception of everyday furniture which was generally trawled from junk shops and the like. Hector Riddle, the head of props was quite outstanding: I remember the Bofors gun he created for Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun was especially impressive. It was the level of care taken on the details that stood out.

The rest of the posts are equally as enlightening and informative.

First use of “Property” in the theatrical sense

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word “property” in the theatrical sense first appeared around 1425 A.D.  In the prologue to the play, The Castle of Perseverance, the second flag-bearer announces to the audience:

Grace, if God wyl graunte us, of hys mykyl myth,
þese parcellis in propyrtes we purpose us to playe
þis day seuenenyt

(emphasis mine)

This transcription comes from The Macro Plays, edited by Frederick James Furnivall and Alfred William Pollard, published in 1904. You can see the original manuscript below:

first known written appearance of properties in the theatrical sense in the Castle of Perseverance
first known written appearance of "properties" (in the theatrical sense) in the Castle of Perseverance

In a modern translation offered by Alexandra F. Johnston, we have:

Grace, if God will grant us of his great might,
On scaffolds with costumes the roles we will play
This day sevennight

While certainly clearer in meaning, this translation has the unfortunate side effect of replacing “properties” with “costumes”, thus nullifying the Oxford English Dictionaries assertion of the word’s first appearance. Still, I think we can give the OED a little more scholarly weight in this instance.

According to Wikipedia, The Castle of Perseverance is not only the earliest known full-length vernacular play in existence, it is also important for its inclusion of a set drawing. The drawing is also one of the earliest known surviving examples of its kind. It hints that the play may have been performed in the round.

Stage and Set Design for Castle of Perseverance
Stage and Set Design for Castle of Perseverance