We’ve all seen shows where someone decides to use a real prop on stage.
It’s usually small, like coins or a cell phone. And once it’s introduced, everyone tends to fixate on it: the players, as well as the audience.
I’ve seen seasoned performers kill it with props, but more often, props kill the scene.
Props work well in shortform games, like the one from Whose Line Is It Anyway? If everyone knows up front that they’re part of the show, the results can be frickin’ hilarious.
But using props in longform tends to throw players and audiences off a little. When everything else in the scene is imaginary, bringing in something real is a bit like shining a light on shadow puppets. The magic and mystery disappear.
Besides, as I’ve learned from writing for radio, it’s way cooler to let people imagine their own version of your world.
Of course, there are exceptions, and the photo above is one example.
Revel Theatre hosted a show recently where there happened to be books and a table on stage. Kevin Whalen literally stumbled on his character. When the lights went up he stumbled a little, and reached out to steady some books that were falling.
His character was born in that second, when he organically reacted in the moment. Kevin’s scene partner, Reid Janisse, endowed him as an author.
As the scene progressed, Kevin alternated between haughty high status befitting a new author, and the grovelling apology he established in the first few seconds.
The scene worked, for two reasons:
1. Kevin didn’t decide to incorporate books into the scene. The prop more or less incorporated itself by falling over, and Kevin simply reacted to and embraced what happened.
2. While Kevin occasionally picked up a book, the scene wasn’t about the props. It was clearly about a weirdo author and his relationship with his agent, the bookstore owner, and his fans.
It definitely helped that Kevin and Reid are both pros.
Bottom line? When in doubt, leave it out.