Photograph by Sandy Strawn of the 2014 Society of Property Artisan Managers conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Prop Master Interviews: A Reflection

The following article by Ron De Marco is a summary of the interviews of props professionals conducted by his students which ran last month.

The Prop Master Interviews: A Reflection

By Ron De Marco

Ron De Marco
Ron De Marco

I’ve been teaching four stagecraft level prop courses at Emerson College every year for the past ten years. One of the topics my students and I discuss on the first day of class is the various challenges that people who create props all over the country deal with in their daily jobs. The internet is abundant with newspaper lifestyle articles on solutions that prop people have developed while working on productions, and these articles usually address the sometimes wild and sensational tasks that they are currently tackling. For years, I’ve brought many of these articles in with me to class on day one and we’ve oohed and aahed about the clever approaches and solutions to seemingly impossible challenges: an actress needing to “vomit” on cue in God of Carnage, digging up and smashing bones in a graveyard for The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and all manner of special effects designed to be reset quickly for the next show.

Quite a few of the people interviewed in these newspaper articles belong to an organization called the Society of Property Artisan Managers (SPAM), of which I am a member myself. It occurred to me that while researching the careers of these people that very little background was being given about how they happened to wind up doing the fascinating and diverse work highlighted in the articles. Robert Elliott, from the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, is featured in a sidebar in R. Craig Wolf and Dick Block’s textbook “Scene Design and Stage Lighting.” Jim Guy from the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre is the focus of an entire chapter in Mike Lawler’s “Careers in Technical Theatre.” However, they are the two exceptions I’m aware of which speak on a more general level to the world of props work and the people doing it.

I found myself wanting to know more about the people themselves. Where did they come from? How did they wind up in charge of propping shows at places like the Goodman Theatre, American Repertory Theatre and Santa Fe Opera? Did they have some special level of training? That’s when it hit me that there was no reason to continue searching the news feeds for the occasional story; after all, I correspond with these very same people about business matters on a relatively frequent basis on SPAM’s e-mail forum. I decided to ask them directly whether they would agree to be interviewed by the students taking my class, thus forming a brief partnership between a student and a working professional. Within 24 hours after sending the e-mail, I had more professional prop masters volunteer to be interviewed than I actually needed. Jolene Obertin from Seattle Repertory Theatre responded quite supportively by asking why no one had thought to do this before.

When the students arrived on the first day of class, we still started by looking at many of the same articles which had been published in newspapers around the country. Then I handed out the assignment sheet for the articles and I saw eyes widen. I was going to connect them with whom? How would the selection process occur? Do I really have these people’s e-mail addresses and phone numbers? I allowed the students to select their working professional interviewee based on their own specific interests, such as special effects, soft goods work, and crossover skills to other mediums like film and TV, as well as geographical location – since some wanted to talk to the prop master for a theater in the area they were from.

The interviews were scheduled. E-mails were exchanged and phone calls were made. Papers were written and sent back to the interviewees for fact-checking and then presented once a week at the beginning of each class. About halfway through the course I realized I was learning so much from the interviews that I vowed I would write a follow-up article detailing what trends I was noticing, as well as my reaction to the differences I was seeing across the spectrum of theatrical prop work.

This is what I learned.

There is an incredible diversity in the backgrounds of the people who are currently employed as prop masters, managers, supervisors, directors, and artisans across the country. Of the 24 interviews conducted, three interviewees indicated an early interest in college pre-med studies before changing majors: Jolene Obertin, Cindy Lee-Sullivan, and Randy Lutz. Other avenues of study included psychology, interior design, library science, and a host of theatrically related disciplines such as stage management, scenic design, lighting design, costume design, and technical direction.

What fascinates me about this is that there is a hierarchy within the theater industry which places prop positions near the bottom of the totem pole. This is reinforced by virtue of prop masters names commonly not being included on a program’s title page. Despite that, many of the prop masters gravitated to prop work from jobs in which their hierarchical status was perceived to be greater – and possibly carried more monetary value – simply because the call for them to make cool stuff, find interesting things and solve amazing problems was too strong. Of course, even within the field there exist plenty of dedicated prop masters who occasionally sideline as puppet makers, riggers, and scenic, lighting, and costume designers as well as other specialties. This doesn’t seem unusual to me at all since many of the skills necessary to do those jobs are at least partially encapsulated in day to day prop work.

While the student articles do not address this issue specifically, it seems that at least six of the people interviewed actually received some formal academic training focusing on props as a field of study. Most of the others have degrees in related design or technical theatrical work, through a vast majority of the prop masters interviewed asserted that on the job learning was the best education. One student, Coco Nakase, quotes Monique Walker of the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington, and one of the founding members of SPAM, as saying, “I never took a single props class in all my years of school. I learned everything about real props while I was working.”

For me, my prop “education” began between seven and ten years after I graduated college and was working as the master carpenter at Northwestern University. Though I’d done prop work adjunct to my specialty as a stage manager earlier in my career, I’d loathed it. It was only by collaborating as a colleague on projects in the shop with Ed Bevan, the prop master at the time, that I realized prop work actually could be fun.

The field of prop work seems to defy the statistical norm of being a field dominated by men. Looking at the interviews conducted, as well as photos of recent SPAM conferences, women have typically represented a bit more more than half to around two-thirds of the population. Personally, I find it a privilege to be working in a field where women have gained such a foothold.

Photograph by Sandy Strawn of the 2014 Society of Property Artisan Managers conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Photograph by Sandy Strawn of the 2014 Society of Property Artisan Managers conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I found that prop people tend to be very loyal to the organizations for which they work. Just over 42 percent of them have been in the role of prop master/supervisor/manager/director for their respective company for more than 20 years. Several others have been in props that long for a small handful of theaters. I’ve been at Emerson more than 14 years now, so I’m on my way to joining their ranks. I also realized that even though we talk to each other through the forum, we also have actually employed each other and acted as mentors. I can’t count the number of occasions in class when I went, “huh!” as I realized Elizabeth Friedrich at Seattle Children’s Theatre was initially hired by Rich Gilles (now prop master at the Geffen Playhouse) as a prop carpenter, or Binky Donley worked for Ben Hohman and Mark Walston at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, or that Randy Lutz at the Santa Fe Opera can be directly linked like a game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” to Eric Hart at Triad Stage, Alice Maguire at the Goodman, and Lori Harrison at the San Francisco Opera. It seems many of us have worked with or for each other, but we lack knowledge about others beyond our small groupings.

One thematic element which recurred throughout the majority of the papers was the importance of placing communication between the props department and all other departments as the top job priority. Interview after interview stressed how critical the need to both gather and disseminate information accurately among the departments really is. When major issues begin to surface, the problems are often traced back to a lack of effective communication. Even budgetary concerns can be allayed by good planning, compromise, and a willingness to negotiate alternatives – provided this information is clearly communicated in a timely fashion. When Jamie Carty interviewed Natalie Kearns of the Grand Theatre in Ontario, Canada, Natalie commented 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 communication ‘a big balancing act.'”

Prior to the interviews, I anticipated the response to the question of the biggest challenge that prop people face would be related to the limited amount of time to accomplish a huge amount of work, small budgets and little construction spaces to make the work happen, or even the need to produce unique props over again and again. In fact, it was nearly unanimously stated that the single most challenging aspect of doing prop work was “human relationships,” in the words of Binky Donley from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When a director or scenic designer isn’t sure what they want (in my experience, they can usually tell you exactly what they don’t want, but some have a great deal more difficulty deciding what they do want), prop people have to work overtime trying to narrow down the possibilities. As Ali Witten writes in her interview with Robert Elliott, “the most difficult thing about making props for a living is figuring out how to interact with the people he’s working with. Every person on the production staff and design team has a different opinion about each prop which often sets up constraints that Robert has to face when building or finding a prop.” When Alta Lewis Millard inquired of Michele Sammarco at the McCarter Theatre about the most challenging part of her work, the response was “the frustration of dealing with other artists, like directors or designers, who don’t know what they want, and putting aside your own opinions to help them find their vision.” Jessica Kemp quotes Jim Guy on this matter: “Twenty-five to thirty percent of props is sales: look, idea, function. Getting people to agree with each other and you. It’s a sales job.”

Stress is a component of the job which many prop masters grapple with on a daily basis. In Emily White’s interview with Alice Maguire, Alice stated that she “has two skills she finds exceedingly necessary: communication and a sense of humor. The days can be stressful, especially during huge productions with little input from designers.” Deb Morgan, the prop master at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, says in her interview with John Meredith, “you just need to stay calm and find a way to relieve that stress. For her that was her husband and dog. And sleep, never skimp on sleep or you will not be able to function the next day.” Stress is also a major contributor to job burnout. Michelle Slivinski’s interview has Jolene Obertin remarking that, “…although [a personal life] may be difficult to achieve, this time is crucial in preventing burnout, a condition that can wreck any overworked artist in this business.” Jay Duckworth combats this on a daily basis by taking time alone to have lunch and meditate. In my own experience, I know of several incredibly talented prop masters who have left the business to pursue other interests because of the level of stress due to a high workload, a frequent inability to commit to plans with friends and relatives, and low compensation relative to the amount of work being done.

It would seem that choosing to raise children while holding a job as a prop master would only add to the stress, but seven of the prop people interviewed mentioned the role of parenting in their lives. Jim Guy asserts, “I go home for dinner every night whether I’m in tech or not. I’ve been able to watch my kids grow up because I have shown up for dinner.” Binky Donley sometimes brings her son, David, to the prop shop. “When you’re a parent who wants to spend time with their child, you have to trust in your staff and students and what they are able to do and let go.” Personally, I find that my two daughters, ages three and seven, have adapted to my erratic schedule, but they also love that craft projects at home are fun and are treated with real respect. They know that making a fake cake is serious business.

When it comes to hiring people to assist with prop work, having some background in the field and being skilled at select craft and construction techniques is important, but as Nancy Wagner from Kansas City Repertory says, “being REALLY NICE GUYS is a great qualification; everything runs better when people are amiable.” Both Michele Sammarco and Elizabeth Friedrich agree that your ego needs to be checked at the door. Treating your co-workers well and having respect for the process will get you much further in the business than assuming it’s your way or no way. Being flexible and having a willingness to negotiate makes everyone happier, but Michele also cautions not to confuse ego with confidence.

I discovered that one of the traits of a seasoned prop professional was collaborative inclusiveness, which was the opposite of what I had expected when I first started out in this business. At the onset of beginning to prototype unique, challenging props, career prop masters tend to talk to anybody and everybody about the project rather than hole up in a dark corner of a workshop and tinker until the prop magically springs to life. It’s through dialogue and the filtering of suggestions – as well as plain old trial-and-error – that challenges are solved. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who does this. Not a single prop master interviewed subscribed to the idea of an impossible prop. Many pointed to a business concept called the “Project Triangle” which has three variable choices: quality, time, and cost. As two chosen factors grow, the third factor shrinks. Jolene Obertin points to cost as the one that is typically the influencing factor when she says, “Could we do it? Yeah. Do we have the money to do it? No.”

The idea of unique props also goes hand in hand with a lot of research. This can cover an unusually broad spectrum of topics including everything from duplicating actor’s heads, hands, and torsos – often in a bloody, severed fashion – to recreating paper documents from ages past. Rich Gilles recently asked (half-jokingly) on the SPAM forum whether anyone else felt like the FBI had them on a watch list, owing to the bizarre internet searches we all tend to perform from time to time. This seems all the more relevant when I realize I’ve had to research the weapons for Sondheim’s Assassins side by side with figuring out how to create the face of the Virgin Mary in a clay version of a Corgi dog’s fecal droppings for unrelated but overlapping productions building in our shop at the same time. Natalie Kearns relates that she “once bought a bearskin rug off Craigslist and I met the woman in the 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.”

Jim Guy “finds it amusing when directors say that it is going to be a minimal show with little scenery. That means it is going to be raining props.” You might think that with so many prop masters focusing day in and day out on the minutiae of hand props and set dressing that we’d be disappointed when we go to see shows we haven’t worked on and it’s a show with very little in the way of props. Not so. There’s a tacit understanding among the prop professionals interviewed that the prop department – as well as the other areas – work to serve the telling of a story, and when something doesn’t serve to clarify the circumstances and move the story forward, cutting and paring down is usually better. Jay Duckworth urges us to remember “that as a props person, ‘the show is never about you.'”

Looking back, there are a few things I took away from the interviews. For most people working in the field of props there’s a balance between the “cool” factor and the stress of communicating well with others, in tandem with relentless deadlines. Those who learn to manage the stress early on tend to stick with the job and find a groove which leads to long-term employment at regional theaters and academic institutions all over the country. No one talks about being wealthy, but a full-time position in a props department indicates that it is possible to make a living doing what you enjoy.

The culture of props is collaborative. It’s the foundation upon which props departments are based. The people doing prop work come from a wide range of backgrounds and differing early interests. This leads to many different schools of thought which, in turn, means the approaches to solving challenges are diverse but yet still related and may include large areas of overlapping thought.

Prop people tend to be curious, wanting to learn and figure things out. Hand in hand with their collaborative nature, this may also explain why many of them become teachers – even if it’s not in the official academic sense of the word. Many regional prop masters across the country who lead small teams of people propping shows utilize the same set of managerial skills as a teacher in the classroom.

The prop masters interviewed do, it turns out, have a special level of training after all. For many, it’s a self-taught ability to manage hectic schedules, a keen capacity for figuring out how to do things they’ve never done before, and to juggle various – and sometimes conflicting – desires to get to the core of what designers and directors are trying to achieve. It’s also an ability honed by repetition and years spent learning and expanding skills. The best way to get a good foundation for this is to always try to work with people who have stronger skills than you and learn from them. In return, they’re likely to absorb the things you’re good at, and everybody wins.

These interviews, as well as the SPAM conferences, are just some ways to support a growing prop community around the country which is rich in knowledge and collaboration.

(Follow the links in the article to read the individual interviews,  as well as these additional interviews with Tina Stevenson, Rick Ladomade and Kelly Mangan.)

2 thoughts on “The Prop Master Interviews: A Reflection”

  1. Very thought provoking article, thanks for distilling these observations about us! But it makes me ask whether I’ve been doing this for over 30 years because I’m this kind of person anyway, or whether this job has made me this kind of person?
    And having a family has kept me sane.
    And I wish the job paid better now that I’m in my 60s.
    But the work is way more fun and challenging than most, eh?
    No regrets

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