Is the movie theatre your favorite place to spend an evening? Do you eagerly read reviews of the latest stage productions on Broadway? If so, a career in the entertainment industry could be the right choice for you.
When thinking of careers in entertainment, often what comes to mind are actors and directors. Yet, there are many people working behind the scenes to create cinema magic, each of them helping to imprint their own aesthetic and influence on the production. One of those people is the prop master.
What does a prop master do, and could this be the right career choice for you? Explore this career guide and then start thinking about earning a theatre degree after your high school graduation.
In This Article:
What Is a Prop Master?
Every production — whether it’s a movie, TV show or play — strives to bring a story to life through a multisensory experience. Viewers don’t only hear and see an actor delivering their lines; they are also immersed in the fictional world via the set design and props. To a limited extent, viewers can even experience various textures, such as by seeing the fuzz on carpeting or the splashes of raindrops on an actor’s face.
The property master, also known as the prop master, is the professional who is in charge of all the props used on a production. They lead the props department, supervising and directing the work of various assistants to ensure the smooth execution of each scene. A prop master is in charge of three main types of props:
- Hand props – As the name suggests, hand props are held in the actors’ hands during the filming of a scene.
- Personal props – Characters in a production own certain props that may become associated with them. For example, in the TV show "Knight Rider," David Hasselhoff’s character became known for his crime-fighting, artificial intelligence-equipped car named KITT.
- Set props – Set props are all of the items that are typically not moved or manipulated during a scene. Examples include pictures hanging on a wall and the furniture in a room.
Prop Master Responsibilities
Now that you know the general role of the prop master in a production, it’s time to take a closer look at the specific duties of this professional and answer the question, “What does a prop master do?” These professionals run and oversee the entire props department. Their work begins before shooting or stage rehearsals begin. Prop master responsibilities can include:
- Consult with other professionals: Prop masters will consult with others working on the production, including production designers, art directors, costume designers and set decorators. They review the script, research the time period (if applicable) and develop a good understanding of what each character needs. They develop a research-based list of all the props that will be needed for the production.
- Planning and purchasing props: The prop master goes through the list of props to determine which props can be purchased or rented, and which need to be constructed. To construct props, the prop master hires and supervises carpenters, artists and prop makers. To purchase or rent props, the prop master works with production buyers.
- Organizing props: During the production, the prop master is responsible for ensuring the proper organization, management and storage of all of the props. They must ensure that all props retrieved from storage are signed out and that all props returned to storage are signed back into the inventory log.
Once the shooting is complete or the stage production is over, the prop master arranges to return props that were rented. Non-rented props may be sold off or otherwise disposed of.
Steps for Becoming a Prop Master
Now that you know the answer to the question, “What is a prop master?” you may be curious about the typical career pathway of this professional. If you’re still in high school and you think you might like to become a prop master, talk to your high school guidance counselor about your goals. You may be able to add some relevant courses, such as wood shop, drama, literature and accounting.
It’s also a good idea to become active in your high school’s drama department. Try to volunteer for a number of different roles — from set design to acting — to gain a thorough understanding of what it takes to put on a stage production. You might also look for extracurricular activities such as a film club.
After high school, you’ll need to plan on earning a bachelor’s degree. Although it’s possible for prop masters to land their jobs with just a high school education and plenty of on-the-job experience, a theatre degree is strongly recommended, and many employers may prefer it. Lastly, you’ll likely need to work in an entry-level role before climbing the ladder toward becoming a prop master.
Earn Your Theatre Degree
After high school, your first step toward pursuing a career as a prop master is to earn a baccalaureate theatre degree. Even if you think you might prefer to work in the movie and TV industry, rather than on stage productions, a theatre degree will provide you with a well-rounded, industry-relevant education. You’ll learn foundational competencies in theatrical design, stagecraft, acting and stage direction.
Although the curriculum will vary from one school and program to the next, a theatre degree is likely to cover the following topics:
- Basic principles of acting, with a look at the interpretation of character, dramatic action, use of voice and development of physical presence
- Fundamentals of stagecraft, including the construction of props and the set
- Theatrical design, including lighting, costumes and makeup design
- The history, development and major trends of theatre
- Theories and techniques for directing stage productions
- Lighting and scenery design for the stage
It’s likely that you’ll be required to participate in one or more theatrical productions at your college. This is a great opportunity for you to gain hands-on experience. If possible, volunteer to design, construct and manage the props during one of those productions, and be sure to document your work thoroughly for inclusion into a professional portfolio that you can use during job interviews later on.
Pursue an Entry-Level Role in the Entertainment Industry
The job of the property master isn’t always an entry-level one. Although you may be able to pursue this position at a smaller production shortly after graduation, it’s more likely that you’ll need to acquire a few years of professional work experience. There are a few entry-level positions that are well-suited to aspiring prop masters:
- Standby prop: This professional serves on the props crew during a production. Their duties typically include swapping out props between scenes, answering questions about the props and showing cast members how the more complex props work.
- Prop store person: Sometimes referred to as the “prop storeman,” the prop store person acts as an assistant to the prop master. They are responsible for keeping all of the props organized in the storage area, as well as arranging the delivery and transport of any props that are purchased or rented, rather than constructed in-house. To become a prop store person, it’s helpful to have strong organizational skills and to be a “people person,” as good relationships with suppliers are a must.
- Set dresser trainee: A set dresser trainee, or “dress props person,” typically works under the supervision of the set dresser. They are responsible for “dressing” sets by bringing in and setting up all of the set props that create a scene — from wallpaper and flooring to smaller props like file folders and coffee mugs.
After you acquire at least a few years of work experience in an entry-level role, you can begin to look for opportunities to move up the ladder and pursue a position as the prop master on a production. You may find it easier to break in as a prop master on a smaller production before working your way up to larger, big-budget productions.
Professional networking is the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Throughout your time working entry-level roles, actively strive to develop a robust professional network. Keep in touch with contacts from previous productions and make sure they know you’re interested in becoming a prop master. It’s possible that one of your contacts might help you land your dream job.
You can turn your passion for entertainment into purpose when you become a theatre student at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Arts in Theatre for Secondary Education degree program — which leads to initial teacher licensure for those who aspire to teach drama — is also an ideal degree program for students who wish to work within the entertainment industry as prop masters or in similar roles. Click on “Request Info” at the top of your screen to learn how you can join our creative learning community.
Approved by the assistant dean of theatre and dance for the College of Arts and Media on Jan. 25, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.