Kristine Holmes is A (25) Seasoned Props Master

by Lisa Mulchay

As the full-time manager of the properties department at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, Kristine Holmes has spent 25 seasons building and sourcing props for scores of productions. Having been properties master for over 175 shows during her career, Holmes has worked on both regional and Broadway productions of Hedda Gabler and Private Lives. She has also fabricated props for many Disney Cruise Line Productions and has spent 18 seasons as the set decorator for PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. In 2014, the Huntington honored Holmes with the Gerard and Sherryl Cohen Award, recognizing the quality of her work and contributions to the company’s long-standing success.

Holmes is proof, through her hard-work and extensive experience, that being a great properties master requires a varied skill set. That includes a devotion to craftsmanship, a love of discovery, dedication to research, and the ability to navigate personalities. Holmes recently spoke with Stage Directions about her career trajectory and her work philosophy.

Learning by Doing
Holmes went to SUNY New Paltz to learn as much about stagecraft as she possibly could. “I met my late husband there, and he was ahead of me in school—after he graduated, he moved to Boston,” she says. “Later on, I moved there to be with him, and I started working at the Opera Company of Boston, as well as the Nickerson Theatre and the Next Move Theatre—he also worked at Next Move.” It was at the Opera Company of Boston that Holmes first began working with props. “I was learning more about stagecraft, doing different things, and then a prop job opened up,” she says. “I started learning about building props—I worked with a lovely lady there who taught me so much. Then I spent a season doing props for shows in Santa Fe, NM, and that experience taught me even more. I really think I learned much more on the job than I ever did in school, to be honest.”

One of the early lessons that Holmes learned is that often props crews get little to no respect, unfortunately. “Props are the poor stepchild of the scene shop,” Holmes says. “In some situations, props just aren’t considered important until they’re not there! Then directors and designers and actors will care about props, when they really need them.” She quickly adapted to this reality, however. “I learned early that when a props master works with a designer, the more detail you can get from that person, the better job you can do,” Holmes explains. “And then, your props fill the designer’s vision and what everyone else needs on a show.”

Getting Specific
A properties master’s greatest challenge, and most important task, is mastering accuracy—of the pieces to be used in a show, and of the unique world of the show itself. Therefore, the research that every show requires must be scrupulous.

Holmes has honed her approach to researching to include a number of key angles. “It used to be that the process would start with me going to the library—obviously; being able to research online has made things a lot easier,” she says. “Still, even though I Google, I have a wall of books I consult, too. In terms of studying periods, I look at photographs, and at paintings if photos are not available. Sometimes, things you think you’ll find easily require hours of research. And if you can’t find something exactly to reference, well, sometimes you can make it up a little bit. For example, I kind of know after 35 years in the business what kind of glassware will look right in a certain period. I have a copy of the book Bartender’s Friend on hand to help me in that kind of a situation. Any book can actually come in handy, depending on the job. You never know what will be helpful.”

When it comes to building props, Holmes advises knowing your strengths and weaknesses—and delegating. “A prop master has to have many skills,” she points out. “Sometimes you’re an electrician; you might be a painter today and a plumber tomorrow. I’m not the best carpenter, but I have people on staff who are better at that. You fill things in with your team. And it always helps to have different eyes on things. When you have a group of artisans working together, you get everyone’s perspectives.” Indeed, to Holmes, teamwork is an extremely crucial element in getting a show precisely right. “I’ve seen many freelancers killing themselves trying to handle every aspect of a prop master job,” Holmes says. “It’s hard to be a prop master and also be your own assistant. I’m fortunate to have someone for show run, an assistant, an artisan, and an apprentice working with me.”

Happy Accidents
Another essential element of being a prop master is flexibility. You need to be able to build, sure—but you also need to love the thrill of the hunt when it comes to tracking down ideal pieces. “When I worked on God of Carnage, the designer was very particular about what he wanted,” Holmes recalls. “He wanted artisan pieces that were one-of-a-kind—not things that were available in stores. We ended up building a lot of the props to his specifications. Things did happen with serendipity, though. We found the perfect couch for something like a hundred bucks—it was one of those happy accidents. You know, I’m kind of a prop diviner—I’ll be sitting in the shop, and I’ll suddenly think, you know, we should go shopping today. And we’ll go, and I’ll find the perfect piece that I’m looking for. You know, file cabinets that are so hard to find will just be there, and super-cheap, too. It’s like a sixth sense!”

When asked what was one of her most difficult props, Holmes feels that that has always been a hard question, since “being a prop master and running a shop means that difficult stuff comes in the form of multiples of the same item,” she says. Here are a couple of examples of challenges that she and her staff solved for productions. “For Present Laughter in 2007, we had to deal with Art Deco on a budget. We had one 70”chandelier and four matching sconces; and I only had about $900 to build everything. We had to create a bookstore on stage for After All the Terrible Things I Do with not only many books but multiples of the same books. For Becoming Cuba, we had to create an apothecary that took place in Cuba in the early 1900’s. There were lots of bottles, boxes, packages, and jars with different contents; and we had a working soda fountain on a moving set!”

Using Ingenuity 
Holmes has faced some interesting dilemmas when working on shows—but she always rises to the challenge. “In God of Carnage, there’s a scene where one of the characters projectile vomits,” Holmes says. “It can be pretty gross. That’s what I thought when I was first faced with how to do it from a props standpoint. That was a challenge to figure out. We did a rig—we hooked it up to a tank, and the actor was great in helping is make it work. It looked very realistic. It worked very well in the context of the show, too.” Budgeting is another ongoing challenge. “My average budget is in the $3,000 to $6,000 range,” Holmes says. “Although I have been able to take a show that should be budgeted at $30,000 and build it for $6,000. You just have to be practical. The more shows you do, the more you learn about these things. It’s very much a natural progression in your work.” 

Holmes feels that being observant when it comes to colleagues, and what they want and need, is vitally important as well. “When it comes to working with designers, you have to be their second set of eyes,” she explains. “You need to get inside their heads a little bit. Then you can kind of suggest things you know they’ll want, and your job becomes easier, and you fulfill what they have in mind for the show. The more people you work with, the better you learn to read a designer very well. You also need to have that kind of input when you deal with directors and actors, of course. You use a little bit of psychology to figure out what someone is like, and how you can best work with them. Once I see what a designer is like and what that designer really wants to accomplish, I always try to create something so exact, the designer doesn’t have to compromise.”

Ultimately, when a prop master does his or her job right, that perfectly envisioned prop makes a hugely significant impact. Props are the flavor that add the right seasoning, and life, to a show. Holmes loves nothing more than creating or hunting down the pieces that provide that kind of creative spark. Ultimately, “when you walk into a prop storage space, every piece has a story,” she concludes. “I love being part of that story.”