An Introductory Guide to Props & Why We Love Them

Yellow car prop in background with directors board close to the camera.

Main Article

What does the term “prop” mean?

The term “props” refers to theatrical property and is the shorthand for the various items used to drive forward the narrative of a play, or screen/theatrical production. The first use of the shortened word “prop” appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. A prop’s primary function is to make the setting of a play more realistic for the actors involved.

But more recently, the term “prop” has become a catch-all for life-size replicas of real objects across films, television, theatre and even video games. For example, here at Spur Creative, we have created life-size replicas of film characters, giant water taps, animals, and even breakfast cereals.

Why are props important?

Props have come to matter more and more, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly multi-media. Prop makers and prop designers are increasingly challenged to create props that are as realistic and life-like as possible.

Whilst props may once have been ornamental or incidental to a plot, they are often used in a film or television series in such a way that they say something about a particular character or scene. Consider James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, or the sonic screwdriver used by the Doctor in “Doctor Who: both are iconic props that have become inexorably linked to their characters’ identity and back-story.

Theatre props

Theatre props are increasingly a major component of a play’s design aesthetic. Gone are the days when British theatre was merely a few people in a room having a conversation for ninety minutes; contemporary British theatre relies on spectacle and big budgets like never before, and props are often crucial to the success of many of the biggest West End shows of the last twenty years; the most famous example being the hit show War Horse!, Its use of model horses is now infamous in the history of modern stage-craft.

Naturalistic/realist props

“Naturalistic” props usually refer to the props in a theatre production which are integral to the play’s narrative. These are most common in plays or productions where the action takes place predominantly in one room, or where the story relies heavily on linear time. These usually take the form of everyday objects and will encompass most of the items on stage at any given time. Most early 20th century plays and productions heavily relied on more naturalistic/stage props.

Film and Television Props

Film and television props have become as iconic and dearly beloved as the characters and actors who use them. We’ve written another blog post all of our own on some of the most iconic film props, and what they tell us about the characters in some of our favourite stories.

Retail display props

No other industry demonstrates the explosion of the prop industry more than the world of retail and brand marketing. Retail and retail display props are often the cornerstones of any brand’s front-of-house campaign and are a great example of how props and prop design have proliferated to the commercial sphere in a way that dramatists’ could never imagine.