The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
By Emily White
Alice Maguire is currently the Properties Supervisor at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, but she hasn’t always been. In 1972 she enrolled in SUNY Oswego as a psychology major and ended up taking a Children’s Theatre class where everyone had to participate in the show somehow. Alice ended up with the glamorous job of running the hand-pump, wintergreen scented, oil based fog machine while squatting behind Scrooge’s bedroom door for Marley’s entrance in A Christmas Carol. When talking about the experience she said “theatre is a bug that bites you and I was bitten”.
After that show, she switched her major to theatre. Her school’s facilities were only a few years old at the time and she was blessed with an amazing group of teachers. She jokes that she pretty much lived in the theatre. She tried her hand at design courses, but didn’t feel that she had a talent for scenic design. Her main focus was building scenery with a little bit of lighting design. Looking back, Alice finds it odd how props wasn’t even on her radar back then. Soon came graduation, and she had no idea what she wanted to do in theatre, but she did know that she wanted to work in professional technical theatre.
She found herself living at home on Long Island contemplating attending grad school, when an internship opportunity arose. It was at PAF Playhouse, a new regional theatre housed in a warehouse on Long Island. Most of the artists, be they directors, designers, or actors, were from New York City. They were a talented bunch. As an intern, Alice soon became the Prop Master. She would work all day and run shows at night for $75 a week. “It was an exciting and hip place to work so it just reinforced my desire to stay in theatre.”
The Stage Manager from PAF Playhouse helped get Alice her next job as the Prop Master for Cortland Repertory Theatre. They are a true summer stock, and she believes it is an experience that everyone seeking to go into theater work should have. It was here that she met David Potts, the Emmy award winning art director of “Deadwood”. He was the set designer. It was at Cortland while working with David that Alice learned how important and satisfying a collaborative relationship with a scene designer could be. Looking back at her experience, Alice had this to say: “I realized I could play a valuable role in bringing a play to life. And I was smitten with theatre; with plays. That summer set the course for my career.”
Alice did another season at PAF and a season at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. In the summer of 1979 she was hired to run the Prop Shop at the Santa Fe Opera. Looking back she admits that she was too inexperienced that first year to do the job, but she had a wonderful assistant, Nancy Allen, so she managed. Randy Lutz, now Props Director at the Opera, was her Props Running Crew Head, “another amazing, talented supportive person from the moment we met”. The Prop Master at the San Francisco Opera, Lori Harrison, was on the stage crew at the time. Alice spent six seasons at Santa Fe.
She then began a job at Julliard; their production manager was her former one from Santa Fe and asked her to come run the shop. She admits that she had never applied for a single job at this point. She got all of her work through connections she had made, and she counts herself lucky. Some time later she quit her job at Santa Fe and Juilliard thinking that she would get out of the theatre world. She confesses that was a disaster. Alice began freelancing and it was during this time that The Goodman Theatre called and asked if she would come to Chicago for an interview. While she was freelancing she had realized how much she missed working with an actual prop shop and being part of a company. “I don‟t like doing it alone. It‟s much more fun and productive bouncing ideas around with others.” So she took the job as Prop Supervisor at the Goodman Theatre, twenty-five years ago.
Her days at the Goodman have been filled with plenty of work. The Prop Shop for the Goodman is seven miles away from the theatre. Alice will spend up to eight hours a week traveling back and forth. Her tech weeks begin on Tuesdays. She spends the week in the theatre either at her desk or at the tech table. She comes in at 10:00 am and leaves at 12:30 am. The crew (consisting of an Assistant Props Supervisor, three union positions: Props Carpenter, Artisan, and Assistant; two over-hire positions: one who assists in The Owen – the smaller space – and one who works in the Prop Shop, and the union position of Prop Head who runs the shows in the Albert – the larger space) will come in for notes at 8 am under the supervision of her assistant. Her tech weeks involve a lot of running around. Alice prefers to make sure that if something new comes up, it gets seen to immediately. This way an actor is not using something for the first time two or three days later.
Alice says that she has no real normal days. A regular crew day goes form 7:30 in the morning until 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but there is a lot of overtime. In the last six months her crew has worked about 160 hours of overtime. The Goodman enjoys doing large plays. Even if they do a small play, there is still a lot of scenery.
On an ideal day, Alice will read her notes, do a little research from home, come into the shop, go over daily notes with her crew, and discuss priorities and goals. Alice and her crew generally re-prioritize every day depending on their process from the day before and what notes have come in. Alice is often more of the logistics person, due to travel time. “I tell stage management to think of it like this: In a union shop, a rehearsal banana costs $50.00.”
Once everyone has started their work for the day, Alice will get in touch with stage management to clarify notes and give them feedback. She also considers when she has to call a designer with questions. Alice explained that most designers are pretty busy and she doesn’t want to waste their time. Before they begin working together, Alice likes to get a feeling of what their schedule is like. This gets even harder if a designer teaches. She tries to hold off with her questions until they have time to really think about them. Alice has a specific rule for communicating with designers: “I never ask a designer more than three questions in a minor email. Usually they answer the first two. Texting is great, and I do a lot, but sometimes when you’ve asked a detailed question and the response is ‘Cool’ you just shake your head.”
Either before the first rehearsal or during the first week, she will meet with the director to go over a prop list with stage management and hopefully a designer as well. She finds these meetings to be critical because the more answers she can get during the meeting the better off the entire props department will be. She brings pictures of research, available props, and loads of fabrics swatches if they need to discuss upholstery to the meeting. She finds that it is in this first meeting when she can get more answers than at any other time.
Alice also budgets all of the shows, several times. Each show has two separate budgets, labor and materials. Money does not roll over from show to show, but it can be moved between labor and materials.
In her time in the business, she has two skills that she finds exceedingly necessary: communication and a sense of humor. The days can be stressful, especially during huge productions with little input from designers. Sometimes she does have to say no. She had one designer that was upset that she could only have five forty-inch mirror balls at over $700 a piece instead of the seven she had requested. The same designer asked for a street sweeping truck, but settled for several dumpsters to throw “dead” actors into.
Every show involves interaction with other departments. For their production of Venus in Fur she is building a magic bag. The bag gets placed on the stage and locked into place with magnets. The bottom then is removed and all of the contents drop out. The actress then unzips the bag and pulls out an enormous fur lined velvet robe that was handed to her by an unseen stagehand. Obviously, this was a collaboration with the costume and scenery departments. In the same show she also had to work with lighting. A PAR lamp on a lighting boom will magically fall over, facing upstage, and will not break or bounce. A trap will drop out just upstage of this lamp and illuminate the actress. This admittedly was the lighting designer‟s idea, but props gets to work with it. In this same show the sound crew requested permission to put a wireless speaker in a chaise that was already upholstered. She brought it back to the shop, de-upholstered part of the base, and built a shelf for the speaker.
She also has recommendations for regional theatre lifers. “Take advantage of all the perks available through your company. Contribute to your 401k, hand in your mileage, talk your production manager into a props vehicle, ask if they’ll pay for a course in Photoshop or casting or upholstery. That may sound silly now but in regional theatre you will never make a ton of money. You can have a comfortable life and take vacations (scuba diving!) but theatres can only give you so much – but will not give you more than they can. Also, try and work with the best people possible. It‟s hard to maintain this lifestyle if you don’t believe in what you’re doing; if you’re not reminded of why you do it.”
The two most challenging parts of doing props for a living, according to Alice, is lack of time and staffing. She has a lack of personal time. “I have a shopper, but when the Craigslist person with the chaise says she can only be there in the evenings and on the weekend and it’s Sunday night and it’s an hour away, I measure my car and go. I want to get it into rehearsal ASAP.” Her husband is the audio engineer at The Goodman Theatre, so they are generally exhausted at similar times. She also has a lack of time to build a show. The shop often does not get any information until the first rehearsal or later. “You can throw all the money you want at a show, but if the sofa is a three week order, it takes three weeks.” Staffing is difficult because you need to find a good mix of crafts people and qualified short term employees.
The most rewarding thing to Alice is making directors, designers, and actors happy, or seeing a good play that she participated in. She loves building relationships with designers and directors. “You‟ve got this level of trust where they know that you have their best interest at heart.”
“Some years ago, we produced a new play, Hollywood Arms. It was written by Carol Burnett and her daughter and directed by Hal Prince. We were onstage one night and Hal was saying that we needed a rug and Carol was remembering a rug she had as child, and as she was describing this rug I was seeing the same rug in our warehouse. I had bought this rug the year before at a house sale in my neighborhood. One Saturday morning I walked into this home and saw literally thousands of dollars in vintage Wiltons and Mohawk carpets on the floor. I said immediately to the sale folks, ‘I want to buy all the rugs.’ They are the most awesome stage rugs. Of course the show went to Broadway and so did the rug, never to return. But how rewarding to be able to respond so quickly to a request!” She especially loves working with young directors because of their enthusiasm and eagerness to generate new ideas.
When asked about the most difficult or challenging prop, Alice simply replied: “I’m too old to remember that. There are a lot of challenging props but there’s always some sort of solution. As we say at the Goodman ‘you can’t stop beer night’. (Explanation: first preview we have beer and pizza after the show with cast and crew and it always happens).”
When asked about a prop that puzzled her at the time, she came back with a parrot story. She was asked for an animatronic parrot. The shop was not able to produce or afford an animatronic parrot within the time frame so, “We got a real African Grey instead for the premiere of Ruined. We learned that a very young parrot doesn’t talk much but boy was it talking at the end of the run, and dancing to the show music. We got an enormous cage for it and kept it in the production office. I have no interest in birds but this thing was amazing.”
That is not the end of parrot stories from Alice. “Many years earlier we needed an Amazon green parrot for Light up the Sky. There is no parrot called for in the script of Light up the Sky, this was totally the whim of the director. So I found this guy who was selling one in the want ads of the Chicago Tribune and he agreed to loan it to us. In the meantime, I knew that the Arena in DC had a taxidermy one and asked them to send it because you never know. Sunshine (our parrot) was fantastic through tech week. First preview, we get to the quiet scene where the actress covers the parrot cage and begins her dialogue and we hear: ‘Helloooh’, ‘Helloooh’, then a screeching ‘HELLOOOOOOHH’. It was unbelievable. David (our director) said ‘cut the parrot,’ but we wound up using him in the first scene to establish that he was real and switched him out with the stuffed understudy later in the play. Sunshine’s owner ran up to me at opening worried that he was ill because he didn’t move in the later scene. Well, you can imagine the rest. The parrot’s favorite food was cheese doodles.”
Working in a theatre in Chicago makes sourcing certain items sometimes easier or harder than elsewhere. Alice says that she has a huge problem finding English antique furniture, but she does love how much manufacturing is around Chicago.
Her experience with conflicts between scenic and directors has the perfect anecdote. “Phillip Seymour Hoffman directed The Long Red Road designed by Eugene Lee – two people used to getting their own way. It was a one-set show but the first scene is in a bedroom, and later we’re in the living room. Eugene wanted a sofa bed to serve as the bed and sofa on the set. Phil wanted a regular bed and a sofa. I knew what Phil wanted but first tech Eugene told me to put the sofa bed onstage when we should have started with the bed. Phil came in and said, ‘You’ve misunderstood, the bed is onstage at the top of the show.’ Of course I knew this. Eugene was sitting in the house and I said ‘Eugene???’ and he continued eating his sandwich and looked away. I asked the crew to bring out the bed. I’m sure Phil thought I was an idiot, but what can you do? Eugene later said ‘you should have just left it there, I would have finessed it’ – that made me laugh. Eugene was right, it’s about finessing. If the director doesn’t like the choice the designer has made, then it’s my job to go to the designer and explain the situation and come up with a solution.” The director gets to make the final call.
One story that she would only release a teaser of was when she was working on A Christmas Carol in Atlanta and lost the white horse on Peachtree Street. When discussing it, she said simply, “That was a bad day.”
When asked if there are any people who inspire her or that she would give credit for helping her, she replied with an entire list. “Besides my professors and David [Potts], I’ve had the privilege of working with Santo Loquasto on several shows. He knows so much about history and art and set decoration and theatre. His sets are beautiful, they are why we do this work. All his choices are perfect. Michael Yergen is a genius, as is John Conklin. Again, they know art, history, music, language, theatre. You can’t be around them and not learn something. Frank Galati, a director, reminds you of why you do theatre. Our artistic director, Robert Falls, really is the smartest person in the room. We work with Todd Rosenthal and Walt Spangler a lot, both wonderful, talented, creative designers and collaborators. There are people who inspire you at the start and those who keep you going.”
Although she does not have a specific dream show to do, she does love conceptual theatre. She loves a show that exists in its own world. That is one of the reasons that she loved working at Santa Fe or at the Goodman with Walt Spangler, because those are the kind of designs he would do. On the other hand, the opportunity of working on a perfectly decorated period set like Three Sisters or Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Santo Loquasto, is about as fulfilling as theatre can be. Overall, Alice would rather do a big show over a small show. “Once you begin the process and the pieces start falling into place, it‟s so gratifying.”
Alice also said, “And I hope I’m like my old dog Lucy, who continued to grow and change in her ripe old age.”