by Phil Gravitt
SAN MATEO COUNTY, CA – Andrew Lewis fell into the prop rental business in the mid 1980’s while helping a neighbor who was working on the TV show “Miami Vice.” He has owned The Prop House in Brisbane since 2003, although the business has been around for twenty years. With racks filled with props to the 20 foot high ceilings, and another warehouse in Oakland, “Just ask” is good advice at The Prop House. Signs abound on each isle — “Fences, Carpets, Floors, Doors.” A bin filled with medical supplies has a sign advising, “Fake blood available – Ask at counter.” One isle looks like a colorful history of the telephone; in a corner, a small room is filled with hundreds of signs, from roads to hospitals. Heavy items like saddles and large electronic devices sit on the floor, while the racks above hold lighter things like hats, toys, framed mirrors, lamps, rocking chairs and sporting equipment.
Sometimes volunteers from school or community theaters come in and ask for a prop without knowing much about what they are looking for. Lewis usually asks them to call the director and find out what year or period the play takes place. “Once I know the year or period,” explains Lewis, “I’ll know or can find out what was popular or vintage for that time.” As an example, he picked up a 1956 Life magazine, showing an ad of what a “modern” kitchen looked like, and a few record album covers displayed period microphones.
To save time and money, Lewis says, “I like to get community theaters to contact me before they start committing to ideas for props or sets. I want to know ‘how much does the audience need to know about a prop or set in a scene?’ With a sink and a suspended mirror, we can sell the audience they are looking at a bathroom. You don’t need walls, windows or a floor.”
Often seasoned prop masters will contact Lewis for advice. Lewis notes, “After twenty six years, what others find hard to figure out comes naturally to me.” However, Lewis quickly adds, “People have been making and adapting props for centuries. Sometimes I’ll think of a ‘new’ idea, and then read that’s how it was done hundreds of years ago.”
Occasionally, props require construction or adaptation. Lewis has a box that quickly attaches to a phone to make it ring, and stop ringing when the phone is picked up. He has made a wagon wheel out of a ships wheel, and a ships wheel out of a wagon wheel. Using a pair of one liter plastic soda bottles, he made a large hourglass.
A prop needs to be dependable and easy to use by the actors without requiring elaborate setup. For a recent school play, the prop master needed an oxcart that a student could easily pull and be sturdy enough that it wouldn’t fall apart. “A real oxcart is heavy and has wooden axels,” Lewis explains. “I helped them build one out of a light wood crate, using a threaded rod for an axel, with bearings so the wheels rolled smoothly and easily. Then we painted the metal to look like wood.”
During our interview, a member of his staff helped a prop master design a jewelry display out of a fabric covered table, a wood rack filled with angled dowels, which were filled from a box of jewelry.
One scene in a play called for an actor to use a knife to slash another actor’s throat. “We provided a rubber knife and how to use it,” Lewis says. “Right before the scene, a piece of yarn was soaked in fake blood, and then stuck on the back edge of the blade. When the throat was slashed, the red squeezed out of the thread onto the neck. It was simple, and real enough that the audience reacted.”
“A prop like this needs to be 100% safe,” Lewis added. “The audience needs to be safe as well. When we use foggers, the fog has to be FDA approved. And signs and announcements need to be made, so asthmatics are aware of fogger being used. There is licensing, fire permits and sometimes firearms permits. We have ‘theatrical fire,’ fans with lights on silk.”
In the past, more chemicals were used to do painting and special effects. “Now, “ Lewis says, “We have lower toxicity with latex, water based and poster paints. For a prop, the paint doesn’t have to last forever, sometimes only a few days. For FX, we have electric spark devices, foggers, and more high tech ways of doing things.”
Movies usually have bigger budgets for props, and lots of technology,” Lewis adds. “For community theaters, a prop supplier must be more clever and resourceful. Since there is no money, there is no budget.”
Lewis says, “Finding and creating the right props for community theaters is challenging and fun, because I have the liberty to think outside the box. I’m looking for a prop based on what the director sees or envisions, not what is really there.”
“A theater prop often doesn’t have to have every detail like it would need for a film or TV show with close-ups. I know how to do it on a movie budget; for community theaters, I need to figure out how to make it work without the $1000 part. I need to be like McGuiver, making something out of nothing, make do with what we’ve got.”
Additional information about The Prop House can be found at www.theprophouse.net.
Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog http://www.BAArtQuake.com.
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