Torch Song: Cassie Dorland takes over hosting the NYC Props Summit

by Jay Duckworth
in Props
The NYC Props Summit of 2019
The NYC Props Summit of 2019

There are those moments that bring you to your feet because the energy is so powerful that you just have to stand. There were two of these moments for me, the first was 1996 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Atlanta, GA where a shaking and frail Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame. My body took over and I stood up and tears started filling my eyes. The second moment was when Neil Patrick Harris opened the 2013 Tony Awards with the amazing production of the song “Bigger”. They were both magical moments for me. Reflecting on those, I have come to understand that those moments were not about that one person. Those moments were about recognizing the collective. Both times people took the stage to prepare us for the next best of the best; the best athletes the world has to offer and a look at the best in New York theater. What these two things have in common is the passing of the torch. In the case of the Olympic flame it is very literal and at the Tony Awards it is presentational. It is a custom that dates to the ancient world, showing up in the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc where every flame is quenched but one, and every torch must come be lit from it, the new fire representing the birth of spring.

End of an Era

At the end of August, that custom came to the NYC Props Summit. Last year at the summit I announced that we would no longer be able to hold it at the Public Theater. Programing had just become overwhelming and we are producing both uptown at the park as well as downtown. So, our usual space the Newman Stage (where A Chorus Line, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Fun Home and Hamilton all got started) would be a working zone. Since I established the Props Summit as a collective and belonging to the props people, I asked if some folks would like to step up and take it on in 2019.

As the weather started to get a little cooler and the interns were leaving the city and students were coming back, the question popped up, "Where would the summit be held this year?" Props artisan Monique Walker, one of the founders of the Society of Properties Artisan Managers (S*P*A*M), said that she would be able to host it out in New Jersey. Props artisan Jonno Knust suggested a bar in the city that we just take over. Then Cassie Dorland, props master at Signature Theatre in NYC talked to her peers at Signature and she sent out a poll asking which of two suggested dates would be best. The date was voted on and a time set. The location: the lobby of the Signature Theatre, a very modern, hugely open space and beautiful. 

A New Host and Home
Cassie Dorland and Jay Duckworth
I first worked with Cassie on Much Ado About Nothing. It had a multitude of prop tricks. Cassie introduced a new Google document that is so encompassing and user friendly that seven years later we still use it at the Public, and I include it in my props class at Pace University. Cassie is one of those people who will not suffer fools and has stood up for our art even when it meant putting her job on the line. She is a vocal supporter of the next generation of props people by not only pushing for recognition for props people but mentoring those who are starting their careers in New York.

On the night, Cassie welcomed a pretty big crowd and there were the usual suspects, but also tons of new and young people. The lighting designer, and writer, Steve Shelley was there sharing wisdom and helping people with career advice. Will Blacksmith, production props sub on Hamilton and a stagehand at Saturday Night Live, was there sharing his knowledge and infectious spirit. Buist Bickley, thank God, took a night off from his seven(!) upcoming or running shows Broadway; (in all honesty I don’t know how he makes it all work.) Monique Walker, from S*P*A*M, was there for the first time and exchanged battle stories with everyone. There were puppet people, crafters, artisans, carpenters, engineers, and of course Chad Tiller from Rosco, who has been with the Summit for nine years now. He has been providing samples, experts for workshops to learn from, and never misses a Summit to share his thanks for the talent and magic we bring to this world. We also had representatives from Penn State (Hi, Jay Lasnik) and UNCSA (Hi, Kris Julio). I think Kris and his fiancée get the prize for longest journey to the summit.

I have often told props people that I’m a caretaker at the prop shop at the Public Theater. That there were others there before me, and that there will be other props masters after me. So, I am there to do the very best I can to reintroduce lost relics of past shows and preserving items that will one day become iconic. Now as I look to my next move into academia, I feel comfort knowing there are great people who have taken up the torch of the NYC Props Summit and will fuel the fire.