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Creating Relationships to Create Props

Eric Hart • Feature • January 29, 2016
All Girl Frankenstein and its stainless steel embalming table at the Hippodrome Theatre, Gainesville, FL.
All Girl Frankenstein and its stainless steel embalming table at the Hippodrome Theatre, Gainesville, FL.

Increasing your conversations is a great way to decrease your props cost

You finish your first design meeting and realize you need to buy $10,000 worth of props on a $1,000 budget. How do you do it? How do you fill a stage when the money won’t even fill a small dorm room? Other theatres must have bigger props budgets, right? Not really. Props people are masters of stretching a budget. Here are some of the creative ways they use to get the goods.

Donations

The cheapest way to get props is to have them donated. Building up a network of donors takes time and active effort on your part. Otherwise you’ll just get calls from patrons wanting to get an old upright piano or console TV out of their homes.

Old-fashioned word-of-mouth inquiries are a great way to borrow from private individuals. With social media, you can instantly hit up all your friends on Facebook or Twitter for that one unique item you need. 

Reach out to fellow staff members of your theatre, including admin, marketing and development, to bring in items from home. This is a fantastic way to get old cell phones and newspapers; you can even get older laptops and tablets. Even if you do not need these items for a show, put out a general call once or twice a season to keep your stock fresh. 

The library table was bought to be used as a store display piece for a boutique in Salt Lake City. The store owners retired and felt that it and several other “antique looking” pieces might be useful to the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
The library table was bought to be used as a store display piece for a boutique in Salt Lake City. The store owners retired and felt that it and several other “antique looking” pieces might be useful to the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Tell your guests and patrons about upcoming needs. Ben Hohman of the Utah Shakespeare Festival gives a seminar twice a week to patrons and guests. “I do a general overview of what props are, the design process here, and then go through the shows from that year and show how we acquire, build, or otherwise make the magic happen.” He includes a section on recent donations and how they are used. “In the past 15 months, I have generated over $70,000 in furniture and dressing donations, including a 14-foot truckload of Victorian and earlier antiques from one couple.” Being specific about your needs means you can avoid pianos and televisions.

Craigslist.org and its cousins are great sites for finding cheap and free items. If you find the perfect item but it’s out of your price range, reach out to the owner saying you are on a limited budget. Offer comp tickets in exchange, or ask to “rent” it. In many of these situations, it helps to have at least one member on your staff with the charm and disposition to convince others to give their stuff for cheaper or free.

If you work for a non-profit, you may be able to give your donors an “in-kind gift” receipt which they can use as a tax write-off, making it beneficial for both parties.

Corporate Sponsors

If you think individuals can give you sweet props, you should see what companies will donate. This is where your development department can help out; when they reach out to corporations and businesses, it can lend a lot more validity to your request.

Start with the companies who already sponsor your theatre. They have an existing interest in supporting your theatre, and donating goods is cheap for them and gives them publicity; plus, your development department will have contacts with whoever at their company deals with making donations.

I needed hundreds of cans of American beer for a show at the Public Theater in New York City. I looked in the back of the program and saw that Anheuser-Busch was one of our sponsors. Our development department reached out to their contacts there. I ended up with a pallet full of Budweiser beer from them, saving us a lot of money in our budget.

Similarly, a production of Brother Wolf at Triad Stage needed jeans for all the characters. One of our sponsors is VF Corporation, which owns both Wrangler and Lee, so early communication with them got us all the jeans we needed for the production for no cost.

If any of your board members, donors or patrons are higher-ups in various corporations or companies, it gets easier to receive donations if you go through them. Again, your development department and other administrative staff can help find out who these people are. 

Join the Club

Most hobbies and collectibles have clubs full of members who share the same devotion. This can range from model trains and RC boats to Barbie doll collectors and Civil War re-enactors. When you need something specific, it may help to reach out to these clubs.

I needed a 1960s photo enlarger. Everything I found online had astronomical shipping costs. I discovered a local photography club and reached out to the president. He sent an email to the whole club. One member responded to me with the perfect enlarger; he just wanted to get rid of it as long as I would pick it up at his house.

Rachael Erichsen of the Olney Theatre Center found herself needing a harp. “I went through a weeks-long process with local harp clubs to finally track down a harp repairman in North Virginia who would rent us a full-sized antique, turn of the century harp (pre-restoration) as dressing for a flat fee of $300 for six weeks.” 

Surplus

Local universities often sell off their surplus. They always have lots of desktop computers, monitors and dorm furniture, and occasionally some more esoteric items. Local and state governments may also have surplus equipment. Sometimes they do online auctions, while other times they have a warehouse where you can make purchases.

Hospitals and nursing schools may have surplus medical equipment, especially outdated items. Contact the head supplies person of the hospital.  It helps tremendously to be nice on the phone and to give your reason for needing help. As with corporate sponsors, someone on your board might be on the board of a local hospital, so check if you have any sympathetic contacts before you begin cold calling. 

One Man’s Trash

Props people are not above digging through the trash to find the perfect prop. I once found the perfect porcelain sink for a show on the side of the road. There are many other places you can pick up props and materials for cheap or free on their way to the dumpster.

Contact commercial printing places to see if they’ll sell or donate the ends of their rolls. Many printers can leave up to 30 feet of paper on the end of a roll when finished. This can be a huge savings when you need to print newspapers or other mass quantities of paper props.

End rolls of fabric from local textile mills and upholstery factories fill the fabric storage area at Triad Stage.
End rolls of fabric from local textile mills and upholstery factories fill the fabric storage area at Triad Stage.

Similarly, check with yarn factories for “mill ends,” which are the unused remnants of yarn. Lumber yards and furniture factories have off cuts of hardwood, while construction sites might have leftover lumber and Styrofoam. Sign-making shops have scraps of plastic and end rolls of vinyl they may be glad to donate. Go to phone and camera stores to get last year’s display models.

Always be on the lookout for restaurant liquidations and estate sales in your area.  Rachael Erichsen shares another find: “I recently needed to do a full set of birch cabinets and found a general liquidator (of everything) that was selling slightly water-damaged 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets of lovely ¾-inch birch ply for $15 each.  That was awesome.”

Borrowing

While borrowing can seem like the answer to many prop dilemmas, it is a double-edged sword. Borrowed items can’t be modified in appearance (unless it is reversible) and they can’t be altered to improve staging. You also need to be careful borrowing items that will receive rough treatment during a production. But aside from these caveats, borrowing can really save your budget.

Angela Zylla, props master at the Hippodrome Theatre, needed a stainless steel embalming table for the show All Girl Frankenstein. “I was pricing out and calling around other theaters for a good condition older style table.  Not having much luck, I walked over to the funeral home on our block.  I was able to talk to the funeral director and he had exactly what we were looking for.  He loaned them to us for the six weeks.  When I asked what he would like in payment for borrowing, he said, ‘Nothing.’  I talked him into a couple ticket passes.”

Always be ready to offer tickets or a mention in the program for anyone willing to lend their prized possessions. For businesses who help you out, you can extend the offer to a lobby card with their logo and an expression of thanks, or ad space in the program equal to the cost of their donation. Some donors and lenders may even be interested in backstage tours of your theatre and shop.

Of course, do not forget about borrowing from other theatres. Many props masters have a policy that if they can borrow from you, then you can borrow from them. Take the time to build relationships with the other theatres in town, and it will be like having one massive props stock.  

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