The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarcoâ€™s properties class at Emerson College.
byÂ Rachael Dahl
When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up Nancy would always answer, “I don’t know… I just want to MAKE things.” But I had no idea where I would go to just make things… odd things… things that may have never existed before or were GREAT BIG GIANT THINGS or littleteenytinythings. Or fairy-tale things, or…” Nancy Wagner would describe herself as a textile freak! While she is not technically a props master she considers herself an artisan in the props world.
Nancy remembers fondly how she found the world of props. “I guess like a lot of people I didn’t go out looking for a career in props; I did theatre and musicals in high school and was equally at home onstage and backstage. At various times I built and painted sets, built and scrounged props, and worked on the shift crew.”
At the time Nancy wasn’t too fond of getting stuck doing props, because it meant asking your friends and relatives to lend you things that would probably get lost or broken. In fact, if you had told Nancy when she was 17 that she would spend the majority of her career doing props she would have gasped in horror! Nancy hated telling people that, no matter her vigilance, their stuff had vanished or was damaged beyond repair. They had no budget to buy anything, since props were considered a sort of afterthought by the powers-that-be.
Nancy studied theatre at Grinnell College, which was small enough that whatever aspect of a production she wanted to work on was available to her, and through her classes she built and painted sets, designed and ran lights, built costumes, stage-managed, and occasionally reluctantly did props. (Still no budget, still some apologizing…)
After college, when Nancy and all her friends were going to grad school, she knew she didn’t want to go someplace and study to be a set designer or lighting designer or costume designer or (horrors!) a lawyer, so she worked odd jobs in Grinnell and Iowa City while her boyfriend got a master’s in library science, and eventually they moved to Richmond, IN, when he got a library job. Richmond had, and still has, a thriving community theatre, so Nancy went there looking for work. There was, of course, PLENTY of work… just no money.
Nancy ended up volunteering and building and painting sets, stage-managing, and reluctantly doing props. She also volunteered to paint sets for the small opera company that was in town at the time, and then in the summer she worked for room and board at a nearby tent theatre that did summer musicals. The tent theatre afforded her some more experience doing costumes, and after a couple of years they actually paid her to do props. By this time there was a little money in the budget for props, so Nancy was able to find what she needed at thrift shops and dime stores, and actually enjoyed the process of changing what she could find into what she actually needed.
The opera company hired Nancy to tech-direct a production of Madame Butterfly. (She was also pressed into service in the chorus since she is short and the costume designer had cut a few kimonos too short!â€”it was that kind of place), and when the costume designer left mid-season to go to grad school in Russian history or something they hired Nancy as the costume designer. She did that for a about 18 months, but when her buddies at the tent theatre all got hired at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis for the next season, she decided to join them down there. Nancy’s friend Becky with the Master’s in Costume Design was going to be the costumer, but the prop master position was open…Â so…! That was in 1981, so it had been 8 years since Nancy graduated from college. Some people take a lot of time to find themselves!
That was the first time Nancy actually had control of a little bit of money to prop a show, but only enough to make it interesting. She couldn’t afford to buy anything from a store or catalogue, (and remember, there was no internet!) but she could wander around the hardware store and buy the parts that looked like, after being put together and painted, they would look like what she needed. And stay together for 6 weeks. The 3 years Nancy was at POTS were the most exhausting and creative years of her life. (Did I mention she was also the House Manager?)
Nancy was still borrowing things, which was even harder than before, since the person who had preceded her in the job had rarely returned anything! She kept her eye out for furniture and other objects in actor housing and prop storage, and as Nancy gradually returned a lot of the missing stuff she got people to lend again.
After 3 years there they were all burned out and decided to leave; Nancy went home to Kansas City to sponge off her folks for the summer while she decided what to do next. In August, Nancy called Kansas City Rep (Missouri Rep back then) and asked if the University had any prop classes she could take. (The Rep is on the campus of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and is intertwined with it.) Luckily, Jenny Knott (of Rosco fame) was working there that summer and answered the phone. “No props classes, but you could come and volunteer in the shop for the rest of the summer and get some experience that way.” So Debbi Morgan, prop master at the time, was on board with that, and Nancy worked for the next 2 or 3 weeks with them, finishing up the final summer production.
Nancy had signed up for a week-long upholstery course through K State extension service, which she turned out to be pretty good at, and after Debbi overhired her a few times to work on projects like re-covering the lobby cushions, and loading in Christmas Carol, she asked if Nancy would like the job of soft-props artisan there when they started up in January of 1985. Nancy said yes and has been there ever since!
At one point Deb quit, with a couple of shows still to go in the season, and they asked Nancy if she’d step in as prop master, at least till the end of the season. Nancy said she didn’t want the job. She’d really rather have the job of making things, rather than see to it that other people are making things. Dealing with layers of bureaucracy and insane directors and diplomacy are NOT her strong suit.
Luckily, by the next season Michael Schall, who had been scene shop supervisor, stepped in, and he has been great to work for, as was Deb!
Nancy had gone down to Little Rock and worked as the prop designer/builder for about 8 shows over the years, back in the â€˜80’s when the Rep’s schedule had large gaps in it that coincided with their needs, and she had done the same thing with about 10-12 shows at a couple of the smaller theatres in KC, into the ’90’s. The Rep schedule grew to fill in those gaps, so she hasn’t done much freelance for about the last 20 years.
When I asked Nancy about any other work she has done over the years she had this to say: “I have occasionally done some outside upholstery for people, and for other theatres in town where my friends happen to be working. Even, at times, some crafty stuff for commercial photography if my friends need some help. I remember making a bunch of cell-phone shaped gingerbread cookies for a Sprint commercial, but nothing else sticks in my mind.”
Nancy has a very strict routine at her work that she follows almost daily. Nancy likes to check her emails from rehearsals and performances the night they come in, so she has some idea what might come up the next day. If something has broken or changed radically Nancy can pick up needed materials on the way in, and save time. or at least have time to brainstorm and maybe do some online research that evening, so her unconscious can work on it while she is asleep. More than once Nancy says she has awakened with the perfect solution; one time she saw herself in her dream doing exactly what she needed to do for a project, step by step by step.
Nancy works in a props team of four: Michael, prop masterâ€”he shops for stuff and orders items online; Grace, his assistant and carpenter/welder/painter, and Mark, also a carpenter/welder, and Nancyâ€”She does all the upholstery/curtains/bedding and also a bunch of the Photoshop stuff, especially newspapers.
Michael trusts the team to discuss the project with the designer themselves, check with him when they know the costs of the materials needed, run their processes by him in case he has a suggestion or knows of a shortcut, and keep him in the loop about probable completion dates. Nancy’s job includes coming up with the techniques, ordering the fabric that’s been decided on, and paying attention to the notes to see if any of the requirements of the project have evolved since it was first designed. She’ll suggest fabrics to the designers (at least the ones she’s worked with before) and order swatches if she has to try out something before she commits.
Nancy says she usually doesn’t have to work past 5 or 6, except for tech weeks and previews during which they take turns baby-sitting the shows. Unless it’s a mammoth show, they can figure on only working one or two weekend days per month, plus coming in on Sunday evening about once a month for strike. It’s not too bad, but just uncertain enough (“what’s gonna blow up at tech tomorrow?!”) to make scheduling anything outside of work a bit tricky.
When I asked Nancy what skills she found the most important in being a successful props master she had this to say, “I think an attention to both the big picture AND the details is important. Being able to keep the big projects on track, while making sure nothing falls through the cracks, and it all gets finished at the same time… it’s like cooking a big dinner; you don’t want to get everything ready to serve and find out nobody made the gravy. Or the butter’s still frozen solid.”
Having worked with prop masters and been a prop master, Nancy thinks getting the balance right between trust and supervision is crucial. Part of that is having the right employees in the right jobs, but it’s also being able to communicate one’s expectations clearly so that it’s not necessary to hover over every stage of every project. And Nancy would also say that being REALLY NICE GUYS is a great qualification; everything runs better when people are amiable. And don’t forget patience. Very important.
Nancy says that the most challenging aspect of doings props for a living is the fact that the show has a relentless timetable and that everything needs to happen when it needs to happen, no matter what you’d rather be doing or what your friends are inviting you to do, or if the weather’s nasty or you don’t feel great… whenever she hears that a shopping center or a highway opening is “delayed” by a month or so she thinks “Huh. Must be nice to open ‘whenever'”. Some of the challenge is the sheer boredom… making specialty mattresses for show after show after show; seems like they have one bed show after another some years. BORING! Nancy keep herself motivated on some big sewing projects by figuring out how far down an imaginary football field she would have sewn by now. “I jump up and yell ‘touchdown!’ when I finally get that far. Little things…”
Nancy says the most rewarding aspects of doings props would have to be seeing how what she has done has added to a production, and seeing how creative and talented her co-workers are and what they’ve come up with while they were all scurrying around being busy with their own tasks. Walking out into the house when everything is done and turning around and seeing the set for the first time and going “WOW.” It’s almost exactly like the first time Nancy ever went backstageÂ (She was about 6)Â and saw that the stone castle was chicken wire and torn-up newspapers. “It’s so FAKE. I want to DO THAT.”
When I asked Nancy if there was such a thing as an impossible prop she had this to say, “Well, right now the SPAMmers are discussing ‘the unbreakable chair’. There IS no such thing. The most impossible prop is the perfectly ordinary object that the director or designer expects to act in a physically impossible way. It’s inevitable that if you throw a wicker chair against a stone wall, it will break. And no, we don’t have one for every performance. And yes, it was an antique from the 1920’s.”
Nancy says anything else that doesn’t defy the laws of physics, she just asks SPAM. Somebody has surely done something like it before, or Nancy can adapt some idea somebody has always wanted to try. “And we certainly sit around, the 4 of us, or the other 3, and bounce ideas off each other until we get to something we can try, modify, try again… and eventually suggest to SPAM when they need some ideas. The collective mind is a wonderful thing” said Nancy.
This is the last thing that Nancy wanted to add, “Rachael, if you are interested in being an artisan, learn to do everything that you find interesting. I can’t tell you how many actors I’ve taught to knit, how many knitting or crochet projects I’ve started so they can “work” on them onstage… learn leather crafting, even if only so you can mend things. Just knowing a bunch of techniques and the reasoning behind them is invaluable in resuscitating “dead and dying” props. I rescued a wicker baby buggy just because I knew about wicker from my basket classes. Ditto chair seats. It’s all grist for the mill! I hope this has been of some help… reading back over this I realize that one big factor in my making a living has been my willingness to volunteer somewhere. It seems that eventually they will offer you money to do the same thing. At least it gives you contacts in the business that will vouch for you… our jobs are too pressured to be able to put up with people that are stinkers.”