The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
The Mind Behind The Magic
by Emily Cuerdon
Elizabeth “Fried” Friedrich is the props shop manager at Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT). She grew up in Amherst, NY, which is located just outside Buffalo, NY. She graduated from Buffalo State College with a BFA degree in furniture and design. When asked to describe her journey to the field of props, she said: “After graduating with my BFA I knew I didn’t want to dedicate my career to furniture design—it was too fussy. Rick Gilles (a SPAM member and then prop manager at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo) took a chance and hired me as prop carp. Except for a short break about 10 years ago I’ve been in theatre ever since.”
After working in the theatre industry for 10 years, Fried decided that building props was what she wanted her main focus to be, so she moved out to Seattle in 2005. “Seattle is a strongly union town and the theatres are no exception to that generalization so I joined the local and took work with more than a dozen different companies including most of the local theatres, the opera and corporate employers. Through Local 15 I have done all manner of stagehand work while also managing the prop shops at first Intiman and now SCT. My first work with SCT was in 2006 as a scenic carpenter and I bounced back and forth between scenery and props for several years before moving into the shop manager position. I even did a little puppet building during those years.” While working at SCT as the props shop manager, Fried will also do work outside of the world of props: “I do various stagehand work, my favorite of which is arena rigging. I don’t do any extra projects when we’re in rehearsal and tech or for the week after opening.”
When I asked Fried what her daily routine is as an SCT’s props shop manager, she gave a six-part answer. It’s clear that being a props shop manager is not a job for the faint of heart. The first point she brought to my attention was that her daily routine is affected by if they’re building a show, and if she has staff. “Among my tasks when we’re building shows are: I read rehearsal and performance reports, disseminate information as appropriate, shop, delegate building projects, arrange for over hire, shop, coordinate crossover props with other departments, shop, pull from the warehouse, shop, maintain the prop list and process receipts while keeping an eye on the budget. I also keep in close touch with the designer and director to make sure that what we’re producing is what they’re actually looking for. When we’re in tech, of course, I station myself in the house. When the prop builders are off contract (twice a year for 1-3 months) I archive show materials, clean up and sort through the warehouse, update the MSDS files, read books about how to do my job better. We also have comparatively early deadlines for designs so when the shop is off I spend a lot of time getting ready for the next round of shows so when my builders are back on contract they can hit the ground running. I’m also the chair of SCT’s safety committee so I have some duties there. We have tours of kids who come through the shop and I talk to them sometimes.”
One of the reasons I wanted to interview Fried was our similar backgrounds. She works at a children’s theater, and I essentially spent a good part of my time growing up at a children’s theater. I asked her if she preferred children’s theater to adult and she said she did. “I think the kids are a more honest audience than adults are. They pay attention and interact with the show. We have a talkback after every show and the questions/comments that they make can be really insightful and interesting. This is also truly mission-driven work—we make plays that teach kids to think, to have empathy, to grow. The plays are focused and they have purpose. Also, the work suits me in that it is so rich in whimsy and problem solving in the shop. I’m more of a builder by training and temperament than an historian so this suits me. Compared to other theatres my storage area is very small because I don’t need as much historical stock like furniture from different eras. Many of our sets are abstract or unique so storing the props doesn’t make sense because they wouldn’t work for any other play.”
An example of one of these unique props came up when I asked her about her favorite prop she’s built: “I built a variety of crayons for Harold and the Purple Crayon here at SCT years ago. One had a laser in it, one turned into a slingshot, one had a glowing tip, one had a magic marker buried in it. There were seven in all, I think, each with a different trick—lots of fun to build! I also built a sail boat with working rigging for that show.”
I asked Fried to speak about what skills successful props artisan/master should have, and she replied with: “The ability to keep moving forward in a fog until things are decided is helpful. Keep learning. Keep reading books on how to do your job better, whether it’s about how to tune up a band saw or it’s mediation for managers. Just keep learning. The greater your skill set the easier your job is. Check your ego at the door. Standing on principal can cost you more than being flexible. Treat your co-workers well. We’re a diverse group with strong personalities and it’s easy to view situations in terms of ‘us and them.’ I’ve found that the more respectfully you treat everyone the easier it is to your work.”
I believe Fried embodies the attitude and dedication it takes to be an expert in the field of props, and the props community is lucky to have her as a member.
Fun Facts with Fried:
- Graduated magna cum laude.
- Minored in Italian.
- Spent a semester abroad in Siena, Italy.
- Favorite color is “Green. Dark green.”
- Went to Amherst High School—Go Tigers!