Props and Comedy
Posted on 21 November 2013
Let’s face it. Props are fun. They are a comedian’s own PowerPoint presentation. Just organise a set of props and let each one carry you through one comedy bit after another in outline fashion. However, if you are going to use props regularly at a festival or on tour, you will need to know how to source and handle them appropriately. Many actors and comedians can tell you horror stories about when a prop went missing or failed them.
Where to find
Props can quickly add to the cost of your show. So you need to strike a balance whereby your selected props are funny, durable, and inexpensive. Your best first port of call is the opshop.
At an opshop you get a chance to look at the actual item for which you are searching, as opposed to a picture online. You can tell straight away whether it makes you laugh. With an experienced eye, you can often get items that are sturdier than something purchased from a standard retail shop. The further from the city or boutique areas you shop, the cheaper the items will be and sometimes you can haggle with the shop manager.
I have a stunning blanket box that was already less than a hundred dollars when I found it and I managed to bring the price down by twenty dollars. It’s now ready any time I need such an item for a farce like situation: “Quick! My husband is coming. Into the box.”
Not cheap enough? I supplied a full-length feature film with props for FREE! Yes, you heard me right: FREE! I made extensive use of Freecycle. Freecycle is a service whereby people offer up goods that would otherwise go to the tip. The catch is that you have to pick them up.
You sign up to be on your local list then receive emails decribing items that are on offer. If you see something interesting, you can shoot off an email to the person making the offer. They then decide to who they wish to give that something: the first person to respond, the person with the best use for it, whatever. However, once a week you can also put up a request for an item. I managed to get a ninja gi, a box of silk flowers, and an artist’s easel in this manner.
Ebay is a popular source for gear, but there are many caveats. You can’t always tell what you are getting from a photograph. I ordered a wooden tea set from Ebay, thinking it would be perfect for my show. After all, surely a wooden tea set would be sturdier than a china one. WRONG! It was stunningly beautiful and equally delicate. If, through Ebay, you are ordering from overseas, you risk expensive delivery costs, lengthy delivery times, and postal theft. Give yourself plenty of lead time, if you go this route.
Custom building is my favourite method for acquiring props. It means items can be just what you want, and designed to have a sense of artistic continuity. People at the big warehouse hardware or craft stores are often helpful in setting you up, if you want to do this yourself. Sometimes they even have community boards where you can find people to help you. I’ve used Etsy and Madeit for craft and costume items. I’ve also recruited students at local schools to hammer something together. Theatreworks used to have a “speed dating” day where you could get into contact with professional set and prop builders for anything really elaborate.
Should you rely on a prop for a crucial moment in your show, don’t have just one. You can’t afford to mess around with the possibilities that it might get lost or damaged. I will never forget the look on one stagehand’s face when he accidentally exploded my blow-up guitar for an air guitar gag. He thought for sure he had ruined the show. Fortunately, I had three spare. Props you can improvise around if they disappear can stay in the singular.
Even if you do have spares, it’s worth investing in a few maintenance and repair items. Always have duck tape and safety pins on hand for general emergencies. If you use a blow-up item, have a puncture repair kit and an air pump of some sort. Having items with batteries means you should have a battery tester, rechargeable batteries, and a battery charger.
If an item comes with an instruction manual, read that manual, follow maintenance tips in the manual, and keep the manual in a ziploc bag where you can easily find it for reference. You may not be quite so meticulous with your things at home, but you have to be for a show if you care about your career.
When you have a number of props, you will need to document and store them. During festivals you usually have to bump in and bump out of a venue fast. During a show you need seamless access to the correct prop at the correct time. Under these conditions you will want to collect certain props together: either because of their relationship with a particular actor or their timing in the performance. Put these collections in bags with lists attached to them that document what should be inside.
To quickly bring in and remove these bags I suggest further storage in a laundry basket or clothing tidy of some sort. Ikea’s Skubb laundry basket is pure genius. It’s light, sturdy, packs flat, and cheap. I own several of these.
Props when left at a venue can be attractive to theft and sometimes misplaced. Find a secure place to put your props between shows. If that means driving them back and forth from home, then so be it.
When you use props make sure each one is crucial to your performance. Some props can be more distracting than helpful. Too many props can be fiddly and slow down the action. Most important: don’t rely on props to do your work for you. YOU are the one who must be funny, the prop should just enhance that.
Peace and kindness,