THE PROPERTIES DIRECTORS HANDBOOK  

 PROPS for the THEATRE

 

The prop shop lives in the hierarchy of the theatre organization.  It is only one of the legs in the multi-appendage creature called “production” needed to mount a show successfully. 


The evolution of the properties position is murky and it is only in the last few decades the status of having someone directly responsible for the props has been codified.  In the past all too often the props were left to whoever could scrounge together the prop list of items needed and anything needing to be built was requested from the scene shop or costume shop who did it around their other priorities.  Sometimes stage managers were required to find props as part of their job of supporting the rehearsal and performance process. 


Today all that is changed.  The prop shop is a separate entity working in close collaboration with its cohorts in costumes, scenery, electrics, and sound. 

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While not all organizations have a separate designated prop shop, a staff of prop artisans, and dedicated budgets for props, the process of properties production remains the same.  No two prop shops run the same way or have the same balance of skill in the personnel.  Every build is different given the variables of when it falls in the season, who is designing, who is directing, what is available in storage, who is available to work in the shop, what is the budget, etc.   However, understanding the PROCESS and PROCEDURES for properties production as discussed here should help any organization to have an effective and collaborative properties production experience.


Prop Director Mark Walston’s office at Actors Theatre of Louisville

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Properties Director Jim Guy talks with Props Artisan  Sarah Heck

Intiman Theatre (Seattle) Prop Shop- Prop Directors office

The person who manages the prop shop goes by various titles depending on the theatre organization itself. 


Many regional theatre properties shop are managed by the Properties Director and accountable for the on-time, on-budget, as-designed production of the stage properties to the satisfaction of the scene designer. The movement to the Properties Director title is an evolution most dominant in the last decade as the Production Manager has developed into a larger managerial position overseeing the entire production budget, personnel, and calendar. 


The use of the “Master” name as in Properties Master and Master Electrician was commonly used when the Technical Director was the overall head of the technical production process.  As the shops became more specialized and the Production Manager position evolved, the title of Properties Director was utilized to acknowledge the separate and equal nature of the work between the prop shop and scene shop. This title acknowledges the equal footing of the job with the Technical Director who manages the scene shop. 

    Even when no properties designer is designated it seems many scenic designers are relying more and more heavily on the Properties Director/Prop Shop Manager to make design decisions based on an understanding of the overall look of the scenic design and in collaboration with the director.  It is common in many companies to give equal billing in the program to the properties director along with the other designers in acknowledgment of this creative activity and collaboration.    

Some smaller companies have a different line of accountability with a Technical Director coordinating all the production areas and in those cases, the person who manages the prop shop is often called the Properties Master or Properties Manager.  The title of Properties Master is a “traditional” title and is used by some as a nod to historical convention even when the job duties and accountability structure are identical to a Properties Director.   In theatres with an IATSE contract for the running of the shows, the Union prop person might also be called the Properties Master but would not be responsible for managing the prop shop or working on the actual build.  It just depends on the particular person and theatre organization.

In recent years the title of Properties Designer has evolved in acknowledgement of the higher level of collaboration the prop shop has with the scenic designer in creating the complete stage setting.  Some designers utilize the Properties Designer to complete the majority of decisions and design the details fulfilling the overall intention of the design just as, in the past, an Assistant Designer might have fulfilled those requirements.  The Properties Designer however has the management and process skills needed to move those design choices directly into the shop while the Assistant Designer position often just created another level of communication to manage in the build between the prop shop and the designer. 


The Properties Designer works in collaboration with the scenic designer to design the properties as part of the design team.  Often part of the process from the beginning attending design meetings with the director, lighting designer, sound designer, and set designer, the properties designer must then make the design decisions evolving during the rehearsal process meeting the needs of the particular scene/ actor/ script problem. The properties designer addresses those concerns and allows the changes to be considered into the overall design of the show as set by the scenic design.   Having the properties designer in-house as the head of the props area facilitates a quick response.  This is especially true when a theatre company utilizes free-lance scenic designers who may be juggling a number of shows and are unavailable to make daily input into the design/ prop build process.

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