by Phil Gravitt
SONOMA COUNTY, CA – When Stephanie Lisius goes shopping, there is no telling what she’ll come home with — an antique suitcase, a salesman’s sample case, a 1930’s football, a leather basketball. She shopped for all those things recently in her role as prop master.
Asked to describe what falls under the responsibility of the prop master, Stephanie replied, “Anything that gets picked up and moved around by an actor in the show. The set designer is responsible for items that remain in one place, like a bed, refrigerator, or piano.”
Previously, Lisius had schedule intense roles like stage manager, with rehearsals four days a week, working late into the night, plus the run of the production. As a full time social worker, committing to the long hours and specific times was no longer feasible for her. Becoming a prop master allowed her to stay involved in theater while being fully present as a social worker. Now she attends a few rehearsals, in case the director adds a prop or two, and weekly or biweekly 6 P.M. production meetings, which last no more than ninety minutes. “I can do the rest of the prop master responsibilities on my own time,” she says, “instead of being tied to specific times and many meetings.”
Stephanie has what it takes to be prop master. She is detail oriented, cares about authenticity, and is relentless in finding just the right item without going over budget. In addition to forays into the property rooms of local theater groups, Lisius scours Craigslist and eBay, where she found the 1930’s football for ten dollars. Shopping at antique and second hand stores on weekends, Stephanie always mentions the various things she is looking for. “People are always eager to help and make suggestions when they know it is for a theater production.”
Another great resource is the Sonoma County theater community. Lisius says, “There are many people with three or four decades of theater experience. After an unsuccessful search for the leather basketball, a theater veteran suggested “Pick up an inexpensive rubber one, and spray paint it brown.” An involved local actor and antiques collector generously offered to loan period suitcases. “I keep many lists,” she says. “Since many props are borrowed, it is important to make sure an item gets back to where it came from, and in the same condition.”
Sometimes not finding the exact prop works out fine. In one musical comedy, the store scene called for an old cash register. Not finding one, a child’s plastic register was spray painted to look metallic. Since the store in the scene wasn’t making any money, having a cheap sounding cash register was realistic. For a drama, sports pennants were to be carried in one scene, and a megaphone was substituted.
To determine what props are needed for a show, Lisius explains, “I go through the script and notice anytime an item is handled or mentioned—an actor buying a trophy, carrying shoulder pads, asking ‘Where are my stockings?’ Knowing how and when an item will be used on stage, how visible it will be, and if it will be noticeably from the time period the play is set, are also important. When the prop fits the scene, attention stays on the actor.”
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.