Theatrical property: Wikis

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A theatrical prop grammophone used in a professional production of "My Fair Lady"

A theatrical property, commonly referred to as a prop, is any object held or used on stage by an actor for use in furthering the plot or story line of a theatrical production. Smaller props are referred to as "hand props". Larger props may also be set decoration, such as a chair or table. The difference between a set decoration and a prop is use. If the item is not touched by a performer for any reason it is simply a set decoration. If it is touched by the actor in accordance to script requirements or as deemed by the director, it is a prop.

Contents

History

Small acting troupes formed during the renaissance, travelled throughout Europe. These "companies," functioning as cooperatives, pooled resources and divided any income. Many performers provided their own costumes, but special items: stage weapons, furniture or other hand-held devices were considered "company property," thus the term "property," which eventually was shortened to "prop." [1][2] The first known props were stylized hand held masks, called Onkoi, used by performers in "Greek Theatre" and have become symbols of theatre today, known as the "comedy and tragedy masks".

On stage, backstage

Props storage room of the National Theatre, Mannheim, Germany

The term "theatrical property" originated to describe an object used in a stage play and similar entertainments to further the action. Technically, a prop is any object that gives the scenery, actors, or performance space specific period, place, or character. The term comes from live-performance practice, especially theatrical methods, but its modern use extends beyond the traditional plays and musical, circus, novelty, comedy, and even public-speaking performances, to film, television, and electronic media.

Props in a production originate from off stage unless they have been preset on the stage before the production begins. Props are stored on a prop table backstage near the actor's entrance during production then generally locked in a storage area between performances. The person in charge of handling and buying/finding the props is called the props master/mistress.

Modern usage

The term has readily transferred to television and motion picture production, where they are commonly referred to by the phrase "movie props." In recent years, the increasing popularity of movie memorabilia (a broader term that also includes costumes) has added new meaning to the term "prop," broadening its existence to include a valuable after-life as a prized collector's item. Typically not available until after a film's premiere, movie props appearing on-screen are christened "screen-used", and can fetch thousands of dollars in online auctions and charity benefits. [3][4]

Props are generally distinct from the costumes worn by the actors, the scenery (sets) or other large objects that can be considered part of the stage. Occasionally, if a period-piece item of clothing is handled or otherwise appears on screen, but is never worn by an actor, then it would be the responsibility of the prop master, and thus considered a prop. For example, belts, stockings, hats, and other normally wearable items may be considered as props if they are merely picked up by an actor or used for alternate purposes. Similarly, a scene in a shoe store may require numerous prop shoes to fill the sets shelves, and therefore will be handled by the prop master or set decorator.

Many props are ordinary objects. However, a prop must read well from the house or on-screen, meaning it must look real to the audience. Many real objects are poorly adapted to the task of looking like themselves to an audience, due to their size, durability, or color under bright lights, so some props are specially designed to look more like the actual item than the real object would look. In some cases, a prop is designed to behave differently than the real object would, often for the sake of safety.

Examples of special props are:

  • A prop sack representing a burlap bag, that might have one side starched or sized to stiffly duplicate a particular shape which a real (and limp) burlap bag would be unlikely to collapse into by chance.
  • A prop weapon (such as a stage gun or a stage sword) that reads well but lacks the intentional harmfulness of the corresponding real weapon. In the theater, prop weapons are almost always either non-operable replicas, or have safety features to ensure they are not dangerous. Guns fire caps or noisy blanks, swords are dulled, and knives are often made of plastic or rubber. In film production, fully functional weapons are occasionally used, but typically only with special smoke blanks instead of real bullets. Real cartridges with bullets removed are still dangerously charged which has caused several tragic instances when used on stage. The safety and proper handling of real weapons used as movie props is the premiere responsibility of the prop master, who is often monitored by off-duty police, fireman, and/or ATF agents.
  • Breakaway objects, or stunt props, such as balsa-wood furniture, or sugar glass (mock-glassware made of crystallized sugar) whose breakage and debris look real but rarely cause injury due to their light weight and weak structure. Even for such seemingly safe props, very often a stunt double will replace the main actor for shots involving use of breakaway props. Rubber bladed-weapons and guns are examples of props used by stuntmen to minimize injury, or by actors where the action requires a prop which minimizes injury.[5]

Property department crossovers

Props will sometimes have crossover requirements, needing to be addressed by the different departments.

  • If an item is worn it is a costume. If it is merely held it is a prop. Hats, watches, glasses, purses, and even jewelry can be considered a prop under the right circumstances. These items may still need approval from the costume designer.
  • Specialty props such as battery powered flickering candles, lanterns or flashlights may be purchased or pulled (out of stock) by the props designer and be supervised by the lighting designer and head electrician.
  • Working and nonworking microphones, hand held and floor standing, may fall under the prop department as well as sound. Any prop that makes an audible noise loud enough to be picked up by mics should also be coordinated with the sound designer as well as any item that obstructs/mutes or amplifies sound.
  • Musical instruments played on stage by a performer may also need to be coordinated with the musical director and/or orchestra leader.
  • Devices used by a performer to operate an electrical or electronic device are not considered props and fall under the purview of the electrical or stage electronics department. Examples include a switch which operates a practical lamp or a game show ring-in/lockout device.

The choice of evoking the legal concept of "property" in naming props probably reflects the issues of prop management. The performer using a prop has to eventually let go of it, either because the character being played does so, or in order to take a bow or effect a change of costume or makeup. Even if the value of the item is negligible, the effort of realizing it is gone and replacing it is probably not, and it is efficient to take steps to ensure it is at hand for the next performance. Thus a prop's availability to the performer must be guarded as diligently as an individual's valued private property. Two institutions reflect this need:

  • The prop manager, prop master, or prop-person, whose sole or overriding responsibility is being sure performers get their props. (The manager of prop weapons and in some cases real weapons serving as props, is often a separate person, and is, in any case, technically the armorer.)
  • The prop table, where nothing but props may be left, and nothing removed except by the prop manager or the performer to whom the prop is assigned.

Design, construct and acquire

Under normal circumstances the theatrical prop used must be built, bought, borrowed or pulled from existing stock. This generally falls under the responsibility of the property designer, coordinator or director. Usually the head of the theatre property department, this position requires artistic as well as organizational skills. Working in coordination with the set designer, costume designer, lighting and sometimes, sound designer, this overlapping position has only in recent years become of greater importance. Props have become more and more specialized due in large part to realism as well as the rise of theatre in the round, where few sets are used and the simple prop becomes as important a design element as costumes and lighting.

Besides the obvious artistic creations made in the prop workshop, much of the work done by the property designer is research, phone searches, and general footwork in finding needed items.

Of all the positions within theatre, the property designer receives the least accolades. There are no awards for the props position besides the satisfaction of the item working well for the performance.

Fan-made

One recent trend is prop replica collecting, that is, to fabricate and collect reproductions of props seen in movies, TV shows and video games. Here the enthusiasm for theatrical property is set to its maximum in terms of passion and devotion to get a 100% accurate replica to the screen-used original.

References

  1. ^ Eric Partridge Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English: Second Edition. Random House 1959
  2. ^ Kenneth Macgowan and William Melnitz The Living Stage. Prentice-Hall 1955.
  3. ^ Ian Mohr Daily Variety. Reed Business Information February 27, 2006 "Movie props on the block: Mouse to auction Miramax leftovers"
  4. ^ David James People Magazine Time, Inc. February 24, 2007 "Bid on Dreamgirls Costumes for Charity"
  5. ^ Coyle, Richard. "A Collector's Guide To Hand Props". RACprops. http://www.racprops.com/issue3/editorial/. Retrieved 9 July 2009.  

Further reading

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