OK, this has been on my mind for a long time, and now that I am “retiring”, as it were, from being a prop-person… I feel a little better about going on this rant.
A brief disclaimer before I do, though. I love this job. It is always challenging and interesting, and never ever routine. I rarely go to work for more than a week at a time in the same place with the same people. I’m usually my own boss. I do physical work. I travel. I work on plays, musicals, operas, films. Elevator politics and cubicle wars are not part of my life. And I love that.
I have also had the privilege of working with some amazing directors designers and performers. I have explored most of New York on my shopping journeys. I have learned how to sew, sculpt, bake (don’t ask), build, and paint in new ways. I have become a better artist (both theater and regular) from propping. And a stronger person. Which brings me to my rant…
Propping a play is really fucking hard. Those of us that do it for a living know this, and those of us who have been asked to “just take care” of the props on a production, know it too. Lets look at a relatively simple, modern, one-room interior set:
Ok, this was the set for Len, Asleep in Vinyl at Second Stage Theater Uptown designed by Wilson Chin a couple of years ago. It was also the first show I ever propped on my own.
Let’s review what a set like this asks of a prop master. My budget was only $1500 or so, including the hand props. Lets run down what had to be done (aka what a prop master has to be able to do).
Shopping: also in many cases knows as “Begging, Borrowing and Stealing”. Props people have to find incredible amounts of things for seemingly tiny amounts of money. This set featured a fair amount of rented furniture: The couch, the skin on the floor and some other furniture pieces came from Anything But Costumes, the rental house. The Barcelona chair, the chandelier, some of the guitars, and most of the tchotzkes were borrowed from other theaters, friends, and shopped in flea markets and second hand stores. I dove in dumpsters for records, I drove to Staten Island to see a dude with 5 guitars in his garage, and bought three for $200 and free tickets.
I think the crux of this section is that shopping for props isn’t just “shopping.” You don’t go to KMart and pick everything up. I’ll cover this more in a bit, but shopping a show requires a real sensitivity to the design of the show and the world of the play. You have to understand where your designer is coming from, and what the text is telling you about the people in the play. And then you have to find the stores that sell the right stuff. And you have to remember that everything in someone’s house isn’t new, and that people have a lot of stuff. So, it’s a difficult task, and probably the most important part of propping a show.
Making Stuff: Ok, along with procuring all that ephemera, there is the crafting that goes into many plays. Props people have to know stitching (this one, for example, featured a blanket that I made myself), carpentry, electrical wiring (all of the “practicals” — lamps etc are props that have to be properly wired and installed to work with dimmers). On top of these skills comes the necessary research: props people need to communicate effectively what they are planning on making, and then stick to the details in their research.
Other random things that always come up are: Photoshop, painting, dyeing, random craft things like gold leafing, cooking (especially foods that have to be consumed onstage — I remember a meal that needed to be vegan and sugar free but look like striped bass), casting and sculpting…
So, theres that.
Plus, your propmaster has to coordinate with the set designer, the director, the stage managers, the costume designer (bags, hats and most accessories are props), the lighting designer (practicals), the sound designer (lots of things have hidden speakers… stereos, tables, babies…) and management. Which leads me to…
Attitude. I totally learned this the hard way, but being a prop-person is a lot like being an intern. Everyone knows that you have one of the hardest jobs, that you’re being paid nothing, that you have a million things to do, and that everyone is demanding things of you. And they feel kinda bad. So if you ever bitch, moan, complain, crab… are anything short of the nicest, happiest, most prepared person in the room, then you make them feel guilty. And then they hate you for that. No one likes to feel guilty. So you have to be awesome. All the time. And flexible. And game. And excited about the show, about the design, about your projects. You have to walk in every day looking like you had a great nights sleep and you have the funnest easiest job in the world. Which you didn’t, and you don’t.
Most importantly, you definitely can’t have an ego of any kind about the damn props. Why? Because they’re just props, they’re not your decision, and the ones you like most, the ones you work the hardest on, are going to get cut. Deal. Most of us turn to drink.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that you have to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. Or at least that has been my approach. And you have to derive satisfaction from being a facilitator, from small victories. The best props seem natural: it feels like there is nothing onstage because everything belongs there. So, oftentimes your best work goes completely unnoticed… and doesn’t feel like your work at all.
There are props-people that I really respect and whose work I love that think that we should be “Prop Designers” instead of “Prop Masters”. I completely disagree.
The last thing a production needs is another designer in the room. As much as that hurts, a props-person should be someone who can think like a designer, who can read design and text, who understands functionality, who can make the production work. That’s our job. Making it all work. The props are ultimately in service to everything else in the production; they are supportive, not generative. Stinks, I know.
Which brings me, finally, to my point. Yes, there is one. We are not designers. We are not treated like designers, and we are not credited like designers. Props people are not stars. They are an incredibly essential part of the production, and Really. Hard Work.
It’s a full time job for almost 6 weeks to prop an off-Broadway show. You start before first rehearsal chasing down rehearsal props, and you work all the way through previews dealing with notes. The scale of the production doesn’t change the time commitment, and in fact productions with smaller budgets are way more time consuming and energy-sapping. And most of the time, you don’t have a crew, you don’t have a shop… you are out there on your own being creative, and figuring it all out.
So, what we can do is worth a great deal of money. That’s what I’m saying. Don’t let people talk you into tiny fees because the production is small, because it’ll “be a small time commitment” it won’t. Props-people put a huge amount of time into learning very specialized skills, into developing contacts, into research. Don’t back down!!!! Good props-people are hard to find, but it is only by insisting that we get paid what we are worth that this life becomes livable, and we can maintain the attitude that is so essential to the job.
Insist on getting paid. This is my call to arms for props people (though its true for everyone in the theater)…. whenever you allow people to pay you shit money for a hard job you enable them to do it to everyone else. Essentially, you don’t just screw yourself, you screw all of us. Put your foot down. This is a hard job, we deserve a living wage. Believe me, only a few people can prop shows. If you aren’t afraid to push for higher fees, then you will get them, because we are needed, we are necessary, and in the end we are worth it.
So live like kings ladies and gentlemen of the props tribe! Grow a pair and ask for what you deserve! Love the job, be awesome, and get paid enough to do it!