There are No Rules - A few questions with Properties Director Jim Guy

by Michael Eddy
Joseph Hanreddy and Brian Vaughn in A Skull in Connemara at Milwaukee Rep
Joseph Hanreddy and Brian Vaughn in A Skull in Connemara at Milwaukee Rep

Jim Guy is now starting his 22nd season as the properties director for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and for 14 years has also served as president of The Society of Properties Artisan Managers (S*P*A*M), an industry association for theatrical prop artists, designers, and managers. He’s been a prop manager for over 40 years, including a long tenure as prop master for Cleveland Play House and the Cleveland Opera; he also ran his own business, The Prop Guys, for a decade. Guy was head of the MFA Program in theatrical properties management and design at the University of Illinois Champaign Urbana from 1991 to 1998; and he continues to be a guest lecturer at schools, theaters, and USITT events, presenting seminars and master classes on Firearms Safety for Stage and on Props in the Production Process. We caught up with Guy to talk about his prop work and being a ‘prop-evangelist’.

What do you think are essential traits and skills to be a good props designer and props master?
Everybody approaches it from a slightly different angle. How much design input a prop person has, depends largely on the director and the designer and your relationship with them. I try to make it clear to the director and the designer that I am there to help them realize their vision of the visual aspects of the show. I think that the characteristics that some of my favorite designers and I share in common is that we have learned to trust each other. Trust each other as far as our aesthetic and our visual sense goes. You have to be able to get inside the designer’s head and figure out what the designer’s aesthetic is. There’s also the fact that they know I’ve been around the block a couple dozen times, I mean, I’ve been a prop manager for 40 years; I’ve begun to recognize patterns. They realize that I can help. In some cases, they just let me take the ball and run with it so that they can concentrate on bigger picture things.

As a props master you need the ability to go into reaction mode and deal with the ever-changing series of requirements that come out of rehearsal everyday and at the same time have the ability to prioritize and schedule things properly so that you can stay ahead of the game. Plus, excellent communication skills because, you know, prop people have more crossover on a regular basis with the other departments than anyone, I think, so excellent communication skills. 

And, I mean, it’s kind of a nebulous term, but just having a good stage sense. Knowing what works and what doesn’t under various circumstances because the solution to how to make Hamlet’s palm bleed in one show is not necessarily the solution for every production of Hamlet you’re ever going to do. Yes, everybody’s got a bag of tricks, but you have to be open to other tricks, too. I used to tell my students there’s only one rule in props, and that is ‘there are no rules’. It’s going to be different every time.

What’s your favorite thing about props?
The great joy of my life is set decoration. If I had to give up absolutely everything else that I do in props—and in theater and just do one or two things—I would shop and dress shows because I love telling stories with stuff. I love the fact that you can really help to support and amplify text and performances and ideas with the things that you put on stage. If you get a director, a designer, or a team of people who are into that aspect of things, it can just create a beautiful visual harmony and give the show the visual texture that it needs to be interesting, but not distracting. 

That’s another thing that you’ve got to be careful about—it’s our job as prop people and prop designers to keep the audience’s head in the game. It can be the most beautiful, spectacular, wonderful thing in the whole world, but if you put it on stage and it becomes the focal point, and not about what the point is, it’s a fabulous display, but it’s not good props.

What are a few of your prop solutions you really liked?
My very first show as a prop master was a production of Sweeney Todd; I was also stage managing. I started as a stage manager; I had a day job as prop carpenter at the Cleveland Play House, and I was stage managing at night. For this production of Sweeney Todd, we lost our prop person and I was pressed into service as props. The barber shop murders were one of the favorite solutions that I have built. It was not a particularly large theatre, so I couldn’t have a giant razor with a giant reservoir on it. So, I figured out a way to make the blood device be built into the barber bibs so that it was actually actor controlled. I had an enormous syringe and some plumbing inside of a double layered barber bibs, with padding in between to keep the blood mostly off of the costume. With the actor having control of the syringe, I just had to train the individual actors. This way we could get arterial spurting, or a slow seep, or pulsing; whatever you wanted. It was super effective and really cool.

We did a small thing a few years ago where we needed to have an actor—who could not eat eggs—eat a soft-boiled egg on stage. He had to sit down to breakfast, crack the egg, and eat it. What we ended up doing—my soft props person and I figured this out—we went the Russian Easter egg route. We blew the contents out of eggs and boiled the empty eggshells to sterilize them. We plugged one end with food-safe paraffin and injected it with vanilla yogurt until it was almost full, and then refrigerate it for a couple of hours. Then into the middle of the vanilla yogurt, we injected more yogurt that was colored yellow, so you had a yoke and it’s suspended inside of the cold yogurt, which had thickened up. Then we put that in the refrigerator. Every Monday we would make a week’s worth—eight performances and put them in an egg carton. The actor would get his ‘soft-boiled egg’, tap the shell off, and chow down.

Another was when we did the Martin McDonagh play, A Skull in Connemara, in the course of the play, a couple of guys go to the graveyard, they dig up the skeletal remains of three bodies, they throw them in a bag, they take them back to the cottage, and they reduce the bones to dust with mallets. Every night. Roughly three skulls and around 15 or 20 other bones. We knew we were going to have to cast them ourselves. I got the idea for the solution to this at a S*P*A*M conference because we went to an architectural restoration company in Chicago. There I got the tip that helped keep plaster from shooting all over the stage and into the audience when they hit the bones with the mallets. [ED Note: this prop solution will be detailed in the December issue of Stage Directions.]

Is there a piece of advice that you got at the start of your career that you still find applicable today?
I will paraphrase my mentor Richard Gould, who was the resident designer at the Cleveland Play House when I was there, ‘don’t take it too seriously and don’t take everything to heart’. Some people get all cranked—and everybody does every once in a while—when something that you really put your guts into gets cut after the second rehearsal or the first preview. You really can’t let that get to you, or you’re just going to be another embittered prop person. Because it’s going to happen, and it’s not a reflection on the quality of your work or a reflection on the quality of the prop necessarily, but on what the production needs and the unfolding awareness of those needs sometimes happens after they get the thing in hand.

What’s a piece of advice that you would give to an early career props person?
This is only worth doing as long as you get some degree of pride and satisfaction from the job. As with any job, it’s not always going to be fun, but if the job isn’t rewarding, there are plenty of other ways you can use your talents as a prop person that will be less stressful and more financially rewarding.

What has surprised you about your career path? 
How long it’s actually lasted, for one thing. There aren’t a lot of people who have been in props for 40 years. When I was hired on here at The Rep 22 years ago, the general manager, an old friend from Cleveland asked me, ‘So, do you have a backup plan? Because you know, theatre is a young person’s game.’ Now, I am past the age when some people retire, and I don’t appear to be slowing down.