The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
by Dorcas Thete
How long have you been at the University of Michigan?
I have been here for nine years. I’ve had three different job titles. I have been the properties manager for two and a half years, which entails more of the administrative side of props, where I deal more with students and professors. Before that I was the associate properties manager for four years. I worked hand in hand with the props master; we would rotate on shows to cut down on burnout. I was hired at UMich as the properties artisans manager, I worked more on individual projects.
How many shows does the school do every year?
UMich does ten main stage productions every year: two operas, two musicals, six dramatic pieces – but we also do a modern dance show, four studio productions and student productions every two weeks.
How did you first get into the business and how long have been doing it?
I have been in theater since 1994. I actually went to college with the plans of becoming a high school shop teacher. In college, at the University of Southern Indiana I took an introduction to technical theater class. Being raised in a rural area in Illinois, I didn’t know you could make money from doing theater. At the University of Southern Indiana there were about fifty technician theater majors so if I didn’t show up to hang the lights there weren’t any lights in the show. I did a little bit of everything during that time.
What was your first professional gig?
At the New Harmony Theater in New Harmony, Indiana.
How did you get it your first gig?
My university produced an equity summer theater company. They brought in professionals to work alongside students.
Did you study to become a prop person or did you arrive at the work in some other fashion?
I originally planned to be a technical director and discovered I didn’t like building flats and platforms. I love the small detail work that comes with making props. I like the challenge.
Do you do other work besides prop work?
Well, I work thirty-two weeks a year at the school, but in the summer I get laid off. In the summer I make Model T mechanics for a museum. I got that job because of a show I was working on the following year. We needed an antique car, then the guy who was interviewing me about the car said I should learn to make one at the antique model garage. The summer after I started working at the museum, and I have been working there for six summers now.
Do you think there are similarities to making Model T’s and props?
I very much enjoy doing both, and they consist of an accuracy of detail. That’s what drives me in the prop world. For example, if I need a newspaper in Russian, I will make sure it is in the right language: the specificity is important to get into the world of the play.
Describe what a daily routine is like for you.
I get up around 6:30-7:00 am. I have breakfast with my sons at 7:00. I usually read my email during breakfast. I get to work and we have a staff meeting with the rest of the props people, then we divide labor for the day. We pair up with students who need experience or help with a special skill set. I sometimes go to the warehouse and pick up things that are needed, check on things that were just added. Around 11:00 am the new props start rolling in. In the afternoon, nine to twelve students come in, we divide the students depending on how many kids we need and the task that needs to be done for a show.
What’s the most challenging aspect for you of doing props?
It differentiates from show to show. I think it’s different from going to professional props work to academic props. For professional work, I make the prop ready for the stage; working academically the student is learning something while working on the product.
What did you do before working with props?
I worked as a welder to make nuclear reactors for Virginia Class submarines.
What’s the most rewarding aspect for you of doing props for a living?
Seeing the completed show and also seeing a student’s reactions to completed props work.
What’s the most challenging aspect for you of doing props you’ve seen in your career?
We just did Dead Man Walking, where we needed a lethal injection machine. We needed the drugs to on cue with the music, we had to figure out what remote control to use and what worked and what didn’t. We did a lot of good research on it but the biggest challenge was how do we make it fit in a 1,300 seat theater?
Is there such a thing as an “impossible prop”?
Oh no, it all depends on the production triangle, budget, time, specificity. You can have a good quality, fast or cheap, you aim for a perfect triangle but two out of three takes precedent in the end. We’ve actually had some props mentioned in reviews. In Cabaret we had a pineapple disco ball that looked… they questioned why it was in the show; in Dead Man Walking they said the execution scene was too realistic; and in Fuente Ovejuna, a town in 1400, villagers rebelled against their captain lord, cut his head off… too real… made a cast of his head too…
Are there any memorable props you or an actor have taken home once the show has closed?
I don’t usually take props home. I take a lot of photos and put them on the university’s Facebook page or add it to my portfolio as a reminder of how I did something. I am a professional hoarder – it is better if I don’t take things home.
Have you encountered conflicts between scenic designers and directors over prop choices and how have you dealt with it?
Not necessarily. The main challenge I have had is to get them in the room at the same time – which is difficult, rehearsal halls are seven miles away from the scene shops. It’s hard to try to coordinate people who have different teaching schedules. The budget is the only thing that doesn’t change.
Do you have people who inspire you or who you’d credit for becoming the prop person you are today?
I don’t think I can claim one person. The whole SPAM organization makes me strive to do better work and to teach students to do better in their own work.
Are there any memorable students you have had? What type of student do you enjoy working the most with?
There’s not one particular student but I love working with the students that struggle, they teach me what I need to work on to become a better teacher. One day there was this girl who didn’t come back after a day of tool time. I later found out that her brother had accidentally cut off two fingers working with a saw. If we had known that in advance, we would have changed the training. The students that fall short are the ones that I remember more… I hate to use this term, but every student comes with their own “baggage.”
Are there any props stories you’d like to share?
Oh boy, there are so many. I have gone as far west as Arizona and then turned around. Well, when I was working professionally as properties carpenter at Arizona Theater Company, Ming Cho Lee came in to design. Anytime he was in town I used to badger him with questions, I thought he was prestige. One day he said to me, “Pat, it will be fine.” I lacked faith in myself because of how prestigious he was. He gave me the confidence I needed by believing in my work. Oh, once I had to build a table in three hours, I was working at the Goodspeed Theatre. Once the show moved in, the desk that was built previously no longer worked for the show. It was like making cocktail napkin sketches into a physical object.
Do you think there is a challenge with working in props?
When I worked with production companies, they always had an end date. Some years I’m glad to hit that end date or others I’m like, summer, don’t come. I think academically the biggest challenge is the rapid changing of technology.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about a career in props?
Listen to everyone!! Starting out, listening to other people talk about projects really benefitted my work. I also think props managers need a prop team – with the amount of shows we’re doing, it’s not going to happen if it is just one person.