Prop management for a professional repertory theatre season presents unique challenges in space, time and patience. John Bleasby learns about the process of building and borrowing, and most importantly the little-known process of ‘rehearsing the props’ from two top prop and set piece mistresses in the Barrie area, South Simcoe Theatre’s Christina Luck and Kathy Simpson.
I suppose it could be said that the best props are ‘Seen but not Heard’.
We go to a lot of trouble not to make props obvious. Props are something audiences aren’t really supposed to notice. All the props have to look natural, proportionate and well considered for that show. It can’t appear that a prop has been thrown in from another play and is out of place.
What were some of the unique obstacles you had to face this past summer with Theatre by the Bay?
We had three different plays and three directors, each with their own vision of their plays. The responsibilities for us were supposed to end with the physical structure of the set; that’s the set designer’s job. But it’s never as simple as that. The lines get blurred because of the interaction between departments and between shows.
Shakespeare doesn’t offer much in the way of direction; you have to figure it out on your own based on the nature of the production itself. First, one needs to know the general interpretation of the show from the director and designer. They themselves of course had to visualise the show for themselves. The vision for Merry Wives of Windsor was that it would be set in prohibition-era Windsor Ontario. As a team we had to come up with ways that would visually express that period in colour and texture.
If you aren’t careful you could end up with loads of props and set pieces for a rep season.
We had very little storage at the Mady Centre and not many stage hands in order to make switch between plays. There were days when all three shows were running and there was only 20 minutes to switch over. So we had to consider what would be a reasonable expectation for those doing that work.
What are the differences between what the audience sees and what the audience never sees when it comes to props?
There are rehearsal props and there are show props. Props need rehearsal time too. Rehearsal props are critical. They’re stuff to play with; what the actors work with throughout rehearsal to see what works and what fits. From there we decide what the show props will actually be.
We began with a huge and extremely vague props list. Part of the process is to reduce the number of props to a workable number as well as their confirming their design. For example, we were asked for ‘an over-sized jug’. That instruction could be interpreted in many ways; how big, what shape, what colour, how heavy, will it be carried around a lot? No one was really sure, so we tried all sorts of ideas in rehearsal to figure it all out. Of course, getting each props on and off the stage has to be smoothly choreographed in a sensible way through the various scene changes. If not, that prop has to be struck off the list.
Of course in rep theatre, props have to work concurrently with other shows under a different director.
The rep format was taken into consideration when the TBTB shows were selected. There was an agreement about the general feel that would be common to all three plays. For example, Jacob Two-Two and Man of La Mancha shared a dungeon feel, and Merry Wives had an illegal speakeasy look. So we ended up making over 20 crates of various sizes that could be arranged in various configurations to depict a number of scenarios. They were painted in a grey wash that lent continuity between the productions and had to be really strong so the actors could sit or jump on them, and be used to support table tops, depending on the play. Since the crates were such an integral part of each show, other props and devices had to fit into that scheme as well.
Does this very collaborative process also include the actors’ input to determine the nature and number of props and set pieces?
Absolutely. For example, in Man of La Mancha the table tops had to be moved swiftly into place. We started with some simple barn board planks. But we discovered that the strong, athletic young actors wanted something sturdier, something they could jump up on top. It changed from a simple table top to something very secure.
So the process began with what looked good, was affected of course by what the actors could physically move, and ended up affecting how the show was blocked and choreographed. This all came out of the rehearsal process, with the instructions coming from the choreographer, and then to director, then the designer, and then to us. At the outset it didn’t look like the table top would be that complex a piece, but it ended up with the entire team collaborating and coming up with a solution. Things always change; they have to.
This back-and-forth process goes with the territory does it?
Until the director and designer actually see something, they won’t know if it really works or not. In fact, if the director and designer say they know exactly what they want before rehearsals even begin, I have to wonder if there is much creative process happening.
You have to be a talented scavenger; you have to know where to look, how to modify and accept having your ideas turned aside by others.
Whatever you can borrow, you borrow; whatever you can build, you build; and lastly whatever you can’t build or borrow, you buy. It’s not unusual for changes to happen right up to the preview. It’s one of those jobs where you might feel that you have wasted a tremendous amount of time. It’s hard not to take it personally sometimes. It can get dramatic, but that’s the process.