The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
The Proptologist: Jay Duckworth
by Sabrina Rosenfield
When I called Jay Duckworth and explained that I was the student from Emerson who would be interviewing him, I was greeted with an “Oh my God! Hi!”, and I knew the conversation was off to a good start. I heard him call to one of his colleagues, Sara Swanberg, asking what he should tell me: her prompt response was “I suck!”.
Pleasantries aside, we got down to business. I spoke with Jay as he sat in his office in the Public Theater in New York, where he has been the Props Master since 2008. When I asked him to tell me how he got his roots in theatre, he acknowledged how lucky he was to be working in such a great theatre, and how far he had come.
For Jay, the moment he knew he wanted to do props and the period when he became involved in theatre were different. When he was twelve, he started acting in local community theater. He was never satisfied with being an actor, but “in Missouri you either act or you build sets—props wasn’t an option.” Because his theatre experience was grounded in performance, his first experience with props came from elsewhere.
On a family trip to Universal Studios, Jay visited the set from Dracula and was shocked and thrilled to find that the blood wasn’t real. For Jay, the fact that he could “occupy the same space as Dracula” was a magical experience—and one that he wanted to recreate. Understandably, Jay credits his parents with being his props-inspiration as well: he learned a lot about building from his father, and a lot about art from his mother.
Jay attended University of Missouri studying acting, history, and psychology so that he would have a background in theatre, but also have other knowledge to fall back on. Fortunately, he’s never had to use his fallbacks—and he dropped out of college and moved to New York to pursue theatre more intensely. Jay had incredible luck: he dropped his resume off at the George Street Playhouse and was hired as a carpenter the next day. The Props Master there was an ex-Benedictine monk, who encouraged Jay “quit building boxes and use your talent.” Jay followed his mentor and learned how to build props and a portfolio.
In 2008, when Seán McArdle was leaving the Public Theatre, he sent a message to SPAM saying that there was an opening. Jay knew that this was a golden opportunity, and contacted many writers, directors, and producers that he had worked with to make their visions come to life with props. He received 17 letters of recommendation and managed to pare the number down to 10, ending up with a selection that included Arthur Laurents, Terrence McNally, Christopher Durang, and many others that he had worked with in the past. Preparing these letters and his resume was an important process for Jay, because he knew that his presentation would be judged as his first paper prop.
In his interview with Ruth Sternberg, the Director of Production at the Public Theater, Jay presented his resume and letters of recommendation and did “the ballsiest thing” he could think of.
“I realize this is only a formality,” Jay said, “because you guys come highly recommended.”
Ruth smiled and said, “At least you have a sense of humor.”
At the time, Jay had also been considering branching out into TV or film, but landing the job at the Public kept him on his theatre path.
When asked if he did other work besides prop work, Jay responded emphatically, “No, no, no, no, no! There is nothing else I can do.” With the many shows the Public produces, being the Props Master is a full time job. This is fortunate for Jay, because as he says, “without props [he’d] go insane”.
When he does have the rare time off from the theatre world, he likes to volunteer at a farm, taking care of sheep in exchange for wool. He cards and cleans the wool and makes yarn out of it, which he and Sara like to knit into hats and sell out of the prop shop to raise money for Christmas presents. Even this hobby is prop-based—he learned this skill when, for a production of As You Like It, he had to learn how to use a drop spindle so he could teach the actress the skill to use onstage.
Jay’s life revolves around props. On a typical day, when he isn’t in tech, he wakes up and makes coffee, then checks his emails, which sets the tone for the day. Even if he received rehearsal reports the night before, he will always wait until the next day to respond so that he can make sure that he is polite.
(An example of something not-so-polite he might say was, “Can the chicken fall slower? I’ll have to check with Newton on that one.”).
Once at the office, Jay attends meetings with the entire props department where they give status updates on their projects and popcorn brainstorm to find solutions to any tricky problems they have encountered.
After his meetings are done, Jay says that it’s crucial for him to take time alone to have lunch and meditate. Because theatre is such a collaborative art form, he finds it necessary to reserve some time for himself every day. He described this in two ways: the first was like taking a glass of water from a river, and allowing time for the silt to settle so the water becomes clear. The second was less poetic: “I have to clear my mind or I turn into a dick.”
During preview periods, he stays late to watch the show and attend the production meeting, and sometimes will attend two in one night, one after the other.
After that, he said, he goes home, reads, and passes out. During tech, his schedule is the same, his days just start and end later than normal.
The number one skill necessary to being a props master is to promise low and deliver high. In theatre, everyone is trying to please everyone else, and, according to Jay, you can’t: the actors, director, and scenic designer will all want slightly different things. A successful master accommodates the needs of all of these groups, but doesn’t present expectations that they can’t fill.
Other skills useful in this field are excellent research habits, being able to multitask, and recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses. Jay says that most prop people are good builders, welders, or sewers, but they aren’t good at every aspect of crafting. His advice is to “surround yourself with people better than you so that you can grow” and learn from others’ talents.
For Jay, the most frustrating things about prop work relate to the people he works with, and not the props themselves: fighting the urge to yell “don’t be stupid!” can be a struggle sometimes. It’s also very difficult when he’s done a lot of research, worked hard to build a prop, and then it is cut. It can be excruciating to remember that as a props person, “the show is never about you.”
It can also be tricky to work with a director who can’t explain their vision well. Jay’s way of determining this is simple: in casual converasation, Jay will tell the director a joke and ask them their favorite in return. If they execute it well, he knows that they’re a good story teller and that communication will be a lot easier.
However, the people can also be the most rewarding part of the job. For Jay, nothing compares to the feeling of being recognized for his work: the Royal Shakespeare Company worked with Jay on a production of Antony and Cleopatra, and commented on opening night, “It’s so amazing to meet someone who is a master of their craft”, which makes any communication struggles worth the extra effort.
Not all props people reach this level, however: it is important to never walk into a room with a list of problems, but a list of possible solutions.
Because I have often heard the question raised at Emerson, I asked Jay’s opinion on the title of Props Master vs. Props Designer. He feels that if a props person puts pen to paper, they are a designer, and he encourages everyone “put a high value on the work you do, and never give anything up for free.” The title Props Master also holds a lot of weight: a master is someone who is a master of their craft.
The design aspects of props are vast: a scenic designer makes one set, the props turn it into a variety of locations, and are what draws an audience into an environment emotionally. When a props person creates a blood rig or a magic trick, there is a design element there as well. According to Jay, a props person who does the bare minimum of their job isn’t a props master, they are just a shopper.
Understandably, the props that have been the most frustrating for Jay aren’t the ones that required complex engineering, but that required complex communication. The most difficult prop he’s encountered was King Pentheus’ severed head in The Bacchae: not because the building was complicated, but because the director kept changing what she wanted: in Jay’s words, she “could not tell a joke.” Jay kept building new heads, and quickly became frustrated with the process.
On the other hand, “the impossible is fun”. Jay loves discovering the simplest way to address complex problems, and loves the challenge of a seemingly unthinkable build. One of his favorite projects was a table that had to become a dining table, conference table, and cafeteria table, be able to roll, and have the casters not be seen by the audience. Another seemingly tricky prop that Jay enjoyed was for The Tempest: a feast appears on a table in a flash, which he achieved using a table with a flipper panel that rotated to reveal the feast.
However, Jay’s love of difficult props ends at animals: according to him, “if it shits, it’s not a prop”. He turns that issue over to casting.
When I asked Jay what his favorite show that he’s worked on has been, he had trouble picking, because he has loved different aspects of many shows. Eventually he settled on Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang. The show had a turntable with seven different locations, all of which Jay dressed impeccably. It was a challenge, but very innovative and beautiful.
A final prop challenge that Jay shared was for the show Here Lies Love. To match the tempo of the music, he had to create a camera that would flash every 3.01 seconds. When I asked him how he achieved this effect, he told me I’d have to come intern with him to find out.
Jay also had a lot of advice for people aspiring to a career in props. First and foremost, he said, find someone you respect and learn from them—and then find someone else and learn from them. Take internships, volunteer, and help out people in other departments because there is always something to learn. Make sure to write down everything, because it might come in handy later. Always have a business card, because it sets a professional tone (“writing your info on a slip of paper is what people do at a bar at 2:00 am”). And be sure to respect yourself too—don’t cheat yourself, and make sure that you always get paid. You have to treat your art like art, or no one else will.
As I thanked Jay for an excellent conversation and for sharing his passion for props with me, he gave me one final piece of advice: “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.”