A prop master is a professional who supervises the use of properties, better known as props, in a theatrical production or on a film. Properties are various objects which are used by actors and actresses during their scenes. For example, in Shakespeare's play Hamlet, the title character holds up a skull in the fifth act, saying "Alas, poor Yorick," as he confronts his own mortality. This skull is considered a prop, and the prop master is responsible for procuring it, keeping track of it, and ensuring that it is placed in the correct location on stage so that the actor playing Hamlet can reach for it.
Managing props is a major task, especially on an epic stage or film production. The prop manager is sometimes called the “props God,” in a reference to the difficulty of his or her task, and on a large production, a crew of assistants typically helps the properties master. He or she must also work closely with the director and various designers such as lighting, costume, and set designers on the production to ensure that everything runs smoothly and as expected.
Typically, the first task is to look over a script and identify any props, from balls of yarn to couches. He or she usually makes a list of these objects, and meets with the director, costume designer, set designer, and lighting designer to discuss the vision for the finished piece to ensure that suitable props are picked out. Armed with this list, the master starts scouring for props. Most theaters and movie studios have a library of props to start with, but the props manager can also order custom-fabricated props or go hunting at thrift stores and other locations for needed objects.
As rehearsals progress, the needs for other props may be identified. As a general rule, the prop master is responsible for any object on stage which is movable and not worn. For example, an actress in a Regency drama might carry a fan as a prop, but her dress would be the responsibility of the costume designer. If the actress sits on a fixed bench, the bench is handled by the set designer, but if she uses a movable stool, the prop manager is responsible for the stool.
A prop master is also responsible for organizing and storing props when they are not needed, and for setting them on the stage or in locations just off the stage so that actors can grab props when they are needed. A master prop list is used to track all of the props used in a production, along with their locations and any special notes. On a film production, the prop manager may also assist the continuity crew, which ensures that objects in a scene do not move around between takes so that a scene appears consistent and even when it is included in the final cut of the film.
Someone who is interested in becoming a prop master should start by apprenticing at a local theater or film studio. It helps to have a very precise eye for detail, along with an ability to organize extremely effectively and efficiently. Those who are skilled at obtaining unusual objects are also an asset to their parent organizations; if you can find the single excellent thing at a junky garage sale, you might make a great prop master.