Stage props — or more specifically, properties — are the items that actors handle or interact with onstage. A director may choose to use many, few or no props at all. The choice is generally based upon the type of play or the atmosphere that a director wishes to produce.
Several plays are typically performed with the absence of props or with just a few (George Orwell’s “1984” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” for example). I once acted in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” with complete period costumes and dialogue, but no theatre props. The play was set exclusively in a boxing ring.
A lack of theatrical props forces the audience’s attention solely onto the actors. It can give a play depth and heightened psychological quality. I often find props distracting if they are not used naturally. It is also sometimes difficult to see or distinguish them.
However, in many productions, props are a necessity. They are important for fairy tales, mysteries, and plot-driven drama (plays that are known for the strong plot and storyline more than for the acting). Essentially, props should enhance our understanding and enjoyment of the show. In fairy tales, tales from other cultures and mystery, props like wands, jewel, golden goblets, weapons, and props which are clues add enjoyment. Children’s theater often relies upon lovely props.
Here are some guidelines for designing your own.
- Make a comprehensive list of all props you will need.
- There are several rules of thumb when it comes to theater props.
- Exaggerate them a bit to make them visible to the audience.
- Some props should be made to replicate their actual, real-life weight; it would be difficult to use an extremely light-weight broadsword convincingly. Be careful never to compromise safety, though.
- If appropriate to the play, make props brightly colored for better visibility. Use glue-on gems, metallic spray paint, tissue paper and tinsel to make them eye-catching.
- First, before you make anything, do some scrounging for borrowed props. Make sure these are items of no intrinsic value; otherwise they will have to be insured.
- Next, think about what could be purchased inexpensively from discount stores. Check Goodwill for lamps, mirrors, books, dishware, bedding, pillows, purses, sports equipment, etc.
- When these possibilities have been exhausted, list what you will need to make.
- List materials you will need: wood, metals, fabric, decorations, etc. Hobbylobby.com is a great source for decorations. You might also consider gathering old holiday decorations.
- Research where you can get the best prices. I like bargain bins at fabric stores like Joanne Fabrics and lumber yards (Menard’s, for example). If you are lucky enough to have a junkyard nearby, check there.
- Proper planning ensures that you can get the most props for your money, for example from a piece of material.
- For the fabric props (curtains, banners, and garments), make these on a basic sewing machine. If someone has access to a machine with a serger (it cuts and sews professional seams), this would be very helpful for the large props like banners.
- For wooden props, a basic band saw can be used. A jigsaw is also helpful.
- Design wooden props to produce special effects with hinges. Wooden props can be very effective – I once saw a wonderful production in which an airplane was simulated with other scenery and props on the theatre stage, right before the audience’s eyes.
- Cut wooden pieces to be removed and reassembled if necessary.
- For metal props, use blunt, dulled metal scraps. We had some very respectable swords for our production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” made from metal wrapped with electrical tape and decorated with glue-on jewels.
- Some props can be made of foam. If a play calls for a prop to be smashed or shattered, you can make on solid prop and an identical one cut into pieces and reassembled. When it needs to be broken, use a glass smashing sound effect on tape.
- A fog or bubble machine makes a splendid effect for underwater or magical elements in a play.
The theater is a magical world of illusion and enchantment. Enjoy your production!