Monday, June 4, 2012

Props Designer vs Props Master

I've been recently working on a very big, very high budget show. The set designer on this project is kind of a big deal, he has Broadway credits and TV credits and movie credits and has been working at the top end of the industry for over 30 years.

I recently had a very interesting discussion with him about the titles of props master vs props designer. Over the last few years working in Chicago I have started more and more to call myself a props designer, so I was a little taken aback when John (the set designer) told me that he found the term incredibly annoying and insulting. He feels that calling the props person a designer as well takes away from the credit he should be receiving, or in some way demeans his position as set designer. I understand his point, and while I don't completely disagree with him, I think that the situation always needs to be taken into account.

So to clarify, in my opinion there is a difference between being a props master and a props designer. When I am a props master, I expect to be working very closely with the set designer. I expect to be given research and input on what the furniture, set dressing and key props should look like. The set designer is someone who will look at photos of the 6 desks I have located, and make the final choice of which one to buy. If I am the props master, then I have a collaborative partner who will be taking more responsibility for the final look of the show (whether that credit is receiving positive praise or accepting negative criticism). I will, of course, be making many decisions about details, budget, and small hand props on my own (or else why bother hiring me), but the overall look of the production is mine to support, not to decide.

I call myself a props designer so often in Chicago, because in so many of the small storefront theatres where I work, I am not the same level of support from set designers. In so many cases, furniture, set decoration and the overall look and feel of the props are left completely to me to discuss and work through with the director. I usually make an attempt first to achieve collaboration with the set designer, sending photos and emails, and asking for research; it is only when I do not get the information I need that I start to make decisions without input from the set designer. I am perfectly happy to assume full responsibility for the final look of the show in those cases (at many theatres this has nothing to do with the quality of the designer, it is just the way labor has traditionally been divided), but with that responsibility should come the credit and title of designer.

My conversation with John helped me to clarify and articulate to myself these differences. When the conversation initially started (and for a few days after), I worried that I was being self-important and pretentious by calling myself a props designer. I worried that I should stop using the term for fear of annoying potentially important people. With a lot of thought I have come to the conclusion that the term has it's place. I need to be more careful about how I use it, and after articulating for myself where the line is between master and designer, need to apply the terms appropriately, but abandoning the term completely would be just as wrong as using it in all cases.


  1. I appreciate your thoughtful dissection of the difference between the two titles and believe you have found the line that defines when and why the title "Properties Designer" is more appropriate. I too would be happy to be the Properties Master on a show but am all to often the Properties Designer when the Scenic Designer is unable to or simply chooses NOT to give much thought to the props.
    Thank you for putting into words what many of us have struggled to voice.

  2. I feel you! I worked a summer stock theatre and my AD always felt like the title "props manager" wasn't enough for the work I did. That was the first time I was considered a designer. I have since worked at several different theatres as both a props manager and a props designer and have several times had to explain why I switch between the two titles and when they are appropriate.