The term theatrical property, better known as a prop, originated as an object used in a stage play and similar entertainments to further the action. Technically, a prop is any object that gives the scenery, actors, or performance space specific period, place, or character. The term comes from live-performance practice, especially theatrical methods, but its modern use extends beyond the traditional plays and musical, circus, novelty, comedy, and even public-speaking performances, to film, television, and electronic media. All props in a production originate from off stage unless they have been preset on the stage before the production begins. Props are stored on a prop table backstage near the actor's entrance during production then generally locked in a storage area between performances.
The term has readily transferred to television and motion picture production, where they are commonly referred to by the phrase "movie props." In recent years, the increasing popularity of movie memorabilia (a broader term that also includes costumes) has added new meaning to the term "prop," broadening its existence to include a valuable after-life as a prized collector's item. Typically not available until after a film's premiere, movie props appearing on-screen are christened "screen-used", and can fetch thousands of dollars in online auctions and charity benefits.
Props are generally distinct from the costumes worn by the actors, the scenery (sets) or other large objects that can be considered part of the stage. Occasionally, if a period-piece item of clothing is handled or otherwise appears on screen, but is never worn by an actor, then it would be the responsibility of the prop master, and thus considered a prop. For example, belts, stockings, hats, and other normally wearable items may be considered as props if they are merely picked up by an actor or used for alternate purposes. Similarly, a scene in a shoe store may require numerous prop shoes to fill the sets shelves, and therefore will be handled by the prop master or set decorator.
Many props are ordinary objects. However, a prop must read well from the house or on-screen, meaning it must look real to the audience. Many real objects are poorly adapted to the task of looking like themselves to an audience, due to their size, durability, or color under bright lights, so some props are specially designed to look more like the actual item than the real object would look. In some cases, a prop is designed to behave differently than the real object would, often for the sake of safety.
Examples of special props are:
The choice of evoking the legal concept of "property" in naming props probably reflects the issues of prop management. The performer using a prop has to eventually let go of it, either because the character being played does so, or in order to take a bow or effect a change of costume or makeup. Even if the value of the item is negligible, the effort of realizing it is gone and replacing it is probably not, and it is efficient to take steps to ensure it is at hand for the next performance. Thus a prop's availability to the performer must be guarded as diligently as an individual's valued private property. Two institutions reflect this need:
Besides the obvious artistic creations made in the prop workshop, much of the work done by the property designer is research, phone searches, and general footwork in finding needed items.
Of all the positions within theatre, the property designer receives the least accolades. There are no awards for the props position besides the satisfaction of the item working well for the performance.
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