Blood to Rain, in a Bag of Tricks
Erik Piepenburg, New York Times
Melissa Erdman has a killer recipe for vomit.
“Mixed-fruit oatmeal,” she said.
Ms. Erdman knows from bodily fluids. As a freelance props master (or “prop tart,” as she calls herself), her job is to buy furniture, make accessories, whip up batches of blood or do whatever else it takes to make sets look and feel as authentic as possible. Ms. Erdman was one of about 50 props people who gathered on Friday night at the Public Theater for an informal meeting that gave attendees a chance to network, watch demonstrations and exchange insider tips on the latest techniques in an area of theatrical design that often goes unnoticed and unheralded.
“It’s kind of the stepchild of theater,” said Faye Armon, a properties coordinator who works often at Lincoln Center Theater.
Theatergoers probably understand what costume, set and lighting designers do. Their work can be eye-catching, and their names appear on a program’s main credit page. They get their own Tony Award category. But a props master?
“Picture moving into a new apartment, and everything is bare,” explained Jay Duckworth, the Public’s properties master and the organizer of the gathering, now in its fourth year. What a prop person does is “make that apartment represent you or your girlfriend or your grandmother,” he said, “everything from the lights to curtains to pillows, to ashes in an ashtray.”
Degrees in props mastery are available, but many props people learn through apprenticeships with veteran props masters. The challenges of the job are mainly questions of how. How do you get a pregnant character’s water to break on cue? (Pneumatics.) How do you get an actor to bleed on his shirt but not his overcoat? (Strategically placed artificial-blood pellets.) How do you prepare an onstage buffet for 50 people eight shows a week? (Plastic food and Costco.) And how do you make weather realistic?
“When somebody comes in from a snowstorm onstage, it’s usually plastic, and it lives with them the whole time they’re there,” Mr. Duckworth said. “But snow in a can melts away.”
Several attendees said props masters were first and foremost jacks-of-all-trades. Mr. Duckworth described the ideal one as “extremely intelligent, socially somewhat awkward, an engineer, historian and autodidact.” A props person might be called on to know (or learn) a wide range of skills: sewing, carpentry, fabrication, mold making, antiquing, food styling, welding, upholstering, painting.