PROPS DRIVE PLOTS. Whether it’s a plate of sardines in Noises Off or a sword in Romeo and Juliet, props give characters choices, movements, and consequences. It’s hard to believe such crucial pieces often get last billing in theatre. A great prop cannot save a mediocre scene, but a bad prop can ruin a great one.

To serve this vital production role we need a vital person: the properties master. Good props masters wear many hats. They often require hands-on skills such as carving, woodworking, papier mâché, wiring, casting, blacksmithing, welding, crocheting, and stitching. They also need planning know-how to prepare budgets, schedules, and research. There are few theatre skills that don’t eventually get applied to props to bring out the best in your production.

When attacking a production’s props list, start with an important rule of the trade. Props must fit a production in at least three ways: style, read, and function.

The backstage props table from Parkland High School’s 2019 International Thespian Festival production of 26 Pebbles.

The backstage props table from Parkland High School’s 2019 International Thespian Festival production of 26 Pebbles. Photo by Susan Doremus.


The style of a prop needs to match everything else onstage. The director and designers have spent hours crafting the look and feel of the show. A prop that doesn’t fit that aesthetic can pull focus from the story onto the thing itself. This is almost always disastrous, since no great play is about a candy box or a telephone. The color palette, time period, level of realism, and even economic resources of the characters must be taken into consideration when selecting props.

Yet it’s important to remember that style and design serve the play, not the props. The prop should blend seamlessly into the story to help the actor make their character real. Take, for example, the concept of anachronism, or something outside its correct time period. In general, props masters select props appropriate to the time a play is set. However, anachronism for props is sometimes necessary to the story. Shakespeare famously wrote a mechanical clock striking the hour in Julius Caesar, and it isn’t the prop master’s job to correct the Bard.


A prop also needs to “read” to an audience. The audience must be able to identify the prop and its purpose from where they are seated. Details matter, but details too small for the audience to note are wasted. A hand sign featuring a clever joke isn’t funny if patrons in the balcony can’t read it.

Take a page from film and television, where items are rarely used without a screen test. If it looks wrong on camera, it is wrong. You can’t be sure a prop is right onstage before dress rehearsals. Until costumes, scenery, and lighting for the scene are fixed, you don’t know if the color, composition, or size of the prop may need adjusting too.


Function may be the most important aspect of prop selection. Unless props are being used as set dressing to hang on the wall, they have jobs to do. When a design calls for a table (and yes, furniture pieces are props), ask whether someone will stand on it and if they will be dancing. Reinforcing furniture often takes priority in the props-building process. If actors can’t stand on the table in rehearsal, blocking may be held up. It is often simpler, though rarely faster, to build reinforced furniture from scratch rather than attempting to make antiques strong enough for the abuses of a farce.

The function of a prop also needs to take actors into consideration. If a flag needs to spring from a stick, the mechanism that allows it to do so must be simple to use. It can’t distract the actor from their primary job of storytelling. Function must also be foolproof. If a phone doesn’t ring on cue, the show can’t move forward. Build better quality props than necessary. When a prop needs to work twice onstage, make sure it could work 10 times.

Function applies to prop food too. Many productions require actors to eat onstage. Taking time to make sure food is palatable — even tasty — is well worth the effort. Watching an actor choke down a dry, stale sandwich then pretend to love it is painful for the audience. And if actors like their food, they’ll love their props master.

The joy of handing an actor the perfect prop can only be topped by the joy of seeing the audience experience it in action. Buying, renting, building, and finding these items is an eccentric job, but helping a production soar is worth it, every time.

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