The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
by Michelle Slivinski
Jolene Obertin didn’t always see herself going into the profession of props. She originally attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in hopes of studying medicine, but she found herself unhappy dealing with such a high course load of science classes in order to fulfill her degree requirements. She often found herself walking through the Fine Arts building to and from different places on campus and grew to love the building and its creative atmosphere. She had previously been involved in theatre in her high school but took it as an elective again in college and loved it.
Shortly after taking a theater class, Jolene obtained a work-study job in props while she was an underclassman. But as is the case with many theatre artists these days, that was not the only hat Jolene wore at the time. She also did some work stage-managing when a summer stock theatre got her interested in the job. But when it came time to apply for a summer internship, she found that most internships in stage management required an in-person interview. That meant travel, something that wasn’t practical to do while Jolene was still in school. Therefore, Jolene stuck with what she knew: she applied for prop internships over the phone until she landed with an offer from a little ‘ole place called Actor’s Theatre in Louisville.
During her time there she worked closely with prop master Sandy Strawn, who is now the professor of Properties Production and the Head of Technical Production at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Sandy, a wealth of knowledge for all things prop-related, was featured as a consultant on a properties chapter in Michael Gillette’s book Theatrical Design and Production. Sandy even published a book called The Properties Director’s Handbook, in which she passes on over thirty years of experience detailing how to keep a prop shop in “tip-top shape.” Jolene credited Sandy as her mentor and inspiration for becoming the properties artist that she is today, and after gaining her own thirty-plus years of experience in the field, Jolene knows how to keep herself sharp as both an artist and a manager.
On a typical day, Jolene begins her work by checking her email: sifting through rehearsal and performance reports in order to keep herself updated on anything from changes that need to be made to last minute add-ins or broken props. She then meets with her staff to go through what needs to get done according to the reports and divides the work amongst the team. After that, Jolene’s day is always subject to change. She will often be found on the phone with designers or e-mailing them in an effort to advance things through the shop. She may also be trying to locate actual props that actors will be working with in productions in order to get them in rehearsal as soon as possible, or attending production meetings or budget meetings to plan for the upcoming season. Sometimes she even finds herself driving to the store to buy extra gum for a show that’s running out, gathering breakable bottles for a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or taking care of the appropriate paperwork for a production of Venus and Fur that was en route to perform in Arizona.
When asked about some of the challenges associated with the job, Jolene’s answer was two-fold: being smart about personal finances and knowing how to budget in personal time. Although it’s not a year –round job, being the Properties Director at Seattle Rep is close to being one. As such, Jolene must balance her lifestyle and expenses accordingly. While on the job, Jolene also has to be able to find time for a personal life. She made it clear that although it may be difficult to achieve, this time is crucial in preventing burnout, a condition that can wreck any overworked artist in this business – especially during tech week. Hence, her life is ultimately a balance. It requires keeping up good communication and being able to put her personal life on hold if the need arises. This is especially true of the relationship between she and her husband, who has also been in the business as a production manager and a former lighting designer.
In turn, the rewarding aspects of her profession include having an exciting job that constantly changes and which provides her with an opportunity to use her creativity to problem solve. And apparently, she is very successful at problem solving! Things change so quickly and shows come and go so fast that if she has to deal with something she doesn’t like, it isn’t for long. On top of that, everything that Jolene has to do for a show is completely different from one production to the next. She remarks that “Each show is never a boxed set; it’s never the same day in and day out,” providing for an incredible opportunity to learn and grow as an artist and a manager the longer she works.
In the off-season, though Jolene may not be directly working on props, she takes on many prop-related jobs. For example, one summer, she found herself hired by the Pacific Science Center to shop for a children’s interactive display for a museum exhibit. It opened her eyes to things about property design and construction that she wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to, such as making pieces for the exhibit that kids could interact with safely and could not easily be broken. Also, Jolene and her husband own a sailboat, so she thought it would be beneficial to take a course on sailboat repair. Ironically, she confessed that this class had taught her more about props than any other class she’d taken; props are so much a part of life that sometimes life holds the key to showing you how to solve the problems you encounter in your work. It’s all problem solving!
I then asked Jolene about what she believed were the most important skills and characteristics for a person to have in order to be a successful properties artist and manager. To be a good props master, one has to be excellent with communication. A good props master should be keeping up a dialogue at all times with stage managers, designers, directors, and know which questions need to be asked in order to get the information necessary for the work to happen. One must be able to budget money and time. It must be kept in mind that people are paid hourly: this means that it is not only important to budget for the making of the prop, but also, the time and labor required to make it as well. Lastly, prop masters need to be able to see the big picture.
Typically, you will always be working in the cross over, meaning you have to be able to see the prop in the context of everything else that is going on both within the show and sometimes, within the span of a season. In regards to being a prop artist, the aforementioned skills do somewhat apply but it is crucial to have specialized skills. In her own experience, Jolene works with prop artists with specific training or knowledge in carpentry, painting, upholstery, paper goods, and someone who can shop. Different skills apply to different people, and each artist is valuable for the information they bring to the process.
To take it a step further, Jolene even claimed that the art form isn’t in just creating or obtaining the object in itself but involves the actor’s interaction with it. It is all about how the prop interacts with the actor and they with it. The necessary part is getting the actor to buy in to the prop to make it work. She remarks, “If an actor doesn’t want to chop onions, changing the knife isn’t going to help.” It is ultimately the actors who are making the prop come to life, so they have an equal responsibility – it is a collaboration between both sides in a production to generate the desired effect. Props are generally an incredibly collaborative art.
When asked about the prospect of an impossible prop, Jolene simply remarked that anything could be done so long as technology has caught up to it. The only constraints are the capabilities of your time, team, and budget. The conversation usually goes as follows: “Could we do it? Yeah. Do we have the money to do it? No.” The most difficult props are the ones that defy the laws of physics. It can also be hard to live up to a director’s impossible vision. In these situations, it is important to analyze the most desired aspects of what the director wants and attempt to encompass them in the work. Unfortunately, this information usually comes very late in the game so it can be extremely difficult to pull these projects off, but it is entirely possible.
One thing Jolene said that she learned while in college was her work ethic and a deep love for the arts—the very art form itself. You can train people to do almost anything but you can’t teach them how to be a hard worker or care. She is a strong believer in internships and what they can teach. The collegiate sphere can often be subjective and things don’t usually get planned out that far in advance; things typically change at a much more rapid pace. Hence, she encourages those in college to get internships learning what they want to learn. It is also important to seek internships at places with names big enough to open doors in the future. Examine job offers while keeping in mind where you’d like to live; different locations require different financial commitments and will ultimately affect your lifestyle choices.
Jolene taught me a lot about her profession as a Properties Director but even more so as a theatrical artist. I’ve learned that having a career in the business requires patience, problem solving, good communication, and above all, a passion for creating art that can be sustained by simultaneously maintaining a personal life. You should seek information anywhere that you can find it and never stop perfecting or learning new skills—you never know when they will come in handy! Being able to wear multiple hats in this trade will keep you working and most importantly, pave the way for new opportunities ahead. This business is about doing what you love and living a life that you love—if they don’t balance out and feed one another, then it’s time to pack up and move on to something else.