On the question of props, the first question is, what IS a prop? Basically properties is everything that is not part of the set, the lighting, or costumes. What exactly that means changes from show to show. More specifically, properties usually break down into the areas:

Purpose of Props

Types of Props

Hand props are anything handled or carried by an actor. They include staffs, food, weapons, lanterns and candles, canes, staffs, parasols, and practically anything else an actor could or might pick up.

Personal props are props worn or carried by a particular actor and issued to him rather than stored on the prop table.

Set props include most obviously furniture. These are objects that add to the look of the setting, with which the actor interacts.

Set dressing consists of similar items, but which the actor doesn't usually handle. Some set dressings are "practicals", props like lamps or chandeliers that perform on stage as they do in real life. Trim props are a type of set dressing that hang on the walls, such as pictures, window dressing and curtains, and so on.

Also included in set dressing is anything on the floor. In the days when ground cloths were common, they were part of the properties department. Ground clothes are canvas drops painted to be floor. They were laid by starting down center, then were stretched out and back and secured with carpet tacks. Today props still includes rugs, carpets, and other floor coverings, but doesn't generally include a hard deck.

Greens are any plant, live or artificial.

Mechanical special effects are part of the prop department. That basically means any special effect that is not plugged in to operate. If a pull pin or a string operates a trick, it is a prop, but if an electric solenoid trips it, it is under electrics. Mechanical noise makers are props, but taped sound effects are electrics, and so on.

Atmospherics includes fogs, smokes, snow, etc.

Fogs are made using cryogenic (very cold) materials, which must be handled carefully to prevent injury.

Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide. It produces a ground fog effect when dropped into hot water, or hot water is poured on it. Dry ice usually comes in blocks, and must be broken up before it is put into the dry-ice fogger.

To handle dry ice safely, you must use proper precautions. Never handle dry ice with bare skin; wear gloves. Use safety goggles when breaking up blocks to keep chips out of the eyes. To break a block up, first wrap it in a blanket to contain the chips, then break it into golf-ball size pieces with a hammer. Avoid contact with metal; the ice chunk will "scream" or "sing". Don't break the dry ice into powder, or it will "burst" into fog almost explosively!

Liquid nitrogen is also used to make fog by releasing slowly from its storage flask, where it condenses water vapor in the air. Keep clear of the valve and nozzle, as the escaping vapor is extremely cold and can freeze bare skin.

Smokes and hazes are usually made with glycol-based smoke machines. The nozzle gets very hot, and should not be touched. Be sure to use ONLY "fog" juice from the same manufacturer in a smoke machine. Each brand is different, and will not work properly or safely if mis-matched with a machine it was not designed for.

A snow effect can be done several ways. One is the snow cradle. The cradle is a long piece of muslin with slits cut in it at intervals of several inches and fastened as a trough between two battens on the fly system. Ground polyethylene or sometimes confetti is placed in the cradle, and when the batten is rocked up & down, the "snow" will sprinkle through the slits in the cradle.

Snow can also be made with commercial "snow" machines that spray out fine suds which fall like snow but which disappear with almost no residue.

Breakaways are props designed to break on cue. They may be made of brittle material, or be pre-broken and lightly glued back together with hot-melt glue, so as to break again easily.

Hot melt glue is a rubbery glue with a low melting point. It is useful for emergency repairs as it sets in less than a minute, but it is not very strong.

Other tasks traditionally assigned to props include:

Setting the orchestra pit for a musical.

Setting stands & chairs for an orchestra concert.

Placing a piano for a recital. Once placed, the lid should be raised and the finish polished to remove smudges.

Placing the lectern for a speaker. A pitcher of water and a glass should be placed nearby for the speaker to use.

Laying and taping dance floor.

Sweeping the floor before and after load-in and mopping the stage floor before each performance. Options for mopping include a traditional string mop, or a "French" mop, consisting of a damp or wet towel wrapped around the head of a push broom. French mopping is less likely to leave visible swirls and is often preferred for dance floors and smooth, untextured floors.

Getting the coffee & donuts before morning break!

Running props

Props must be organized for the show run. The key to this is to give every single prop a home where it belongs when not being used, that is easily checked to make sure nothing is missing.

The most common means of doing this is to use one or several props tables. A props table is simply a large table in the wings where props are laid out for use. Usually the table is covered with heavy paper which is divided into sections for each prop, appropriately labeled. The props are often outlined to make their proper place obvious. It is then quite simple to look over the table to see if anything is missing.

Seeing that props are in place on the props tables are the responsibility of both the props running crew and the actor who uses the prop. The crew should do preshow check AND each actor should check his own personal props before the show. Ideally props should always be in their place on the table when not in use. The actor will pick them up before an entrance and should replace props on the table when they exit.

Other options for show props:

Prop shelves and prop crates, are especially useful for travelling shows. These are usually not as easy to set up, and may be harder to check than tables, but they make setup and tear down very efficient.

The key to any system is that there BE a system and that it be easy to check and maintain so that props are always available when needed.


On occasion, prop weapons will be used in a show. These can range from impact weapons to bladed weapons to firearms. It is important to realize that all prop weapons are weapons first and props second, and must be treated as such. Mishandling prop weapons can cause serious injuries and may you legally liable for any accidents.

A show will have a trained crew member who acts as designated weapons master. This person will assign tasks as needed, as well as provide any necessary training. It is very important that ONLY crew members so assigned and trained be allowed handle the weapons, and only the weapons assigned to them. Prop weapons invariably attract attention, but are never to be played with. They are not toys, and even if their edges are dulled (as they should be) such weapons can cause serious injury or death.

The same goes for prop guns. Blanks fired at close range can easily cause injuries or sometimes death. One problem is that blank firing guns often vent gasses in unexpected directions. "Real" guns fire straight ahead out of the barrel, but guns designed to fire blanks may have a blocked barrel to prevent the accidental loading of live rounds. But gas from the the exploding powder has to go somewhere, so vents are built in to release it. The vents may be above, below, or to the sides of a firearm designed for blanks and gasses can travel farther than expected. A person can be in the blast zone without realizing it.

Another consideration is "trick" weapons, such as knives with retractible blades. These give the illusion of being "safe". The problem is, these knives depend on the blade retracting EVERY time. Instead, they often jam and the blade fails to retract. The "trick" knife suddenly becomes "real". Many fight choreographers actually prefer to depend on non-retracting blades and actor training rather than on a mechanical device which may fail unexpectedly.

Food Props

Plays sometimes involve food which is consumed by the performers as part of the production. Preparing such food falls under the Props department. The food must be palatable, easily eaten and swallowed, but above all SAFE. The choice of food will be dictated by the show's propsmaster, but preparing and handling the food is usually assigned to the local props crew.

The key to keeping prop food safe to eat is to prepare it under safe and sanitary conditions throughout. This is complicated by the fact that there are many conditions backstage that are decidedly not suitable for food preparation.

Choose an appropriate space that can be properly kept cleaned and sanitized for storage, preparation, and cleanup. Proper kitchen facilities or designated break rooms as prep areas are good. Avoid Shop areas, paint sinks, custodial slop sinks, and bathroom facilities. These all raise the possiblity of contamination by chemicals or pathogens.

Food needs to be stored under safe conditions where it can be kept fresh and clean. Perishable foods should be kept in a dedicated refrigerator or ice chest where only food is stored. Check the condition of food each day and throw away anything that has spoiled.

When the food is being prepared, many of the same conditions apply as in a commercial kitchen. Only the people involved in the food prep should be present, anyone else should be asked to leave the area. All work surfaces, such as table, countertops, dishes and other utensils should be cleaned and sanitized before you start. Wash them enough in advance that they can air-dry before use. People handling food should be wearing hair nets. Wash your hands and wear a fresh pair of food-service disposable gloves. Do not reuse gloves.

After the show, the crew will need to clean up thoroughly and properly. Again, all dishes should be washed, rinsed, sanitized, and propererly stored until the next performance.

Open Flame, Pyro, and Fire Safety

Fire on stage is a very popular effect, but can pose a serious risk. Whether a candle, a lit cigarette, a torch or an elaborate pyrotechnic display, any use of fire is a danger. Anytime open flame or fire effects are use, proper precautions MUST be taken.

In the first place, there must always be a plan and training involved. Procedures must be followed- no shortcuts.

The use of pyro in the presence of an audience is subject to regulation by federal, state and local levels of government simultaneously. Pyrotechnics can only be used under the direct supervision of a licensed professional. Building an effect requires a Federal license, while actually using the same effect usually requires a different state or local license. In Wisconsin, one needs a license issued by the immediate municipality. Pyro Technicians travelling with a show must get permission and a waver at every stop from the local AHJ or "Authority Having Jurisdiction", who is usually the fire marshal, just to perform their jobs. This almost always requires an inspection beforehand.

It is very important to co-operate with the fire marshal during inspections. My experience has been that if you cooperate, most AHJ's want to be helpful but not at the expense of safety. If you argue, or worse try to hide something, they can become MUCH more difficult, because they wonder what ELSE you may be hiding. Remember, the AHJ doesn't care if "the show goes on", only that nobody dies, particularly on their watch.

Precautions must be taken before the effect happens. Pyro materials should only be handled under the supervision and at the direction of the licensed professional attached to the show. Flammable materials must be properly stored and secured. The appropriate fire extinguishers must be in place beforehand, and the crew trained in their location and their use. Extinguishers should be regularly inspected, and the employer or venue notified if they need maintenance. Fire escape routes must be designated.

A "fire watch" of one or more people must be designated to deal with fire emergencies before and during an effect. The fire watch makes sure precautions are followed. They must check daily that escape routes are not blocked. They make sure flammable materials are properly stored; remember that many solvents and even hand sanitizer are considered flammable liquids.

The fire watch should be standing by during the entire time an effect is in progress. They are responsible for operating the fire surpression equipment (fire extinguishers, fire curtain, sprinkler controls, etc.) if needed, and may even stand by with extinguishers in hand while the effect progresses. One person should be designated to clear others in the building away from the fire and to call 911 if needed. If someone's clothes catch fire, use the stop-drop-and roll method to extinguish the flames.

After the effect and show conclude, the fire watch will need to clean up and properly store flammables. Flammables should never be disposed of in regular trash, but only in a proper designated manner.

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Copyright © 2002, 2021 Mick Alderson