The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Adriane “Binky” Donley
by Sarah Patterson
Adriane “Binky” Donley began her career at the University of South Florida. She received a Bachelor’s in Arts degree in design, but realized quickly during her education that she liked to do a little bit of everything. She started working in props, taking any classes she could within the small department she was in, and working in summer stock theatre and regional theatre for extra experience. Because of the limited amount of props classes she was able to take, she found that she had to immerse herself in the field to receive an education in props. She worked in the field for three years and later decided to get a higher education. She decided to get her Masters of Fine Arts in Properties Design and Management at the North Carolina School of the Arts. At the time, NCSA was one of three schools in the country that had a props program and Binky was lucky enough to be a part of it.
As most of us know, having a career in theatre does not mean you will be rolling in wealth. In fact, many theatre professionals have to maintain other jobs in order to support themselves. In Binky’s words, “theatre plus education is more than a full time job.” After working in professional theater, getting her master’s degree, and working as an educator, Binky started her own graduate program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In this program, she advises other props masters and does props for thirteen productions a year. She experiences all types of theatre, from dance to opera to straight productions.
Binky describes the daily routine as a props master as “constantly full.” Her calendar is always chock full of appointments and she checks her email several times a day. During the week, she teaches, runs the shop with the help of graduate assistants and an assistant props director, goes shopping, and takes trips to storage units. In the evenings, she almost always has rehearsals, tech rehearsals, or meetings with directors and designers. Binky mentioned that during the busiest times of the year, she might help open a show a week. Amidst all of these productions, Binky successfully keeps a close relationship with her husband and son, but not without effort.
While interviewing Binky, she stressed the importance of maintaining a solid relationship with her family. In fact, the picture she sent me is of her and her son, David. In her email she said, “Here’s the photo of me. I’m holding the best (and most complicated, and sweetest) prop I ever made. I can’t give you a serious photo; we’re just not serious people. Professional yes, serious, no way.” When someone considers a career in performing arts, they must take into consideration the fact that much of their time may be occupied by rehearsals, meetings, research, shopping, and anything else that comes along with the job. “It’s hard to balance, but you figure it out,” she told me. “I love the theatre so I get David over here.” Binky told me about the many instances when her young son David has had to come to the props shop and work with her. She likes to have him in the theatre and around the people. “He’s curious about what mommy does,” she said, “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.”
Because of her career in props, Binky has found that she must put in some extra effort with her husband too. During tech week for some productions, it’s almost as if she disappears for a week. She may only see him late at night when she gets home from work or early in the morning before she sends their son to school. During those hectic times, he goes into the city to have dinner with her but can usually only see her for a short time before her next meeting or rehearsal. Although this work takes up most of her time, Binky is passionate about it and her family understands. She loves her career, and even though it is a lot of work, it is not wasted time.
Who you work with, especially in the theatre world, defines whether or not you will enjoy yourself at work. When I asked Binky what the most difficult thing about doing props for a living was, she immediately mentioned human relationships. Compromise is the key to running a successful production. Dealing with directors, designers, shop heads, or actors who are not willing to listen and cooperate can cause stress and anxiety for everyone involved with the production. Many artists may get stuck on one idea or too focused on one thing and are not willing to discuss it. Some are not aware of labor costs and push the limits with ideas. Binky says, “Let’s have a discussion about it.” But unfortunately, “It can get frustrating, and a lot of hot and heavy conversation can take a toll on you. Challenge is exciting,” she says, “But spreadsheets are frustrating and business is frustrating.”
Communication and compromise are by far the most important concepts in the props world. When you start off as props person, you need to know how to do a lot of things. You have to be able to manage and explain things to others, you need to be aware of the needs of show, you need to be cooperative with the staff, directors, and actors, and overall, you have to be able to work with anyone and everyone. Being able to communicate with designers is one of the most important concepts, for props people often collaborate with designers creating the set. Having a liberal arts background can come in handy in this work as well. Being aware of time periods, social movements, sciences, etc… can help make your job and everyone else’s jobs easier. Binky clearly said, “If you can’t compromise, you might as well give up.” “I’m always begging for space or time in another shop.” Being a good negotiator is absolutely essential.
As well as negotiating, Binky also has to be the middle man in productions. At times, the director and designer will not like each other or work well together. This can cause a lot of stress for everyone involved with the show because decisions are not being made smoothly. Something that is especially important to Binky is helping the students in the props shop deal with confrontation and disagreements. “Patience and compromise is key.” She said. “Sometimes you have to turn into professional and negotiate. How do we solve it? When dealing with two people who don’t get along, your best course of action is to be as professional as possible.” Don’t be afraid to be the middle man and play both sides. You always want to present things as though there are options even though there might not be. “Let me look, let me ask (the Producer, Production Manager, etc…) and get back to you. They want to feel like they have control. They want to be heard and know that you’re acknowledging what they are saying.” Binky says.
When I asked Binky to tell me some props stories, she struggled to find the right one to tell me. She said she had been recently asked this question and did not know what to answer. She had told the other person about an elephant’s foot umbrella stand that she made out of PVC and spray foam. It was challenging, she admitted, but the most challenging thing in props is making reality. If you have a director that asks for a hyper-realistic set, you have to make sure all of the props match. You have to remember all of the finishing touches, right down to the clutter on the kitchen counter to the dust bunnies in the corner. As an intuitive props master, one must be able to create something that the actor is comfortable using in the space as if it’s real. Binky stressed the fact that it’s essential for the actor to feel natural in the space and that you must try to get as close to reality as you can. If the actor reads a letter, write their lines on it. If the actor eats an apple, give them a real apple. When all the small details are in the right place, the entire production will come together smoothly.
Next, I asked Binky if she thought there was such a thing as an “impossible” prop. She promptly said, “Well, no. Because that’s where compromise comes in. It may not work how you thought it would, but it will work, and it may work better than you thought. Yes, there may be some that are highly difficult and improbable, but not impossible. You have to try to figure out the impossible.”
In relation to her answer, she told me about a play she just closed; a new David Auburn play. One of the character gives someone a bird pop-up book that also makes sound. Binky emailed David Auburn and asked him if he made the object up or if she could find it. After hours of searching online and in used book stores, she found exactly what the script described, a pop up bird book that makes bird sounds. Unfortunately the book was too big. After all of her effort, she ended up making a book and using sound in the house. “In the end, it worked out fine. It was satisfying.” Binky again mentioned compromise. No, she did not get the exact prop that she wanted for the show, but she did her research, compromised, and the prop fit into the show well.
One would think that Binky’s passionate connection to her work would have been inspired by some sort of mentor. “”I wanted to do it myself,” she said, “I wasn’t inspired by any one person to peruse this as a career. But I had a lot of peers and educators that helped me to push myself and want more, be more professional, up my standards.” Putting in that extra effort always counted and everyone around her emphasized that idea. “And of course, please and thank you is crucial for being a successful props master,” she told me.
As our interview began to come to a close, I asked her one more time if she had any props stories. She could not think of one particularly shocking prop story, but she did tell me the fascinating tale about how she got to where she is today. After college, Binky was working at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival at the College of William and Mary. She was all set and ready for work at the prop shop at Virginia Stage in Richmond. She had the contract signed and all. Then, one day, she got a call from the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. Ben Hohman and Mark Walston, the props masters, wanted to hire her as a journeyman. Binky didn’t know who they were at all and said she already had a job with Virginia Stage. Hohman tried to convince her that they were better, and after asking around, she discovered that the place was amazing. It had been around for 34 years! It was quite a big deal. Within a few days, she called them back with an answer; she decided she would do it. That day, she called Virginia Stage and declined. They were absolutely livid! She had already signed their contract! But sure enough, two weeks later she hopped in her car and went to Louisville. It was the first time she had ever driven that far alone. “Totally alone.” She said. This experience, although a bit overwhelming, completely shaped her career. Through the years she has kept in touch with Ben Hohman and Mark Walston, sending them students to work in their shops at ATL or Utah Shakespeare. Paul Owen, who at the time was the resident scenic designer there, is one of her favorite people and closest friends. With his help, she started a regional theater and has learned about theatre family and heritage. “Working there opened up doors.” She said.
When I asked Binky for advice, she listed off several great tips for all aspiring artists but especially people interested in props; “Save your money,” she said first. “Never stop being curious about how things work. Feed that part of yourself often. Sometimes you get stuck as props artisan or manager and you have to stop making things. When that happens, go back to your roots and keep your skills fresh. It will make you feel like you’re not stuck in a rut. Never have the same experiences twice and don’t settle for base knowledge. Keep going back to your roots and be curious about other artistic styles. Stay interested in your own job. It makes you more hirable.”
If you keep all of those things in mind, you will be an open and successful artist. You will start to notice more. The little things will all come together. “You’ll be sitting in tech and you’ll see the finished product; the props, scenery, costumes, lighting – it’s magical. Yes, you know what’s going on behind the scenes, but it’s still rewarding to see it come together.” She said.
Binky then concluded the interview by telling another small story. She recently worked on a piece for the dance company Armitage Gone!, a collaboration which turned out to be a totally different experience than theatre or opera. One day, she sat in on a matinée. She stood there in the wing of the theatre and watched the dancers move around the giant bull she built for the show, much like Katy Perry’s horse in her performance at the Grammy’s. As her magnificent bull moved, she could hear kids in the audience ooh and ahh. Their positive feedback was worth more than any money. “It was magical,” she said. “I stood there, quietly weeping, because those kids were excited and in awe of something we had worked so hard on. All the hours of labor and problem solving…it was totally worth it.”
Her final remark was, “If you love to do it, do it. If you don’t, then don’t. Do something else if you don’t feel passionate about it.” This phrase can truly be applied to every aspect of life, but for Binky, it is her love for props work that keeps her theatrical spark alive.