Cynthia proudly presents the “Egg Cart” used in A.R.T’s production of “Witness Uganda”

Interview with Cynthia Lee-Sullivan

Over the next few days, I will be sharing some interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.

Cynthia Lee-Sullivan, a Master of Her Craft

An article by Charlie Trombadore

Cynthia proudly presents the “Egg Cart” used in A.R.T’s production of “Witness Uganda”
Cynthia proudly presents the “Egg Cart” used in A.R.T’s production of “Witness Uganda”

Cynthia Lee-Sullivan has been the Props Master of the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T. for short) for over 30 years. Her career as a Props Master has taken her all over the world and given her the chance to work with some of theatre’s most prominent directors and craftsmen. She was gracious enough to find time in her busy schedule to sit down with me and answer a few of my questions.

I met Cynthia outside of the Oberon Theatre, A.R.T.’s second stage in Cambridge. As we walked down the street to a coffee shop, Cynthia and I chatted and I began to get an idea of what her schedule was like. Our time for an interview was scheduled snugly between a long list of her errands and meetings. She shared with me that because of recent budget cuts, most of her props staff had been laid off, leaving her to almost single-handedly manage A.R.T’s entire Props Department. It became clear to me that she was on a tight schedule. When we got to the café, Cynthia ordered a small sweet for herself. She smiled over the treat and admitted that she doesn’t always get a chance to snack on sweets because her husband can’t eat sugary foods. Once we were settled at our table, I placed a tape recorder between us and we got down to the interview.

To my surprise, Cynthia attended Hope College in Michigan as a Pre-Med major in Chemistry. “I was never a theatre groupie in high school”, she said. In fact, Cynthia did not discover theatre until she was required to take an arts elective class.

“I had a choice between music, painting/sculpture, and theatre, and I knew a bit about music and sculpture so I went with theatre.” From there she began to get more and more involved in the theatre community at Hope College. A part of her arts class required time in a lab and Cynthia chose the costume shop “That’s how I got into theatre, I got hooked.”

Cynthia spent the next few years learning more and more about the world of technical theatre. “I did a few independent study’s with the technical teacher at Hope and took a few drawing classes to learn how to draw the shape, the body, the costumes.”

She went on to design a few of her own shows at Hope, and when she was a senior she decided to switch her major to Theatre. I asked her how that decision was received by her family and she chuckled. “My father was so upset with me. He was so mad. I really had to put my foot down, he was so mad. I really had to want it.” Cynthia held her ground and after spending an extra year at Hope College she had an undergraduate degree in Theatre.

Her next step was to attend graduate school at University of Georgia for costume design. She didn’t intend to study costumes for long though. “I had gotten a little bored of costumes because I was limited to the human form…once I got into Georgia I switched my major from costumes to scenery.”

By the end of her four years at University of Georgia, Cynthia held an undergraduate in costume design and a graduate in scenic production. She found herself at a bit of a crossroads. She spent the summer of 82’ designing shows but found that the routines of a designer didn’t suit her. “I didn’t want that design lifestyle….of going from city to city to city”, she said. “I wanted more stability.”

She decided to go north and join her then-boyfriend at Boston University as the theatre’s Prop Master. She worked there for a few seasons in the 80’s at what she called “The Huntington Theatre before it was the Huntington”, but she didn’t find the work to be as engaging as she had hoped. “I felt like an interior designer there; I did rugs and pictures frames.” After that she took a job as a props assistant at the A.R.T. and after 5 years she became the Props Master, a job that she’s held ever since.

A Clothing stand that was featured in A.R.T’s “Witness Uganda”
A Clothing stand that was featured in A.R.T’s “Witness Uganda”

The work Cynthia did at the American Repertory Theatre was far more engaging.

“We’ve made huge Rhino heads, giant angel statues, and the puppets from King Stag.”

I asked her if she even encountered an “impossible prop” during her long career. This elicited a slight pause and then a “no” with a shake of her head. “I’ve always found a solution. That’s why I like the job is problem solving these things.”

One of the most interesting props she made was a fiberglass, flashing 35’-33’ spider that had to fly in and glow. Cynthia and her team carved the colossal spider out of foam in several pieces and then coated it in a polyester resin dye before fiberglassing over the whole structure. After that the props team carved out the foam core and rigged the fiberglass behemoth to be flown and light up. By the end of the production Cynthia and her team were unsure of what to do with such an amazing piece. Rather than trash the masterpiece, the A.R.T. props team found a home for it at the Boston Museum of Science.

I could tell from her background and experience that Cynthia was a very skilled props master, but I was curious to know what an average day for her looked like. The prop shop schedule at A.R.T. is very defined and organized to hear it from Cynthia. She would start at 7:30 am along with the Prop Shop Assistant Manager and the Carpenter. They would work until 10:00am for a 15 minute break. After that they work until 12:30pm where they get a quick lunch break and then continue working until about 4:00pm when they pack up and leave.

Cynthia told me that the type of work she does has changed over the years. “I spend more time now on the computer than I ever have” she shared. “We used to take Polaroid pictures of our work and make photocopies of them. Then we’d mail the pictures to our designers for them to react to.”

She also added with a laugh that when the fax machine hit the market it was a big deal. Another new trend she noticed in her day-to-day work is that she finds herself doing more and more research as designers gradually do less and less.

A Plantain fruit bunch from A.R.T.’s “Witness Uganda”
A Plantain fruit bunch from A.R.T.’s “Witness Uganda”

During our interview Cynthia touched briefly on her life outside of the theatre. She has a husband and 3 grandchildren: two girls and one boy. She also enjoys gardening when she has the chance. She shared with me that it’s beneficial at times to have a split between the theatre world and her personal life.

“My home life is different…I come from a non-theatre background….my husband is into sports, my father was into sports…I came into theatre through the backdoor.” She warned me that a career in theatre can become all consuming, and having a place to go home to that’s separate from theatre can be a very healthy thing.

After we finished our questions and the tape recorder went off, Cynthia offered to give me a quick tour of A.R.T.’s headquarters, the Loeb Theatre, which was also located in Cambridge. She walked me through the Loeb’s shop and pointed out to me different projects that the shop has worked on (which are featured above).

After showing me around the stage and letting me snap a few pictures, Cynthia showed me the door and shook my hand. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to meet and talk with such an experienced member of the theatre community.