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         Preliminary Prop List                   WEB research






At the start of every build, just as reading the script and making a preliminary prop list informs the world of the show, doing research into what that world may look like becomes necessary.  The pleasure of working in theatre, and especially in the specialty of props, is that our world changes with every production.  For those few weeks of the build the prop shop “lives” in the time period, location, social rank and economic status of the play.  The decisions made about what those props look like and the choices made to represent the furniture, stage dressings, and personal items of the characters onstage must reflect the scripts parameters as well as the sensibilities of the artistic team. 

When meeting with the scenic designer, the properties director may see images or sketches that reflect some of the conceptual research done in creating the overall “look” of the play.  It may move time period or place or take the play into a specific viewpoint or style that also must inform the decisions made about what the props look like.  Some designs are modeled after specific art movements or even specific artist styles.  Some designs are more skeletal and others almost photo-realistic in the duplication of place and time period.  Some designers may choose to send research images of furniture or props to show a range of choices that would fit into the play motif with little regard to time period but more concerned with color or shape.  All of these conceptual approaches require the properties director to do research.



Milwaukee Repertory Theatre Prop office - prop research books

Doing research into a specific time period today is as easy as a click of the keyboard into the Internet.  Vast quantities of images are available through image search engines or on web sites.  While in past years the images may have been grainy and difficult to see important details, today's image libraries with clear pictures and multiple views provide an easy and simple way of finding a plethora of sources for design and building decisions.

How else can the prop person know what things look like except through doing period discovery and research?!! Knowing the overall “look” to the play allows the next step in defining what every single thing (prop) looks like and for that it’s necessary to do research.

How big is a suitcase in 1920 Germany?  What kind of handles did they have?  Did it have straps to hold it closed or just snap locks?  What is the suitcase constructed from - cardboard, soft-sided fabric, metal?  How were they covered - leather, cloth, edge bindings?  Did they have rounded edges or square corners? What were common sizes?  Getting answers helps offer solutions. 

Finding pictures of the props helps develop an understanding of what choices might need to be made to create the props.   It allows a collage of images to be assembled for discussion with the designer.  It informs the selection of stock items that may need to be pulled and altered.  It defines the selection of fabrics and color of finish on painted or upholstered items.  

These images create the foundation for the choices made to build the show.  Theatre is not reality and most designs are an interpretation of the real to the theatrical.  Having an image as that starting point allows the development to have an evolution from what is “known” into the world of the designer’s imagination.  The prop shop does not try to reproduce a literal 1920’s German suitcase.  It builds a suitcase that when placed on stage and carried by an actor playing a man in Germany in 1920, “fits” into and does not detract from the scene.  The viewer accepts it as a 1920’s suitcase in Germany.


Mark Walston’s library - Properties Directors office - Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.

Photo by S. Strawn


While researching on the Web is easy and fast, most Properties Directors continue to maintain an extensive library of books from general history of furniture and style books to collectable books on specific items such as perfume bottles or fruit crate art.  These in-shop libraries provide an invaluable hands-on trove of images and information. Having and knowing what is in the books make them a readily accessible source.  Having a huge wall of books, unorganized and unread is a waste of space.  Like all resources, in order for the library to be useable it must be maintained and the users have to know the contents.

One of the best sources is an old catalog such as those printed by Sears Roebuck, JC Penney’s, and other retailers.  Mailed out since the turn of the century each season new catalogs arrived all over America illustrating the entire range of products available for purchase.  These old catalogs are still found in junk stores or second hand bookstores and many prop shops have an extensive collection.  They offer a window into the everyday American world of clothing, household goods, farm implements, toys, travel, décor, and lifestyle.  Detail in cost, availability, style, color, shape, trim, etc. is readily available through these books and the images contained within.

Other books of value focus on a specific time period such as Victorian English interiors or American Federalist furniture.  These books often help in giving a sense of style and décor as well as offering images that might show the variety of what is appropriate to that time period for the props.

Modern books on interior design that replicate a time period are also helpful as they tend to utilize many of the same theatrical shortcuts to interpret time period or place that designers use.  Lush photographs are often utilized to convey a certain look and can be a valuable resource in communicating an idea about fullness of drape, saturation of color choice, density of décor dressing, etc.

Photography books contain iconic images that document time periods, events, people, places, and important historical events.  Collections of photographs are published often covering specific decades or about a specific topic such as the American Depression.  Time/Life Books offers a plethora of books filled with images devoted to covering a variety of topics.

Art books provide imagery for the time period before photography was common.  By studying paintings, the clues into how people lived are often revealed in the furniture, décor, clothing, and other items included in the artwork.  Some designers choose to deliberately fashion a design in the style of a specific painter often from the time period the play was written.  Having a book with the paintings of that artist makes many of the prop choices obvious.

Books written for collectors also show many pictures and have specific detailed information about country of origin, size, manufacture, ornamentation, etc. that helps in defining a specific prop.  These are available in the most specific of topics such as Dollhouses, Belleek Porcelain, Comic Books, Toy Soldiers, Native American Art, Jukeboxes, etc.  Used bookstores or junk shops are a great place to find these books inexpensively and having them in the prop shop library is a quick way to access images on a specific topic quickly.


Public and school libraries, of course, offer an enormous resource of books available for checking out.  Looking by subject matter such as “perfume bottles” may find a book on antique perfume bottles.  If not, move beyond the obvious and look for books on collecting bottles, Czechoslovakian crystal, Tiffany, etc.  It will take time and is usually no longer the first choice as a research method given the time constraints of theatre.


Depending on where you live, a local museum might also be a resource for research work.  Most regional theatres operate in or near a major metropolitan city with fine art, natural history, decorative arts, and architectural museums available.  Furniture, glassware, textiles, weaponry, artwork are displayed for study and consideration.  Take a step back in time in the permanent exhibits or explore a special collection relevant to the play.  Most museums have an “education” department willing to allow special access, arrange for an opportunity to examine an object in closer detail or take a photograph for research simply by asking and obtaining permission.  Having an actual object to take measurements from, to see the detail of joinery or finish, to understand the fragility or weight of the item makes a trip to the museum worthwhile.  Again, knowing the resource and having a contact to facilitate its use makes it valuable.  Wandering around a museum hoping to find something you are searching for takes away valuable research time.

Research allows the prop staff to enter into the build process better informed about the time period, the “look” of objects, possible pricing on available items, etc.  Having done research prior to meeting with the designer and director allows an informed build process to be “jump started” and the prop shop to be working on completing the props with handy visual references or period information.


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     Preliminary Prop List                   WEB research


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