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“Don’t Touch That!” The Trials & Tribulations Of A Props Designer

You’ve probably heard the speech once or twice … a day …

every day of tech …

for every show you’ve taken part of:

“Please,” (they usually say ‘please’, it makes it seem like a request instead of a command) “if the prop isn’t yours, don’t touch it”

Well, from a seasoned Properties Designer, I will let you in on a little secret: you probably could touch it, and the world wouldn’t end …

But if you break it, well, may the theatre gods and the Stage Manager have mercy on your soul!

The Trials And Tribulations of a props designer

Props people are pretty well caricatured as over-anxious perfectionists desperately intent on protecting their wares.  I’m not saying that we’re all like that, but like any good caricature, there is definitely some truth there.  We can get a little edgy – but it isn’t our fault you know, it isn’t easy being a Properties Designer.

Do you even know exactly what a Props Designer’s job is?  I’m only asking because I’ve worked as one for over 10 years, and it has never been made exactly clear to me.  Every group, every person, seems to have a different idea of what constitutes a prop, and what all Props Designers should be in charge of.

If you believe the lists in the back of the Actor’s Edition of any script, Props are things carried on or off stage during the show.  That’s the easy definition – the one most people understand – and the job would be a lot easier if this definition stuck.  Another definition, a more comprehensive one, is anything that is not nailed down to the set – which, as you can imagine, really makes that list grow quite a bit.

You see, there are the hand props, but you also have costume props and set dressing.  So you ask the Set Designer about who gets the furniture and dressing, and you check to see if the Costume Designer has specific wants for the hats and purses, and you coordinate with the Lighting Designer on the lantern that serves as the only light in a scene, and you work with the Sound Designer on the working 1920s microphone.  So, you talk, and you  negotiate, and you collaborate with the other designers and THEN you make your lists and hope beyond hope that you’ve thought of everything …  But you haven’t, because all during rehearsals, you’ll be getting notes of new things that need to be gotten – and lots and lots of reminders of things that you already know.

So, now you have your ever-fluctuating list.  Now what?  Well, if you’re lucky, you are working on a show set in modern time, and you can just run out to the store and pick up what you need, or find it in props storage (again, if you’re lucky enough to have one).  If you’re not-so-lucky, than you have to do research – a LOT of research.  You’d be surprised how much obscure history you have to learn as a Props Designer.  For instance, did you know that barcodes were not placed on products until 1974?  And ballpoint pens were not commonplace in the home until the late 50s, early 60s?  You need to know this kind of thing if you want to do Props for show.

But even this is subject to change, because it is not your job to be 100% historically accurate – unless you are directed to be so, which you never are, because like all Designers, we make a world that is at the intersection of: What Is Right, What The Director Wants, and What The Audience Will Believe … oh yeah, and What Is Possible (that last one is the most important – budget rules our artistic lives).

Props designer, theatre nerds

Getting/Making the props can either be where all the fun is, or the most stressful part.  It is different for every one, for every show, every time.  Me?  I love it.  Essentially we get paid (if you’re lucky) to shop and do crafts.  Do you like flea markets, rummage sales, thrift shops, antique malls, Arts & Crafts and Hardware Stores?  Let’s hope so, because you spend a large amount of your time at one place or another, searching for the things you need.

Sometimes that obtaining process is … a bit of a challenge.  I can’t say that I know this for a fact, but I’m pretty sure that all good props designers are probably on some kind government watch list.  Have you ever done Twelve Angry Men? Or West Side Story? How about Wait Until Dark? Or Sweeney Todd? Or Assassins?  Do you think it’s easy to get weapons without arousing suspicions?  Switchblades and Brass Knuckles are illegal – but props designers everywhere have to find them, or at least find realistic look-alikes.  Weapons are hard, but there are more embarrassing things in a props designer’s life:  Soap-on-a-Rope, nazi arm-bands and flags, severed limbs, several Red G-strings, ingredients for meth, vibrators, joints, handcuffs, pills, chains, pipes … the list goes on and on, and those are just the things I’ve had to buy – you don’t even want to know some of the things I had had to make!

Props Designer, Theatre Nerds

But the worst?  The worst is Food Props.  Yes, Actors, that’s right.  We have something in common.  I’m fairly certain that we can all get together on this: Food Props just suck.  For everyone.  Trust me, Actors, I empathize with you, and trust me, it is no fun for us either: it is a drain on our budget; we have to work within everybody’s dietary restrictions; they’re a pain to keep replacing and making every day; and if they actually are good, they have a tendency to disappear.

But there is one thing to be said about Props Designers and Food Props: Jesus isn’t the only one who can turn water into wine.  We can too – and we’ll even do you one better and turn it into whiskey, scotch, tequila, rum, you name it, we do it.  All for you actors, all for you!

Props Designer, Theatre Nerds

You see?  We don’t hate actors.  It’s true, you sometimes drive us crazy, but we don’t hate you.  We need you as much as you need us.  We also appreciate you.  There is nothing so satisfying as an actor who takes a special interest in our props.  Someone who really owns it, and uses it to their character’s advantage.  It sounds silly, but other Props Designers will understand – it’s the little things in life.

Like most Designers, for us Props people, we don’t look for recognition from the average theatre audience member.  I mean, what do you think someone would say if you went up to them after the performance and asked what they thought of the props?  There are some exceptions, but most of the time, if the audience didn’t take notice of it, it means we didn’t do anything wrong – and we celebrate!

Still, the next time you work on a show, take note of the Props and Dressing around you. Sometimes a Designer will find a way to leave their mark somewhere – either hidden on set, or taped to the furniture, or written in the notebook.  Take notice of their work, and respect it …

And please, Please, PLEASE Don’t Touch It! (Unless it’s yours!)

Guest post by Teresa McGriff

Have props designer tribulations of your own? We’d love to hear them, leave a reply below…

6 Comments

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  1. For “No More Peace” the director thought it would be funny for a character to “knock out” another character with an Italian loaf of bread–that they were eating earlier in the scene. So it turns out, getting hit with a soft loaf just kinda folds the bread, and then just kinda slowly breaks off from the tiny piece the actress is hanging on to. I know what you’re thinking. We tried Ciabatta. We tried stale bread. We tried a whole assortment of variations with different breads under different conditions. Which–while hilarious to see an actress swing a loaf as hard as she can onto her counterpart’s head dozens of times, while everyone critiquing that process– “What if you swung HARDER?” “How about if you just hit him in the face and knock him back?” etc, etc. Long story short, lots of laughs–I nearly peed right there–but bread is not the ideal prop to knock someone out with. So then, EVERYONE continued to offer pointless solutions and the poor props designer was forced into a corner with group consensus of a terrible idea–to put a wooden rod in the middle of the bread to help keep it stiff. Well, next rehearsal, the wooden rod bread was swung with the same ferocity as the original loaves– in which the bread totally fell off the wooden rod leaving the actress with just a wooden rod in hand–and the actor into which she so furiously swung fell to the ground in pain. (And that was the best “acting” we’ve seen out of him yet.) So after a hospital trip, the director STILL thought it would be a good idea to go forward with the bread idea. So the props designer decided to lacquer the bread –which was a nice happy medium to the wooden rod bread, and when swung with an average ferocity, only left mild abrasions to the receiver’s head. AND it would only break apart one in five swings (Yes, there were dozens more tests with lacquered bread onto a person’s head. Yes. Not a wall. Not a table. But dammit, you need that person’s head to see how the bread will hold up.) So ANYWAY. That’s my story with ONE prop in ONE show. Poor props designer!

    Oh yeah, and by the way, because the bread still needed to be eaten–a fresh, edible loaf, was brought every night for the first part of the scene–but usually got destroyed by the actors– that is, it was usually brought to the green room to be dipped in the fondue.

    LOVE YOU PROPERTIES DESIGNER(S) We’re SORRY!

    • Okay, so APPARENTLY after showing my husband this post, he said, “Yeah, that was me.” I was like, “Who?” He was like, “Yeah, I was the one who got hit with the bread.” I was like, “YOU were the one hit with bread?! NO… it can’t be… I remember it was–” He cut me off “No that was me. How else would you know about the varying hardness of the bread?” “WHAT. NO WAY? THAT WAS YOU?” “Yeah. And to be fair, that was the best acting you’ve seen out of me yet.”

  2. OMG – I’ve never seen the work of a Props Designer described so accurately!! Thanks for sharing. I’ve been a props person in Denver for over 30 years and felt like you told my life story. Loved it.

  3. Thanks for such an accurate description! I have done quite a bit of prop designing for shows I’ve been in….see I am an actor that has a flair for crafting and design. I work in an architectural design firm as my full-time job but perform in community theater (and some paid). Typically, I make friends with all the costume, prop and design people and offer my help whenever needed. Sometimes, like when I was in Oklahoma! there will be a prop that my character (Jud Fry) uses that I will ask about. Well, for that particular show the props designer had absolutely no idea how they were going to get/make a “Little Wonder”. So……I drew up a sketch and then actually fabricated a working model using cardboard, a wood paint stick cut to the shape of a blade, some rubber bands and some of those paper fasteners that go through a hole and then split so the legs bend back against the paper to hold it all together. The practice prop turned out great and they asked me to build two props for the actual show – and it is a good thing I did because the first one somehow “accidentally” got broken by someone who should not have even been touching the thing! So that “don’t touch it if it is not yours” is particularly important to me! I’ve also built my own EVA foam sword for my Miles Gloriosus character from Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It allowed me to actually poke one of the other characters without hurting him at all – yet the sword looked real! Additionally, I had a great time designing and fabricating the Sir Bors character for our production of Spamalot! We used a flat band hat that a vertically challenged actress would wear. We fastened shoulder pads around it so when she put the hat on her head, it looked like she was just headless. It was a very cool effect. On top of the hat we mounted a short rod with a spring and clasp system and I fabricated a knight’s helmet out of foam with craft foam details and painted it. It looked awesome. The actress would approach the cave entry, a stage hand would throw the rabbit puppet to her and she would catch it and then hold it up to her “neck”, which was right where the catch release was. She would hit the release and the spring would launch the foam head straight up and some red cloth strips would fall out and make it look like she had just been beheaded. It was a wonderfully comical effect and the actress played it perfectly. The audience would roar every night and the reactions from the other cast members was also great as they carefully collected her and her head and dragged her offstage. Great stuff! Finally, for our production of Beauty and the Beast last December, I got the wonderful fortune of being cast as the Beast. I was a dream role for me and I got to fabricate my magic mirror. Made it out of EVA foam and used battery powered green lights for the “magic” part. The switch was right in the handle so when I said, “Show me the girl!” I would hit the switch and my face would light up with the green glow from the lights. The lighting designer mimicked the effect with green stage lights on Belle and the Wardrobe in her “room” so the effect played wonderfully. Its so much fun being involved with this stuff! Thanks again for the wonderful article!

  4. I was doing props and set dressing for “The Odd Couple” for a community theatre. The play opens in Oscar’s apartment before Felix moves in, so of course it needed to be trashed and the ashtrays had to be full. I had been collecting everyone’s cigarette and cigar butts and ashes for weeks. Opening night, I found that someone had thrown out my collection! I ran out and bought a pack of cigarettes and lit them all, placed them around an ashtray and tried to keep them all lit until I had more butts and ashes. This was before smoking bans in public buildings. I don’t smoke, but I kept everyone of those cigarettes going. The entire cast and crew heard my grumbling for days.

    • Tracy, We had the same thing happen with the Odd Couple except someone disposed of ALL our prop trash! We had to order pizzas, shop for more beer and I got sent out to find a Witman Sampler that was specifically mentioned in the script.

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