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Lessons Learned

Jay Duckworth • Answer BoxCurrent IssueSeptember 2020 • September 2, 2020

After 12 years as the Resident Properties Master at The Public Theater, Jay Duckworth has chosen to leave The Public to pursue the next act in his career, teaching. “With all theater shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I took this opportunity to really do some reflection on my work as well as my teaching that I have been doing at Pace University,” comments Duckworth. “I really want to continue to share what I’ve learned with the next generation of theater artists.” This month he shares some of the lessons he learned during his tenure at The Public.

Let’s face it, good judgment comes from experience. And you will only get experience from your poor judgement. After working at The Public Theater, I learned some great lessons because I made some questionable choices in my 12 years there. Here are my top lessons learned.

Your job is not hospitality
It’s nice to please people; it’s great when you can make people very happy. But I bet you dollars to donuts that making folks smile is nowhere in your contract. Your job is to perform your discipline as efficiently and economically as possible. Recently, I saw on one of the prop masters’ groups on Facebook a message, ‘I have a challenge guys, I need 8 iPad first generation covers and one working iPad first generation by tomorrow afternoon! Can anyone help?’ The request came from Stage Management’s rehearsal report that day. It’s great that the props master is spreading a net to see if they can find the items, but you do deserve downtime. We need to set real world expectations. ‘I can guarantee you can get them on Wednesday.’ is a perfectly fine answer. They can also adjust rehearsal if they know that they will not have the items until then. Miracle Worker is the title of a play, not a job description. No is a legitimate answer especially as we head into a culture of freelance prop master. Estimate your pay versus hours and stick to that schedule to avoid being taken advantage of and burn out.

Keep a bottle of water with you

Working outside at Shakespeare in the Park has taught me that you need to have a container of water with you AT ALL TIMES. I know it sounds like I’m turning into my Mother—and I am in many ways, but it’s not for the reasons that you may think. The water is very essential for you to keep your mouth shut. I like to help, and I like to think that I have great ideas. Sometimes I do… sometimes. But when you are at a production meeting, have a bottle of water with you. When someone asks a question and you think you have a great answer pick up the bottle of water and take a drink but keep the water in your mouth until the urge to speak leaves you. There are a number of reasons why. You don’t want to put a coworker on the spot. You may not know what discussion the designer and department head had before the meeting. If you are asked for your opinion then its fine to give it, or even better wait until after the meeting and ask the person involved if your suggestion may be helpful in some way.

They Go Away Eventually
There have been shows where directors yell at the crew, or actors are abusive. It’s intolerable and I asked one of the old guard at the Public how he handles people like that. He turned to me and said simply ‘I know that in three months they will just go away.’ That is helpful advice but leads to my next lesson. 

You need to go to Human Resources (HR)
When abuse starts like that, go to your supervisor. Then follow up with HR. There are times anywhere you will work that there will be people who are toxic. I have experienced it firsthand and was told ‘It is what it is’. So, I finally went to HR and the director was talked to and asked to curtail his behavior. There is a culture of abuse that is in theater where people are made to feel bad or may feel they will lose their job if they don’t constantly overachieve. If you feel you are being taken advantage of you need to stand up and report it. If not for yourself think of the others that person will take advantage of if we remain silent.

Pick a Card, Any Card!
A props person needs to study magic at some point in order to help pull off illusions. In that training you will find something called Hobson’s Choice. It’s a situation that gives the person you are dealing with, the illusion of free choice. The trick is everything is already decided on. When dealing with a problem that you need a decision on, I try presenting three different options to a director and designer. One will be a little shabby and the other two will be more alike with one maybe standing out a bit more than the other one. The shabby one is always a no and that breaks the ice and it makes it easier to decide what one to pick. I always give an odd number of options, either three or five, and one will always be a throw away. Psychologically, once one choice is made the others become a lot easier. 

That brick wall of fear is made of tissue
If you go out into the world to find yourself, you will be wasting valuable time and effort. We have a tendency to think that everything we need is ‘over there’ or ‘in the future’; it’s not. You are already found; you need to create who you are with the tools you already have. Everyone sucks at something when they start, so if you want to do it you need to stop being afraid. Work and study the things you love. Be ruled by your passions not your fears. Besides in the end, would you like to introduce yourself as an ‘assistant district manager’, or as ‘a person who interprets emotion and expresses them by painting with light’? Or someone in ‘upper middle management’ versus ‘I forge the swords of Shakespearean kings and warriors’?

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