Aaaah propping. I’m not the world’s greatest prop-hunter – not gonna lie. It involves people skills, and negotiation and imaginative use of solid objects and, frankly, these are not things that come as naturally to me as buttons (lovely buttons) and numbers (lovely lovely numbers) and beam angles and colour and stuff. My greatest triumph was probably blagging six empty Jamesons Irish whiskey bottles from the bars of Soho – turned out it as an unfashionable brand – only for it to then turn out that four of them were cut.
“Do you have an empty Jameson’s whiskey bottle?” I asked in the Soho Theatre bar, to which the manager paused, glanced at his shelf, filled a glass with whiskey, drained it down, and passed me the bottle, now miraculously empty.
Traditionally this is the role of the Assistant Stage Manager, or ASM. It can also be the role of the Stage Manager, or the Props Maker, or the Props Assistant or… whatever… but for now let’s assume that you’re doing a community show and you’re all of these. Enjoy.
First thing’s first – look through the script. Read it closely. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a play text which includes a props list at the back, but even then, read the script carefully. There’ll be some stuff referred to in stage directions which you’ll need to know about…
Bob picks up the lobster, whirls it around his head and smashes it down into the 1934 typewriter.
There’ll also be stuff in the actual dialogue.
BOB: Give me that whiskey bottle!
JOE: This whiskey bottle?
BOB: No, the whiskey bottle underneath the picture of Margaret Thatcher!
Now. Have a chat with other people on the production. Who’s finding chairs? Who’s finding tables? Who’s responsibility is it to get a picture of Margaret Thatcher? Some of this stuff may turn out to be a scenic design thing, but you’ll want to be sure – assume nothing, as the old saying goes.
Having drawn up a list of all the props, you’ll want to check with the director that there’s nothing else she’s thinking of adding, and it’d be well worth having that check-up regularly as directors are prone to adding and cutting things and forgetting to tell their technical team in the heat of the moment because, frankly, that’s what Magic Theatre Pixies are for.
Certain things to look out for immediately will be things like food props, or props which have to be broken and replaced every show. These will consume your budget fast. A lot of stuff you can do on the cheap – substitute Ribena for wine, apple juice for white wine, etc.. If smash is cheaper than mashed potato, then let them eat smash – sorry actors. You’ll have to take one for the team here. If actors are actually eating stuff, check for allergies/vegetarianism. Be rubbish to get caught short there.
Props that get broken are tricky. Certain things – broken staffs al la the Tempest, for example – can be cunningly made to be repaired every night. Broken glass is a completely different thing, and sugar glass (the standard solution) is phenomenally expensive. I’d advise raising such issues with your director/designer asap, as they’re usually prepared to try something else to make it work, rather than have it just not work on the night.
Then you’ll have to go finding and making props. A designer might give you some hints; if not you’re going to want to spend time on the internet researching the kind of look that would appropriate for the time and place of the play you’re working on. This can take many hours, but it’s only gonna get harder…
I’m going to assume you have a terrible budget, in which case ebay and charity shops are your new best friend. There’s also a lot of giant car boot markets – Kempton Park is a favourite for London ASMs – which, if you can get there early enough in the day, will offer a panoply of interesting goods for a reasonable price. Some of the time you may have to find a prop that’s close enough, and then tweak it a bit – paint, sanding, adding, cutting, hiding in fabrics etc. – there’s stuff you can do to make it work. A great multitude of sins can be hidden with a little cunning – even something as simple as turning a box so certain parts aren’t visible the audience, can make a difference. A few minutes work on photoshop, with a colour printer nearby and a teabag can be enough to transform your 2015 bottle of ketchup into a 1998 brand very easily. It’s unlikely you’ll get through a play without needing a few paper props – ticket stubs, letters, pictures etc. – which are all easily achievable with a printer and a bit of IT. Have a think about easy solutions to these sorts of problems; there’s loads out there.
Occasionally, you may have to make props. The good news is that if you audience is far enough away, you don’t have to make them brilliantly. If, however, the audience are nearby then a bad prop is if anything almost worse than no prop at all. Worst of all – if an actor is going to be handling a prop, you need to build it to survive a tsunami. See:
I can’t really give you advice on making here. Sometimes it’s as easy as putting a new label on a bottle. Sometimes you’ll need to weld. You best know your own skill-set – don’t promise to hand-craft a birdcage out of coathangers unless you think you can. Be imaginative, absolutely, but also be prepared to ask for help.
On the theme of help…
… call in favours. Beg, borrow, wheedle. Ask cast members, ask friends, as friends of the theatre, ask friends of friends of friends – but if you do get lent stuff, have a plan on how you’re going to get it back, keep thorough, thorough lists and be prepared to look after the item. And be aware, if you do this a lot, that sooner or later your favours will run dry, so if you’re calling in a favour in July for Wizard of Oz, best to leave it a wee while before beginning again on The Taming of the Shrew in August.
When you have all your props together (and if there’s a lot, do think about storage in advance) you’ll need to prep them for the actual performance. Most of the time this involves making a props table – you can look for examples of these on the internet. Find a space in the wing, or in the wings if there are multiple entrances/exits, put out a table, divide that table up into different zones with tape. Each zone should be the size of the prop that’s going to go into it. Write beneath each zone exactly what prop should be there. This isn’t just for you – so you can see if you’re missing anything or where everything needs to be – it’s for the actors too. If they know exactly where a prop is set during a show, they can find it without needing to panic, and more importantly, PUT IT BACK so they can find it next time. You’ll have to work with your cast here – they know better than you whether they’re likely to need a prop from stage left or stage right, and if it’s going to be used for anything that might break it.
Finally, when you get to the show, if you’re the ASM part of your job is making sure everything is ready to go. This means restocking and preparing any running props – such as food or things that get broken – and, I hate to say it, cleaning dishes if food has happened. It also means going round the venue before the show goes up, and checking that every single prop is exactly where it needs to be.
Propping can be very easy; and sometimes it can be a right pain in the bum. If you enjoy finding things, if you’re good with people, if you have a creative, crafty mind and are good at making new things from old – you’ll probably have a wonderful time! Just remember to keep your receipts, and keep on smiling…