Monday, 27 October 2008


The use of props is an unavoidable calamity for many actors. The reasons are varied. On stage, there is the problem of remembering to bring them on with you or wondering if they will be in the place they are supposed to be when you open the drawer of the desk in Act II to find the pistol/necklace/letter. And then if they have to do anything, whether or not they will do it. It is not much fun answering a phone that hasn't rung or using a daguerreotype camera that doesn't flash.

On film, there is the problem of having to repeat the same action at the same time for different takes and for different angles while the Script Supervisor has a nervous breakdown. So, picking up the book with your right hand while you thumbed the pages with your left, which seemed such a good idea when you did the master shot, suddenly becomes an impossible act of contortion when you film the two shot. How can you thumb through the pages without looking at them? Why did you pick up the book in the middle of your speech? Surely, you used your left hand to hold the book and your right to flick the pages? In no time at all, whatever performance you might have thought you were giving, is completely forgotten. What accent? What back story about the time your mother left you at the train station? What on earth is the person standing opposite you saying? It's all out the window (I realise that might not always be a bad thing).

Some actors thrive on prop work, inventing bits of business with a hat, taking classes with poker experts so they can do that thing where they move the chips between their fingers. Most of us try to get away with not using them whenever possible. I worked with one television director who insisted that if you were referring to a prop in the dialogue you should pick it up and show the camera. As I was playing a doctor who sometimes did detective work, I occasionally found myself delivering a speech in which I picked up at least five objects. If it wasn't practical to put them down again, I was juggling them all by the end of the scene. It was hardly elegant.

For the theatre, it will be the stage manager's job to lay the props out on a table backstage. For a film or television show, it is the work of the Property Department and there are usually at least 2 'standby props boys' who are in charge of all props used by the actors. The set dressing that is not part of the action is supervised by the Art Department. Clearly, the two departments work together closely and yet traditionally they are completely different in nature with very few women in Props and a history of the job being passed down from father to son. Because Props men work on the set all the time they have a relationship with the actors and they feature heavily in the day-to-day life of a film. It is they who provide food for eating scenes and watered down tea for whiskey. Their van has all the prop cigarettes, cans of beer, bottles of champagne. Most importantly, they often have the ability to make food on even the remotest locations. Make friends with the guys in props and at the end of a long scene wading through a swamp in January in bare feet, you may have a toastie waiting for you. 

If you don't know an actor very well and you see them using a ton of props on your first day filming together, or eating/smoking/drinking continuously throughout a scene, you can hardly mention it to them. You just have to wait until the 10th take and be supportive when they swear blind that they could not possibly have chopped the apple with their right hand because they are left handed. If you do know an actor well and see them rest the briefcase on the arm of a chair while they tie their shoelace, then pick it up tuck under the other arm and bite the end of their pen while checking their pocket watch, you still don't say anything. It is just too much fun being stored up for later.

My prop nadir came during a production of Terrence Rattigan's 'Flare Path'. All I had to do was stay very still while my RAF husband broke down and admitted that he was terrified of flying and terrified of losing me.  At the end of this moving scene which frequently reduced the audience to tears, I was to pass my handkerchief to the recovering wreck and let him sob on my shoulder. Except that just before the scene I had a very quick change and of course the night came when I had forgotten the wretched handkerchief. Throughout the breakdown I stared in hopeless panic at my husband, (hoping he would notice the international symbol for 'I don't have the prop') and feverishly scanning the set for a replacement cloth. Finally, the poor man turned to me and said "Do you have a handkerchief, Pat?" smiling weakly. "No." I returned and smiled back at him. For the briefest of moments he hesitated before, with a blink, carrying on. That was 20 years ago but apparently he still remembers it surprisingly clearly.


  1. What exactly is that international symbol you are referring too? I'm thinking that it is a wide eyed nervous actor trying to non-verbally tell the other that someone screwed up the prop.

  2. Yeah, think of a rather small rabbit and a monster truck on a highway at about 11pm moving inevitably towards each other.

  3. You just reminded me of when I hit a deer. Its eyes were huge. I guess that is the price I pay for living in a rural area. Sigh, if only it was legal to carry around morphine. For the animal, not me! :-)

    Oh, btw I'm Melissa.

  4. Hi Melissa. Sorry to hear about the deer. We have to be careful on our local roads as well.
    And all the best for election day to-day.

  5. Obama won! Bye-bye Bush! I'm happy to know that other people around the world are also paying attention. Thanks for caring.

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  7. What you wrote about the problem of having to repeat the same action at the same time for different takes and for different angles made me think of the mock 1938 news reel clip with John Cleese as Chamberlain, who has problems handling both a piece of paper and his hat while getting out of a plane, walking down the stairs and saying his lines at the same time.

    I really like the way it is cut in the end, completely disregarding every rule of continuity… (A little long, but one can of course just slide the play button to 6:50 to watch the final version)

  8. Some short clips of Buster Keaton`s use of props: