Stage props are used to enhance theater performances. They add meaning and help create realism. By common definition, props are used by actors in the course of a theatrical production. Distinctions among props include "small props," "dress props," "rehearsal props" and "set properties." Items that appear on stage but are not used are considered "set decoration."
The history of stage props dates back to the early Greek dramas, which were performed with masks. Masks have been a part of Greek theatre since the time of Aeschylus. However it wasn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries that acting troupes began to heavily employ the use of props. The term “props” come from the word “property,” or "belonging to the company."
Although many theatrical performances that don't include them, the use of props is very common and highly valuable. They help create the alternate reality of the production and may even be used to convey meaning to the audience. For example, if few props are used in a play and a cup suddenly appears, the audience can deduce there is something significant about the cup.
Stage props can have many different functions within a performance. They may contribute to the "mise-en-scene" (the idea that everything within a scene has a meaning). They may also allude to the narrative and give the audience greater understanding of a character or their motives. For instance, a mother who has lost her child may cling to a teddy bear. The audience may not be told that she has lost her child, but the clutching of the teddy bear suggests that the woman has suffered a great loss.
There are several different types of stage props. Hand props are those that are small enough to be held by the actor, such as a box of cigars. Dress props are those that are not worn but add to the costume, such as a briefcase. Rehearsal props are used only in rehearsals. This may be because the actual prop is still being built or more commonly, because the item is fragile and is available only for performances. Finally, set properties make up the set and are used by the actors, such as a chairs.
Before rehearsals begin, the director and the prop master go through the script and make a list of what is required for the production. However, actors typically won’t see those props until the rehearsal period is fairly advanced. By dress rehearsals, actors should have most of their props although they may only be rehearsal props. When the show enters technical rehearsals, props are finalized so the director can see exactly how long it takes stage hands to remove them between scenes. Rehearsal props are replaced with actual props during technical rehearsals.