Theatre Etiquette: Concerning Props

Theatre Etiquette: Concerning Props


“Acting is all about big hair and funny props…
All the great actors knew it. Olivier knew it, Brando knew it.”

~ Harold Ramis

Last week I wrote about theatre etiquette concerning costumes.  This week, we’re moving on to props!

Let’s get the definitions out of the way, shall we?  A theatrical property, commonly referred to as a prop, is an object used on stage by actors to further 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.  (Source)

Good.  Now on to the important stuff!  When working with props, there are a few hard and fast rules you need to know and abide by.

1.  Props are not toys.

They’re fun and creative and often ridiculous and beautiful, and incredibly tempting to pick up.  But they’re also often hard to find (especially if it’s a piece from a certain time period), potentially fragile or breakable, or hand-made.  If something gets broken, report it to the props team immediately so it can be repaired or replaced.  But to lessen the potential for breakage…

2.  If it’s not your prop, don’t touch it.

Imagine how panicked you’d feel if just before you had to go onstage, the prop you needed for the scene was broken, or missing altogether.  Give your fellow actors the same respect and don’t touch or move their props.  They may have them pre-set in a certain area or a certain way for a reason.

In addition: If it’s an edible prop, don’t eat or drink it before it’s needed onstage!  You’d think that would be an obvious one.  I was talking to the OKTC props head, Mel Becke, about this one.  She mentioned it’s pretty ridiculous how often she’s been asked by an actor, “Can I eat this now?” while holding an edible prop.  Well, you see, if you and every other actor eats one now, then there won’t be any left to go onstage, will there?

3.  Even if it is your prop, if it’s not time to use it, don’t touch it.

Messing around with your props backstage is distracting, often noisy, and a surefire way to get something broken.  Hovering around the props shelf or table also blocks other actors from being able to reach their props.

4.  During rehearsals, try to use your props as early as possible.

Even if you don’t yet have or cannot use the actual prop, have something as a stand-in so you get used to using/holding the item.  For example, if your character reads a book, carry the book with you rather than mime the book.  It’s also useful to be able to figure out where and when the prop comes on, and how the prop will get offstage.

5.  Before you go onstage, do a pre-show check and make sure your props are in good working order and in the correct location.

Assistant stage managers will generally do a check as well, as part of their pre-show duties.  However, when the curtain rises, they aren’t the ones who will have to improvise a solution to the missing knife/book/letter/whatever.  Be a smart actor; take the initiative and make sure your stuff is where it needs to be.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Leave me a note below!

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11 thoughts on “Theatre Etiquette: Concerning Props

  1. And those electronic cigarettes lose their “juice” pretty quickly. Don’t use them offstage (1) except to test them and (2) unless you’re prepared to buy new ones yourself.

    1. Good point! I’ve never worked with those before but it would be similar to anything with batteries I’d assume. It would be pretty bad if your “cigarette” stopped lighting up onstage, mid-puff!

  2. Actually, I had one that started flashing to show it was near expiration….. I quickly hid it beside my leg and tried not to drag on it anymore (which was very hard cuz I loved it and my role seemed to call for it). Fortunately we had some backups so I could pick up a new one backstage. [btw, I went through five of them in Cabaret; not cheap!]

  3. Debi

    I’ve been a props master with a community theatre group for 15 years, and I agree to all of the above! I’ve found though, that when the show has unusual or fun props, like firearms, all of the cast are dying to try them out, and it’s best to let them handle the prop a bit (under my watchful eye) to get it out of their system! Being the props police and demanding they keep their hands off only results in more temptation for them!

    1. That’s true, Debi. Under supervision, it can definitely remove the temptation. I did a production of Treasure Island with a few stunts — jumping off an 8-foot platform onto a crash mat, and swinging on a rope suspended from the lighting grid. We allowed our younger actors to have a go at jumping off the platform and swinging on the rope, under the supervision of the fight director and fight captain. They had a great time, and loved being included.

  4. ALWAYS return your prop to its appropriate place as soon as you reasonably can. I remember one production where members of the cast would leave their props littered around backstage. I was the only one who would go on stage (after the audience was gone) and clean up my props and set them for the next night.

    If you can come off stage with your prop and don’t need it again, and have the time, it’s a great idea to immediately put it away so it’s in location ready for the next time it’s needed.

    1. That is an excellent point, Matthew! That tip can save a lot of unnecessary stress and clean-up time. It’s also a safety hazard if there are props strewn about everywhere — someone could step on or trip over something.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  5. I had a check list for every prop, for every scene, it’s position on stage and the character/actor that needed that prop “in hand” before their entrance. This also helps in tracking down the props after scenes if they’ve been taken back stage (because you know who had them and the potential “pocket” or dressing room they are in) or at final curtain, then allows you to ensure/check off the list that all props are back on the shelf or in position for the start of the next performance. All props were checked after final curtain and again before “curtain up” for the next performance. Managed to not lose/mis-place a prop during the run (and kids do tend to “forget” to return them, or play with them). The system worked really well.

  6. Nice tips, Kerry! I would add… It might not look like a prop, but it might actually be a prop. We did a show once that required crumpled up papers and disgustingly used coffee cups. They were on the prop table and someone with good intentions threw them away.

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