Prop Master

  • Prop Master

A sword hanging on the wall is a set decoration, but a sword in an actor’s hand is a prop. The person responsible for scavenging and creating the dozens (even hundreds) of props for a stage production is the prop master. This person answers to the director, production manager, and stage manager, and may work as a freelancer or in a permanent position with a theatrical production company.


Duties

In preproduction, the prop master reviews the script and makes a list of all required items the cast must interact with. For period-specific shows, this person will do research to identify the emblematic style of the era and ensure all props are period-appropriate. Next, consultation with the director and design team establishes the desired look and feel of the production; should the props have a faded, antique motif, or a modern, colorful appearance? The props must reflect the overall aesthetic of the show; the lighting, sets, and costumes all work to give the audience an immersive experience. The prop master is responsible for providing the production manager with a cost estimate based on what can be purchased and any materials required for building new pieces, as well as the inevitable repair and replacement of damaged pieces. Shows that are intended to have a long run will be expected to stock several duplicate props and maintain an inventory of spare pieces and materials for new construction. On a touring production, the prop master must plan for the storage of materials during transportation and design a packing template.

This job can be a shopper’s dream; the prop master trolls garage sales, thrift stores, and shopping malls for bits and pieces to fill the properties list. Budgets vary widely from one production to the next, but it is always the goal of a good prop master to ask for as much money as they can get and use as little as possible. Period shows are notoriously the most difficult to supply; the prop master usually knows every local antique dealer by name and spends hours on eBay. When the script calls for a very specific item, the prop master leads a team of technicians in fabricating objects. Often stage props are analogues of the real-world object, made from lighter, cheaper materials. These technicians are also skilled artists able to carve anything out of foam and perfectly simulate textures through faux finishes—they are welders, carpenters, sculptors, and painters.

During the show’s run, the prop master is tasked with supervising the props crew in pre-setting all the necessary pieces, leading movements during scene changes, and supervising the strike of the set. This person will also monitor the inventory for loss and damage. Where necessary, he or she will assign repair responsibilities. Permanent installs and long-running Broadway productions will employ a prop master who is also a department manager responsible for managing the crew’s work schedules, position rotations, shop equipment maintenance, and other related administrative tasks.

Skills & Education

A college degree or equivalent professional experience is required for this senior-level position. Training in fine art (drawing, painting, and sculpture) and carpentry is necessary; you are expected to be the MacGyver of show production, capable of making anything out of minimal resources. You must be skilled in multiple faux-finish techniques like distressing and papier-mâché, as well as the use of materials like plaster, foam, latex, and fiberglass. As a prop master, you will creatively interpret the script and the abstract vision of the director, effectively manage your department, and deliver on tight deadlines. You must be a team player who is willing to collaborate on a shared concept—not just your own.

What to Expect

Every show presents a new challenge; one day you’re carving 15th-century battle axes from foam, the next you may be hunting all over town for a rocking horse. This job requires someone who is both artistically talented and a creative problem-solver. There is no such thing as “can’t” in show production. If the item cannot be bought, you make it. If it cannot be made, you beg, borrow, or steal—well, don’t steal. Besides theatrical productions, prop masters are needed on film and television sets, in the theme park industry, and even in venues like museums. Experience in any area of the art department is applicable to this role, and many prop artists and technicians also find opportunities to apply their skills to makeup, special effects, and set decoration. 

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