In the performing arts, a prop (the common short form for the more formal property) is anything that is carried by a performer during the performance.
The term comes from live-performance practice, especially theatrical methods, but its modern use extends beyond the traditional plays and musical, circus, novelty, and even public-speaking performances, to film and electronic media.
Props are distinct from the scenery or sets, large objects in many productions that can be considered part of the stage.
Many props are ordinary objects. However, a prop must read well from the house (the audience's seating area), which is to say it must look to the audience like the real thing it represents. Many real objects are poorly adapted to the task of looking like themselves to an audience, so some props are specially designed to look more like the real thing than the real thing would. In other cases, a prop is designed to behave differently, for instance for safety. Examples of special props are:
- a prop sack representing a burlap bag, that might have one side starched or sized to stiffly duplicate an especially convincing shape that a real (and limp) burlap bag might only rarely collapse into by chance,
- a prop weapon (such as a stage gun or a stage sword) that reads well but lacks the intentional harmfulness of the corresponing real weapon, and
- breakaway objects, such as balsa-wood furniture, or mock-glassware made of crystalized sugar, whose breakage and debris read well without having the weight or strength to injure.
The choice of evoking the legal concept of "property" in naming props probably reflects the issues of prop management. The performer using a prop has to eventually let go of it, either because the character being played does so, or in order to take a bow or effect a change of costume or makeup. Even if the value of the item is negligible, the effort of realizing it is gone and replacing it is probably not, and it is efficient to take steps to ensure it is at hand for the next performance. Thus a prop's availability to the performer must be guarded as diligently as an individual's valued private property. Two institutions reflect this need:
- the propman (or, reflecting either gender-neutrality or the respect earned in a largely menial but highly responsible task) the prop manager, whose sole or overriding responsibility is being sure performers get their props. (The manager of prop weapons (and in some cases real weapons serving as props) is often a separate person, and in any case, technically the armorer.)
- the prop table, where nothing but props may be left, and nothing removed except by the prop manager or the perfomer to whom the prop is assigned.