The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Behind the Scenes with Natalie Kearns
by Jamie Carty
“I had more fun than I can begin to say. It was clearly what I was meant to do,” says Natalie after describing her experience working on a Theatre for Young Audiences show at Emerson College.
Meet Natalie Kearns, master of all things props, and only twenty-seven years old! Her favorite food to eat is roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, her mom’s Scottish heritage specialty, while her favorite fake prop food she’s made is a giant turkey leg. Hailing from Mississauga, Ontario, Natalie is a 2008 graduate of Emerson College with a Bachelor of the Fine Arts degree in Design/Technology. She moved to Framingham, Massachusetts at age five. Natalie has recently moved back to London, Ontario, in Canada and is employed full time at the Grand Theatre as the Head of Props. For anyone wondering about the differences between Canadian and American props, Natalie says that there aren’t that many. She says that Canadian theatre “uses imperial measurements because of all the cross-over with US theatre.” At her current theatre, they do not use Phillips head screws, but instead use Canadian-bred Robertson screws, a minor adjustment.
Growing up, Natalie’s friends acted in plays, which she says she definitely did not want to do, so she started out working tech for shows, moving from costumes, to stage crew, and keeping with the scenic aspects throughout high school. Before her drama teacher told her that she could even consider a career in technical theatre, Natalie had wanted to pursue a degree in history. She entered Emerson College ready to study scenic design. She quickly realized that design involved more of drafting, rendering, and searching for pictures rather than finding and constructing the real materials, which she had been more exposed to in high school and enjoyed more. Natalie mainly became interested in prop work during her first year at Emerson College while taking Ron De Marco’s props class, which she loved. When asked about her beginnings with props, Natalie says, “Ron was a huge influence in introducing me to props, so he gets a big chunk of the credit.” Her most memorable moment from this class was a project in which she had to make a small scale diorama using found objects because “it was helpful to start to learn to look at objects beyond their common use.” She volunteered to help complete the props work on a show at the end of the year, and then as a sophomore worked on two of the mainstage shows for Emerson’s prestigious Cutler Majestic Theatre. Natalie says, “From there I was hooked!”
After graduation, Natalie worked for a season as a professional intern at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, to which she credits much of her knowledge and success in the workings of a theatre. She did not attend grad school, but Natalie considers this internship as “a brief stint in grad school, really. There are so many things happening in a big regional theatre shop that you simply can’t absorb in your time as a student.” Here, Kris Holmes and her assistant, Justin Seward “really knocked into [her] what you need to do props in the professional world.” Natalie says that year that she applied “on a whim” to volunteer at the Royal Shakespeare Company. She was able to go to England for an “incredible” two weeks in 2008 and learn from what she describes as their extremely high level of craftsmanship.
In her article “In Defense of Craftspeople: The Importance of Nurturing the Maker in Addition to the Designer“, Natalie writes about the lack of importance put on education in the actual craft of theatre, and states, “Working as a designer requires unique training, vision, and commitment, but I’d agree that the same level of education and skill is required for any craftsman job.” Natalie displays her passion for her job in this article and pushes for a different outlook on it from education systems.
Natalie’s work life mainly revolves around props. Among other positions, in the past she has been the Properties Master for the Lyric Stage Company, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Opera Boston, Trinity/Brown Summer Playwright’s Rep., Brown University Theatre Arts, and Trinity/Brown MFA Program. The terminology for different props positions may vary from company to company, and Natalie is comfortable working as both a Props Master and Artisan. For those not so savvy on prop personnel titles, Natalie described her past position at Trinity Repertory Company, the Properties Artisan, as someone who crafts and builds the props, assists the Props Master, and attends meetings that the Master cannot. Her current position is more in line with what the Props Master was doing in her past position. Since September of 2013, Natalie has been working as Head of Props at the Grand Theatre, meaning she is the department head who attends meetings, manages budgets, is the go-to person for staff involved in props, and ensures the safety and efficiency of the shop. Sometimes Natalie takes freelance gigs, but since she now holds this full time job and is in a new city, she is choosing to take fewer.
A typical day in the work life of Natalie Kearns starts off with a meeting with the Builder/Buyer in the shop. They plan for the day and she checks the notes from rehearsals or performances. She will compile lists of tasks for the shops especially if it’s a busy day with a variety of notes. Natalie’s days enormously vary and she says, “we ride a wave of BUSY BUSY to boring! boring!”. For example, this past year’s Christmas show Elf forced the team to work on high power for the entire day, while her current straight play allows for a bit more leisure time. Her day may be comprised of regular meetings, production meetings, shop work, cleaning and maintenance, shopping for show goods, or pulling props from storage. She says that “every day is different and I generally can find joy and fun in what I’m doing.”
During rehearsals, Natalie likes to check in with the assistant stage manager each morning for about ten minutes before rehearsal to see what’s happening, since he or she is the one in charge of tracking props and is backstage for the shows. This is the person Natalie goes to when she has new rehearsal props or there are changes made. She rarely works with the actors face-to-face, but instead shows stage management how a specific prop is meant to be handled, and the assistant stage manager will relay this information to the actor. This is beneficial because the stage management team has developed a rapport with the actors, and it is also helpful for stage management to know how the props department wants an object to be handled. On occasion, Natalie has fittings with actors for blood rigs, or she may go into rehearsal to talk to the actors about proper weapon use, or to teach an actor a special skill such as knitting.
Natalie interacts frequently with the Production Management team, seeing as they are her main way of transmitting information to and from the other departments. She turns to them with issues concerning money, time, and resources. Since they are the ones making sure all departments are on the same page, Natalie says she tries to keep them up to date on everything because they are able to help avoid problems. At the Grand Theatre, Natalie doesn’t have much interaction with the director aside from production meetings because all communication to the director goes through Stage Management or the designer. The scenic designer is the one with whom Natalie spends much of her time making sure everything is within their vision. Because many of the designers at the Grand are working on both scenic and costume, and are therefore in town more for fittings, Natalie is able to meet more with them in person. For non-local designers, Natalie is the one e-mailing them pictures and creating Pinterest boards to compile research and visual options for props.
Natalie says that “the key with designers and directors is finding the communication balance. There can be an issue when a designer says, “Go ahead, buy this sofa” and you blow $500 of the budget buying something that you send to rehearsal to find the director hates.” Natalie says it is her job to make sure that the designer and director are both satisfied with the work completed, especially if they aren’t in communication. She knows that she must adjust her methods of communication depending on the types of directors and designers she is working with and makes sure that the appropriate topics are brought up at early enough times, so as to avoid later conflict. She calls the communication “a big balancing act.”
In the end, Natalie says, the director and scenic designer are in charge of making the choices, but there is plenty of variation in how much leeway a props person is given on a certain show. She says “it’s all about figuring out the type of people you’re working with” in that there are “some designers you just mesh with and your brains work as one, and you just know what they want and it’s magic. With others, you end up having to email dozens of pictures a day to make sure they get exactly what they’d imagined.” Natalie prefers having more creative liberty because she gets to help build the “world of the play” and many designers are very receptive and thankful for input from Natalie while working on props.
On the very basic level of even deciding the difference between scenery and props on a given show, Natalie states that “it’s sometimes technicalities and union contracts, sometimes a decision by production management, sometimes a discussion with the scene shop” as to which department has enough time or space to handle the questionable item. For instance, Natalie says that at their next show with the Grand, “there are tons of big rocks which could technically be props but our prop shop is too small to build them so the scene shop will do it.” She says there is often collaboration across departments as well. In the same show there will be two “custom built-in sofas” which the scene shop will build the frames for, and the prop shop will upholster.
When deciding whether a prop should be made, borrowed, or bought, Natalie says, “it depends on what the designer wants and how specific the item is. If they’re set on a strange 10′ purple sofa, we can waste time looking for it or we can go ahead and focus on building it because it’s unlikely we’ll find something perfect.” The props department also alters a lot, so if they already had a sofa of the correct shape, but not the right color, they may reupholster it to fit the needs of the show. Natalie is the one in charge of balancing budgets, so she has to keep money in the conversation when deciding whether to buy or build something, especially when it is a piece meant to look expensive.
Natalie’s specialties include “paper props and assemblage (found-object art)”, which is “the ability to make props using non-traditional materials”. She loves “looking at a bottle and imagining how [she] can cut and alter it to become a giant hourglass. Or taking pipes and plastic scraps to become parts on a motorcycle.” Natalie has made some fantastic newspapers, book sleeves, magazines, and even a covering for a 1970s Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket, all of which can be seen on her website. For these, she mainly uses programs such as Photoshop and GIMP. The projects can last from a half hour to four hours if extreme detail is needed. From the work she’s done in the past, Natalie has created templates and shortcuts to lessen the time consumption of her future work.
Natalie says that her favorite part of the process of working on a show is “when we get a bit into rehearsals and I can start getting stuff confirmed for the show and taking action. It’s hard to wait around for things to be tried out in rehearsals when you want to be getting work done to finish things!” In contrast to set work, props is more fluid and is a process of constant change as to what will work for each member of the company. She says that “there’s nothing worse than getting an early start on a big prop only to have it cut after a week of rehearsals!”
When asked about balancing work with other interests, Natalie responded with, “Sometimes it is difficult not to define my job as my hobby. When I was juggling a full-time props assistant job at Trinity with three freelance contracts I had very little time for personal hobbies” because of her constantly fluctuating schedule due to tech weeks. Now, Natalie’s job at the Grand offers her more flexibility, partially due to the theatre’s agreement with IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) and the fact that she isn’t required to attend all of tech. In Canada, as opposed to in the United States, Natalie says there seems to be more of a trend for Prop Masters to not attend tech other than dress rehearsals. Sometimes she will read e-mails at home in preparation for the next morning, but most of her job is completed within the normal work day. If, by chance, Natalie is shopping and she spies “the perfect show prop”, she buys it, but only to avoid having to go back to the store during work. This differs from her time in freelancing when it was hard to define work hours because she would earn a stipend instead of having a “defined hourly time limit” for labor. Now, if Natalie is shopping specifically for a show when not at work, she has to mark it on her time card to get paid. In her free time, Natalie enjoys baking and gardening. She is a “container gardener”, meaning she nurtures veggies, flowers, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, blueberries, raspberries, beans, mint, basil, and more in pots along her driveway.
To be a successful prop master or artisan, Natalie says, “first and foremost you have to like it and be able to laugh at yourself. In no other field will you obsess over how to make a giant extension cord socket or spend a week racking your brain to figure out how you’ll find 8 cast iron tubs for free in a month (let alone move them to the theatre)…” She mentioned that the biggest skill she’s had to learn is to not take things personally, seeing as it is the prop master’s job to work towards the needs of the designer and director. She says that changes they make are “to help tell the story in some way. Not because they want to make you crazy (usually…!).” For people interested in a career in props, Natalie says, “Keep learning. Props is a field where you have to become an expert at about a million different things… graphics, weapons, painting, design history, framing, handwriting, sewing, upholstery, furniture restoration, etc etc etc.” She humorously says that one person “cannot possibly be an expert at all of this but you know that you’ll have to figure it out or find people who can help you!”
The most difficult project Natalie has worked on was for a show called Parade for Brown University/ Trinity Rep’s MFA program. Natalie says that “the designer wanted to basically fill an entire open theatre space (a former bank…so imagine a 50′ long room, essentially) with items from our warehouse all assembled in vignettes. The audience, 170 people, were to sit on prop chairs. It took a 30′ truck packed to the gills with stuff and several days to arrange it all. Then because of fire laws it had to be all secured to prevent toppling over in a rush to the exits. Other challenges have arisen involving a director insistent on sugar glass for an actress to punch through, “a bad stove, horrible, humidity, and a VERY fragile and temperamental product” combing to make “a rather miserable two weeks of making glass for the shows.” Natalie says that there are always challenges involving time, money, and resources, but unless a director is envisioning something from the movies that defies the laws of physics, as is sometimes the case, there isn’t really an impossible prop.
One extremely intriguing prop of Natalie’s was for a show called Indian Ink in which an actor (with no artistic ability) had to paint another actor onstage in view of the audience. For a solution to this problem, “a painting was completed on canvas and a thin plexiglass covering was attached over the portrait. The plexiglass was coated with children’s washable white paint. During the show, the actor ‘painted’ on the white with a mix of water and acetone. During times when the focus was elsewhere on stage, he used a rag to wipe away parts of the painting under the guise of blending/blotting the paint, revealing the whole portrait by the end of the show” Natalie’s thought process for this prop started with how the actor could reveal the painting in reverse. The show ran for about four weeks, so Natalie was able to make one portrait and secure the plexiglass over it, and the assistant stage manager would clean and repaint it at the end of the night.
When prompted to tell a good prop story from the past, Natalie described a show at Emerson called City of Angels in which a character needed an iron lung. Through a long series of connections involving a past production of the show at Boston Conservatory, and the JH Emerson Iron Lung Company that they had used to obtain the lung, Natalie found out that the man who owned the company had passed away, but his son now owned the company. She says that “the company had then closed the previous year but there was a vague indication they still had parts. I ended up (and this is the part that’s weird and I blush about) looking up the father’s obituary in the Boston Globe online archives to get his son’s name. I then looked up his son in the phone book and cold-called his house. He wasn’t home so I left a message that said, “I’m Natalie from Emerson College and we’re doing City of Angels and I heard a rumor you own an iron lung…so if this is the right person and you do have an iron lung can you call me?’…and he called back two hours later!” Natalie got the lung from this man in a “tiny warehouse in East Cambridge” and he let the school keep it after the show.
Another funny story told in Natalie’s comical tone goes as follows: “I once bought a bearskin rug off Craigslist and I met the woman in a parking lot of a rest stop on Cape Cod halfway between home for both of us. I handed her $200 in an envelope and she handed me a black plastic trashbag containing one bear rug. It was hilarious.” That certainly shows the extent to which props people have to go to get their job done!
Although Natalie does not consider animals in theatre props, she was asked to get a cat for a show to wander around the set, but due to severe allergies in the cast, she was not required to do so. She wouldn’t object to providing a goldfish as a prop, but she believes that animals are more of a discussion with production management.
Natalie clearly has a profound passion for props. It is sometimes hard for her to see a show when the props aren’t right. Similarly, when she sees a show with such great props, she gets distracted and looks at the props instead of the performers. As Natalie stated in her prop-related blog regarding the show Sleep No More, “The amount of detail in the props/set dressing is enough to blow your mind (to the point that I found it distracting as a props person because I just wanted to look at all the cool stuff!!).” She also takes great inspiration from many of the props masters on the Society of Props Artisan Managers (S*P*A*M).
Natalie has an interest in museum studies and enjoys the ideas of curating and exhibit design, but she can’t really imagine herself wanting to do anything completely unrelated to props in her future. She is enjoying her job at the Grand and would love to stick around there for a while.