The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Across the World in Props, with Tina Stevenson
by Jeremy Stein.
“Be flexible, smile even when you’re frustrated, if you don’t know the answer say so, learn something new everyday, never be afraid of a challenge, but never stretch yourself or department because of it.”
These words of advice come from Prop Master and Art Director Tina Stevenson who has been working professionally in the industry since she was an undergraduate at Central Michigan University through their summer theater program in 1994. This group would travel to Petoskey, MI which is a very touristy area on Lake Michigan. “A troupe of about twelve students rehearsed three shows on campus for three weeks and opened on campus — then travelled north, loaded in, performed for three weeks, struck the show and travelled back. We all performed on stage and had production positions. Essentially all twelve of us made up the entire company from front of house to leading roles to back stage. I was cast in a leading role for one show and prop master for the other two. I discovered I enjoyed both acting and working on props.” Tina ended up being a member of this troupe for two summers.
In 1997, out of college, Tina began working with The North Carolina Shakespeare Festival (NCSF). She had sent out several resumes and applications for summer stock work and was offered artisan and intern positions at the places she applied to, but it was NCSF that offered her the Prop Master position. “I was young and thought hey, I can do this!”
Tina ended up moving to North Carolina and was the prop master for a two show summer stock season of Richard III and As You Like It. As they closed, they had two weeks off and then began A Christmas Carol. Tina worked with NCSF from 1997-2001 and she was able to pick up other work as a prop master while still being able to work with NCSF. She freelanced with Piedmont Opera, High Point Theater, Carolina Ballet, High Point Ballet, Sand Hills Ballet, Temple Theater and worked with The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local #635 and #417.
In the year 2000, Tina did an impressive amount of work by beginning with the Play Makers Company on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In addition, she oversaw work-study students, taught a prop class every other semester, taught workshops for The United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) South-East Region, and propped all of the AEA productions for Play Makers. In 2001, Tina began working summers with Utah Shakespeare Festival (USF) as the prop master in the Adams Memorial Theater. She moved to Cedar City, Utah in 2003 and continued to work with USF until 2011, except for the summer of 2008 when she gave birth to her twin boys. While there, she taught a prop class with Southern Utah University. In 2008, Tina returned to North Carolina and began working with Piedmont Opera again; since then, she has been a prop master for Triad Stage’s productions in Winston Salem, Festival Stage of Winston Salem, and came full circle by prop mastering with NCSF again! Tina has been a member of SPAM since 1999 and has served on USITT panels at the national conventions.
Tina studied Theater Arts at Central Michigan University. She was majoring in acting and in her junior year a friend had suggested she learn something in production as well so that as she auditioned she could also work and pay her bills. Tina signed up to prop their next Theater-On-the-Side performance which ended up being the show American Buffalo, and it was there she fell in love with being a prop master.
Tina is inspired by a lot of the people out in the world doing what prop people do. People who inspire her are Jim Guy, Kelly McKinley, Jen Dumes, and Ben Hohman. “Ben Hohman can jump in a dumpster and come out with 45 things, wiggle his nose and voila! A masterpiece out of found objects that is exactly what the designer asked for – oh, and it’s a motorized animatronic monkey!” Tina also said, “Who I am today in the industry has been shaped and taught by a lot of people, from my high school drama teacher, my college costume faculty, the first professional TD I worked with, Scenic Artists, Stage Managers, Directors, Designers, and most importantly the students I’ve taught, interns and PAs I’ve mentored and artisans I’ve had the privilege to shape, mold and learn from myself. If we’re open to learning even if we’re the ‘boss,’ then inspiration is everywhere.”
In addition to theatrical prop work, Tina has also done a lot of work in film. She began in film as the On-Set Prop Master. On her second film, and all of her subsequent films, she has been the Art Director. “In film there is a funny dichotomy between Props and the Art Department. Props in film are only the items the talent handle. So: the food they eat, the leash they have the dog on, the journal they write in… Everything else falls under the purview of the Art Department; all the set dressing, set decoration, practical lighting, furniture, art work, walls, doors, hardware, tile, carpet, bathroom fixtures, etc. etc. The Art Director oversees ALL of those things and realizes the vision of the Production Designer, Set Designers, Director of Photography, Director, Producers, and Unit Production Manager; as well as juggling and balancing the labor, assets, materials, rentals, location budgets for each set and location.”
Tina had done Production Design on an independent film with Jerry Reese, but she still prefers Art Direction. As the Art Director, Tina hires both the Art and Prop departments and manages them. In addition, she is in charge of time management with locations, loading in, dressing/decorating, prepping, clearing and wrapping locations.
Tina also works with IATSE Local #635 as their resident House Prop Person. As the resident House Prop Person, she works as the prop master for the house the shows tour into; working hand in hand with the touring prop master to facilitate load in, set up, run, and strike of the touring show. She has also propped concerts and wrestling events with the union. “Both of those are quite a different experience than prop mastering theater. For The Dixie Chicks, prop mastering included setting up their treadmills and chaises in their dressing rooms. For Reba McEntire it was more traditional prop work as she does a more theatrical concert; handling chairs, tables, hand props, etc. that she integrated into her concert. For wrestling – well, it’s pyro and folding chairs.”
For Tina, there is no “typical” daily routine. It all depends on what project she is on at the time. However, her routine usually involves getting up at 6:30 in the morning to make sure lunches are packed, breakfast is made, little boys get up, dressed, fed, and packed up and off to school by 7:25. If she is on a film, her day begins right after drop off and becomes a 10 to 12 hour day. If on a theater project, she is likely to come home, prep for whatever she is off to do, whether it be shopping, research, working on props in her studio, or attending meetings. If she is on a union call, her day would start at 8 am with a load-in, an afternoon rehearsal, an evening performance and a night strike.
When I asked Tina if there was such a thing as an “impossible prop” she replied, “An ‘impossibility’ goes against my grain. I’ve learned over the years to know when to say ‘no, it’s not possible.’ However, before I say this I exhaust all possibilities. Sometimes ‘impossible’ doesn’t mean there’s no way to fabricate or procure an item, but because it isn’t in the budget, or you don’t have the manpower to produce the item.”
Tina has dealt with some very challenging props. At the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Tina was put to task by trying to create a full stage tree with many upstage and downstage layers that also swagged, permitted a slip stage, permitted actor reveals, and “playing”. Since it was also the founder’s directing swan song, there was a lot of pressure to get it right. “The prop shop bought a fabric quilt cutter with a leaf die cutter. We cut thousands and thousands of leaves, we used a retail tag gun to attach them to twill tape we dyed to the correct green, we rigged it to swag like Austrian drapes, we “hemmed” it in place with the designer and director so that it looked and felt and moved naturally as well as accommodated all of the technical/scenic elements. It was a labor of love and a project I am proud to have worked on. Oh, did I mention there were strands and strands and strands of twinky lights embedded through it all?”
Another challenging project Tina was on was at Play Makers for a production of Salome. The scene was where the leading man is beheaded and Salome is presented with his head. “The space at Play Makers is very intimate. The actor was an African American with very distinguished features and a full head of dread locks. Not only did the shape have to be exact, so did the coloring. It was a phenomenal learning experience and I was lucky enough to have production shots of it featured in American Theater Magazine.”
With as much experience as Tina has, she is bound to have some good prop stories and these ones are great to share. Tina was working on a production of Dinner with Friends which needed a lot of consumable cakes. Tina has family members that can go into anaphylactic shock and because of this, she takes food allergies very seriously in her work. For this production, she was told by the Stage Manager that one actress is allergic to chocolate and the other to oil. After several experiments they made a half spice and half gingerbread cake to get the right color on stage and substituted applesauce and yogurt for oil. “It was a pain in the butt, but the safety of the actress was important to me”. At the opening night party, the actress with the oil “allergy” told the SM that “the human body is made up of 2/3 water and that oil and water don’t mix”. This was the justification the actress had for her allergy. I can go on and on but I’ll say no more.
Another story was when Tina was working on — as she described it — a HATEFUL production of Merchant of Venice. She was not able to find common footing with the director, the designer had given up on the director, the Stage Manager and the director wouldn’t speak to each other, and the Shylock was an A-list actor for theater, film, and TV (fun fact, he’s in Once Upon a Time on ABC). “We had just loaded all of the show props into the road box on the deck of the Adams Memorial Theater. There was a horrible wind storm sweeping in and it swept this heavy full road box away from the back wall, blew the doors open and used them like sails to careen the road box to the end of the back deck and toss it face down onto the bricked courtyard breaking and shattering just about every single item in the box.” Tina has digressed since then.
Tina believes that in the world of props, the ability to “roll with it” is an important skill. Often times, things get added, cut, changed, etc. all the time. A detachment from an item is necessary. Too much personal investment can cause stress when a director/designer/talent needs a change to the item. “I find with the young people I work with after working for a week on building a piece of furniture or craft prop and it gets cut can cause hurt, anger, distress because of a personal investment. It’s not personal and that seems to be a tough lesson to learn.” In addition, Tina also mentioned that knowing one’s limit is also an important skill. She said, “You can say yes all day long, but if you can’t deliver that’s a problem”.
Seeing as how props require an intensive amount of work, I asked Tina what she found was the most rewarding aspect. She replied saying that she very much enjoys the creative outlet she is afforded in doing props and Art Direction. “I’m lucky to live in a thriving arts community that is also a wonderful area of the country to raise children. I get to work with a wide array of professionals; designers, directors, TDs, Directors of Photography, Producers, etc. I also very much enjoy the opportunity I’m afforded to do something different every day! There is never a dull or mundane moment.”