WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21: Samina Vieth, 28, poses for a portrait at the Washington,… (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
Andrea “Dre” Moore has to come up with a severed head and an exploding cake. Not a problem.
Already filed tidily on her laptop are photos of disembodied heads. She knows how heavy each one is — a significant point. The head will be wrapped in a bag when it appears onstage in Round House Theatre’s “Crown of Shadows: The Wake of Odysseus,” starting performances April 11, but it will need the bulk of a real lopped-off noggin.
“This one is the heaviest,” the freelance props designer says cheerfully as she calls up a photo.
Blue eyes stare out from a plasticlike bloodied face.
She taps her keyboard and less-viable visages pop up. “These ones are latex foam, almost like a Nerf ball,” says Moore, 31. She is sitting in a conference room at Glen Echo’s Adventure Theatre, the company that needs the detonating cake, for “Five Little Monkeys,” opening April 27.
Moore is among the handful of Washington area thespians who work as freelance properties designers. It’s a community that gets relatively little glory, critical as properties (a.k.a. props) can be to the theatrical illusion.
Chalk up the low profile to the economics and work-flow structures of theater: Typically, a show’s scenic designer — responsible for the overall physical environment of the show, from walls to floors — masterminds and supervises most props, so he or she reaps much of the credit. (A costume designer may call the shots on handbags and the like.) There are prop masters or artisans on staff at larger theaters, but mid-size and smaller companies bring in freelancers.
Over at Theater J in the District, Samina Vieth has been figuring out how to trick-rig a battered chaise so an actor will look as if he has an amputated leg for “The Whipping Man,” starting performances April 18.
“On every show, there’s one large challenge I’ve never done before,” Vieth says matter-of-factly as she sits in a quiet nook.
She riffles through a booklet detailing the artifacts she’ll salvage, borrow, adapt or construct for “The Whipping Man,” which tells the story of a Jewish Confederate household at the end of the Civil War: candlesticks, knives, a grandfather clock, whiskey bottles and a Haggada, the liturgy for the Passover celebration. Needless to say, all of these items must smack of the late 19th century.
“You have to be at the right place at the right time and go scrounging and just be very resourceful,” says Vieth, 28.
Props are, of course, the objects that appear onstage to bolster a play’s story line or to add color and plausibility to a fictional world. Objects handled by actors — an envelope, a martini glass, the dead seagull in “The Seagull” — fall under the rubric of props, but so do less-portable objects, including rugs and furniture, and atmospheric bits of stage dressing, such as an empty pizza box.
Coming up with such items may require skills in carpentry, sculpting, upholstering and Photoshop, not to mention budgeting prowess and a dedication to trolling antique shops, Home Depot, party-supply stores, and eBay and Craigslist.
Vieth, who has a master of fine arts degree in scenic design from Florida State University, made two dozen plaster-of-Paris clocks for Constellation Theatre Company’s 2010 “Three Sisters” (one was broken in each performance); and this year, for the Folger Theatre’s “The Gaming Table,” she turned surgical tubing into a tapeworm.
Moore, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree in crafts from Virginia Commonwealth University, has quilted and welded for recent shows, and when Olney Theatre Center presented Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Venus” in 2004, Moore fabricated a human uterus floating in a jar (carved insulation foam did the trick).
Both props designers have had to hunt down taxidermied animals.
The two women say they are paid a fixed sum for labor on a given production (Moore recalls that one early freelance gig earned her a massive $250) and their budget generally falls between $800 and $3,000. It’s hardly the kind of work that generates fame or fortune.
“Properties people are the unsung heroes of the design team,” says Theater J Associate Producer Delia Taylor, who got her start as a props apprentice at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
That’s another way of saying that props wrangling epitomizes the collaborative nature of theater. A props person and set designer must be “an integral tag team,” observes Eric Reynolds, associate props director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, whose props department relies on seven full-time staff members, plus occasional project-based employees.