Make Extra Money Prop Design
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This edition of Make Money Monday is by Mel who blogs at brokeGIRLrich where she explores topics like how to not totally panic over adulthood, working in the arts and retirement strategies that don’t involve living in a cardboard box under an overpass.

I am not an artist.

I had to take some art classes in college and barely scraped by with mercy B’s every time. I do, however, love Pinterest and I’m pretty good at achieving success with some of the DIY projects I find there.

Does that describe you?

Then I have an unusual way for you to harness your craftiness and turn it into some cash…

Become a Props Designer for your local theater.

The title may sound fancy, but the fact is, lots of theaters are really looking for someone just like you. Are you comfortable slapping a coat of paint on some old picture frames so that they match the color scheme of the set? If you’re able to follow the directions on most blogs to “distress” a piece of furniture, you’ll be able to pick up the basics of scenic painting in no time. You’ll be able to recreate a marble look on a piece of plywood or a maple finish on a Styrofoam bookshelf.

Here are several skills hiring companies look for in a Props Designer:

  • Painting
  • Sculpting
  • Woodworking
  • Metalworking
  • Carpentry
  • Thrifting
  • Shopping
  • Graphic Design
  • Papier-mâché
  • Mask Making
  • Puppetry

Want to know how many of those I have? Arguably, one. I have worked as a carpenter before. Granted, I am also a top notch shopper and my credit card statement can prove it ;o) But you want to know the only skill a Props Designer absolutely has to have?

  • Creativity

Setting Up a Resume

True Story: One show I worked on wanted about 20 wooden crates. I just couldn’t find them anywhere. Fortunately, they were just set dressing (meaning they just sat there and looked pretty), so I was able to spend an exciting evening painting 20 cardboard boxes to look like wooden crates and I had to Google how to do it before I started (talk about brushing up your wood graining skills).

Examples of Woodgraining

4 examples of the same chairs wood grained and painted in different ways

Harness your creativity. Looking at the list above, which of those items do you actually have experience with? Have you gone to one of the Paint Nite classes and created a masterpiece while getting hammered? Have you painted a piece of furniture in your own home? Have you ever built one? Did you make a piñata for your kid’s birthday?

Which of those areas could you gain experience with? Do you have an old dresser sitting around that you think you could fix up? Have you been meaning to learn Photoshop, but putting it off? Now’s the time.

Props Brainstorming

Brainstorm any example of props skills you have

Because your main job probably has little to do with props, you’ll really want the highlight of your resume to be the skills section. Any of the above that you feel comfortable with, you’ll want to list there.

Other key traits that directors and producers look for in a Props Designers that you may have:

  • Ability to work alone and meet deadlines.
  • Adaptability
  • Budgeting skills
  • Reliable transportation (trucks are a plus)
  • Creative Problem Solving

Writing the Cover Letter

True Story: The first show I ever did as a Props Designer had an incredible number of props to make, including painting maps onto rolling shades, food props and I had to build a bed. It was my first time doing most of those things, so it was a major exercise in creativity. And now I brag about it in my cover letters.

Prop Food

Props Designing for this show involved finding all those table settings, some fake food and making some real food

This is where you make it or break it – the spot where you explain how your mishmash of skills would actually make you an excellent Props Designer.

Here’s a snippet from one of my cover letters:

“In college I was the Props Master for The Threepenny Opera, which is still my favorite project to date because it required such a wide variety of props. I wound up shopping for a full bedroom and living room set from local thrift stores and then updating them to match the scenic designers more modern version (neon colors played heavily into his design – so I wound up painting the majority of the items I found). I created a neon, yet still “antique” version of a world map that I painted onto a pull down shade. The props I was most proud of though were in the feast – the director required exactly the items listed in the script, but wanted each of them to be non-perishable. This included fish, deviled eggs and other clearly perishable items, but I found ways around them including making the deviled eggs out of marshmallows, icing and sprinkles. The actors even liked eating them.”

In this section, you should outline specific examples of artistic projects you’ve created. You should emphasize that you’ve got the time and knowledge of local shopping spots to pick up the items needed for the production. If you can, you should provide an example of a time when you needed one item, but you converted another item to get the job done.

If you’ve ever pulled off one of those Pinterest theme parties for your kids, you should easily be able to fill up that paragraph too.

Building Your Portfolio

True Story: I have lost easily a half a dozen side gigs because I didn’t have an online portfolio. 

Portfolio

An example of one of the albums in my portfolio – I break them up by companies I’ve worked for

The real key here is to take pictures. You want to find as much evidence as you can and document it, because designing props is a very visual job. You’ll be a step ahead of everyone else if you can build a small portfolio (I will be the first to admit that I always forget to take pictures for my portfolio and it’s always to my detriment), even if it doesn’t actually include any props yet.

I highly recommend setting up a website on WordPress and posting all your pictures. If you’ve really got quite a few projects, break the albums up into categories. As you start getting real props gigs, replace the homespun projects (unless you’ve got a few phenomenal ones) with your actual theater work.

Ready, Set, Go!

Now that you’ve got a resume (with your portfolio’s website address listed right under your physical address) and cover letter written, you need to do a little research.

If you live in a bigger city, here are two websites that will help your find props gigs:

If you live in smaller towns, a good place to start is Google. Put in your hometown and phrases like theater (spelled both ways) and “theatre company”, and see what comes up. You’re looking for the tiny theater groups. Then search their websites until you can find an email address or a physical address.

E-mail or mail them your resume and cover letter. If you’re interested in building this up to a solid side hustle, you may want to volunteer to do a few local shows for free. If not, you may want to state a starting fee of say $50-$100 in your cover letter. I would call it negotiable for your first few shows though.

If you regularly attend local performances, look in the playbills to see who is listed as the Props Designer (or Props Master or Props Shopper) and see if you recognize them. Invite them out for coffee and pump them for information on how they do it. Most jobs that you get in theater are from networking.

I’ve painted giant green leaves for a theater company for a few hours and walked away with $30 and a pair of free tickets. And I’ve made $1,500 for two weeks of regular shopping trips each evening and Internet detective work, trying to find just the right era camera. The work definitely varies, but I just take whatever I can to pick up some extra cash and network.

Pinterest Birthday Party

If you can create something like this and deal with screaming children, designing props will be a piece of cake

On the Job

So you landed your first gig! Where to start?

You’ll want to ask for a copy of the script. Go through it and make a list of any prop you see mentioned. This means that when “Stella crosses to window, pulls aside curtain and picks up a glass of wine” you note curtains and glass of wine. You’ll probably want to make it an Excel sheet so you can add any questions you have, such as color preference on the curtain or is there real liquid in the wine glass? I also leave a spot in the Excel sheet to note where the item comes from, in case it’s a rental and needs to be returned at the end of the run.

You’ll want to have gone through the whole script before you go to your first production meeting. At the meeting, everyone will talk about the overall idea for the show, so you’ll have a better idea about the design concept.

Props List

Excerpt from props list for Romeo & Juliet

Does this director want everything to be black and white with just tiny pops of color? Then your props need to reflect that. Is he setting Romeo & Juliet in Kansas circa 1960? Then your props need to reflect that.

You should get to know the set designer well. In many cases, they’ll have the final say in a lot of props, specifically the props you obtain to “dress” the set (stuff like furniture, curtains, framed pictures, etc). Make sure you’re clear on what they want.

You’ll start to receive a copy of the rehearsal report and you should read it each night. There will be several additions or deletions of props the first few rehearsals – keep that in mind when you buy props and always make sure there’s a return policy. On occasions when there isn’t, I just shoot the Stage Managers a quick email to double check this prop will not be cut, especially if it’s expensive.

As you amass props, drop them off at the rehearsal space. Directors usually appreciate getting props as soon as possible. If the rehearsal space is different from the performance space, find out if you need to move props from one spot to another on the day the company moves – this is called load in. You’ll also need to find out what day load out is – that’s when the show is over and the company moves all of their belongings out of the performance space. You’ll need to collect and return any props that were borrowed from other places.

Finally, the best part, you get paid.

Have you ever seen a show and thought “I could build or find those props?” Which show was it? Have you ever made a Pinterest masterpiece? 

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