Reporting From the United States Institute of Theater Technology (USITT) Conference & Stage Expo-Part 1: How to Set up a Rental Program for Costumes, Props, and Lighting Equipment

Does your theater company have an untapped wealth of supplies that you could loan out in order to make money on your inventory of costumes, props or lighting?

Perhaps you just want to loan out a few pieces in hopes of getting a dusty costume drycleaned or a broken prop fixed by a grateful borrower.


About 50 members of the United States Institute of Theater Technology (USITT) Conference & Stage Expo learned how to set up a rental program from an expert in the field.

Margaret Messick.
Margaret Messick at USITT 2013.

“Everyone’s situation and goals are different,” said Margaret Messick, a database designer from Davis, California. “Are you simply loaning costumes or props as a community service or do you want to earn money to sustain your shop?”

She said the best way to go about it is to set goals and make decisions ahead of time. She provided a link to a workbook to walk you through the process.

Messick, a seamstress since childhood, is owner of Costume & Theatre Inventory Resources, which provides inventory and rental support for shops, some with more than 50,000 costumes.

Here’s how it works. You affix barcode labels to the costume, prop or lighting equipment. When you loan the object, you use a hand-held barcode scanner to check it out of the system, just like at the library. The same system can also take care of billing.

But before that can take place, your collection needs to be cataloged and photographed. Each photo is attached to a database record that is associated with the barcode label that is attached to the object. The datbase stores information such as color, size, measurements, fabric, condition, and rack location.

Storing photographs of even a small collection takes computer space, and Messick suggested estimating your computer storage and back-up capacities and talking to your theater’s IT professional before getting started since the work is almost as labor intensive of creating a prop or costume itself.

Other things to consider include whether your physical storage area, be it a warehouse or a small backstage area, might be reconfigured or renovated in the future and planning ahead lest this alter the object’s storage location.

In the case of costumes and props, some theaters inventory their collections by show, while others do it by historical era. Others intentionally produce or acquire a full complement of items that they anticipate will get a lot of use because stage production rights are going to be made available soon.

Classic NI logo sm copyMany theaters struggle with whether to do a huge inventorying project all at once or to enter items in a piecemeal fashion. The best advice came from Joan Markert, owner of Necessity’s Inventions, which has inventory and tracking programs for costumes and props that include special segments for students. She suggested that nothing should go out for loan or come back without being entered into the system first. This way, all the most popular items will be inventoried first.

Messick and Markert mentioned a third company called Rental Tracker that appears to specialize in entertainment industry equipment.

No matter what system you choose, Messick said that the user interface should be simple so that anyone, from volunteers to interns to a succession of students, can enter data effectively.

Once they are in a database, it is easy to search for just the right object when someone contacts you. Then all you have to think about is when your shop will be open for pickup and whether you are willing ship materials. The price structure can be by week, by production or by the level of the renter. “Some people give discounts for schools or religious establishments,” she said.

Other things to consider include: Who is responsible for cleaning? What if it something is lost, damaged, or altered beyond re-use? The replacement value of the item should be reflected in the system.

What if an actor cuts out the label because it is itchy? Messick had good advice for men’s suit coats: place the label inside the right-hand pocket so it doesn’t show if he lays it across the arm of a chair during the show.

“You don’t want to see a barcode on a jacket from the 1800s,” she said.


Yvonne French To Report From U.S. Institute of Theater Technology’s 55th Annual Conference & Stage Expo on DCMetroTheaterArts.


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