Real Live Theater

Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page

Where do you go when you need a fifty year old baby blue phone?

In Behind the Scenes on May 21, 2009 at 11:08 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Andrew Lewis and his salad prop (submitted photo)

Andrew Lewis and his salad prop (submitted photo)

SAN MATEO COUNTY, CA – Andrew Lewis fell into the prop rental business in the mid 1980’s while helping a neighbor who was working on the TV show “Miami Vice.”   He has owned The Prop House in Brisbane since 2003, although the business has been around for twenty years. With racks filled with props to the 20 foot high ceilings, and another warehouse in Oakland, “Just ask” is good advice at The Prop House.   Signs abound on each isle — “Fences, Carpets, Floors, Doors.”  A bin filled with medical supplies has a sign advising, “Fake blood available – Ask at counter.”  One isle looks like a colorful history of the telephone; in a corner, a small room is filled with hundreds of signs, from roads to hospitals.  Heavy items like saddles and large electronic devices sit on the floor, while the racks above hold lighter things like hats, toys, framed mirrors, lamps, rocking chairs and sporting equipment.

Sometimes volunteers from school or community theaters come in and ask for a prop without knowing much about what they are looking for.  Lewis usually asks them to call the director and find out what year or period the play takes place. “Once I know the year or period,” explains Lewis, “I’ll know or can find out what was popular or vintage for that time.”   As an example, he picked up a 1956 Life magazine, showing an ad of what a “modern” kitchen looked like, and a few record album covers displayed period microphones.

To save time and money, Lewis says, “I like to get community theaters to contact me before they start committing to ideas for props or sets.    I want to know ‘how much does the audience need to know about a prop or set in a scene?’   With a sink and a suspended mirror, we can sell the audience they are looking at a bathroom. You don’t need walls, windows or a floor.”

Often seasoned prop masters will contact Lewis for advice.  Lewis notes, “After twenty six years, what others find hard to figure out comes naturally to me.”  However, Lewis quickly adds, “People have been making and adapting props for centuries. Sometimes I’ll think of a ‘new’ idea, and then read that’s how it was done hundreds of years ago.”

Occasionally, props require construction or adaptation.    Lewis has a box that quickly attaches to a phone to make it ring, and stop ringing when the phone is picked up.  He has made a wagon wheel out of a ships wheel, and a ships wheel out of a wagon wheel.  Using a pair of one liter plastic soda bottles, he made a large hourglass.

A prop needs to be dependable and easy to use by the actors without requiring elaborate setup.  For a recent school play, the prop master needed an oxcart that a student could easily pull and be sturdy enough that it wouldn’t fall apart.    “A real oxcart is heavy and has wooden axels,” Lewis explains. “I helped them build one out of a light wood crate, using a threaded rod for an axel, with bearings so the wheels rolled smoothly and easily.  Then we painted the metal to look like wood.”

During our interview, a member of his staff helped a prop master design a jewelry display out of a fabric covered table, a wood rack filled with angled dowels, which were filled from a box of jewelry.

One scene in a play called for an actor to use a knife to slash another actor’s throat.  “We provided a rubber knife and how to use it,” Lewis says.  “Right before the scene, a piece of yarn was soaked in fake blood, and then stuck on the back edge of the blade.  When the throat was slashed, the red squeezed out of the thread onto the neck. It was simple, and real enough that the audience reacted.”

“A prop like this needs to be 100% safe,” Lewis added.  “The audience needs to be safe as well.   When we use foggers, the fog has to be FDA approved.  And signs and announcements need to be made, so asthmatics are aware of fogger being used.   There is licensing, fire permits and sometimes firearms permits.  We have ‘theatrical fire,’ fans with lights on silk.”

In the past, more chemicals were used to do painting and special effects.  “Now, “ Lewis says, “We have lower toxicity with latex, water based and poster paints.  For a prop, the paint doesn’t have to last forever, sometimes only a few days.   For FX, we have electric spark devices, foggers, and more high tech ways of doing things.”

Movies usually have bigger budgets for props, and lots of technology,” Lewis adds.  “For community theaters, a prop supplier must be more clever and resourceful.    Since there is no money, there is no budget.”

Lewis says, “Finding and creating the right props for community theaters is challenging and fun, because I have the liberty to think outside the box.  I’m looking for a prop based on what the director sees or envisions, not what is really there.”

“A theater prop often doesn’t have to have every detail like it would need for a film or TV show with close-ups.   I know how to do it on a movie budget; for community theaters, I need to figure out how to make it work without the $1000 part. I need to be like McGuiver, making something out of nothing, make do with what we’ve got.”

Additional information about The Prop House can be found at

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:


Broad Comedy: a cross between Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live and the Vagina Monologues

In Artist Spotlight on May 17, 2009 at 4:16 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Broad Comedy Opening Number (submitted photo)

Broad Comedy Opening Number (submitted photo)

BOZEMAN, MT – Like many a performer before her, Katie Goodman has asked the age-old question of her traveling troupe: Will it play in Peoria?

In Goodman’s case, the question takes on a slightly different hue, because she lives in Peoria. Not the Peoria, but Bozeman, Montana, a town appropriate enough for its Middle America sensibilities. If Broad Comedy, the 10-year-old all-female song-and-dance comedy cavalcade she started with her husband, can gets cheers in Bozeman, it’ll fly just about anywhere.

Of course, for her latest show, Goodman was more concerned than usual. Maybe it was the Park Bench Mothers’ close-up demonstration of camel toe. Or the three walking vaginas, the youngest of which is paid a visit by a teenage penile suitor. Or perhaps it was the girl pledging to save her hymen for Jesus. Somehow, the show had turned out far raunchier than she had intended.

“After we got to dress rehearsal, we were like, ‘Oh, my god, what have we done?’” she says.

But despite the initial apprehension, the show garnered nothing but delight from the Bozeman crowd, who once again packed two nights of the 700-seat Emerson Theater to capacity.

“It’s such a good place to try material out and see if it works,” she says.

That’s not to say there haven’t been issues. Along with its ribald take on sexuality and women’s issues, the show’s left-of-center take on politics once started a vigorous, curse-laden shouting match between two female audience members while Goodman was mid-song.

That instance was an aberration, she says, adding that Bozeman is more worldly than people would expect. “But people in L.A. are definitely like, ‘Oh, do you have cowboys coming to your shows?’ We’re like, ‘Sometimes,’” she says, laughing.

What works in Bozeman seems to work everywhere – Broad Comedy has performed to rave reviews for an extended three-month run in Boston, as featured performers at the Ms. Magazine Foundation Fundraiser in New York City three years in a row, and won Best of the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2005. Future shows are planned for Los Angeles and New Orleans, and the Edinburgh and Melbourne Fringe Festivals may be in the works.

“Somebody once said we’re a cross between Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live, and the Vagina Monologues,” says Goodman, who just turned 41. Many of the skits are musical; she writes them with her husband, Soren Kisiel, with whom she also co-founded Bozeman’s Equinox Theatre Company.

“He’s like Plot Man. He conceptualizes really well,” she says. “I’ll be like, ‘I have this idea. What do we do with this?’ He’ll brood for five days and be like, ‘I’ve got it!’”

They both have backgrounds in theater, particularly musical theater – Goodman studied classical singing and had opera teachers for six years – but she says that she and Kisiel were heavily influenced by absurdist and experimental theater of the ’80s and ’90s – what she refers to as the “naked performance art era.” So, one might be confronted with a myriad of human-sized vaginas on-stage during any given show, as well as a giant ovum that interviews sperm to see who gets the job of fertilization.

Goodman, who ran the Philadelphia Women’s Theater Festival and started Los Angeles’ National Women’s Theater Festival after graduating from college, points to the feminist take on that skit, which she says is based on an actual theory that says the egg selects its sperm. She says that she often shares ideas for the show with her mother, Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. “And it’s in the paper four days later, rather than in my show four months later. And it’s like, ‘Dammit, she stole our material!’”

Goodman recently published Improvisation for the Spirit, a self-help book about using the tools of improv comedy in everyday life. She also plans to do more solo work on stage, but she foresees doing Broad Comedy for a long, long time. “When I was 39 I was going, ‘Am I going to be doing the Extreme Right Wing Cheerleading Squad in my 40s? And playing this teenager in the hymen one?’  But once you pass a certain age it doesn’t matter because then it’s such a spoof, as opposed to I’m trying to look 18.”

Since the Broads started ten years ago, various performers have done their time in Bozeman and moved on – now there are 17 or so Broads in other parts of the country, who perform for out-of-town shows. Goodman, always on the lookout for new venues, says she hopes to rehearse new casts in cities throughout the country, so they can perform extended gigs.

“It’s such an open venue for me and Soren,” she says. “We could stop, we could take the material we have and tour that forever. But we love writing new stuff.”

More about Broad Comedy can be found at, or on YouTube by typing “Broad Comedy” into the search window.

Broad Comedy logo

Broad Comedy logo

Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude:

What is your primary relationship to theater?

In Editor's Note, Who's watching? on May 8, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Editor’s Note

The world of theater is not unlike a circus family. Everyone involved in a circus needs to lend a hand to erect the big top, feed the elephants and be able to fill in for a clown, juggler or lion tamer if needed, but everyone has their specialty. What is your theater specialty? What is your primary relationship to theater?

Thank you for participating.

Cheryl Itamura is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Real Live Theater.

Other articles by Cheryl Itamura include:

Making theater without a theatre?

In Behind the Scenes on May 1, 2009 at 4:07 pm

by Phil Gravitt

For Rent, photo by joe potato

For Rent, photo by joe potato

MARIN COUNTY, CA – “The challenges of creating a theater out of an empty storefront are what make it fun,” says Jeanette Harrison, Artistic Director and Actor with AlterTheater, a Marin County theater group. Art galleries and retail stores also have been locations for AlterTheater performances. “Our point is to be in places where people walking by on the street will see in, and see theater going on, like on 4th street in San Rafael.”

“Our space designers, technicians and directors must be flexible and interested in the challenge,” explains Harrison.  “For each space, we design the stage and sets, the audience areas.  Often even the dressing rooms must be created, occasionally with stacked boxes in a storeroom.    Sometimes the stage is defined by a piece of tape on the floor; occasionally we create location with a soundscape instead of building a fancy set.   If we are in a retail space, we move the furniture or use it as props.”   The seating may be arranged so the audience surrounds the actors, or form a horseshoe shape around the stage area, or a normal theater configuration.

“We have no fancy stage,” says Harrison. With no formal separation between the actors and the audience, an AlterTheater director once observed, “The advantage and disadvantage of working this way is there is no place to hide.”

Another challenge is finding and analyzing the right space and electrical power in the available area.  Harrison explains, “If there is power, will it have the capacity we need, or will we be limited to just a few lights?”

The idea for AlterTheater came from Marin actors who, in the face of rising bridge tolls, “began looking to work on our own side of the bridge.” Harrison says, “We started using empty storefronts because we would rather pay actors instead of landlords.”  Altertheater also prides itself on being a found-object theater: almost everything you see in their productions is borrowed, found for free, rescued or recycled.

Having a reputation for taking care of the space has helped AlterTheater find locations, which are needed for five weeks, one week longer than the four week run of a performance.   Commercial realtors and building owners have been happy getting publicity for their empty storefronts.  “And art galleries are interested in supporting all arts, not just visual arts,” says Harrison, “while retail store owners are excited to have people who don’t typically come into their stores.”
In an empty storefront, AlterTheater can stay set up for the entire run of the performance.  However, Harrison says, “We usually have a backup location.  Twice the space was rented during our run, and we had to move, even after the postcards and posters were printed.”

While AlterTheater relies on Facebook, mailing lists, calendar listings and publicity in local papers, the best publicity is the storefronts themselves.  “A good percentage of our audience is non-theatergoing people who live and work in neighborhood.” says Harrison. “Sometimes passengers waiting for a bus read our posters in the window. By being in the neighborhood, we bring theater to the people.”

New actors also must be up to the challenge.  “Although we primarily work with a core ensemble of actors, when we bring in new people, reaction varies,” observes Harrison. “I recommend actors see one of our shows first to know what they are getting into.”

Additional information about AlterTheater can be found at

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include: