Theatrical property

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On stage, backstage

A theatrical property, better known as a prop, is an item 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, and even public-speaking performances, to film and electronic media.

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 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.

Props are distinct from the scenery or sets (which are constructed, manufactured or purchased), large objects in many productions that can be considered part of the stage.

Many props are ordinary objects. However, a prop must read well from the house, which is to say it must look to the audience like the real thing it represents. Many real objects are poorly adapted to the task of looking like themselves to an audience, so some props are specially designed to look more like the real thing than the real thing would. 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 an especially convincing shape that a real (and limp) burlap bag,
  • 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 theater, prop weapons are almost always either non-operable replicas, or have safety features to ensure they are not dangerous. Guns fire blanks, swords are dulled, and knives are often made of plastic or rubber. In film production fully functional weapons are occasionally used. The safety and proper handling of real weapons used as movie props is the prop master's premiere responsibility, often monitored by an off-duty policeman, fireman, and/or ATF agent.
  • Breakaway objects, such as balsa-wood furniture, or candy-glass (mock-glassware made of crystallized sugar) whose breakage and debris read well without having the weight or strength to injure.

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 by the props designer and be supervised by the lighting designer and head electrician.
  • Working and none working 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.
  • Key lighting elements may be designed or provided by the electrics department, yet become essential props in dark scenes, especially horror movies where it may sometimes be the sole source of light.

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 costumes 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 armor.)
  • 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 set or property designer, coordinator or director. Usually the head of the theater 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 as props become more and more specialized. 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.

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