Robert demonstrating a chorus puppet from the Alliance’s production of the Wizard of Oz.

Interview with Robert Elliot

The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.

Behind the Scenes Featuring: Robert Elliott

by Alexandra Witten

Robert demonstrating a chorus puppet from the Alliance’s production of the Wizard of Oz.
Robert demonstrating a chorus puppet from the Alliance’s production of the Wizard of Oz.

In the theatrical world, Robert Elliott is an excellent view of who a props master is. His drive for solving problems that seem impossible makes him a perfect addition to the props industry. Robert wasn’t always aware that he was made for building props, in fact he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to go into theater. Like most college students he didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life. Interested in being in a management track, he decided to study stage management in undergraduate school at Boston University. The stage management program at B.U. made a point for their students to learn all of different disciplines of theater. Robert discovered that he held a larger passion for hands on work, such as building scenery, instead of working on the extensive paperwork the stage manager has to deal with. Soon after graduating he got a job being the stage manager for the University of South Florida but then through another connection he was offered and accepted to be the associate technical director for the American Stage in St. Petersburg, Florida. Roughly two weeks after he was hired his boss was let go and he was promoted to the position of technical director. There were many aspects about being a technical director that suited Robert over the years, but the monotony of building the same flats over and over again inspired him to leave his position and freelance in the theater world as a person who companies would call in to solve the impossible. After spending a few years in Spain, he moved to central Connecticut to continue his theater work. Most of the jobs he was called in for dealt with figuring out how to construct intricate and dynamic props. Props appealed to Robert for many reasons. He now had the opportunity to build objects for the theater that gave him the chance to troubleshoot and come up with an unique solution that would work the best. It was not a monotonous job for him because each individual job came with it’s own challenges and special limitations. The constrictions of a prop seem to drive Robert, he says “That’s basically what props is, having an idea you don’t know how to show on stage and then making it happen.”

Robert had the opportunity to work at many different theaters in the country. He worked as the prop carpenter for the Goodspeed Opera and was promoted to prop manager. He has also worked at the the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and the Arden Theater in Philadelphia. One of the main downsides to working in the northeast was being essentially laid off in the months when the theater season was over. Being born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Robert had an interest in moving back to the South. Not only was it closer to home but the Alliance Theater gave him a steady work opportunity. Robert has been with the Alliance for seven years and has no plans to leave. When talking about his job he presented a very realistic view of someone in the props industry. When asked if he enjoyed going to work everyday he simply responded with, “It depends on what day you ask me.” He explained that during the Alliance’s season he basically works from eight o’clock in the morning to midnight every day for about eight months in a row. In times when he’s in the middle of multiple shows he’ll often wake up at four in the morning with an idea to solve a particular problem. He exaggerates that if he doesn’t know how to solve a prop dilemma that the world will end, but at the end of the day Robert always sends the prop onstage working as it should.

The task of delivering a prop to the show is rarely an easy thing to do. Over the years Robert has made some very unusual and difficult props. The show God of Carnage provided one of the strangest props Robert has made. The show required a sofa that enabled a woman to throw up. This prop required many different parts in order to work as a whole unit. One aspect was a suit that the woman had to wear under her costume that held a tube that ran to the neck of her shirt, so that all she had to was place her hands by her neck. With the right movement the actress would look as though she was throwing up into her hands. The tube was hooked to a hydraulic system behind the sofa that on cue was triggered to push a strange concoction including soup thickener through the tube at the right speed so the woman had time to prepare for the mixture to come out of the tube. Since the actress wasn’t staged on the couch before this act took place, her onstage husband had to connect the actress to the the system in order for it to look as realistic as possible. Robert had to rely on many people in order to make sure that the prop he constructed looked as realistic as possible within the constrictive limitations that the script provided.

Even though the vomit enabling sofa was dynamic it’s not the only strange prop he’s had to create. In Charles Ludman’s play The Artificial Jungle, a character has to dip their hand in a piranha tank and appear as though their hand was eaten. When Robert first was approached this prop he remembered being with his dad, who was an avid fisher, when he was younger and looking at the mirrored appearance the tank had. Having been interested in the physics of light Robert knew how to approach the problem. After troubleshooting he discovered what would work the best he finally settled on the best solution for the show.

Robert got a fish tank and placed a piece of plexi glass diagonally from opposite corners. The portion closest towards the audience was filled with water and fake fish and gravel as to represent a normal fish tank. Fake fish were tied to the bottom of the tank so they wouldn’t float to the top. Then Robert hooked up a scuba tank to this portions so that bubbles flowed in the tank and it looked realistic. In the portion more upstage was left dry but with gravel. When the actor placed his hand in this section it would appear to be in the wet section because that was in front of it. When the actor put his hand in the tank for the illusion the bubbles flowed more than they had been and he was able to pull his sleeve up to reveal bones. Robert played to the show’s style with this prop because the audience knew that he wasn’t being hurt onstage but it was still a well done trick to provide what the show needed. In this prop you can tell that Robert is extremely knowledgable of not only how to construct a prop but how to analyze a show and determine its style.

Although most of these props are elaborate, Robert says the most difficult thing about making props for a living is figuring out how to interact with the people he’s working with. Every person on the production staff and design team has a different opinion about a each prop which often sets up constraints that Robert has to face when building or finding a prop. He says imagine if a show calls for a large purple sofa. Robert may want reupholster a sofa in storage to meet the needs of the show while the director might want to build a more elaborate piece because it can be custom designed to better fit their show. The designer also has a huge input into how the sofa should look on stage, which would also effect the decision Robert makes when it comes to this piece of furniture.

“Everyone has a sofa.” Robert says. “But not everyone has access to a fancy light board.” He explains the idea that you don’t have to be specially trained or an expert in furniture to know what a sofa is. Everyone knows the purpose of one and has their own idea in mind when the hear the word “sofa” and what it should look like. In other fields such as lighting or scenic construction, the carpenters and electricians are sent to do their task but Robert has to come up with a solution to make a certain prop work on stage, but while doing so also make a compromise between himself, the director, and the scenic designer. Robert often changes how he works with different collaborators as the world of props changes. He has a very straight forward view on how to gain knowledge in the prop world which can be summed up in one word, experience. When asked about the lack of master programs for props, Robert doesn’t necessarily believe it’s needed. Not to say that they are not important but he feels as though that a person can learn more about props by actually working in the field than sitting in a classroom. In the industry he says you gain knowledge as you go, which strengthens your ability to make other props. He also points out the fact that graduate school is very expensive and when entering any theater profession, you are not expecting to make a lot of money. Although Robert’s skills include detail woodwork, welding, and even being able to carve an object out of wood with a chainsaw he claims to still be picking up knowledge with every prop he builds. He doesn’t consider himself a highly honed expert within the field of props and prefers to be more spread out into different areas. He also doesn’t consider himself a mentor to anyone. He never had someone to teach him the different ways to build or construct things, making him a very self made man.

Although he puts so much work into a show, when it’s over, it’s done. He doesn’t like to hold onto certain props he’s made because as soon as one project ends he’s onto another. He considers his job to be done when he sends all of the props on stage and nothing breaks or is has been damaged. Robert never wants to get too attached to props when making them for a show because things get cut and changed so often. But when people are starting out in the props industry, Robert provides very specific resume advice. He says that you should provide three images of special projects that you have worked on that are interesting. These photos should be in a digital format in order to make it easier for the person hiring you to look at the work.

Robert is much more than just a props master when he isn’t building a basket of potatoes that chase a woman or a village of puppets you can find him playing in the sousaphone in his band, Seed and Feed Marching Abominable. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and two daughters who are thirteen and sixteen years old. They support their dad and go to his shows if they’re age appropriate sometimes Robert will even ask them an opinion about a certain prop he’s making. But sometimes his teenage girls decide to just let their dad do what he does best. His true love of his art form shines through in the work and effort that goes into everything he makes. It’s in his nature to troubleshoot the impossible to keep him from being bored, which is one main qualities of being a props person. The odd illusions that are created for theater allow us to enter a world, that Robert creates with his props.