Working in the Theatre: Prop Masters

[opening music] [Buist Rickley] Someone starting
out wanting to be a prop master that if you want to do it in New York,
then you should do it in New York. The logistics of moving things
around New York is a huge skill that they don’t teach you in school, that you just need to know how to do
to do this job successfully. I think you really learn by doing in this position. I don’t think it’s something that you can really be taught. [Kathy Fabian] There’s no real definition of what
makes a good props person to me except your personality, because there is no way that you know anything
about what you’re gonna do tomorrow, and no one walks around knowing what
objects from the medical industry from 1931 necessarily look like. So, it’s about being resourceful rather than being an expert in something. I can build furniture and I can weld and I can sew, but I don’t necessarily do those things every time. That’s what’s needed for a show. More than likely, I’m tracking down
good people who do that for a living to try to utilize their talents and
put the whole package together. [Faye-Armon Troncoso] Everything that comes
on the stage that’s touched by an actor is what I give them, so everything needs to be spot on. It also needs to be strong, because
they break them all the time! I try to make it toddler proof
when I’m dealing with actors because they break it. Some things, I could weld it and they could break it! [laughter] [Fabian] We’re currently working on
The King And I at Lincoln Center. There are 51 people in the play, and… all of them are holding something, [laughter] so there’s a lot of stuff. When you begin a musical, the first
step is to build a mock-up of everything they’re going to come
in contact with in the space so that they can study with it in the rehearsal room, and work with it, and dance
on it, and push it, and wear it until you get to the stage where
you’re given the real objects. I prefer to work with mock-up so that we can figure out what the final product needs to be simply by criticizing the first mock-up that I make. [Fabian in background] That looks good! It’s not hitting your neck, right? Alright, so… Good, I’m gonna give you a
super strong man cape right now so it doesn’t cut you too much. I could stitch it right to the basket so it stays tight. Now, let me see that photo again. Hold on a second… [Rickley] I like to buy as much online as I possibly can because shopping is, like, truly a skill
and a lot of people aren’t good at it. I’m good at it, but I need to
be in charge of a lot of things and so I don’t always need to be out shopping. I do a lot of eBay, Etsy, all the online auction places. I Amazon everything I possibly can. In New York City, transportations hard, so if you can buy something from Amazon that can get delivered to your
rehearsal space for free, then you do that. I go to lots of great antique places: the Furniture Market in Queens. There’re certain places that just have all kinds of things and that’s a shop that just has all kinds of things. You can buy tiny little knickknacks to dress a shelf and you can also find huge armoires! Right now, working the Heidi Chronicles, and we’re looking for… there’re three different record players in the
show, and they’re all different time periods. I need to find the period-correct record players, and they need to turn onstage. They don’t need to make sound because we’ll
fake the speakers and hide them somewhere They just need to to turn. With old electronics it’s just hard
to find things that are reliable. In the audience, most of the play
takes place at Buckingham Palace, and we have a big chandelier and I need to find some red
velvet to match some costumes that’s going to make be a sock on the top
of the chandelier that hides the the chain. [Rickley in background] I need to match some velvets. I made this great pillow, it’s for the Queen of England, she keeps her crown on it, and… [background] For real? Helen Mirren playing the Queen. But, I can’t take it out of rehearsal, I just want to swatch some velvets to see
something that, like, kind of matches. It’s like a burgundy, but its got a little bit of Marlo in it. I think this is pretty good. Beautiful. That pattern is kind of cool. [background dialogue] That’s pretty cool! I always put my hand in the picture so you know it looks like next to people’s skin I often work on lots of shows at one time and you have to be efficient and really well organized, and if you aren’t organized and really on top of your stuff that whirlwinds can come over you. You really have to stay on top of when
notes come in every day and deadlines. I always number these instead of just taking a picture because on cell phones, if you send it from an iPhone 4 to a 5, or a 5 to a 6, sometimes they flip the photo, and then you’ll send it to someone and they’ll say, “I want the second one from the third!” But they have flipped the photo, and then you
buy the wrong thing and everything is ruined. [Troncoso] The disciplines of what I do: it’s special effects, it’s upholstering, it’s stylizing and set dressing, [Troncoso in background] You know what, make
the lettuce perfectly around this whole platter. Is this all the lettuce we have? [background dialogue] [Fabian in background] No, I think it’s good! This is more realistic. They’re going to have their wonderful
lunch spread of pulled pork sandwiches with little Gherkin pickles stuck in them. And then, they’re going to have the champagne. They pop the champagne every day. So, along with this food comes all these dietary restrictions that the actors give us, So instead of using ginger ale,
we have to use seltzer water but then color it and then get the cork in there and then it has to be easy enough
for the actor just to pop on cue so that he gets the sound right when they need it. [Rickley] I work by myself, but I outsource a lot of work. I often hire assistants on a show-by-show basis, but I’m a freelancer and it’s just me. [Fabian] When I’m looking for new people and
young people to be interested in the props field, I often tell them that I don’t even want to see
their resume or really their photos of their work. I just want to find out what
they know about the props field and if they like problem solving. Because it really is about that. It’s about the lack of fear to not
know what the heck you’re doing until you’re starting. And it’s organizing chaos, It’s herding cats, and you have to just know that it’s okay if everything
changes at three o’clock. You just have to adapt. The changing of minds, if you cannot
deal with that and staying flexible, there’s no place for you here because we’re making things better
and making discoveries along the way. [Fabian in background] So, this is the
sofa we already have in rehearsal. I think you want something a lot more light and colorful because the rest of the play is a concert onstage and there’s a lot of black and the only moments in this play that actually provides some life are these little tiny vignettes with furniture in them. So, even though we love this for the era because it’s 70s, I still think it should have a pattern on it and be like yellow and gold and olive or something. [Troncoso] If the show is modern day,
it’s so much easier than a period piece because we can just run down to Bed,
Bath and Beyond or any store in the city and grab it and go. But when it’s a period piece, there’s research involved, and it’s making sure that the piece
was there at the time of the play. It’s antique shopping and a play
set in 1980 is a period play, and period plays are always more
expensive than modern-day plays. We’re given a number…sometimes. Sometimes we’re not even given a number and we budget every item that’s on the list
that’s given to us by the set designer, by the director, they work together. And so, we keep our budget, we try to research the best we
can to get those numbers right, and there’s always moments where it’s like, “Well, that wasn’t in the budget!” [background] I can do a twenty-percent discount on this. [Troncoso] Is that the best? It’s just a little high for us. [background] $300: that will be the best. [Troncoso] Where’s Herb? [background] Where is he? He’s at an auction. Do you want me to call him? [Troncoso] So right now, it’s $440.
I just got him down to $300. Let’s see if we can get him down more. [background] $285. That is his best. [Troncoso] Did he know it was me? [background] Yeah, “the theatre lady.” He says, “Yeah, the one has never got any money!” [laughter] [Fabian] When I started, we just
had a Polaroid and no cell phone. So, you had a meeting, and then two
weeks later you had another meeting and you might have brought
some stuff with you to show people and then you go away and you do your stuff and then two weeks later you’re there for tech. Nowadays, you get a call or a text or
an email every six and a half seconds with new information, different information,
bigger information, better information, and you need to stay connected. It slows you down, and if you let it, it will kill you. [Rickley] I have no idea how anyone
did my job before the Internet existed. None. I don’t know. It was hard, it’s still hard, but it must’ve been really hard. [Rickley] Often at the end of the show, all of
our pieces are owned by the production. Often they’re stored for future productions, regional theaters will rent furniture and
props from old Broadway shows or they’ll get stored for national tour. Oftentimes if they’re things that we just need
to get rid of because there’s not storage space and they’re not keeping them, I’ll donate them to not-for-profits like the Public or MTC. But, a lot of stuff gets thrown away. That’s not going to sound good, but that’s the truth. A lot of things get thrown away. I always try to recycle, reuse, I always try to buy used, I try to donate. Sometimes it’s hard, I’m noticing, because I’ll have products and props that we’re creating but not out of the best materials
to break down in the environment. So, I’m constantly trying my hardest to to be green. [Fabian] At my company at Prop Star, we pretty much keep everything
that is not rotting or unsafe tucked wherever we can tuck it to reuse it and I can’t imagine what it would be like
to start from scratch every single time we recycle things and recycle them
and recycle them and recycle them The props that usually become my favorites
no matter how much pain they caused me on the road to figuring them out are usually the ones that make people laugh. I did a show called The Real Thing that
had a house of cards on a coffee table and another character enters stage, slams the door, and the door slam is supposed to cause the
house of cards to fall without anyone touching it consistently, every night, first moment of the play. I lived in fear for two and a half weeks
that I could not get this thing to work. We finally got it to work with an
extremely simple mechanical trick and I’d say one out of every
45 shows it maybe didn’t work, but to me that was pretty good odds. [Troncoso] When I won the Obie for
Props, it was for a play called Bug, and I was so excited because no prop
person had ever won an Obie before, let alone any award ever. I think I might have won the Obie
for that because it just felt so real, of which that’s one of the things
that I love about creating the set dressing for like these really naturalistic plays. It’s just like you can go deep and go
into like the psychological things behind each and every object and how they’re placed, and where they’re placed, and it was just phenomenal just to
be a part of a really great collaboration. [Fabian] What’s most
challenging at working at this level is producing the kind of quality,
style, and good taste that is in demand. I’ve gotten to work with some
of the best people in the industry and no one ever stops and says, “Oh
that’s okay! Let’s just go with it.” I mean, you really need to keep trying to
make it better every second you have left before the curtain goes up. [Troncoso] I think my favorite parts of doing props is when everything is up on stage and I can see like all the colors and everything working, everything is placed properly, and everything makes sense to the character and really meets my goal of enhancing the set design [Rickley] I love working with
the smartest people in my field. It’s invigorating when you’re in a room and you look on stage, you
look around you, and you think, “These are the best people in the world at what they do and I get to be part of that.” [closing music]


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