On props and prop masters

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in the summer of 2007.

Last spring, as Lookingglass Theatre held tech rehearsals for the African war drama Black Diamond: The Year the Locusts have Eatern, freelance prop designer Rachel Jamieson sat in the theatre pondering fake blood. “There’s a lot of it,” she says. “We tried blood recipe after blood recipe. It was shipped in by the gallon.” And then there was the question of what to use for bile. “We have a dozen different things backstage waiting to see how they look under the lights,” notes Jamieson. “One of my favorites was lime curd. You need something that won’t taste too bad in the mouth of the actor.” At one point, she walked backstage just as an actor finished spitting up some lime curd. “How’d it go?” she asked. The answer: “Yuck.”

In the language of the theater, “prop” is short for “property”—anything you see on the stage other than the scenery, costumes and, well, the actors. Besides devising realistic approximations of bodily fluids, Jamieson’s work on Black Diamond included transforming a couple of classic Charlie McCarthy dummies into look-alikes for two actors in the show. Jamieson is one of the younger props professionals who prefer to be called “prop designers,” emphasizing the creative aspect of their work. “Prop master was the old term,” she says. “It’s becoming ‘prop designer,’ even though the job is the same. Props people look at it as a nod of respect.”

Well, not all of them. “When people call me a prop designer, I cringe,” admits Alice Maguire, who has been props supervisor at the Goodman Theatre since 1988. Maguire doesn’t see herself as a designer. “The scenic designer sets the concept. We take our cue from them.”

Whichever term is used, props people are instrumental in helping to create the look and mood of a play and the things they bring to the stage often play a vital role in defining a performer’s character. And like performers, props don’t always behave themselves. Greg Isaac, resident prop master at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, says magazines are often a problem. Finding an old magazine to fit the period of a play isn’t difficult, but the periodicals fall apart when they’re handled night after night. “We always have a prop first-aid kit backstage full of clear packing tape, so we can constantly reinforce and repair the ripped covers and pages,” says Isaac.

Dan Pellant, a freelancer who has worked at Victory Gardens and other theatres, recalls buying an electric scooter for one play, only to discover that it needed a special kind of battery that had to be ordered from China. “The actor tried to push the scooter on for the first few performances, but the whole thing was eventually scrapped because he looked completely ridiculous,” relates Pellant. One of Pellant’s most interesting challenges was finding two antique oil-burning opium lamps for Silk Road Ensemble’s production of David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child. “They are vastly different in appearance and function than other oil lamps, so substitutions were not an option,” he says.

When a scene calls for actors to chow down, they’re usually attacking bread disguised to look like something else. It’s easier to chew than meat, for example, and less likely to thicken the spit in the actors’ mouths. When James Tyrone and his boys hit the bottle in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, you can beat the hooch they’re belting back is actually tea. “Beer is usually juice,” reveals Jamieson. “Coffee is usually flat Coke—I wouldn’t drink it.”

Some props are built, some are rented, and some are bought. Some are even scavenged. “Sometimes I’ll stop if there’s something in the middle of the street or the alley and pick it up,” admits Pellant. “Maybe I’ll come back later and get it—furniture and odds and ends.” Props people are all visitors to e-Bay. They haunt antique shops and thrift stores, such as the Brown Elephan resale shops, which benefit Howard Brown, the Midwest’s premier lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health care organization. Isaac can often be found at JoAnn Fabrics in Vernon Hills. When employees ask him what sort of project he’s working on, they get surprising responses. “My answers are always things like, ‘Oh, I’m creating a Roman shield,’ or ‘Well, I’m cushion-lining a coffin,’ or ‘I need to stuff some rubber chickens to hang on a T bar.’”

Smaller theaters without much storage space don’t hold on to the bulk of their props, but with its own West Side warehouse, the Goodman Theatre maintains a veritable Xanadu of material from past productions. A former battery factory, it’s a fairly typical-looking industrial space, except for the assortment of objects hanging from the walls and ceilings and stashed into corners: an enormous poppy blossom from Mary Zimmerman’s The Odyssey; an equally huge pumpkin from David Mamet’s children’s show, The Revenge of the Space Pandas or Binky Rudich and the Two Speed Clock; body bags from last season’s epic production of King Lear. There are chandeliers, suitcases, rakes, brooms, shovels, bundles of branches, tall strands of prairie grass, and lots and lots of chairs. “This is our Brian Dennehy rehearsal chair,” Maguire said, pointing to one among many. “He just likes a good, sturdy chair.”

The Goodman keeps the key props from some plays in trucks parked at other locations, preparing for the day when those shows might be remounted. “We can’t not keep things,” Maguire says. She admits that there’s a limit to how many times a prop can be recycled. “Nobody ever wants to see something twice.” But sometimes all of those odd objects in storage come in handy. When the Goodman’s artistic director, Robert Falls, told Maguire that he needed a stuffed deer for King Lear last fall, she quickly answered, “We have one.” The antlered stag had previously appeared in As You Like It. Now, it hangs in a bag from the warehouse ceiling, waiting for the day when it might make another appearance.

In her office, Maguire keeps three-ring binders from each play, filled with photos, drawings, and notes that directors gave her during rehearsals: “Bread should be in the basket … The chair needs to swivel.” Maguire, whose previous jobs included handling props on the first Friday the 13th film, also keeps a variety of art and history books to give her visual references, ranging from a coffee-table volume of Frank Lloyd Wright designs to a 1933 Horders stationery catalogue.

A good props department is not only well-stocked, but operated by folks who know just the prop for every scene. When the Goodman produced Hollywood Arms (written by Carol Burnett and her daughter, Carrie Hamilton), legendary director Hal Prince was impressed by the ability of Maguire and her staff. Anticipating his needs, they had many props ready before he even requested them, such as vintage ice-cube trays. “The minute he asked for it,” she says proudly, “it was there.”

By declining to call herself a designer, Maguire is modest about the role she plays at the Goodman. But she is clearly enthusiastic about her line of work. “You can’t help but love it,” she said. “There’s so much variety.”