Real Live Theater

Posts Tagged ‘community’

Shop ’til You Drop, or Find the Right Prop for Theater (or Theatre)

In Behind the Scenes on December 18, 2008 at 1:27 am

by Phil Gravitt

Holding the Trophy photo by Yuri Arcurs

Holding the Trophy photo by Yuri Arcurs

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – When Stephanie Lisius goes shopping, there is no telling what she’ll come home with — an antique suitcase, a salesman’s sample case, a 1930’s football, a leather basketball.  She shopped for all those things recently in her role as prop master.

Asked to describe what falls under the responsibility of the prop master, Stephanie replied, “Anything that gets picked up and moved around by an actor in the show.   The set designer is responsible for items that remain in one place, like a bed, refrigerator, or piano.”

Previously, Lisius had schedule intense roles like stage manager, with rehearsals four days a week, working late into the night, plus the run of the production.  As a full time social worker, committing to the long hours and specific times was no longer feasible for her.   Becoming a prop master allowed her to stay involved in theater while being fully present as a social worker.  Now she attends a few rehearsals, in case the director adds a prop or two, and weekly or biweekly 6 P.M. production meetings, which last no more than ninety minutes.    “I can do the rest of the prop master responsibilities on my own time,” she says, “instead of being tied to specific times and many meetings.”

Stephanie has what it takes to be prop master.  She is detail oriented, cares about authenticity, and is relentless in finding just the right item without going over budget.    In addition to forays into the property rooms of local theater groups, Lisius scours Craigslist and eBay, where she found the 1930’s football for ten dollars.   Shopping at antique and second hand stores on weekends, Stephanie always mentions the various things she is looking for.  “People are always eager to help and make suggestions when they know it is for a theater production.”

Another great resource is the Sonoma County theater community.  Lisius says, “There are many people with three or four decades of theater experience.   After an unsuccessful search for the leather basketball, a theater veteran suggested “Pick up an inexpensive rubber one, and spray paint it brown.”   An involved local actor and antiques collector generously offered to loan period suitcases.  “I keep many lists,” she says. “Since many props are borrowed, it is important to make sure an item gets back to where it came from, and in the same condition.”

Sometimes not finding the exact prop works out fine.  In one musical comedy, the store scene called for an old cash register.  Not finding one, a child’s plastic register was spray painted to look metallic.    Since the store in the scene wasn’t making any money, having a cheap sounding cash register was realistic.  For a drama, sports pennants were to be carried in one scene, and a megaphone was substituted.

To determine what props are needed for a show, Lisius explains, “I go through the script and notice anytime an item is handled or mentioned—an actor buying a trophy, carrying shoulder pads, asking ‘Where are my stockings?’   Knowing how and when an item will be used on stage, how visible it will be, and if it will be noticeably from the time period the play is set, are also important.  When the prop fits the scene, attention stays on the actor.”

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


Regarding the well-rounded, multi-talented, pinch-hitting people that make theater (or theatre) happen

In Behind the Scenes on December 8, 2008 at 6:20 am

by Phil Gravitt

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – In the world of theater it is often useful to know how to do more than just one thing.

Wearing Multiple Hats photo by Shane Michael

Wearing Multiple Hats photo by Shane Michael

Jeff Basham, a truly multi-talented person and wide-ranging contributor to Sonoma County theater, says, “It helps if the technicians understand the whole picture. A well-rounded technician is able to pinch-hit in any technical spot at a moment’s notice. If the deck crew knows how to run the sound board, and the sound operator gets sick in the middle of a show, that deck crew can run to the booth and take over.”

Basham is a stage manager and sound engineer, but he has also contributed to theater as a rehearsal stage manager and as an assistant stage manager, and in many other ways.

“It is extremely helpful for theater technicians to be well-rounded. If a production manager knows that they can use you in any position they need, rather than just lights or just sound – they will keep your name high on the list.” says Basham.

Although he has spent countless hours on the technical side of theater, Jeff has managed to find time to be an actor too. The difference in the amount of time acting takes versus other theater aspects is somewhat of a balancing act and must be considered carefully when choosing between the two.

Basham explains, “ The main difference is the time commitment involved. An actor or stage manager devotes 80% of their time to the rehearsals, production meetings, press events, etc. A sound engineer or deck crew member is only involved once tech week starts and during the run.”

There are other differences between being the on-stage presence and being a backstage or technical booth presence too.

“As an actor, the audience really identifies you. In other positions such as stage manager, sound engineer, or light board operator, talents come in the form of staying invisible, and your skill is based on how invisible you are during a show.” says Basham.

Besides the obvious technical training needed in order to run the vast array of electronic equipment involved behind the scenes, Basham explains other important skills that are necessary in order to work behind the scenes, “The ability to stay cool, because so many things can and will go wrong each performance. The microphones will mysteriously eat all their remaining battery when the battery was full ten minutes before curtain, the lights will randomly flash all over the stage, the actors will drop a line or a page or two of lines, and the technicians will then scramble to get in sync.”

The technical training necessary to work behind the scenes can come in many forms. For someone interested in theater, but who simply doesn’t know where or how to begin, Jeff recommends, “contacting your local community theater group, and asking how you can volunteer to learn about the area that interests you. Musicals give the most opportunity for the most people to be involved in the greatest number of ways. If you’re interested in breaking into acting, see if your local junior college or theater company offers classes. Many classes are taught by individuals who you may find yourself auditioning for in the future. If you do a good job in class, and show your determination, commitment, and heart, it will be remembered. If you also have the ability to listen and to give an encouraging word, you’ll go far, no matter what you set your mind to do.”

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