Making props (or properties) for stage performances – such as set design, set building, costuming, lighting, sound, etc – is one of many backstage jobs that allow people to get involved in their children's school lives or their local community theatres. Eager workers are almost always welcome and creative energy even more so.
Prop making is a satisfying creative outlet that can make the difference between a good production and a memorable one. It is also an excellent way to make friends. Props are necessary for most plays, musicals, and often for others - singers, comedians, speakers, etc. The most that a person is on stage at any time is to entertain or to instruct. The following entry draws on the experience of one Researcher's theatre group and how they made their props perfect.
There are four very important points to remember when making props (apart from the fact that the director always has the last say):
The prop must fit the production - It must be of the correct period, look, and function required by the chosen work and the director's vision. It must fit in terms of colours, appear to be of the proper materials, and appear to do the job of whatever it is meant to represent.
Example: Guns, whether made of metal, wood or other materials, should appear to contain metal parts, where metal parts would be found. They should be of a type that would be available in the period represented on stage, and appear to function to whatever level of action is required during the performance.
The prop should be recognisable at a distance - The people at the back of the audience should not have to guess, or be told, what the person is holding. If it is not obvious from the situation and use, it must be apparent by appearance.
Example: A pen – to be used to sign the Magna Carta – should be something that can be flourished. Too small a pen - as well as the importance of the signing - will get lost. Perhaps a slightly larger version of the type of quill normally used would enhance the representation of the scene.
The Distance versus Detail Rule - Most theatrical groups have a 10, 15, or 20-foot rule which states that props need only to look good from a distance of x-feet.
Examples: A convincing cooked turkey can be made from stuffed brown paper bags and varnish. Fine engraving on a sword may help an actor 'feel' the scene more clearly, but the audience does not need the fine touches as they cannot be ascertained at their distance from them. And, the props should never distract the viewer from the acting place, unless that distraction is integral to the scene.
Safety First, Comfort Second, Fail-safe third - The safety of the actors, crew, and audience must be a prime consideration at all times. Then comes the comfort with which the prop can be used, and third, (if it 'does anything' at all) it must be dumb-simple fool-proof.
Example: A version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol requires a Marley's Ghost to float off the stage. For safety, the harness should be built by attaching metal straps with rings to the fronts and backs of the actors' boots to literally lift him up by the underside of his feet. Each of the four wires must be strong enough to support the actor on its own, and be guided up the costume to a chest harness, and up through grommets near the shoulders. The wires should be attached to a frame wider than the chest and shoulders, and operated from the fly-rail. It is as comfortable as standing on the stage. The lifting was provided by one person or more persons on one rope (for lift), and two on a second rope (for travel), coordinated to keep the path level.
With these four points in mind, here are some tips on making props happen, and delighting the audience (to say nothing of directors, actors, stage-managers, etc) which draw on this Researcher's theatre experience.
A 'strength game' was needed for a play scene set at a Renaissance era fair. It was a comedy/musical, so whether they had been invented was not deemed important.
These games invariably consist of a lever that, when hit, forces a weight to travel up and hit some sort of gong or bell. The base was made wide enough to provide safety from tip-overs, a strong lever (using a non-period axle for safety, but made sure it could not be seen), a 4'x4'x8' wooden weight on a piece of conduit painted to look like wrought iron, and – lacking any idea of what a proper gong might have looked like – a tin pail filled with metal fasteners was used. What they had not told anyone was that the game need not have been made functional. The director thought it was great, the actors loved being able to really smack it with the tree-limb and block hammer, and it made the props-master look good.
A version of Schoolhouse Rock – Live required many props such as a 'large, funny-looking syringe'. Unable to find anything suitable at stores specialising in toys, gag-gifts, costumes, etc, the group constructed one of four different gauges of PVC pipe. The finished syringe was 42" long and would actually draw in, and project water (though it was not used for such). Its comical size was perfect for the production. A papier-mâché dog bone (about 30') looked like something Dino the Dinosaur might carry in. Huge records and 'dimes' were made for 'I Put a Dime in the Drugstore Record Machine'.
Look for Opportunities
Some props make it to rehearsals before failings can be spotted. Tiny toy guns for a Schoolhouse Rock – Live train-robbery scene looked lost in the hands of the actors. The group bought cheap, bulky, water-pistols, attached barrels made of two-inch thick industrial-grade cardboard tubes, 14" long (with wooden sights glued on), and sprayed them silver; the sides of the grips were covered with wood-grain vinyl contact paper.
During the hectic pace of rehearsals and construction, it is easy for important items to be 'forgotten' until all time has run out. The rehearsals for a battle scene ran with slender wooden 'foils' designed more for brandishing than for full-contact sword-fighting. By the end of rehearsals, bits of the 'foils' were everywhere – including the orchestra pit and seating area; and actors were rehearsing with any bit of wood that was longer than wide.
This meant making 26 swords in an afternoon, by pre-shaping seven 2x4's in a 2' wide sword-and-grip shape, three blades were then ripped from each board, and all the blade edges were chamfered. 13 sword handles were painted black and 13 brown. The guards were similarly shaped by producing 52 reversible halves by first pre-shaping small boards in a half-a-guard shape, cut a sword-width dado, ripped the pieces and attaching both halves to the sword and each other above the grip, with short screws. The blades were covered with a metallic aluminium duct tape for a realistic metallic finish. The swords were virtually unbreakable (none broke), and all the edges were safer as the angles were not as sharp as the 90° angles with which the previous swords were produced. The aluminium duct tape on one sword became too worn during a later performance, and was easily fixed.
Improvise when Necessary
A production of Once Upon a Mattress could not find a suitable lute for the minstrel. A crude, improvised prop was made for rehearsals from a dowel and a plastic bowl. For the live performances, the prop-master produced a convincing – slightly larger than life-sized – lute from nothing more than a large discarded corrugated cardboard box (flattened, cut, and shaped into the lute's bowl and neck), duct-tape, some wood-grained, vinyl contact paper; some wood-stain; and some old guitar strings. It was used in future productions as well.
Think Image over Reality
The musical Jesus Christ Superstar calls for a flogging scene. The only whips handy to the group were bullwhips. The prop-master bought a roll of red string, knotted three strands of eight strings a piece, stapled the three strands to an 8" long, 3/4" wooden dowel, and covered the strands and handle with electrical tape. The handle end had been drilled to accept a wrist strap to keep them from flying off if the actors' hands got slippery.
Two sets were constructed, leaving the red-knotted strings uncovered at the tips to simulate blood. The imagery was enough to make them very effective.
The Schoolhouse Rock – Live Lolly Singers, three singer/dancers – in striped ice-cream coats and straw boaters – were to flip over their hats at one point to expose the adjectives 'soft', 'slow', and 'sure' to the audience. They would explain how adding '-ly' to the ends created the adverbs 'softly', 'slowly', and 'surely'. The words were painted on the inside of the hats' top, and were largely unreadable because of lighting and angles. More easily read words would not fit inside, and they did not want the words to be accidentally exposed during the routine until the right time. By creating 'flip-open' tops for the hats (foamcore board and elastic), they were able (in a more dramatic way) to pop open larger, easier-to-read versions of the word than could fit or be seen inside the hats, with the added advantage of an included '-ly' that could be rotated in place to visually create the adverbs. They could swiftly close them back up for the rest of the routine.
Costumes Can Be Props Too
A musical Aladdin called for a dragon costume, the actor wanted it to be clear who was talking when he spoke his lines, but animatronics are seldom in a community theatre's budget. The simple solution was to create the headpiece in two parts; the jaw was a separate piece, held to the actor's jaw by elastic attached to a lightweight hood, and the headpiece was attached to the rest of the costume. A thin, properly coloured material loosely attached the jaw to the headpiece with hook-and-loop material.
Use Smart Materials
Often the job of making props is daunting because we expect things have to 'look real' or 'be properly made'. Leather holsters, scabbards, and harnesses would seem to require a knowledgeable leather worker and a heavy-duty sewing machine. Use cheaper, lighter, smarter materials such as vinyl. Instead of sewing them, use staples and/or hot-glue. Add unexpected bits of trim because they work, not because they belong. A costume made for Lumiere, of Beauty and the Beast, used popcorn buckets for the wrist candleholders, and white cotton, flame-shaped (and coloured) mittens for flames.
Cogsworth's clock-front included a pendulum with a baby-moon hubcap for a weight. A primitive skin-on-a-tanning rack can be made from a simple tree-branch frame, with a brown-paper hide, stretched by dyed shoelaces or cord. Avoid using Styrofoam-like materials that drink paint, unless you cover them with something more paintable such as papier-mâché or cloth. Latex and foam are a temporary (weeks or months) prop material because the liquid latex tends to continue eating the foam long after it cures.
When props fail to come out as planned, time and resources are often tight. A multitude of flaws can be covered by adding bits of trim, appliqués, plastic leaves, emblems or logos, whatever will fit with the prop and the scene. These are also methods of hiding working parts that don't fit with the period, or should not be seen by the audience. Some props, if to be viewed from limited angles, need not be constructed in full 3D, which lowers weight and complexity of construction.
Scavenging Can Replace Construction
Many gems can be found at resale shops, dumps, flea markets, and the like. For one memorable prop, a pristine herald's trumpet was discovered at a local scrapyard, which was transformed into the business-end of a blunderbuss. Mostly anything you find can be cleaned and painted to look passable on stage, from pots and boxes, to wheelchairs and dishware.
Remember the People
Really great sounding ideas, such as an actual cement urn, can create problems for those who have to move, store, and handle props. Scene changes are often hurried, heavy or sharp objects can endanger those moving them in the dark, and bulky items take a lot of the often limited backstage area. Many props need only be seen from one side; this allows props to be made smaller, lighter, hollow, or whatever else aids the production and prop usage. All edges should be smoothly finished, but never sharp. Shiny surfaces should be roughed up or dusted with talcum powder to prevent distracting glare. And cloth props should be treated with a flame-retardant.
Flame-retardant solution for cloth props:
To 1 gallon of warm water, add 9 oz. Borax, and 4 oz. Boric acid crystals. Material can be soaked or dipped in the solution. The solution could be applied by a heavy spray until all areas are thoroughly wet. Air-dry the material while hanging. Do not use a clothes dryer. It could discolour material, or reduce the flame retardant properties.
Lastly, real guns are increasingly unpopular as props, and even blanks shoot a packing wad that has been known to kill at close proximity.
Try not to scare your director, his support team, or the actors with too much forcefulness, franticness, or stubbornness. Likewise, dangerous sounding proposals, such as flame-throwing dragons, normally do not belong in theatrical productions at any but the most professional level. This should be a fun assignment, but can become a problem when you are perceived as pushy or too 'my-idea-is-better'. Time your suggestions and offer to become a problem-solver. Look for things that do not 'read' well on stage, and ask for opinions on the current props before offering replacements. Do not take it so seriously that you become unwelcome. Be certain that you can fulfil your promises. Remember, sometimes a suggestion is rejected for reasons we are not aware of, whether it is a safety or insurance issue, indebtedness to another prop-maker's hard work, a size or colour preference, complexity, a perception of appropriateness, or limitations of the actor(s).