Props FAQ

  1. You've been signed onto a play. Where do you start?
  2. What local and nonlocal stores, websites, school resources, etc. have been useful for you?
  3. Do you do any research?
  4. Do you read the play? What do you look for?
  5. How do you map out your time when working on a play?
  6. What do you bring to meetings?
  7. If your play is applying to get theatre space, what is your job to bring to the application interview? Any tips for handling this?
  8. How do you make your budget? How do you buy or order things?
  9. How do you get ART Loeb props? etc.
  10. What is a props table, and how do you set it up?
  11. How do you deal with wear/tear of props after the play is up?
  12. Weapons?
  13. Have you ever handled getting food to be used in a performance? If so, how is this handled?
  14. How soon do the actors need the props to rehearse with? Do you test out any of the props? Do you watch rehearsals?
  15. Any general advice?

You've been signed onto a play. Where do you start?

Familiarize yourself with the script. The director should give you a copy and specifically for props, after reading it, start thinking up ideas/jotting down a list of props that you obviously need to get (i.e. a character throws something away. you need to get that thing they throw away as well as a wastebasket) -- keep a comprehensive, organized list! (After you acquire each prop you can check it off this list).
Some plays even have a helpful “props list” included, but bear in mind you might need to deviate from this. Meet with the director as early as possible to ask what they want in the production -- this way your list can be completed and then you can search for the props needed as soon as possible. When you meet with the director and set designer, pay attention to see what the artistic vision for the play is: this will tell you more about the “look” for the props you will need, and also if the play is going to be interpreted untraditionally and will call for additional or specific props (“Little Red Riding Hood” set in WW1 France, for example, will call for fake barbed wire rather than tree branches, etc).
Check with the producer to get a sense of the budget -- you need to keep in mind a financial limit because you can't buy every single prop. Sometimes you have to get a bit creative to make it happen. Bear in mind sometimes people “suddenly” realize there are props they need that they haven’t initially mentioned ---- or that an existing prop really won’t look right or work right at all – be prepared to be flexible if this happens. Your list may not be final, but to be clear: you will have difficulty suddenly making a paper mache elephant appear during tech week. If large changes need to be made, they need to be made earlier on.
Get to know the areas you will be working in if you will need to build or sew props: get tool trained or costume shop trained (this doesn’t take very long. If you’re working in the Loeb, Griggs will be training people in workshops. If you’re in the Agassiz or anywhere else on campus, you will need to be tool trained in the Agassiz by the shop assistants – email them or contact them to set up a time).

What local and nonlocal stores, websites, school resources, etc. have been useful for you?

You can borrow a lot of material from the VES department in the carpenter center -- though if you hadn't taken a class in the carpenter center it's tough to get access to the studios. You can also borrow things from certain houses if you ask the house masters.
The local hardware stores are a good place to start (i.e. Dickson Bros.): for props, materials, etc. There’s also Tags Hardware, City Paint & Supply, Inman Square Hardware Inc, Economy Hardware Co., Pill True Value, and Home Depot. Google props or look on ebay to get an idea of prices. The props supply room in the Loeb theater (You will need to contact Suzy Kadiff of the A.R.T. to gain access to it). When you go through the props rooms, it’s a good idea to go through with the technical director and the set designer (maybe the director if he wants to come) so they can help select the pieces for the look they are going for and the uses they need.
The Loeb has most of the sort of props you need for productions on campus, and that collection grows after each production because a lot of the stuff used gets donated there. There's small props and large props -- the latter consists mostly of furniture -- all of these props from the Loeb need to be "reserved" or "signed out" -- which you get a box for the small props and label it with your show, and for the large props you tape the name of your production and the dates needed on it. As always, keep an updated list of all these props to know exactly where you stand.
Additionally, the Harvard Recycling Center across the river is a good place to go for desks, chairs, lockers, old office furniture, distressed looking appliances, and anything else you might find there. Sometimes, if you talk to the person in charge you can arrange it if they happen to find, say, a locker, they can contact you to pick it up. You can use things from students’ rooms too.
Emailing the Overworked Techies weblist can help if you need suggestions. Some people may have gone through the same problems you may be experiencing and have suggestions (overworkedtechies@theatre.harvard.edu).
Habitat for Humanity always has a sale at the beginning of the year: it’s a good time to go shopping for appliances, furniture, and other things you might need.
If you need help making a prop, you could get in touch with Tom Howell, who is a TF for studio sculpture classes in the carpenter center and the A.R.T. tutor for Adams House. He's also a fantastic on-campus resource for most things in relation to visual arts as he himself sculpts (tshowell@fas.). Michael Griggs, any of the other techies at Harvard, whoever is in charge of the Agassiz Theatre, and any of the Agassiz shop assistants are also good people to ask for help.

Do you do any research?

You might need to do some research into the historical period you are replicating, or the use of the prop needed. Google is pretty useful, but remember Harvard libraries have tons of books on these different cultural and historical areas.

Do you read the play? What do you look for?

Yes you should! Go to some rehearsals -- you should get an idea of when something tangible needs to come in place, how it will be used (violently, delicately, will it be lifted, gotten wet, etc). Something you should keep in mind is that while you should be concerned with making your prop look a certain way, pay attention to it’s greater purpose in the play. It might be great that you made a perfect replica of an antique telephone, but if it has to be lifted and thrown as a murder weapon, etc, you will need to figure out how to make it endure this type of usage, not actually hurt the actors, etc.
You should also pay attention to possible safety issues. For example, if the script calls for wet, sloppy food to be thrown on the ground, and then dancers to be dancing and running all over the stage, it’s possible this will make someone slip and hurt themselves. You might need to conceal a rag or something to mop it up or otherwise take care of it.

How do you map out your time when working on a play?

Get things done early. As soon as you realize what you need to acquire props-wise, you can go about doing it no matter how early it is in advance. It's nice to have it done earlier too because then the actors can use the props in rehearsal. You may need to make some tests of props, so budget time for this. Sometimes it takes several tries.

What do you bring to meetings?

You want to keep on the ball about your props because the show's production depends on what you can get and what you can't. Always have the list of props, make sure you update at the meetings what you have already been able to get and what you need to get. Then you can ask for suggestions too -- maybe the other people of the crew have been involved in previous productions that needed a prop you're looking for. That's a huge lead as to where to find something.
If you have any questions, ask them at the meeting. Sometimes it’s hard to get everyone together in one room and the one matter you bring up actually affects all of them. Listen to the designers when they discuss when they will be building – it will help you get a figure for how to budget in time for building your own props.
When you meet with Griggs or other heads of various theaters, bear in mind there are certain props that you need to get clearance for because of safety reasons. Cigarettes, for example. You can get nicotine-less cigarettes, but anything that involved fire onstage will need to be approved, and anything with noxious fumes/smells/smoke will need to be declared on a sign or something so the audience knows (some people have asthma and might need to know this). There are certain materials which are not really allowed to be used in certain theatres, depending how strict the head of the theatre is (foam is flammable and in some theatres you cannot use it, but in others you can).

If your play is applying to get theatre space, what is your job to bring to the application interview? Any tips for handling this?

Like all other members of the staff, you will need to write up a blurb about your previous artistic/theater experience if any, an idea of your own budget, and what your artistic vision for the sort of things you want. Sometimes the director will give you leeway and let you create as you see fit -- you want to brainstorm a few ideas and be set with that -- even if you're not asked at the interview, it's nice to have a sense of what you want to do. Usually you just will have to sit there and look responsible.

How do you make your budget? How do you buy or order things?

You and the producer will set an estimate -- either the producer will purchase the prop for you (usually ones ordered online are done like that) or you should definitely keep all the receipts from whatever you buy for the show in a store, and mark next to each purchase what prop it is, and at the end of the production run, these receipts will be given to the producer. You will also have to fill out a small form and then the A.R.T. or whoever will send you a check to reimburse you. Make and keep copies of the receipts! Just in case they get lost or misplaced you'll have a record to prove what you've bought.
You will need to talk to the producer about getting ahold of a tax exempt form that lets you buy things without paying tax. It is a "generic" form that is actually a copy of Harvard's tax exempt form. You can officially get it from the OFA but if you ask a head of a theatrical organization (like the G&S president) they will probably have one.
Check prices – call up stores, look on Google or Ebay, go shopping yourself, and compare prices. You can usually find cheap versions of things if you spend enough time looking. Anticipate possibly having to buy multiples of things for replacements. Your producers will have to put down a $100 deposit on the props you borrow from the Loeb stock props (this check will only be cashed if you lose or damage props).
If you’re not sure how many materials (wood, muslin, etc) will go into making a prop, ask the technical director, set designer, or any fellow techies. See the sources page for more details.

How do you get A.R.T. Loeb props? What is the procedure for taking these, using them, and returning them? Can you alter them? When can you get access to the prop rooms (large props and small) and how do you get access to them?

The Loeb props are located downstairs in the Loeb theater. You're allowed to reserve props for your show that haven't been reserved yet/will not be in use during your production. Suzy Kadiff will give you a box in which to put small props in, then write the show's name and dates that it goes on on a piece of paper and tape it to the box. for large props you write on a piece of masking tape /paper and tape it to the prop you want with the name and dates that are relevant. In regards to altering props, each prop is case-specific, and you have to ask Suzy.

Prop Stock Procedures:
HRDC Loeb Shows: The HRDC liaison will get a copy of a prop sheet from Suzy on the Friday before load-in. Set up a time with your board liaison for Sunday or Monday to pull the props you need. The board liaison must check off on the prop sheet each item pulled.
HRDC non-Loeb shows: Pull all props and costumes during Suzy’s regular hours by setting up appointments in advance. If something is needed on Sunday or Monday during load in that cannot be picked up before then, make very clear arrangements with Suzy and an HRDC board member. The board member will be responsible to help getting into prop storage to pull only those items written on the prop sheet.
Institute Shows: Institute directors or designers are responsible for all borrowed stock, for both workshops and Projects. This individual must be responsible for the strike, cleaning, and return of all borrowed items. Large props are not available for workshops, they are available for Projects.
## Make an appointment with Suzy by calling 496-2000 x 8876, or by finding her during her operating hours. Ask at the donut for her whereabouts. The appointment should be no more than one month before first dress, but not less than two weeks before.

  1. An item is "tagged" only when you have cleared it with Suzy, and it is written on the show’s props borrowing sheet. A deposit check will be accepted to secure the borrowing agreement when the list is complete. The amount will be set by Suzy. Fees set by Suzy will be charged for non-Harvard productions.
  2. The individual who has pulled props is responsible for the welfare and whereabouts of them. This individual is responsible for repairing damaged items, replacing lost or stolen items, and for timely returns. Please lock up props and costumes in a safe location. Theft is extremely common in the Loeb. The person who checks out the props must be the same person who is in charge of strike and returns. Items must be returned before school breaks. Return items that will not be used one week before opening night. Returns must be made within a week of the close of the show. The person returning is responsible to stay for check-in and help with restocking. The deposit check will be cashed if returns are not made on time.

What is the props table and how do you set it up?

The props table is set up to the side of the stage and consists of all the props that are needed for the show that are not already present on stage. You divide the table up into little "compartments" with gaff tape -- and make squares on the table with the tape. then for each individual prop that's placed in a "box," below it, on the tape, you write what the prop is and what it's for -- character that uses it and act and scene are optional, but very helpful

How do you deal with wear/tear of props after the play is up?

You have to make sure the props are usable for the next showing of the play and that the props table is restored so that it's ready for another run. Replenish anything that gets eaten, used, etc. fix anything that gets broken -- basically have the props be in a condition that you initially had them for the first show.

Weapons?

Have specific rules about them (when they are used, when they can be present on stage, etc), as do any props that are potentially dangerous, Talk to Michael Griggs.

Have you ever handled getting food to be used in a performance? If so, how is this handled?

I had to prepare a bagged lunch for the production of KNOCK -- before each show (and some of the rehearsals) the lunch had to be rebagged because the actor actually ate the food onstage -- I got the groceries from broadway marketplace and CVS and made it to the director's wishes. I also had to make human organs out of rubber because they don't allow real raw meat on the Loeb Mainstage. In the past, catered dinners for dinner scenes have come from Uno’s at a discount. If you have to clean off dirty plates at the end of the night, please don’t do it in the paint sink as food gets stuck there and rots quietly. Find out if anyone has food allergies. You can also steal food from dining halls.

How soon do the actors need the props to rehearse with? Do you test out any of the props? Do you watch rehearsals?

A couple weeks (2 - 2 1/2 weeks) of rehearsals before the first show is a good time to shoot for having all the props ready, because sometimes you need to get other props when you see something lacking, or make adjustments and you want to leave yourself enough time for that too. Props should be tested –(example: I had to build a city inside a briefcase that also lit up. (I made the mountains out of rubber -- rebound 25, so they would fold in and the suitcase could close properly) the briefcase had to open a certain way, the lights had to work, and it needed to be tested a lot). It's good when you can try it out so you're confident it will do what you want it to do in rehearsal.
It’s a good idea to go to rehearsal to find out where when and how props are going to be used, and then again when the cast is actually rehearsing with the props to make sure they work and see how well they function.

What tools (costume tools, building tools, painting tools) do you typically use to make props, and for what purposes?

Depending on what you’re making, you will have to use a variety of types of tools and materials. I used rubber for fake body organs (and dyed some of the rubber when mixing to create the proper color), for a city inside a briefcase because it had to be flexible enough for the briefcase to shut. I used a lot of paints -- some woods that i got from the scrapbox in the carpenter center woodshop (to make things like a scooter-esque rolling device, etc) -- that last bit involved some woodworking with drills, saws, but all possible in the woodshop in the carpenter center. Hot glue was key too.
Animals’ heads have been made with chicken wire and foam. Air tackers and staplers are very useful – you will probably not need to use the nail gun much, if at all. If you are unsure of what you are doing, ask the tech director for help, or to find someone who has done it before and can help you out. Talk to the master painter about painting and sealing things – he/she might have some good suggestions for making fake bricks, stones, wooden surfaces etc.

Any general advice?

Budget your time! Rehearsals would go really late into the night, sometimes making a prop/perfecting it would take hours upon hours. Always keep everyone else on the staff updated, it's what those email lists are for! (mainly the director and producer.)

Have fun!!