Why I love… Prop work

I wrote this piece a while ago for a website called the word, which is intended to help Czech students improve their English reading skills. The editors of the site have dumbed down some of the language for their own use, to make it more user friendly, but I thought it’d be nice to post the original here to  shed some light on why I love theatre and prop work especially. It by no means covers every reason, and certainly not as thoroughly as I’d like to, but I had a 900 word limit. Enjoy!

When I say I want to do theatre for the rest of my life, people invariably give me the same reaction. They cock their heads slightly to the side, give me a half-patronizing, half-sympathetic smile, and say something along the lines of “It’s a tough field to break into, you’ll be broke for the rest of your life. If you can envision yourself doing something else, anything else, do that instead.” I smile, and nod, and quietly continue working, because I know something they don’t. I know that when I say I want to do theatre, they think I mean I want to be an actress, and I don’t. My passion begins far away from the stage, often in a place no one thinks about.

The prop department of any production- be it a theatre or opera company, a film set, or a television studio- is chronically overlooked. No one thinks about the book that a character is holding, or the pie that a character just baked. That’s the first thing I love about the job. I always know my work is good when no one notices me.

The only times that the audience should notice a prop is when it is meant to be noticed. If an audience member notices that the lamp on the side table in the corner of the set looks too 70’s for the Victorian themes of the play, you have a problem. That prop has jolted the audience member out of the experience of the play. They are no longer suspending their disbelief and engaging with the characters on stage. On the other hand, the oversized armchair in the corner which is a shocking shade of green is a choice. It is likely to be symbolic of something which is reflected elsewhere in the play; in the costumes, in the actor’s choices, or in the script. Instead of causing the audience member to look for other problems with the production, they are now paying attention to details which add to the meaning of the play that they might have overlooked.

This makes an extensive knowledge of the seemingly insignificant bits of history incredibly important to a prop master. It is possible that no one in the audience will know that plastic wasn’t invented, or widely used, until after 1862, but if your play is set in 1801, plastic props will still feel out of place. A prop master needs to know about trends in furniture and design from 50 years ago. They need to be aware of weapons history, and have a thorough knowledge of construction- how things are made.

That is another thing I love about prop work- the construction. Constructing a new prop, something which was not readily available in stock, and difficult to find or too expensive to buy, is always a unique challenge. For instance, I recently did a play for which I couldn’t find the right kind of portfolio- a sturdy cardboard folder which protects documents. I ended up building a portfolio which fit the specifications of the scene, and the era. I was also able to add some design elements of my own. Modification of existing items for the purposes of the play is generally employed when building from scratch would be too complicated. The themes of a play might center around the colors red and blue, and if the only suitable chair you can find is bright yellow, you need to alter it. That too, takes a great deal of knowledge. Which paints would be best for the situation? Will the chair need to be sanded before painting? Stripped of varnish? Should the paint be covered in a clear seal after painting? If the actors throw the chair, or stand on it, do the legs need to be reinforced? Which brace is the best brace for that job?

Every part of a production- especially in theatre- is simply a gear in the works. It’s a cog that helps build something much bigger than the sum of its parts. If the costume people are doing their jobs, no one will notice their costumes because the clothing seems so fitting for the characters, the setting, and the story that it just blends in. The prop work will help make this transition seamless, the gun which a character uses will be matched both to the time period and the character’s personality. The prop person also often does set dressing, adding details like books to a bookshelf, pictures on a wall, a table and chairs in the corner. They work closely with the set designer and construction crew to make sure that these items also fit the world which the production is creating.

I love to work with my hands, to create things which are both functional and beautiful. I also love working with people, solving problems, and discovering unconventional solutions to unconventional problems. I will likely never encounter the problem that 3 of 7 chairs do not break easily enough when slammed against the ground outside of a theatre. Prop work combines the personal joy I take in creation with the fulfillment of a community, and though I’m aware it will be a difficult career, I don’t plan to ever let go.

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