One Team, Many Props

by Eric Hart
in Feature

The props staff at Milwaukee Rep. (l-r) Front: Anna Warren (crafts artisan), Margaret Hasek-Guy (soft props artisan), Jim Guy (properties director), Lisa Griebel (props intern). Back row: Jill Lyons (props painter and graphic artist), Sarah Kirkham (crafts artisan), Erik Lindquist (props carpenter).
The props staff at Milwaukee Rep. (l-r) Front: Anna Warren (crafts artisan), Margaret Hasek-Guy (soft props artisan), Jim Guy (properties director), Lisa Griebel (props intern). Back row: Jill Lyons (props painter and graphic artist), Sarah Kirkham (crafts artisan), Erik Lindquist (props carpenter).
Milwaukee Repertory Theatre's props shop helps the city’s theatre look better, one prop at a time

"We’ll close the door to keep out the weeping,” Jim Guy says, perhaps only half-jokingly, as we begin our interview. It’s the middle of “tech month” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, where three shows will open before the end of the month. The rest of the season is no cakewalk either; they typically open two to three shows per month over nine months. But Guy, the properties director, has a secret weapon: a great props team.

“They make me look really good,” he confesses.

Jim Guy became the properties director at the Milwaukee Rep in 1998, making this his 15th season. The props painter and graphics artist, Jill Lyons, is in her 18th season, which predates Jim. Erik Lindquist, the props carpenter, has 13 seasons under his belt, while Margaret Hasek-Guy, the soft props artisan (and Jim’s wife), has 12. The newest members of the shop are the two crafts artisans, Sarah Kirkham and Anna Warren, each in their fifth seasons. Warren recently took on the position of assistant props director as well. Rounding out the team is their current intern, Lisa Griebel.

Get Specific

 

Erik Lindquist at work on a couch frame.
Erik Lindquist at work on a couch frame.

Warren talks about the various specialties of the props team. “When we get the list of projects in the morning, we know that upholstery goes to Margaret, molding and casting goes to me. When we’re busy, like if there’s a lot of upholstery, Sarah or I can jump in and do some, but for the most part we’re pretty specific in our skills, which is different from other theatres I’ve worked.”

 

Guy says it is rare to meet a challenge his team cannot do. “My hiring policy is to find people who are better at what they do than I am.” Working with the same group of people for years means he knows everyone’s capabilities, and can skip the learning curve in discovering a new employee’s talents. Even designers who regularly return to the Rep know that the props shop can reliably execute certain kinds of projects and challenges.

The challenges are not always readily apparent. For a recent production of Mountain Top—set in the motel room where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last night—they needed a room full of cheap 1950s motel furniture. That is not the kind of thing people would have held on to. “We built every stick of furniture in that show,” says Guy.

Constructing this furniture was an easy feat for Lindquist, a finish carpenter who has built facsimile Federal desks and Victorian secretaries for the Rep. Interestingly, it is only within the last season that the props shop has had to build furniture. Prior to that, the Milwaukee Rep had a unique arrangement where the scenery shop constructed all the furniture. The scenery shop is union, while the props shop is not, so altering this arrangement was no easy task. This setup preceded Guy’s tenure as props director by several decades. Finally, in a recent round of contractual negotiations, the responsibility of furniture construction returned to the props shop. Though this has significantly added to Lindquist’s workload, Guy feels they are in a much better position. “Now we handle all the props, just like every other prop shop.”

Guy is proud of his team and the quality of work they do. “When some people get to a certain point on a prop, they might look at it and think, ‘That’s good enough.’ These people look at it and go, ‘What else can I do to this to make it better?’” The diverse skills of the Rep’s props team also allows them to dive in and figure out solutions to tricky prop challenges together. “They teach me new things all the time.”

Points of Articulation

 

Sarah Kirkham, props craft artisan
Sarah Kirkham, props craft artisan

Jim Guy used to teach as well. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he began one of the country’s few Props MFA training programs. He got the itch to dive back into professional theatre after a few years, though. “I left the University because I didn’t want to be that professor we’ve all had, who is like, ‘Don’t you know who I used to be?’ I would rather be a working professional who sometimes taught rather than a professor who used to work.”

 

He still teaches the occasional workshop or lecture. “It’s great to teach, because when you need to articulate what you do, you actually learn more yourself.” He adds, “Sometimes you learn things from the kids. They may ask why you don’t do something a different way, and you are like ‘I guess I can do it that way.’”

Warren also began teaching this past year as a guest lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She led a class in a molding and casting project. It helped her discover how much information she had absorbed over her career. “I was talking to them about plaster, and I realized I had spent ten minutes just talking about plaster. I didn’t know I knew that much about it.”

Crafts are Warren’s favorite part of the job. She spends her summers as a Masters Properties Craftsperson at the Santa Fe Opera . She also runs a blog called Fake ‘n Bake (http://www.fake-n-bake.blogspot.com/) which details the construction of various fake food props she and her colleagues are challenged with.

Her love of crafts extends to selling items at Milwaukee Rep’s Holiday Artisan Craft Fair. A few years back, various employees of the production department put together the fair as a way to show off and sell their personal work. Warren says it is not just the “crafty” departments that participate. “We found out our shopper does photography. We have a dialect coach who does jewelry.” She enjoys seeing the talents of her colleagues on display as well as earning some extra money. She adds, “But then we just spend it all buying each other’s things.”

As for Guy’s favorite part of the job, he admits, “If I could do just one thing, it’s decorating sets.” He is not particular to any period or style of show, since he enjoys the research aspect so much. For a recent production of How the World Began, he decorated the inside of a makeshift science classroom located in a FEMA trailer. He smiled as he recounted the fun he had. “I brought my 16-year-old son with me shopping so he can point to things and be like, ‘We have that in our science classroom.’”

Blood, Guts and Sharing

Both Guy and Warren are excited that this year’s USITT conference is coming to their city. Warren says, “Milwaukee is actually a pretty big theatre town. A lot of people don’t know that.”

Guy will occasionally build a single piece or provide an effect for a smaller company. He recently did a job together with Seán McArdle, one of Guy’s former students and the blood effects designer for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on Broadway. Guy explains, “I did the weapons, he did the blood. It was for a tiny theatre. They were overreaching, but they pulled it off. It’s great to be able to provide them something that I’m good at and that makes their production so much better.”

“Jim is kind of the blood and guns guy,” Warren points out. His schedule proves his demand as an expert in firearms for live performance. After both a Professional Development Workshop and a panel discussion at this year’s USITT, he will travel to a number of colleges across the country to demonstrate the proper use of guns on stage. “I won’t be able to talk once April comes around,” he jokes.

He has developed his weapons safety program from discussions with law enforcement, fight choreographers and weapons manufacturers, as well as by incorporating rules from LORT theatres and AEA. He used to teach an entire class on firearms for the stage at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Despite his expert status, he admits that he does not particularly like guns. “They’re a tool. For many shows, the use of a gun is a necessary dramatic moment. You need it. So you need to know how to use your tool safely. A table saw can be dangerous. But you need it to make props. You can’t have a props shop without a table saw. You can’t do some shows without a gun and a gunshot. So you need to learn how to use it safely.”

As the largest professional-producing theatre in Milwaukee, their prop shop constantly fields requests from smaller companies to borrow items or for help with building. “There’s not a show that happens in this town that doesn’t have at least one piece from our stock on stage,” says Guy, adding, “I don’t understand these prop shops who hold on to everything like, ‘it’s mine.’” The Milwaukee Rep prop shop is happy to oblige, because it “ups the visual ante,” as Guy puts it. “It makes the whole Milwaukee theatre community look good. All the props in the city look better because of us.”