An Introduction to Theatrical Props

Not so long ago, Amy Johnson, props mistress for the upcoming musical 1776, was asked a few questions about how she figures out what props a show needs. Amy took the questions seriously, and wrote an excellent beginner’s guide to thinking like a props person. Here’s what she had to say:

Why would anyone want to do props?

Props is one of the few aspects of the theatre that, when done perfectly, doesn’t get noticed. It blends so well into the fabric of the play; it becomes practically invisible. Props are not for those that crave attention from the audience. I have yet to hear someone say “WOW! The props were the best I’ve ever seen!” The acting, sets, and costumes always seem to get the bulk of the audience’s attention.
So, I ask again. Why Props? Unless you are watching a mime, props are an essential part of the play. Webster’s Dictionary defines Properties [props] as “an item of furniture, an ornament, or a decoration in a stage setting: any object handled or used by an actor in a performance.” Look around you. What do you see? I have pictures on the wall, the television is on a table, my laptop is on my lap with my iphone attached to it so it can charge, and I have my drink from McDonald’s on the side table with a lamp. (There is a lot more in my living room but let’s start here.)

How do I start?

If my living room were to be the setting of a play, all these things would need to be present. However, some plays do not specifically tell you the details of these props! It might say “Amy is sitting in her living room, writing her article while watching television. She glances around to locate her drink and finds it on the table next to her. On the table is a lamp with a flickering light bulb. She zones out while looking at the picture on the wall before resuming her writing. Her fingers fly across the keyboard but she pauses frequently to watch the TV or think about what to write next.”

We need to start with the basic question of time period. Obviously, this is not placed in the late 1800’s. You might not know the exact year it does take place but there are clues! There is a television, so that brings it closer to modern day. We know she is writing an article, but how is she doing it? Pen, paper, or computer? The mention of a keyboard points you to a computer. We also know that she needs a drink, a table, and a lamp with a flickering light bulb. The exact details of these may be made clear by dialogue later on in the play. When it is unclear, the wise prop crew head works in conjunction with the director and set designer to appropriately select the right items for the time period.
Once the time and setting are established, the prop person can work on the different aspects of the props. What are some details that further define prop selection? The character’s personality (messy vs. neat) as well as income level (formal vs. informal) can be a hint to the type of prop. If you know me, you could probably guess that the photo on my wall is family related and that the drink on the table is NOT a beer! (I talk frequently about my family and have been known to make a face when offered beer.) These details about a character can be revealed by reading the ENTIRE play before selecting props.
Some props have props that support them! For instance, if it is mentioned that the drink came from a fast-food place, the drink will most likely need to be in a disposable cup with a lid and a straw. If it is a drink that the character poured at home, it will probably be in a glass. (Glass on stage? Yikes! Could be dangerous! Using a clear plastic cup can give the same effect and help with the safety factor. If glass is necessary, make sure you have extras in case of accidental breakage.) A computer may need a cord, monitor, keyboard, mouse and hard-drive unless it’s a laptop (which this is) so the prop would only be the laptop (with a charging cord as an optional accessory). The table with the lamp on it also has a bottom shelf where there are miscellaneous items. If the script says that the character has a bad cold, there might be wadded up facial tissue to help set the scene and support character development. In this day and age, it is also unlikely that the character would be watching a television without using a remote control! The script may say “she turns off the TV” but if the script or director doesn’t have her walk to the television, she would need to have that support prop.

Now that I have my list, where do I get everything I need?

It is VERY rare that any playhouse or theatre has everything ready when starting to produce a play. It would be nice if all a prop person had to do is walk into a prop room and just pull out the props and set them on the stage. Usually when that happens, I know I am dreaming and I wake up!

There are usually some items that are on hand. A cup, a table, a television…Some of these items may need to be repainted or slightly altered to set the scene. There are hidden treasures in prop rooms and it might take some looking and digging around to find them.
Some items need to be made. If foods are consumed every night, they need to be replaced on a daily basis. Some props are used and altered every night (for example, calendar pages pulled off) so need to be replenished for each performance. There are books about how to make things from scratch so I will refer you to your local library to help you with directions on building and constructing these things. Your set construction or set design team may be able to help you as well.
There is a phrase that prop people use in procuring props from outside sources—“beg, borrow, or steal”. We obviously don’t use illegal methods but the phrase emphasizes the importance of getting what is needed. Many sets have been decorated with items from cast and crew’s homes. Playhouses may borrow from each other or trade items on a regular basis. Who do you know that can help you? Do you have a friend with an antique shop? Someone who works at a historical society? Friends, acquaintances, people where you work, worship, or workout are all possible sources. Don’t leave a stone unturned!
Finally, there is the most basic of way of getting a prop – buying what you need. There are usually funds set aside for these purchases however, money can’t (and shouldn’t) be used to buy all of the props! Buying a prop should be a last resort and used only after all other options have been tried. Start looking at re-sale stores. Used items can be more affordable and already have that “used” look to them! No point buying a new baseball that you need to scuff up when you can go to the local sports re-sale store and find buckets of them for half the price! If you are short on time for building a table from scratch, you might find one at a re-sale store that just needs a new coat of paint. Saving money on as many props as you can pays off when there is a larger ticket item that you can’t avoid paying full price for. The internet has been highly useful to track down items and cut down on wasted gas while you search all over town. Online auction sites have been helpful to find a prop that can’t be found locally.
Whew! That’s all for now. Now that you have all your props, stay tuned for my next article that will have hints on running props backstage while the show is in progress.