A prop, formally known as (theatrical) property, is an object used on stage or on 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 however seem to think 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. Technically, a prop is any object that gives the scenery, actors, or performance space specific period, place, or character. 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 props "master" (aka Propmaster) however, varying positions also include coordinators, production assistants and interns as may be needed for a specific project.
The term has readily transferred to television, motion picture and video game production, where they are commonly referred to by the phrase movie prop, film prop or simply prop. 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.
Many props are ordinary objects. However, a prop must "read well" from the house or on-screen, meaning it must look real to the audience. Many real objects are poorly adapted to the task of looking like themselves to an audience, due to their size, durability, or color under bright lights, so some props are specially designed to look more like the actual item than the real object would look. In some cases, a prop is designed to behave differently from how the real object would, often for the sake of safety.
Examples of special props are:
Design, construct and acquire
Working in coordination with the set designer, costume designer, lighting and sometimes, sound designer, this overlapping position has only in recent years become of greater importance. Props have become more and more specialized due in large part to realism as well as the rise of theatre in the round, where few sets are used and the simple prop becomes as important a design element as costumes and lighting.
Besides the obvious artistic creations made in the prop workshop, much of the work done by the property designer is research, phone searches, and general footwork in finding needed items. Prop designers are not always credited in theatre, but film credits for full staff of designers, artisans and craftsmen are much more common.