The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Erin Kehr – Professional prop master at Florida State University
by Jamie Rosenfeld
How did you first get into the business and how long have you been doing it?
I got into theatre because I was interested in special effects makeup. Unfortunately I grew up in Kansas City Missouri and there was not a lot of film happening 28 years ago in that area. Plus, I was only 13. So after teaching myself the craft through books, a high school drama teacher suggested I get involved in theatre to employ my makeup skills. Once I was involved that was it, theatre was for me. My interests evolved over the years but my love of live theatre has never gone away. Even when I have tried to “take a break” from the business at various points, I just find myself drawn back to it.
Did you study to become a prop person or did you arrive at the work in some other fashion?
I did not study to become a Prop Master. I graduated from DePaul University with a BFA in scenic design. From there I found myself in central Minnesota working for 3 community theatres that wanted to have professional level design and tech. I functioned as the Scenic Director, which meant I designed, built and painted all the scenery and was responsible for all the props. I was a one man operation and managed to do this for 3 years. When I was ready to move on I found a job on Artsearch for a Prop Master at TheatreWorks in Silicon Valley in California. I had been spread too thin and longed to focus on one thing and do it well, so I applied and got the position. Having filled so many different roles in theatre over the years my jack of all trades skill set was a perfect fit for the challenges props present.
How did your career evolve into becoming the props master at FSU?
After several years with TheatreWorks I resigned for personal reasons and worked outside of theatre for a year. As usual, I found myself longing to work on shows again. I returned to TheatreWorks as a Scenic Carpenter and began to do freelance work as a Prop Master in the Bay area. I was hoping to build a better home life for myself and found Northern California’s cost of living too high despite how much I loved the area and all the people I worked with. Again, on Artsearch, I found a listing for the Prop Manager position at FSU. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity. A place I had never lived and a chance to work with grad students of the cusp of professionalism.
How did you begin to teach stage makeup at FSU?
When I arrived at FSU and the head of the costume grad program realized I was well versed in stage makeup she approached me with a problem. The BFA musical theatre students were required to take stage makeup (which was being taught by a costume grad student) but they were all waiting until their last semester. The issue was that they would get cast in shows and have no idea how to apply their makeup. The school wanted to require they take it as freshman, but needed to offer 2 classes (one for freshman and another in order to work the students who were already past their freshman year through the system). I began to teach the freshman class and after all the others had worked through the program I was able to convince the administration to keep both classes on the books as there was a high demand from non-BFA students who wanted to take the class. It remains one of our most popular classes.
Describe what a daily routine is like for you.
My day consists of a combination of strict scheduling and tasks and schedule flexibility. Due to classes, most of my volunteers and overhire work in the afternoons. Therefore I begin my day with checking email and rehearsal and performance reports to incorporate any timely notes or changes into the day. At any given time we may have as many as 4 shows in some stage of their process (design, build, rehearsal, performance). Then I move on to adjusting our whiteboard of tasks based on these notes and ongoing projects, adjusting the priority and who will perform what task as needed. Last for the morning depending on the day are weekly and bi-weekly tasks such as paperwork (receipts, prop lists), research, shopping, shop improvement or construction drawings. After lunch, my people begin to arrive for work and I advise, work on the floor with them, and pickup or deliver items. This is also the time of day in which I have weekly production meetings and any other meetings that may have been scheduled in order to coordinate efforts with other departments or obtain clarification from directors and scenic designers. Finally, as each artisan finishes their shift for the day I try to find the time to check in with them on their progress on ongoing projects.
What skills do you think are most important in being a successful prop master/artisan?
While I can’t overstate the usefulness of skills such as carpentry, shopping, welding, upholstery and design, I feel the most important skill would be communication and poise. Without those two skills you can be excellent at all the others and be a miserable prop master. If you can’t communicate your plans, extract specific information from designers and directors and acquire (and retain) their trust then all the other skills will not make for a smooth process.
What’s the most challenging aspect for you of doing props for a living?
That would be the fact that unless someone has done props(at the level you are working at, not high school) they simply have no conception of the difficulty of the position. It is not unusual for high demand requests to come in with a negligible time line they are expected in with no consideration for what it takes to keep all the other plates spinning. It can also be challenging to see an item that you spent much time and resources on be cut from a production but ultimately everyone has to do what is best for the production.
What’s the most rewarding aspect for you of doing props for a living?
I particularly enjoy the daily challenges and opportunities of a position that calls for everything from wagons to floral arrangements. Every day is different and you never know when you will have to tackle something you have never encountered before and will be expected to be well versed in with no time to waste.
What’s the most difficult or challenging prop you’ve encountered in your career? Is there such a thing as the “impossible” prop?
I don’t believe in the “impossible prop”. Anything is possible as long as it fits in your resource triangle: time, money and labor. The triangles area represents the production value of the show and if you reduce or increase any of those 3 items it will affect the area of that triangle. The bigger the area, the more possibilities there are available. That being said, the limitations of those resources can certainly make a request unfeasible unless more resources can be found. There have been many challenging props from the Ragtime Model T built for TheatreWorks (and we are now building one for FSU with entirely different resources!) to a sword for Opera New Jersey that needed to be brandished and then snap in half midway down the blade on cue. Most recently, for a production of The Love of the Nightingale, it was decided that red light would represent blood. When the main character has her tongue cut out the director and designers wanted red light to pour from her mouth. With the help of Zach Cramer (FSU’s resident Sound Designer) who is much better at electronics than I, we devised a mouth piece with multiple high output LED bulbs and a magnetic switch that turned the unit on when a ring with a magnet was moved away from the mouthpiece. It turned out brilliantly, but certainly caused some lost sleep.
Are there any memorable props you or an actor have taken home once the show has closed?
We normally don’t let props go home unless we cannot foresee using it again. In that category, we made a caveman statue at FSU for On the Town that used a face cast of the actor it was supposed to resemble. It was gifted to him on his graduation after it spent several years adorning the shop as an example of our work. To this day, that caveman makes appearances in surprising situations on Facebook.
Have you encountered conflicts between scenic designers and directors over prop choices and how have you dealt with it?
Of course, and I’ve found the best thing you can do is play mediator between the two. It seems to work best if you can get them both in the same room and after listening to both sides try to make suggestions that you think will satisfy both of their desires.
Do you believe the prop master is more a prop designer or building what the scenic designer envisioned?
I am a firm believer that the Prop Master is a facilitator of the Scenic Designer’s vision and design. A prop master may be called on to make informed choices about a prop and whether it will fit into the scenic designer’s aesthetic, but at the end of the day if the designer does not like the item, you will be replacing it. All the other design departments (costumes, lights, projections, scenic) are considered equal and since a “prop designer” would be a subset under the scenic designer that is not considered equal I feel the term “designer” just adds confusion to the director as to who they should be communicating with. However, every theatre is different and this is just my experience thus far at the ones I have worked at.
Do you have people who inspire you or who you’d credit for becoming the prop person you are today?
There are so many this could go on way too long! I am going to go with one and that is Wayne Smith, the Prop Master of DePaul Universities School of Theatre, both when I attended there and today. I think he would be surprised to hear this, as like many a young designer and person who had never focused on props, I was guilty of exactly the kind of challenging behavior I outlined before. I didn’t give enough information to him on my shows, didn’t appreciate what it took to achieve my desires and thought it was all about my design. But hindsight is indeed 20/20 and over the years I have realized what professionalism and care he put into his job. Props can certainly be a thankless position at times, so it really does require the Prop Master to have their own sense of self-worth and desire to excel in their craft. Wayne has these attributes and I often find myself thinking of him when organizing my stock, deciding if something is good enough to go onstage or offering my 2 cents in a meeting.
Do you have any good prop stories you’d like to share?
As a general rule we have process in our shop known as making a prop “actor safe”. This is a different standard of “safe” than you would apply to objects handled by your average person. Actors have a wonderful ability to tie into their playful and exploratory nature but his can lead them into danger zones. If there is an open end in a piece of steel, they will poke their finger in it. If a book is made of foam, they will smack another actor with it. These are all generalizations of course. My response to an artisan when they approach me with a prop that they deem “actor safe” has resulted in an unofficial shop motto: “But can you lick it?”