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. Continue reading →
We have a bit of a break during the summer at Triad Stage between when the last show opens and the new season begins. It’s the time we spend cleaning and organizing the shops. We’ve been busy in the props shop doing a pretty big overhaul with building new shelving and storage spaces, and moving around where things go. Organizing a props shop can be a challenge, since props people want to save every bit and scrap they come across. I thought I’d share some pictures of various shops I’ve been in to show how others have tackled this problem.
The first picture is actually from the scene shop at ACT in San Francisco, but props shops need to store and organize hardware as well. It’s pricey way to store things, with tons of metal shelving and matching bins. But it allows everything to be separated out while allowing you to find anything just by visually scanning the room; nothing is tucked away.
Childsplay Theater in Arizona uses the full wall approach, where a whole wall is covered in shelving from floor to ceiling and filled with bins. You can see boxes and bins of all sizes, as well as plastic tubs, baskets, and loose items. It’s very modular, allowing one to change what is stored there if you run out of one type of material and decide not to reorder it. It also has the benefit of displaying everything you have available without hiding anything away.
The Berkeley Rep props shop takes full advantage of using every square inch of their tiny props shop. A mix of open shelves, bins and drawers fill every hole in the wall.
Various cabinets and shelving units are tucked in every corner to keep every spare area utilized. I’ve found that if you don’t designate uses for all the out-of-the-way areas of a shop, they end up accumulating piles of random items and scraps in a big heap. Likewise, if you don’t have a bin or shelf to put a thing away in, then it will always be in the way, and you will always be moving it around.
Here is part of a shop of a Broadway prop maker in New York City. He is also using the “every square inch” approach in his tiny shop, though he has opted to keep everything out in the open, rather than in bins and boxes.
Props shops seem to naturally accumulate little metal file box cabinets over the years, and Milwaukee Rep has put them to good use. With bins, you can carry the whole bin to wherever you need it in the shop, whereas with drawers, a prop maker doesn’t have to hunt down a missing bin that someone else has taken. It’s a matter of preference which you use, though many prop shops have a mix of both.
I liked these drawers underneath the chop saw in the San Francisco Opera. Adding storage under tools and machines is a great way to use space, especially if you can store the materials and equipment associated with that tool.
The tool and hardware cabinet at the Public Theater was in a weird area, so a custom storage area was built by the shop. The angle in that corner was not square, and the walls sloped backwards as well, so any ready-made shelving or storage units would end up wasting precious space.
Here is the opposite side of the Public’s tool cabinet. With the right organization and storage, a shop can hold more tools, materials and supplies, and yet have more open working space than a poorly organized one.
How is your shop organized? I’d love to see pictures. Send them my way.
Though I could not make it to the NYC Props Summit this year, I did follow what was happening via the Twitter. This was the fourth such event, and Jay Duckworth, the props master at the Public Theater, seems to have outdone himself in organizing it this year.
The NY Times had a great write-up of the event: “[A]bout 50 props people… gathered on Friday night at the Public Theater for an informal meeting that gave attendees a chance to network, watch demonstrations and exchange insider tips on the latest techniques in an area of theatrical design that often goes unnoticed and unheralded.” The article contains much more information and a great slideshow of photographs.
One of the main events was a talk and demonstration by the owners and employees of The Specialists (formerly known as “Weapons Specialists”), a prop rental and fabrication house just a few blocks from The Public Theater known for supplying guns, weapons and custom effects to many of the film and television shows that are produced in NYC.
#propsummit Nigel says always treat a gun as if it is loaded. Never put your finger near the trigger until your ready to fire.
The guys at the Specialists described weapons safety while demonstrating and presenting a variety of the weapons they offer. Everything from rubber guns to blood knives was on display here.
The informal meeting and greeting that happened throughout the night made up the bulk of the event. It was a chance for prop makers to meet prop masters, for prop directors from different theatres to meet each other and for everyone to catch up on what was happening within our community. Props can be a lonely career at times, and it is helpful to learn that others share your woes with demanding directors, absent designers and strange glares as you walk down the street with a bag full of questionable items.
#propsummit Lots of recent graduates meeting the old pros. Some of them didn't know in the early days we used Polaroids for props shopping.
Today is my last day as the assistant props master at the Public Theater, and on Monday, I’ll be gone from New York City as well. I’ve been planning this for some time; my wife has been teaching scene design down at Elon University for the past year and a half, and when her position became more permanent, I decided to finish up the autumn productions up and move down there with her. A year and a half is long time to be over five hundred miles apart.
It’s been amazing working at the Public Theater. First of all, it has such a rich history. This is the theatre where Hair and Chorus Line debuted. This has been one of the focal institutions for downtown New York Theatre for half of a century. More important than its history though is its continuing contribution to New York theatre.
I’ve gotten to work with designers like John Lee Beatty, John Conklin, and Eugene Lee; these are designers I studied in college a decade ago. The same is true of writers like Suzan-Lori Parks, Tony Kushner, and Christopher Durang, all of whom were required reading in at least one of my classes. I also got to work with all sorts of up and coming designers, such as Mark Wendland, Donyale Werle and Scott Pask. Of course, I’ve worked on shows with great directors as well, including Daniel Sullivan, David Esbjornson, Michael Greif, JoAnne Akalitis, Alex Timbers, Richard Foreman. The list goes on.
More importantly, my colleagues were an amazing part of my time there. Our artistic director often remarked that we were the “best staff in the American theatre”. I don’t know if I’m qualified to say whether it is the “best” or not, but I can certainly say that the production staff there is one of the great production departments in the world of theatre. It was a blessing and a challenge to be able to work with equals rather than having to be the smartest one in the room (ha ha, I’m very modest).
I also feel that being at the Public has reaffirmed by belief in the necessity of theatre. Theatre is predicated on the fact that there is a performer and there is an audience and they have to be in the same space. You cannot package it, commoditize it and distribute it; you have to be there, you have to put the time in, and you have to listen. It is an art form that acknowledges that we are our relationships with other people, and that storytelling is more than just consuming something on a screen. Much of what the Public does is exciting from the tightly-packed, creaky room where the Belarus Free Theatre performed their heartbreaking work which made them criminals by their totalitarian government, to the palpable electricity caused by 1800 people quieting down as the show begins in the open-air Delacorte Theater in the middle of Central Park.
Of course, I am excited by my new adventure. I will have my own workshop. Though tiny, it is more than I’ve ever had. I am of course, hard at work on my book. After the holidays, I already have a bit of work lined up at PlayMakers Rep building some props for their Shakespeare shows (I’m good at Shakespeare props). This blog will certainly soldier on. I actually began it before I ever worked in the Public Theater’s prop shop! Hard to believe.
Tech rehearsals for the Public Theater’s production of King Lear start this Thursday, and we are busy as ever in the props shop. My life is busy as ever between writing my book, preparing for Lear, tech rehearsals for Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and some minor revolution in New York City. So I don’t have much to write, but I do have a sampling of photographs of some of the props we are constructing for King Lear.
The “map” in our production is a tabletop topographical model of Lear’s kingdom. King Lear, played by Sam Waterston , actually kicks the whole table over, and pieces of the map break off. At least, that’s our goal. Besides Jay, a lot of the work has been undertaken by Fran Maxwell, with some help by Sara Swanberg and Raphael Mishler.
We need a variety of dead game for Lear’s men when they return from hunting. After last spring’s Timon of Athens, I already knew we had nothing decent in stock nor anything worth renting in the city, so we had to make some. Pictured above is my first attempt at building one from scratch and covering it in hackle pads and feathers. We then found complete pheasant hides, so we started using those as coverings, which freed us from having to glue individual feathers all over the bodies.
In addition to the pheasants and some rabbits, they wanted a larger dead animal as well. We gave them my fake dead lamb for rehearsals, which longtime readers may remember from last year. We then located the hide of a jackal which turned out to be nearly the same size as the lamb, so rather than construct a new dead animal, Sara Swanberg just set off covering the lamb with the jackal hide.
We have more cool stuff coming up, such as Michael McKean’s eyes which get torn out of his head. That should be quite a sight!
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies