The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Kelly Mangan: Prop Master/Scenic Designer & Artist
by Corey Umlauf
Kelly Wiegant Mangan has had a wide range of experience as a prop master and scenic designer. She has worked as a resident scenic designer and prop master for Stage One, The Louisville Children’s Theatre (where she worked on over 120 productions), two national videos, and one Broadway residency with The Great Gilly Hopkins. She has served as the Prop Master for various groups including Shakespeare Santa Cruz and The Utah Shakespearean Festival in the Randall Theatre. She has also served as Scenic Designer for the Mount Holyoke Summer Theatre Festival in Massachusetts and The Western Stage in Salinas, California. She was a scenic artist for The Chicago Historical Society, Chicago Scenic, Scenic View, Tamara Backdrops, and Funkouser Backdrops in Chicago. Kelly has also worked as a scenic artist on the film “The Insider.” She took time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions for me about her career in props.
Currently, Kelly teaches courses in the Department of Theatre and Film at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. In the Fall, she teaches an introductory level stagecraft class and coordinates the production participation classes. By the responses for this interview, I was able to tell that Kelly must be an incredibly thorough and friendly instructor. The stagecraft course she teaches is on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9:30-10:45, which she describes as “just enough time to make a mess and not get anything finished.” In the spring, she teaches either Scene Painting, Stage Management, or Drawing and Drafting, along with coordinating production participation assignments for “all the majors (and non majors) show crews, design assistantships, and shop work depending on their individual career needs.”
However, Kelly’s responsibilities do not end there. She says, “On top of all of that, I prop (or mentor a student prop master) all of the department shows. I also do scenic art (or mentor a student scenic artist) for all the shows. I do scenic design for at least one show a semester — sometimes two. This semester I just finished an opera and now I’m back at it with beginning design concept meetings for Legally Blonde. Whee!”
Kelly’s work in scene painting has directly affected her work in props. She says, “It has kept me employed in between prop and design jobs. It has supplemented my prop and design jobs — the fact that I can do more than one thing for an employer is really a plus. I can paint my own props, not make a giant mess in the paint area and the scenic artists trust me to wash their brushes correctly and to not mix color like an idiot. Scenic art is rarely a one step thing — building props isn’t either. Painting teaches patience, detail and care.”
Kelly learned all about patience when she worked as a scenic artist in the film “The Insider.” I asked her about how working on film differed from theatre, and it seems as though scene painting for film is much more tedious and detail-oriented. She said, “On that film I was strictly a painter. We painted 14 hours a day either in the studio/sound stage or on location. And it was repetitive and huge. Half of the stuff I painted never even made it to the final cut of the film — or it was really in the periphery. We probably worked for 3 straight weeks on mahogany paneling to go in the hallway of a law building — to cover the awesome white marble that was already there of course — the shot is completely from the waist up on the actors. And it wasn’t theatre style painting at all — the wood grain was impeccable, some of it done with tiny brushes and badger floggers — then sealed with 3 coats of spray lacquer. The tiniest imperfection will show in the shot — provided they actually get anywhere near it. But you never know ahead of time — so everything is that way. I painted for a little over 3 months. It was hard work, but way worth it. It taught me a level of detail — and patience that I didn’t have before.”
When asked to describe her daily routine, Kelly described a very packed day. “A normal day starts with office hours or teaching class. I can end up sitting for hours in front of my computer doing research and ordering props and other materials. Just when I think I’m going to go work in the shop, a student will come to my office and want to talk about life, their career and the world… or at least need a signature on some random form. I usually eat lunch at my desk — but sometimes I run off to one of the dining halls that isn’t too horrible. I’m addicted to the pesto chicken club at Mondo Subs.”
“After lunch there is usually enough time to get some stuff done in the shop — either with props or paint… Shop hours are over for the students at 5:00, but I’m usually at the theatre until 6:30 if there isn’t a show in tech. I mentor the student stage mangers for all of the shows, so between prop work, design work and stage management mentoring, I am usually in a rehearsal at least once a week — even when they are still in the rehearsal hall. Tech week, is …well…nearly the same everywhere. Tech week.”
“Even if I do get to leave at 6:30, the rest of the evening is not entirely theatre-free. I get home to deal with dinner and homework for my kids.” Kelly has two children: one in second grade, and the other in the fourth grade. “After they go to bed is my grading and class prep time,” she says. “My husband is the technical director for the department — we met about 20 years ago working in Louisville in the same theatre. We’re lucky that the department lets us tag team. At night, if I’m at the theatre, he’s off and vice versa. It’s hectic, but do-able.”
“Right now, I’m building furniture and painting drops for Frankenstein — which is a production done entirely with puppets. The furniture is smaller, but not necessarily any easier. The drops are awesome though — painted to look like pieces of skin grafted together — bloody and scabby. They’ll be projection surfaces and shadow surfaces for different scenes. I think it’s going to be pretty cool. One of my fellow professors has done all of the puppets based on a technique he learned in Indonesia. All of the puppet heads are carved out of basswood. It’s so different from the techniques that I know. I would normally start with styrofoam — but for him, the process is equally as important as the product. In a way, he’s keeping some of these traditions alive.”
Kelly received a Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education and a Bachelor of Science in Theatre from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and later received her MFA from Mankato State University (Minnesota) in Scenic Design. When I asked about how Kelly got into theatre, she said, “I did theatre in high school and community theatre before college. My folks really frowned on my majoring in theatre, so I picked education and took theatre classes as electives. I ended up sneaking in a double major. The summer after my sophomore year, I stayed on campus for the university theatre program and did three shows — I was in one, stage managed one, and propped one. After that, I never quit working in theatre. Every summer I did summer stock — and after I graduated I went to work in a theatre that I had been going to in the summers — once they went year round. After almost two years there I went back to grad school since they offered me a teaching job but I didn’t have the degree that was necessary.”
After getting the degree, she moved to Chicago and worked there for nearly three years. She worked in Louisville for another eighteen years, and then landed in her current position in Bowling Green. She has been in Bowling Green for almost four years, and stated, “Even with that education degree, Bowling Green is the first time I’ve actually taught outside of my student teaching in college.” She added that her first professional show was 32 years ago.
When I asked Kelly how her parents felt about her decision to entire this field, she said that they were hesitant about it. Kelly’s choice to double-major made it much easier for her parents to accept the idea. She says, “Well, they weren’t going to stop my double major — since it seemed easy enough to do. Since I kept getting jobs that actually paid, their arguments sort of stopped. I don’t know if they ever thought that it was a career though. I think they thought I was sort of playing and getting paid for it. When my mom saw my first professional show she was pretty much in tears. I don’t think they really understood how much work and how much thought goes into what we do.”
“My mom has always been artistic and really valued that in me. My dad was always building something or working on cars. That’s where I get my tool knowledge. My mom bought a craft store when I was in high school — I was the first kid on my block to have a hot glue gun. I even got to go with her to craft conventions. A budding prop person’s dream. I don’t think she could have denied that law school was just not in my makeup.” She says that her parents were a huge influence on her work. “Crafts and tools are the basis of what I do.”
Kelly also credits her teachers for helping her to become successful in the industry. She says, “I had some amazing people in my life who helped me get where I am now. My high school drama teacher gave me the keys to the theatre and let me loose. I learned a lot by doing things wrong — but I figured them out eventually — and she let me. In college, my shop foreman/TD and my design professor were highly influential — my TD was the kind who hovered over you, watching everything, double checking everything. I hated it then, but I learned to place a lot of importance on detail from him. While I was an undergrad, I was actually hired to work in the scene shop for 15 hours a week. That led to me being responsible for the prop room. Again — they let me do it myself. I organized everything, I worked on the shows, I built furniture — and figured it out. I learned it by doing it — and being trusted to do it.”
Three decades of experience in the industry has given Kelly many great stories to share. When I asked if she had any good prop stories that she would like to tell, she responded, “well, every student I’ve had has heard the cow skeleton story — WAY before the internet, living in California, looking for a cow skeleton to embed into the river bank for Diviners. Called around and found a ranch that said they had one. Yea, but it was really bones connected by dried skin at the bottom of a ravine where they dumped the dead cattle from the ranch. But I was too “cool” to gross out right in front of the rancher so we pulled the whole thing up with his jeep, loaded it into the panel van and headed back to the theatre. Somewhere on highway 101 a gecko crawled out of the eye socket, my assistant threw up and it went downhill from there.”
Kelly’s prop career has allowed her to meet very interesting people. She says, “my ‘coolest’ moment was when I actually got to talk to Jackie Robinson’s widow on the phone while she described for me what the Most Valuable Player award looked like — again — WAY before the internet. I had a black and white picture of it, but no color references, no finish detail. We sent her a picture of our replica and got a note back. Actually — after all this time — I’ve got some really great stories.”
When I asked Kelly what skills she found important in props, she said that there is nothing that you can learn that you won’t use at some point. “I used to joke that maybe Animal Husbandry wasn’t actually something you needed to know to do props — but I was proven wrong. Anyone who does a 3 month run of Gypsy with a live lamb finds out really quickly that the reproductive habits of sheep is of great importance!
But a really wise professor once told me that you don’t need to know everything — you just have to know where to go to find out EVERYTHING. So I guess a sense of curiosity, a willingness to experiment, and genuine desire to make cool stuff is the most important thing you need. The skills can come — and they will. I had to learn how to spin for a show — I’ll never forget.”
With this in mind, it was easy to understand why Kelly says there is no such thing as an “impossible prop.” She says that it is hard to build a prop that you can’t imagine. “Plus,” she added, “there are just things that don’t exist in nature — yet. Heavy things can be made in plastic — but you still have to get them to act with it to make it look heavy. The table that can roll on in a scene shift or can be picked up by one person probably can’t be tap danced on — but with enough resources, you still might be able to work that one out. I’ve made some pretty wacky things… If you can find a picture of it, you can probably recreate it.”
Kelly’s most challenging prop came from a production of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. She says, “The 4 foot tall clear glass of milk was right up there in the “you want what?!” category. But it was really simple once I did a lot of math and learned how to effectively glue plexi. The challenge was getting over the non-believing phase. The giant bendy straw was a whole lot more fun.”
Kelly often faces other challenges as a prop master. Some of these challenges come from working with both scenic designers and directors. She says, “In Louisville, one of my directors used to be the worst at looking at something we had in stock and saying ‘well, that will work.’ I spent a lot of time asking him what he really wanted and showing him that we could actually create something much more appropriate (that I could be proud of as a designer and as a prop master) without much more effort. Usually, a director thinks they’re doing you a favor by doing this — but if you let them know that you want something better, and it won’t cost much more in the long run, they’ll get it eventually. But most of the time, I work with really good teams. Directors want to be in on the usage of an item, designers want it to look right and be correct for the period. A good designer also wants it to work for the usage! So if we’re all doing our jobs right, there are many less arguments — and more information sharing.”
“Right now I am still having trouble switching gears from the schedule I had in professional theatre to the educational venue.” At times, Kelly would have as many as fifteen shows a year with a professional crew, some interns, and equity actors. It is easy to imagine that the difference between this type of work and educational theatre is tremendous. She says, “I want to dedicate the same kind of time to production as I did before, but then you throw in classes to teach, faculty meetings, administrative paperwork that didn’t really exist in professional theatre — not to mention that producing a show with a student crew is a whole new world.” Although there may be challenges in this field, Kelly enjoys doing work that she is passionate about. She says, “My career has taken me so many places — and even though some of those places were really hard, I was poor as dirt, and I really questioned what I had gotten myself into, I wouldn’t trade one minute of it. I did wait quite a while to get married and have a family — I wasn’t even really sure that was in my cards — and that does make things a little more difficult. It’s not just about the job anymore (probably more healthy now that I don’t just spend my life at work), but it is hard balancing everything. ”
“Even though I don’t see myself here in 10 years, I don’t know where I will be. I want to get back into professional theatre — but right now that schedule won’t really jive with the needs of my family. Still — I’m doing good work. Different work. But important work. And most days, I’m good with that.”
Kelly offered a veteran’s advice to people who are thinking about a career in props: “It’s going to be hard. You are going to have to move around for a while in your career. You are going to have to take multiple jobs at one time when you start out. Don’t think you’re going to jump into your dream job right off the bat. BUT, once you find your dream job, know that that job might not even be the right one. Your dreams change, the perfect job in your 30’s might not be in your 40’s. Be flexible and intuitive and don’t see change as failure — it’s just change. Keep in good shape — really! You will move more furniture and boxes and crap than you will ever know. You will clean things that you don’t want to touch; you will reach into a box or move a steamer trunk and find a dead mouse. Props are not for the squeamish. And even though you should invoke passion into everything you do, you should also find joy in that. And remember that passion isn’t the same as ego. It’s not about you…. it’s about the thing — the project, the team, the experience. You can be really proud of that thing that you worked on forever and then got cut — but not pissy because it got cut. Always strive to learn more, move forward, and make it awesome!”