The Properties Director's Handbook.
Managing a Prop Shop for Theatre
By Sandy Strawn; New York, Focal Press, 2013. 148pp. Paper, $19.95.
In 1864 in London, Tom Robertson, the Victorian playwright and journalist, wrote a series of humorous articles about theatrical types for The Illustrated Times in which he called the property man a "mysterious mechanic" and a "gifted getter-up of gnomes, salamanders, dragons' heads, and fairies' wings." Over the past twenty-some years I've been working in theatre, these wonderfully strange, collaborative, and creative prop people were, for the most part, either a product of their own curiosities or they were strays from the disciplines of design and stagecraft. Few universities had programs specializing in prop construction and management, and very little was written to directly support this element of production. Even Thurston James's The Theatre Props Handbook, published in 1987, included only a small preface of what it was like to actually be a prop master. His classic and essential books focused more on the props themselves than the actual job. Sandy Strawn's newly published The Properties Director's Handbook: Managing a Prop Shop for Theatre has filled a need beyond the list of skills needed to make a prop and created a resource to help students and professionals alike actually run a successful prop shop.
Sandy Strawn is currently the head of technical production at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee, where she teaches the properties courses in the professional theatre training program. She has been working in theatre for over two decades, building, painting, and designing stage properties and scenery. The information she has included in this book comes from a culmination of this extensive production experience. Her work with professional companies--Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and Utah Shakespeare Festival, just to name a few--has given her extra insight into the operation of a successful prop shop. Her expertise was acknowledged in 2006 when she was asked to serve as contributing editor on the update of the prop chapter for J. Michael Gillette's Theatrical Design and Production.
Still, one chapter could not fully explain the complexities of running a prop shop, so in 2008, she wrote and published her website, the Properties Directors Handbook: Props for the Theatre (http://prophandbook.com/HOME.html). Conceived through conversations with the members of S.P.A.M., the Society of Prop Artisan Managers, Strawn created the site primarily to pass along information to the new membership; however. it quickly became an important tool for educators as well as for other professionals.
In November of 2012, Focal Press released The Properties Director's Handbook: Managing a Prop Shop for Theatre. A condensation and reworking of the information in the website, this book explains the process of props for theatre from the script to strike. Now students who complain they don't have access to the website can have a textbook. And now, the book lover in me can have a copy for my shelf.
Building from the basics
Organizationally, this book is a dream. Strawn starts with the basics and builds from there. In actuality, the hardest question is posed first, "What is a prop?" The answer, like the rest of the information in the book, is presented with a comfortable, easy-to-understand, conversational tone. Strawn breaks down the traditional definition and adds to it the nuances of how props are viewed by different theatres and different educational venues. She starts right off the bat getting the reader used to the fact that in props, there is never just one answer to the question.
In this book's nine chapters, Strawn makes a deliberate point of describing the operation of a successful prop shop as collaborative, flexible, and above all, the place where the question "what if?" should be asked. In her second chapter, she helps to clarify the actual job description of a prop master and points out clearly the changing differences in title (prop director, prop manager, prop designer) and how those changes are reflected in the structure of theatre production. It is much more common that the prop director is now on the same organizational level as the technical director. That change brings with it a wider scope of responsibility. Often props are in charge of their own spaces, budgets, and labor, deliberately separate from the scene shop. Strawn has taken the time to not only show the budding prop master where to even begin in this structure, but she also helps to support the seasoned prop manager with creative solutions for the efficient use of resources.
As I said before, this book focuses not as much on "how to make props" as on "how to do the job." Strawn does include an extremely comprehensive list of skills that a prop master should have, but she also lists skills that go beyond physical labor and talent. She lists sensibilities. To her, it is essential that communication with the production team, setting high standards for the shop itself, and adjusting to the changing needs of the production are equally important. She even gets down to the nitty gritty about what training a prop master needs, how to find a job, and what salary can be expected in this line of work.
The bulk of the book supports the production process, step by step. Strawn emphasizes that all prop work starts with the script, guiding the reader through gleaning a prop list from standard script analysis techniques. She prompts the reader with questions to guide essential research, speaking directly to Internet resources but emphasizing the importance of museums, living histories, and library research as well. From there, it's all about how to get it done. Strawn has included tips on organizing lists, creating inventories and prop tracking systems, assigning shop tasks, and following up on the status of items. For all of this, she has included actual paperwork and photo examples from several professional prop shops across the country. She frankly and succinctly describes the tech rehearsal process and the prop master's role in it, from helping stage management and prop crews to establish running procedures, to taking and responding to designer notes, or possibly helping an actor with the correct and safe usage of a specific prop.
The last chapter in the book is devoted to the organization of the prop shop space. Again, Strawn provides supporting photographs from shops across the country. She details the tools needed, the ventilation systems, and the types of spaces needed to do all of the extraordinarily different tasks defined by the simple word "prop." In addition, her ongoing website contains even more detailed information about shop safety, dust collection, and other management issues.
In essence, this book is so wonderfully logical to me because I have been doing all of these same things for so many years, yet I have never been able to actually describe what a prop master does in such a simple way. This book, and its companion website, has met its goal. The information has been passed along, and we have been reminded of the strength of our collaborative field. Strawn sums it up when she includes, in a little box hidden at the end of chapter 8, "Each show opens the mind to a different time, different characters, new solutions, old problems, and always a chance to discover the 'what if....?'"
Kelly Wiegant Mangan is a member of the design/tech faculty at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Her professional career has spanned work as a properties master at the Utah Shakespearean Festival, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and Stage One, the Louisville Children's Theatre, where she also served as resident scenic designer. She continues to actively work in props and scenic design at BGSU, where she teaches scenic construction and props, stage management, scenic art, and drafting. Kelly is a member of S.P.A.M., the Society of Properties Artisan Managers.