The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarcoâ€™s properties class at Emerson College.
by Jessica Kemp
When we chose our properties directors to interview, Ron handed over Jim’s information with a smile. “Jim is one of the most personable guys you will ever meet,” he said. “Have fun.”
Indeed I did.
The current president of Society of Property Artisan Managers, and one of the biggest names in the “prop world,” Jim Guy went to John Carroll University for his undergraduate degree and then moved on to Kent State University for his graduate degree. A double major, Jim double majored as a stage manager and a librarian. “Being a librarian was one of those things that I could get a job at.” Jim was about to go on to receive his doctorate in theater, and then it occurred to him. “I was about to go into the twentieth grade. If I got my Ph. D., then I would spend my career talking about theater and not doing theater.” He withdrew from school three weeks before his doctoral program started. Now out in the real world, Jim became a librarian, but that only lasted for about a year. He stage managed at night on the side and decided theater is what he truly wanted to do.
Fortunately for Jim, an old friend from college called and offered him a job in the ticket office at The Cleveland Play House. He did more than just take reservations. Once people discovered that Jim, “Could write, and had somewhat of an artistic bent,” they used his skills in the marketing department. Jim also worked as a stage manager at other theaters. In the 1970s, stage managers did a lot of prop work.
One night the artistic director and production manager of The Cleveland Play House sat in the audience of a production that Jim had propped, dressed and run at one of those other theaters. They asked to meet him after the show at the bar that was above the theater. They offered him a job as the properties carpenter. Jim accepted the job. Two seasons later Jim was offered the job of prop master. This time he turned them down. “I didn’t think I was ready for it.”
The Cleveland Play House was ready for Jim to move up, however. The resident designer, Richard Gould, called and offered Jim the job again. Richard assured Jim that he had his back. Jim took the job this time, and Richard helped him. To this day Richard remains a mentor and friend. “He’s the reason why I do this and can do this,” Jim says.
During his last four years at The Cleveland Play House Jim also worked at the Cleveland Opera. He and his wife and business partner, Margaret Hasek-Guy also created a small company called The Prop Guys with a few other people from The Cleveland Play House. This freelance business lasted for ten years. It was going well until the shop burned down one night. They rebuilt it, but found that maybe the fire had been for the best. Freelancing wasn’t what they wanted anymore. Jim and Margaret wanted to start a family, something with which freelance work wasn’t conducive.
Jim moved on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to teach and become director of the MFA Program in Theatrical Properties Management and Design. He decided that he wanted to create “a program in which a student could play to their strengths.” In doing so, he allowed his students to specialize in areas while getting a good general background in some other things. He had his students learn digital photography when the process was still in its infancy, take classes in jewelry making, and work with costumers in order to learn about fabrics. “Nobody can teach everything.”
When a job opened up at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Jim applied and was “offered the gig” before he left the interview. Ever since, Jim has been at “Milwaukee Rep.” There he works with his crew of six who all specialize in a field (the props crafts artisans, the soft props artisan, the props carpenter, the prop graphics/painter, and the intern), and together they put on a show.
Interestingly enough, Jim also works with his wife of twenty-nine years, Margaret, at Milwaukee Rep. She is in charge of the soft props. They met on the job at The Cleveland Play House while working on “the worst production of Peter Pan ever done in English. Margaret was doing special fabric construction. She worked on the crocodile and the dog. They brought me in to consult on the armatures for the big puppets. We worked together and never stopped.”
Jim’s day starts early, usually getting into the shop at 8:30 am to look over the previous night’s notes. Then, at 9 o’clock he and his team assemble and work through each note. They “brainstorm solutions and divide up what needs to be done that day.” After a meeting with his team, Jim goes on rounds. He walks to every department within production and touches base.
“I do not do it by email,” Jim says. “I do it in person.” Then the daily meetings end with the stage managers to go over their notes. This usually brings Jim to eleven o’clock. He works on his own projects, or departmental issues, or scheduling, until lunch. After lunch he and his team just work through to the end of the day. Jim is able to see everyone throughout the day, either to “talk about things or do some show and tell.”
Sometimes Jim guest lectures across the country, since Jim has a specialty in firearms safety for the stage and often gives master classes. Being away from his own theatre isn’t always easy. He has to be careful about scheduling his lectures, but he says it’s doable. “I have a wonderful crew and tremendous assistants.”
Despite his busy schedule Jim makes sure to devote time to his family. “I go home for dinner every night whether I’m in tech or not. I’ve been able to watch my kids grow up because I have shown up for dinner.”
“No two days are really alike except for the morning,” Jim adds. “There is constant variety.” Variety is important. “I don’t sit down well,” Jim explains. “I’m a pretty high energy person. I like to be in action all the time.” In fact variety is what has kept him in the business for so long, though his first answer would be the fact that his daughter is in college and his son graduates from high school this year. Jim adds, “You can do four Hamlet’s in a row and not have the same experience.”
Jim also loves constantly learning. He once told a former student that, “Every time you prop a show, you will probably be asked to do something that you have never done before. Not only that, but you may be asked to do something that no one has done before.’ You get to figure out how to do that,” Jim says enthusiastically. “Problem solving and research are terrific.”
Communication is key for Jim. Despite constantly checking in with everyone, there is still difficulty. “It happens pretty regularly. Headstrong people have definite ideas and are sometimes badly misinformed.” It’s Jim’s job to “find the compromise object. Sometimes the prop doesn’t put the focus where the director wants it, or the purpose that the designer wants it to serve makes it difficult for the actor to work,” Jim explains. “I have to find out what it is all these guys want it to do and then find the thing that does all these things.” Jim paused. “Twenty-five to thirty percent of props is sales: Look, idea, function. Getting people to agree with each other and you. It’s a sales job.”
Other than communication a properties director has many other challenges, but also its rewards. “The most challenging thing is balancing administration with my artistic duties. Sometimes I’m in rehearsal for two shows, in tech, and planning for next season all at the same time. One reward is seeing a finished product and knowing I have helped in my way to make that play and performance work for everyone. The best part of all,” Jim adds, “Is when I get to decorate a good set. When I get to tell that story, add visual texture, information. One of the best compliments is when people say, ‘I feel like I could just get up there and move in to that house.’ I try to make it as real as possible. A lot of prop departments do great display work; we do still life. Unless it’s supposed to be representative, it’s as real as can possibly be.”
Jim’s true passion lies in decorating sets. “Each prop has a particular time and place in history,” he told me. “The type of object that it is and the historical background of the object make it right for its job. Take, for example, lighting a cigarette. You can pull out a butane lighter, a Bic lighter, or a Zippo lighter from WWII or earlier. Or you can strike a match on the wall. Or you can have a matchbook. Historical and functional accuracy in props is really important. We have to keep the audience’s head in the game as well as actors. You can tell when an actor has the right thing in his hands. They are using the thing that character would be using. Also, a prop can’t distract the audience. Firearms are a natural distraction. If it isn’t historically accurate and there a lot of shooters in audience, they aren’t thinking about the play anymore. If it’s inaccurate, they are thinking, ‘They didn’t use that weapon in that time.’ A good prop,” Jim explains, “Supports the performer, amplifies the text, and gives background to the dramatic action.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that set decoration is all that Jim loves to do. His favorite part of the process depends on the show. “Sometimes set decoration is absolutely where it’s at for me. Sometimes it’s working with the actors and helping them to amplify and support their performances. Sometimes it’s just the pleasure of working with smart, creative people.”
As a properties director, Jim does less hands on work than he used to. “I don’t get to build things very much anymore,” he explains. “I’m not straight-up administration, but a lot of what I do is communication. I make a point to make personal contact with actors who are handling props.” Sometimes Jim does have the opportunity to play. In March, Jim was in tech for a show in its cabaret space. His assistant properties director was in charge of the show, so, “She assigned me a couple of projects which included restoring a practical wind up Victrola.” Jim also got to invent a gooseneck lamp that is self- contained. It is battery operated with a radio-controlled dimmer. Since it had to burn for over an hour, Jim had to find a way to invent an authentically period-looking LED light source that wouldn’t burn batteries so quickly.
After over 30 years working in the field, Jim says productions have changed. “Plays are being written more like movies all the time. They move faster from location to location more quickly. Actors still need objects to support their characters and tell their story.” I could hear the smile spread across his face. “I find it amusing when directors say that it is going to be a minimal show with little scenery. That means it is going to be raining props. The props, as much as anything else, are what help to set the location, so there may not be walls or windows or doors, but there is probably furniture or something that tells you when or where you are.”
After working with so many designers and directors, Jim has found a few that he’s enjoyed working with. Richard Gould remains to be one of his favorite designers, along with Michael Ganio and Todd Rosenthal. Joe Handreddy is a director Jim enjoys working with. “He is one of the most intelligent directors I’ve ever worked with,” Jim explains. “He approaches things intellectually first and emotionally second. He knows where play is going to go and how he intends to get it there. Then he works with actors on emotional flow of play. He is a real actor’s director.” Paul Barnes and K.J. Sanchez are other favorites.
There is no doubt Jim has had a memorable story or two. He struggled to narrow these adverse happenstances down. “There was the world premiere 1001 Arabian Nights,” he began. “Priests were supposed to come out onstage with bowls of fire and put them down on the deck and pray over them, bowing up and down. One guy set his turban on fire and didn’t know it. Two crew members started to put the fire out backstage, and he thought he was being attacked and fought back. Another show would be The Magic Fire. There is a lot of food in Act Two: A fully realized dinner for twelve including cocktails before dinner, salad, pasta and sauce, bread, then after dinner drinks, then birthday cake, champagne, cigars, sherry and cigarettes. The final night of tech a stagehand dropped a flat on the table where all the plates were set. I had from 1 pm to 7 pm to completely re-dish the entire play. I ended up having to drive to a Mikasa Outlet in Illinois that had enough dish-ware that was acceptable. We had to re-plan, get the dishes here, washed, and out onstage before the second run.”
Jim did not have a solid answer for the most difficult prop he has ever had to come up with. “I get asked this one a lot, and I never have a great answer for it. I have no perspective on, ‘strange,’ anymore. Things that seem completely weird and hard are pretty much everyday occurrences. I do a lot of inventing that other people end up building. I was working on Eurydice. In that show there was an eight foot beach ball that had to deflate in five seconds. I had to invent a solution for that, and it had to be affordable. We experimented with weather balloons, valves, suction, and air currents. I realized that I needed the biggest opening I could get. We ended up using a zipper from a scuba suit on the back of the ball. It opened up and allowed the air to escape in less than five seconds. Another one would be A Skull in Connemara. Two guys have to dig up three bodies, throw bones into sacks, take them back to a cottage, then pulverize them with big wooden mallets. We ended up combining high-density plaster with polyester fiber strands in it and colored the plaster before we cast bones. Eighteen bones and three skulls a night over forty-five performances. We cast bones on Monday and Tuesday for the whole week’s run in order to keep moisture content. The polyester fiber strands kept the bones from turning into shrapnel. For the paint job it worked best to prime the bones by dipping them in lightly mixed wallpaper paste and then immediately dipping them into black and brown paint. They looked like they had aged naturally. We also built mallets that sent shrapnel upstage instead of in the audience.”
Then, of course, came the inevitable question: Is there such a thing as an impossible prop? Jim was silent for a moment. “I have to say that I really don’t know,” he finally conceded. “It goes back to cooperation. If you can find out what the real goal of the prop is, and you can get everybody on board to try to solve the problem creatively, you can do pretty much anything.”
Did he have any advice for those aspiring to pursue a career in props? “A good answer is, Think again,'” he laughs. “Face reality. You’re never going to make a lot of money doing this, and it’s always going to be a lot of work. It has to be your passion. You can put your talents to use in many other ways that are more lucrative, and in ways that will allow you more personal time, but if this is what you want to do, then it’s the best gig in the world. Learn everything you can about everything you can. There’s no way you can know everything you need to know, but you have to know how to find out. Take it on a day-by-day basis. Step outside the world of theater. There is no wasted knowledge. Never be afraid to ask questions. In this room there is no such thing as a stupid question. Knowing what you don’t know is as important as knowing what you do know.”
Plus, Jim adds optimistically, “When a production is good, it’s just too much fun. If it isn’t a good experience, well, it will be over soon.”