Critical Steps in Choosing a Play or Musical: Stage Properties


Stephens College Theatre Department

I have something to admit.  I knew very little about the workings of a play production until I attended college,  Stephens College to be exact.  I was aware of this about myself, but you know, I had NO IDEA how much I didn’t know, you know?  Enter technical theatre hours.

I very gleefully signed up for technical theatre crew positions as I was expected to do.  In the theatre department, at least at the time, we were not allowed to audition for productions until our second year of school there.  It was part of the process of this solid program that continues to be excellent.



 A Christmas Story  Performing Arts in Children’s Education  December 2004

I’m an over achiever.  It’s terrible how much of an over achiever I can be at times.  Anyway, we were required to have 100 hours.  I finished with 200.  See?  Truthfully, I found I loved crewing backstage.  My first experience was when I worked on the stage properties crew and I’ll never forget it.  I enjoyed it so much that one summer I served as prop mistress at the Okoboji Summer Theatre, Stephens’ summer theatre venue.

I’m virtually an expert  (because I’ve been around since dirt was invented) on stage properties.  A combination of art and theatre, using one’s imagination and ingenuity, stage properties are important to the overall effect of the production. Think about it.  What is an important prop used in Into the Woods?  The milk cow. How about in Seussical?  The clover!

In my very long career in theatre, I have:

  • found two identical Afghan dogs
  • discovered and was loaned Venetian glass in the middle of Iowa
  • borrowed a baby grand piano
  • needlepointed an alphabet sampler (I didn’t know how to needle point when I began)
  • made a fake cheese ball complete with Mickey Mouse ears plopped on top for a chip bowl (I know you are impressed!)

and a gazillion more  cool things…


The Giver  Fine Arts Guild of the Rockies 2013

Properties Master

If it’s your job to fill out your staff, then look for a volunteer who is very crafty  and clever and draft them to be in charge of your props.  Or, if you are working for a theatre, they should provide you with someone.  I would advise you to stay out of their way and merely accept what they bring in if at all possible.  Volunteers do become very possessive of their things, especially when they “searched all weekend to find a pair of wooden knitting needles”. I rarely decline props, because I had a very specific discussion at my prop meeting and preplanned for my needs (including a LIST).  Yet, even with the preparation, I need props that I hadn’t thought of or my actors require personally as they develop their characters  or we discover spontaneously as we rehearse.


Into the Woods  Performing Arts in Children’s Education 2004

(The cow was created by a volunteer–wow!)

Back to Budget

Again, you will want to check and see what was allotted in your budget for props.  Props can be created –Gandalf’s staff for The Hobbit, a smoking cauldron for Macbeth, fake meat pies for Sweeney Todd or…a really inexpensive smoke machine you can create with dry ice and a plastic garbage can.  No joke!

You can purchase props on line from theatre supply companies such as   They have an excellent inventory, broad and detailed, so if you are looking something historically accurate, I’d start there.  Of course, there are other suppliers, but I usually go to them first.  I have been a customer of theirs for over thirty years.

Many props can be borrowed–a Victorian love seat  for Arsenic and Old Lace, a hand water pump for The Miracle Worker, a Tesla coil for a mad scientist or even the smoke machine I mentioned previously.   I’ve asked many people if I could borrow a particular prop for them.  Usually, people are happy to loan something to you. You should sweeten the request by offering a pair of complimentary tickets and a listing in the program in exchange for their loan.  It’s standard protocol. Or place a sign in the lobby that acknowledges the business or person who helped you out.  That’s nice, too!

Balance of Production Value

I do have one gripe, however. I just  really annoys me when the props are uneven, for lack of a better phrase.  I mean, some are authentic looking, but others in the show are not.  I like for my entire “production package” to be equal from the set design to the lights, the costumes to the program.  If one piece is lacking (for instance, the sound equipment is inadequate and unable to amplify the actor’s voices over the orchestra who is full and loud), then the whole thing feels odd.

Perhaps it’s the director in me, but that’s what I notice when I attending a production–whether the show is comprehensive, balanced components.  I like to be a good role model and representative of the arts.  Anything I can do to attract a person to attend or participate in another production is my primary goal.  To me, it is lifeblood of the art. People laugh when I say, “When I direct in any theatre, I think of myself as a cruise director.  I want the people to have such a wonderful, meaningful evening that they will be overcome with emotion and tell everyone they know about the experience. Then I smile and nod.” (An old teaching technique to persuade people to agree with you…)

Next, I’ll give you some great tips on costumes.  Look for them soon!

Got a question? Ask me.

Contact me at  or

3 thoughts on “Critical Steps in Choosing a Play or Musical: Stage Properties

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.