One prop needs to fit inside a jacket pocket. Another must have a speaker built into it. A third lights up. Props are, of course, central to scenic design. And the right prop may help an actor find his character. A good prop person has to work with, well, everyone.
Theatres compete for inventive prop people. They find them, well, everywhere. Jim Guy, propmaster of the Milwaukee Rep, says some have been costume crafts people, tech directors, scenic carpenters, scenic artists, or scene designers. “We use all those skills in props,” notes Guy, a former fine-arts reference librarian and stage manager, who says both previous careers have served him well.
Paul Lucas had his own art gallery in Minneapolis, featuring functional art, including custom furniture, ceramics, and lighting. After going back to school in Wisconsin for a masters in industrial design, which helped him learn to work with plastics, metals, and other materials, he returned to the Twin Cities. When he stopped by the Guthrie to see if there might be a job for him, he was hired pronto.
“You have to be a sculptor, painter, carpenter, mathematician — and a politician.”
Jesse Rignall, Berkeley Rep
Many prop people learn on the job. Jesse Rignall, propmaster at the Berkeley Rep, finished a degree in set design at Cal Arts and took a props job in a summer rep in Santa Rosa. “I dove in and did an incredible amount of work in a short period of time. I learned more than I did in four years of college,” says Rignall. He says the job requires a broad range of skills. “You have to be a sculptor, painter, carpenter, mathematician — and a politician,” he says, explaining that “a huge part of the job is getting various creative parties to come to an agreement about what goes onstage.”
Mary Kay Stone, propmaster at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, didn't major in theatre. She got a job at Syracuse Stage in 1974, after doing props in summer stock. “The theatre was desperate enough to hire someone who didn't know how to put a drillbit in a drill,” she recalls.
John Vlatkovich studied lighting before doing an internship at the Guthrie in 1972. When the internship ended and he was invited to become part of the scene shop staff, he agreed at once — even though there was no money to pay him. The theatre came up with funds for a full-time position later that year.
Productions became bigger over the years, and scenery grew larger. During Vlatkovich's first years, many productions were played downstage, with oak-paneled walls behind actors. As the playing space expanded upstage, the need for furniture and other properties increased, and he moved to the prop shop. He advises those who want to work in his field to “see everything and not take anything for granted, find a mentor who can offer constructive criticism but let you do it your way, study art and architecture, and look at both the beauty and the mechanics of a piece of furniture. Open yourself up and absorb everything.”
For most, studies take place out of school. An informal survey by the Society of Props Artisans and Managers (SPAM) revealed only two degree programs with prop concentrations, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Delaware; a SPAM committee is currently developing a curriculum for a basic props class other schools might incorporate into design programs.
Stone says prop people are the last to be hired in educational theatre and the last department recognized by the professional theatre community. Nevertheless, SPAM has grown from six to 70 members since she helped found it in 1992. At annual conferences, the networking group discusses new products and ideas. “When I first started in theatre in 1974, every theatre was kind of a little island in itself,” says Stone, who is happy that SPAM members share their theatre's stocks and solutions now.
Prop people query one another through a newsletter that supports sharing between conferences: When Andy Berry needed toy trains at Portland Stage, Kathy Martin, formerly of Virginia Stage, pointed him to the curator of a children's museum with a comprehensive collection. And John Roslevich at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis responded to a request for a shotgun that fires an umbrella, something Mark Bissonette wanted for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the GeVa Theatre.
When prop people get together, talk often turns to designers. “Some will give you buckets of research and all the drawings,” Stone says, “but that's not always the case.” Often, a two — page prop list becomes a five — pager, and some items on the initial list don't appear at all.
Guy finds that some designers don't know what they want. “A good prop person is more than just an errand person for the designer. He is a member of the creative team who makes it work for the actors as well as look good for the designer and director.”
Some designers, of course, do know what they want. One of Vlatkovich's favorites, Desmond Heeley, “can take a piece of masking tape, roll it in a ball, and take putty and make a beautiful flower out of it. He can make chandeliers out of plastic glasses from the five-and-dime. He can visualize and see beauty in almost anything,” Vlatkovich says with obvious admiration. Lucas applauds the way John Lee Beatty and Richard Hoover have worked at the Guthrie, and in describing them defines the ideal designer: “They knew what they wanted but were open to suggestions.”
Where do people build props? Just about anywhere. Guy says, “Most prop departments are afterthoughts, little areas carved out” in everything from “the basement of an abandoned Sears Roebuck to the top floor of an old factory building.” At the Milwaukee Rep, however, he's in a 14-year-old building created by prop people. It boasts daylight-corrected overhead lighting, a wonderful ventilation system, soundproofed rooms (so the person upholstering a couch doesn't have to listen to the router next door), a spray booth, and storage space.
Vlatkovich and Lucas enjoy working with a wide variety of materials, something they can do in the state-of-the-art shops at the Guthrie. Hard props are built in a 50' × 35' room, once used as the scene shop. A smaller shop accommodates such things as upholstering. “We can build just about anything here,” Lucas reports. “We can weld aluminum and we can mill steel. We can do fiberglassing and make anything out of wood.”
The Berkeley Rep shop is small, but Rignall says that once the Rep opens its new theatre this month there will be new shops of all kinds. “Our [current] scene shop physically isn't big enough to build scenery for the new theatre. All the production departments have to grow in terms of personnel and space,” he says.
While some theatres grow, others retrench in these days of funding cutbacks. And, Stone notes, “Propmasters are dropping like flies.” It's a formula for disaster: Shows get bigger. Budgets get smaller. Stress increases faster than salaries do, with many prop people earning in the $20,000 range. None of the people who founded SPAM with her are in props today.
Even under the best circumstances, there are inevitable artistic frustrations. Rignall says he wishes his job allowed more time in the rehearsal hall, but if he's going to keep the crew going and place orders on time, that's not possible. Vlatkovich wishes designers had more time. In the old days, they would stay at the theatre through the build. Now, they do so many shows, much communicating is done by phone, fax, and email.
Props often get cut from shows, or literally cut with a saw so they fit a space. Lucas enjoys the challenge of, say, having to rebuild a Frankenstein chair three times to accommodate resizing. “The nature of the business is not to attach your ego to the project you're working on, because what we're doing is bringing the vision of the director and designer to the stage,” he says.
Rignall agrees. “We don't just provide the things onstage. What we provide is a service for the artistic team.” He has come to love being part of a rapid-response team. “We're a very process-oriented theatre,” he adds. “We give the designers and directors creative freedom. We have to come up with solutions in short periods of time.”
Vlatkovich notes that the time to build and rebuild has grown shorter over the years, yet the need to do so hasn't decreased. There have been times when he's built five or six pieces and each one has been cut or changed in significant ways. A director might not like it. An actor might not be able to concentrate if he has to manipulate it. “We adapt to keep the play moving,” says Vlatkovich.
It helps to build slowly. Even though they have plans for the upcoming Orestia, the prop shop won't build a life-size chariot before rehearsals start. “We build step by step, so we can make adjustments,” says Vlatkovich.
“A good prop person is more than just an errand person for the designer; he is a member of the creative team.”
Jim Guy, Milwaukee Rep
Sometimes, a designer or director requests something he knows can't work, but Vlatkovich builds it anyhow, putting it together with screws to make it easier to change later. “We try to envision what could possibly go wrong and build for that.” Vlatkovich has also become adept at modifying props from the Guthrie warehouse. “It's fun going back, to see something and think, ‘I built that.’ Now, I've been there so long, I think, ‘Did I build that?’”