A prop, formally known as (theatrical) property, is an object used on stage or screen by actors during a performance or screen production. In practical terms, a prop is considered to be anything movable or portable on a stage or a set, distinct from the actors, scenery, costumes, and electrical equipment. Consumable food items appearing in the production are also considered props.
The earliest known use of the term "properties" in English to refer to stage accessories is in the 1425 CE morality play, The Castle of Perseverance. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first usage of "props" in 1841, while the singular form of "prop" appeared in 1911. During the Renaissance in Europe, small acting troupes functioned as cooperatives, pooling resources and dividing any income. Many performers provided their own costumes, but special items—stage weapons, furniture or other hand-held devices—were considered "company property"; hence the term "property." Some experts suggest that the term comes from the idea that stage or screen objects "belong" to whoever uses them on stage.
There is no difference between props in different media, such as theatre, film, or television. Bland Wade, a properties director, says, "A coffee cup onstage is a coffee cup on television, is a coffee cup on the big screen." He adds, "There are definitely different responsibilities and different vocabulary."
On stage and backstage
The term "theatrical property" originated to describe an object used in a stage play and similar entertainments to further the action. The term comes from live-performance practice, especially theatrical methods, but its modern use extends beyond the traditional plays and musical, circus, novelty, comedy, and even public-speaking performances, to film, television, and electronic media.
Props in a production originate from off stage unless they have been preset on the stage before the production begins. Props are stored on a prop table backstage near the actor's entrance during production then generally locked in a storage area between performances. The person in charge of handling the props is generally called the property master. Other positions also include coordinators, production assistants and interns as may be needed for a specific project.
Types of props
Many props are ordinary objects. However, a prop must "read well" from the house or on-screen, that is, it must be readily identifiable as its intended appearance. Many regular objects make for poor quality props due to their size, durability, or color under bright lights, so prop versions are often specially constructed versions of common objects. In some cases, a prop is designed to behave differently from how a real object would, often for the sake of safety.
A prop weapon, such as a gun or sword, looks functional, but lacks the intentional harmfulness of the corresponding real weapon. In the theater, prop weapons are almost always either non-operable replicas, or have safety features to ensure they are not dangerous. Guns fire caps or noisy blanks, swords are dulled, and knives are often made of plastic or rubber. In film production, fully functional weapons are mostly used, but typically only with special smoke blanks with blank adapted guns instead of real bullets. Real cartridges with bullets removed are still dangerously charged which has caused several tragic instances when used on stage or film. The safety and proper handling of real weapons used as movie props is the premiere responsibility of the prop master. ATF and other law enforcement agencies may monitor the use of real guns for film and television, but this is generally not necessary with stage props as these guns are permanently "plugged".
Breakaway objects, or stunt props, such as balsa-wood furniture, or sugar glass (mock-glassware made of crystallized sugar) are props whose breakage and debris look real but rarely cause injury due to their light weight and weak structure. Even for such seemingly safe props, very often a stunt double will replace the main actor for shots involving use of breakaway props. Rubber bladed-weapons and guns are examples of props used by stuntmen to minimize injury, or by actors where the action requires a prop which minimizes injury.
"Hero" props are the more detailed pieces intended for close inspection by the camera or audience. The hero prop may have legible writing, lights, moving parts, or other attributes or functions missing from a standard prop; a hero prop phaser from the Star Trek franchise, for example, might include a depressible trigger and a light-up muzzle and display panel (all of which would make the hero prop more expensive and less durable). The term is also used on occasion for any of the items that a main character would carry in film and television (which are often hero props in the first sense as well). The term may sometimes be used in stage production, as many props from film find their way into theatre from common rental and purchase shops.
In recent years, the increasing popularity of movie memorabilia (a broader term that also includes costumes) has added new meaning to the term "prop", broadening its existence to include a valuable after-life as a prized collector's item. Typically not available until after a film's premiere, movie props appearing on-screen are called "screen-used", and can fetch thousands of dollars in online auctions and charity benefits.
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