Tag Archives: set props

Categories of Props

Props can be divided into several categories, which may make the realm of props less overwhelming. Because of the diversity of traditions and practices in the hundreds of theaters that put on shows, a props person may not be responsible for some of these categories. This is also not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the duties of a props person, rather it is a list of all the kinds of props (For example, in union houses and many other theatres, the props department is responsible for sweeping the stage. I haven’t added that to this list).

The props in the different categories come from different places. Many of the hand props come from the text, or are requested by the stage manager or director during rehearsals. The set designer is usually asking for the set props, trim and set dressing. Often, actors themselves will ask for certain props, particularly personal props. Let’s look at some of these categories:

Hand – Hand props are any props manipulated by one or more actors on stage. A book, a gun, and a wine glass are all hand props. Hand props can be consumable or perishable prop, which means they need to be replaced every night, such as food which is eaten or a letter which is torn up. We can also look at costume (or personal, or “propstume“) props like purses or belts as a subcategory. These require special consideration with the costume department to determine who is responsible for both providing and paying for them. manual/special effect, practical

Set – Set props include all the furniture on stage, and any other “objects” which are a part of the set. It also includes furniture-like objects, such as rocks which are sat on. The lines between “set” and “props” are the most blurry in this category, as some sets have “built-in” furniture, and more abstract or metaphorical sets have less reference points for determining what is “prop or not”.

Trim – Trim props hang on the walls, like curtains, blinds, or pictures.

Set dressing – The set dressing is the items and objects on the stage which the actor doesn’t handle. The easiest way to think of this is in an apartment set. The floor, walls, doors and windows are the set. The furniture is the set props. All the knick-knacks on the dresser, books on the shelves, and plates in the sink are the set dressing. If an actor picks a set dressing item up, it becomes a hand prop and is treated differently. The set dressing can include practicals, which are electrical props (like lamps, chandeliers, and wall sconces) that actually work. Also included here are rugs, carpets, and other floor coverings. Set dressing is used more to flesh out the characters and setting rather than push the narrative forward. While it is up to the set designer to describe and lay out what the set dressing is, it is often left to the props master to choose and arrange the individual items. Set dressing is an art and a craft of its own, and in some cases (especially in film) can be a person’s exclusive job on a production.

Personal – A personal prop is a prop an actor carries to develop their character. Sometimes these are called for in the script, but often it is the actor who is requesting it. A pipe, a cane, or a fan can are examples. Some actors are notorious for picking a prop or two at the very first rehearsal to play with.

Greens – Whether real or artificial, the props department is oft responsible for plants, leaves, bushes and flowers. Obviously, if the set calls for a life-sized tree to fill the stage, the props department can defer to the scenic department for its construction.

Manual special effects – Bursts of smoke, remote-controlled rats, artificial fires in fireplaces, or any other manual special effect is generally the responsibility of the props department, though depending on the scope or means of achieving said effect, there may certainly be overlap with any number of other departments. Breakaway props may also fall in this category.

Manual sound effects – Though increasingly rare in these days of recorded audio, if a sound effect is generated off-stage by an actor or crew member, the props department is responsible for the apparatus that creates that noise. Older props shops still have the various crash-boxes, thunder sheets, and wind machines that fall under this category. You can see pictures of some of the machines that created stage sounds in one of my previous posts.

“The Book of Grace” Props

The Book of Grace, by Suzan-Lori Parks, closed yesterday here at the Public Theater, so I thought I’d write about some of the props. I’ll start with the set props and some of the tricks that may or may not have been apparent.

The set of "The Book of Grace"
The set of "The Book of Grace"

This show had a lot of tricks. The iron actually ironed, the stove actually cooked eggs, and the sink actually ran water. Sometimes, the simplest of shows actually have the most complex of prop needs. It becomes less overwhelming if you break it down into simpler parts.

The Stove

Top of the stove
Top of the stove

The stove was originally a gas stove. In order to make it cook an egg, I took a hot plate apart and placed the burner in place of the original burners. I ran the cord out the back, and it was all run by the light board.

The Fridge

Top of the Fridge
Top of the Fridge

The refrigerator had a radio on top of it, which was played at one point. We needed to sneak a speaker in there somewhere; the fridge was actually from our prop shop, so we didn’t want to drill any holes or cut any parts out of it to hide the speaker. As you can see in the photograph above, by placing it in a basket and surrounding it with old mail and take-out menus, we kept it out of view from the audience.

The Sink

The sink had some of the toughest challenges. Making it run water was the easiest; since the Anspacher Theater has a sink directly backstage, we just needed to run a hose from it under the deck and to the faucet. The tricky part had to do with the end of the scene. The titular book of Grace was torn up by Vet, the father, thrown in the sink, set on fire, and then the charred pieces were pulled out.

The actual book was a custom scrapbook with many parts created and modified by the actress playing Grace. As such, we didn’t want them to tear it up and burn it every night. Second, if we burned an actual book, the ashes would float up and set the ceiling on fire. Finally, there would not be any way to consistently control what the charred pieces looked like after burning the book.

Interior of the sink
Interior of the sink

On the top of the photograph, you can see a pocket in the sink. Before tearing up the book, the actor grabbed a duplicate copy, which was similar but simpler. After tearing it up, he dropped the pieces down this pocket. Along the bottom of the picture, you can see a bar of metal which covered a trough filled with campfire gel. This is what the actor set on fire. On the left side of the photograph is another pocket. This one held the pre-charred scraps of paper which the actress pulled out at the end of the play.

Slave Shack set props

Slave Shack, at the Algonquin Theatre, opened this past Monday. It is my first off-off-Broadway Props Master credit, as well as the first off-off-Broadway scenic design credit for Natalie Taylor Hart (my lovely wife). It is directed by Debra Whitfield and stage managed by Elizabeth Salisch, with lighting designed by Deborah Constantine. Today, I’ll be looking at some of the set props and dressing and what went into this show. Once the show closes, I’ll examine the hand props; as of now, just showing them will give away too much of the story line.

Scenery for Slave Shack
Scenery for Slave Shack

As you can see, the stage is tiny – around twelve feet by fifteen feet. The setting is the corporate office of a senior executive vice president in Manhattan. Natalie did an amazing job capturing that grandeur in such a small space. My advice to her was that since the furniture pieces couldn’t be grand in scale, they would need to exquisite in construction and appearance. Everything in this photograph was built, found, modified, and painted by the two of us.

Jack Blake's desk in Slave Shack
Jack Blake's desk in Slave Shack

I originally built the desk so it could be taken apart for easier transport up to the theatre, but we were able to get a large enough vehicle from Zipcar. I built the structure out of 3/4″ plywood that was left over from the Public Theatre’s Bacchae and was headed for the dumpster. I covered it all in Masonite which was literally being carried out to the trash; the smooth surface saved me a lot of time in sanding and filling. The metal surface is from an off-cut piece of sheet metal I’ve saved for a few months. I worked over it with a wire wheel brush hooked up to a drill to give it that pattern.

The bar and decanter in Slave Shack
The bar and decanter in Slave Shack

I built the bar the same way I constructed the desk. The Masonite already gives you a fairly smooth and neutral surface. For added smoothness, I put on two coats of primer, sanding in between each coat.

The decanter on top was a tricky find; all the scotch decanters we could find were either too expensive, too ornate, or had the word “scotch” engraved on them, which we didn’t want. Natalie finally found the perfect one on Etsy. I knew Etsy sold handmade objects, but I was surprised (and pleased) to discover they also sell vintage items.

Ethnic artifacts in Slave Shack
Ethnic artifacts in Slave Shack

We needed a number of artifacts to dress the set. Natalie did not want to limit the artifacts to Africa, and asked for artifacts from other places where Jack Blake, the lead character, mentions he has traveled. In addition, she did not want any of the objects to be functional, so all of them (save for the jar on the left, which was needed for a bit of stage business) were figures or instruments. The large woman statue is from the Harlem Market, while the foo dog and other creature is from Pearl River. The drum is from the director, while the jar is from Natalie.

Fertility Goddess in Slave Shack
Fertility Goddess in Slave Shack

Debra, the director, wanted a fertility goddess statue placed apart from the rest of the artifacts. We could not find an appropriate one within our budget. Natalie collected photographs of a number of fertility statues, and working with the director, developed her own design which she then sculpted out of foam.

Stay tuned for next month when I can discuss the hand props. Until then, keep coming backĀ  for your normal dose of prop news and stuff you can use!