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Prop Shop Confidential

Lisa Mulcahy • Props • February 3, 2010

The Guthrie Theater prop shop places a premium on usability, but also keeps props based on their “cool” factor.

Up to your neck in 18th-century armoires and headless mannequins, but have no idea how to control your prop inventory? SD asked some of the best prop masters in the business for great insider tips on how to manage a large prop stock. Here’s how they do things right—using cleverness, common sense and communication.

Taking Stock of Your Stock
Your first step in dealing with a disorderly deluge is to be ruthless, and eliminate what you don’t really need. “Ask yourself, ‘Will this prop likely be used again?’” advises Patricia Olive, properties manager (with associate Sarah Gullickson) at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. “We evaluate props using two components—first, could items work for our theatre’s small rental business? Second, could different types of props we’ve bought or built save us from buying or building new props for future productions? If so, we keep them. Sometimes, too, we keep things that are just cool—like a six-foot fish that an actor can actually emerge from!”

Capacity is also crucial. “If you put something in storage, something has to come out,” says Roger Anderson, prop master for the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington. “I have two storage lockers—the one for furniture is 20 feet by 30 feet and only 12 feet high. My hand prop locker is 15 feet deep by 12 feet wide and 15 feet high, completely flanked floor to ceiling in shelving.” Anderson evaluates every prop’s validity to every production by determining, “How important is it to the show? Is it onstage the entire night, or is it just a crossover? These are considerations before I decide if I will pull an item, or build it for a show,” he explains. Anderson unloads unwanted props by giving some away, but puts valuable pieces on Craigslist—selling props can be a lucrative way to raise funds for your organization.

Once you have your stock pruned, what’s the best way to sign it out?
“It’s relatively easy to keep track of stock being used,” says Matt Williams, prop master for both the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. and the Kennedy Center’s Washington, D.C. Opera. “We keep a typed list in the computer of what has been sent where, refraining from sending anything essential, when possible, until we get to stage. This comes in very handy when we have to clean out the rehearsal space as well.”

Organize Wise

Some theatres store pieces by date, for a historical progression, while the prop shop at the Guthrie organizes pieces by model, so all suitcases, for example, are grouped together.

Your next step is to analyze the set-up of your warehouse or prop room, to maximize its usefulness. “Making everything accessible is the most important thing,” says Carla Fujii, properties manager for the California Shakespeare Theater in Berkeley. “For example, keep heavier items on lower shelves, and lighter items on higher shelves—items you use frequently, such as books, trays, tea sets and trays should be kept at eye level. Also, keep like items together; such as fine china near all the glassware, kitchenware and fake food.”

Categorize your large props, such as furniture, in specialized rows. “It’s best for me to be able to walk down an aisle and see a historical progression of styles,” says Williams. But Olive prefers grouping similar pieces by model: “We store luggage together, and various chair styles in their own areas—upholstered fabric styles live in one spot, versus dining room chairs, which live in another. You should always be working to keep your items in their places during a show run; once that show is closed, keep a permanent record of which props were specifically used by doing a full photo inventory of that production. You can then digitally store each production in a visual ‘style file,’ which helps tremendously when it comes to retrieving props for future shows. We have conversations in our office all the time, like, what stove did we use for Death of a Salesman? It’s so easy just to look up the props from that show and find out.”

Once you’ve lined up your space, keep props neat the easy way. “Since our storage at one of my theatres is prone to be dusty, I’ve learned the most important thing is to put props in bags whenever possible,” urges Williams. “One can save oneself hours of cleaning and prep just by doing that.”

A California Shakespeare Theatre Festival props artisan building purple pillows for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Tools of the Trade
Every prop master has his/her favorite resources for keeping stock top-notch.

“How essential is eBay? Very!” says Williams. “We scored an un-findable enamel stove for a production of Louise at Spoleto and it was perfect—I would never had had the time to look for it on the ground.”

For compartmentalizing, Fujii’s a fan of bankers’ boxes. “They’re a good size, easily stackable, and you can’t put too much in them,” she says. “I like small, clear, plastic bins for smaller items. I’ve also found that storing paper goods in a file cabinet can be a lifesaver. We’ve got all our paper sorted by categories like color, etc.—it took a lot of time, but was definitely worth it!”

Olive likes to keep props mobile: “I use rolling bins, on casters, for hand prop storage,” she explains. “They’re roomy enough to hold all of my smaller pieces. We also purchased a commercial rug rack, which allows us to hang our very large selection of Oriental rugs. It’s industrial strength, and allows a designer to be able to easily flip through and see what carpeting we have available quickly.”

More lifesavers? “Plastic sheeting for dust covers saves hours of cleaning!” raves Williams. “Also, I like manila tags and a marker—carrying a laptop or even a book can be a pain, so consulting a tag with information such as quantity can be invaluable.”

Perhaps the most low-tech but practical gotta-have it: “A ladder,” recommends Anderson. “When your real estate is full, move everything up!”

The purple pillows onstage for the 2009 Cal Shakes production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Collaboration Is Key
Perhaps a prop master’s most important secret weapon is quality give and take with designers and directors. “It’s important to set deadlines,” says Fujii. “If something has to be built, you need everyone to sign off on it early in the process. It’s nice to build up a rapport.”

To keep everyone on the same page, ask for visual references. “The more images we can get from a designer or director, the better,” says Olive. “Drawings, photos—whatever precisely conveys the look the designer and director are going for. Another important point: befriend your stage manager! An experienced SM will always have a really good handle on a production’s prop needs based on ongoing rehearsals, so it’s very important to listen to his/her feedback.” Ask your SM for a complete prop list ASAP.

“It’s part of the process to deal with smaller hand props as shows go along, but the necessity of having a complete list of major items before rehearsals start is just basic,” explains Williams.
Always remember that a prop master help artists realize their ultimate vision. “If a director or designer tells you something multiple times, they find that detail important,” says Anderson. “Listen, and do your best to give them what they want.” Your work is essential to creating something special—so do it well, and with pride! 

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