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Propping Angels in America, a “period” piece

Jay Lasnik • Answer BoxApril 2020Props • March 25, 2020

Justin Bees and Catherine Crimmins in Angels in America at Penn State University (Photo: William Wellman)

This month’s Answer Box comes from Jay Lasnik, Props Master at Penn State University. Here Lasnik talks about building a “period” phone booth from the 1980s for a recent production of Angels in America at Penn State, as well as “Hunting & Gathering” props for this production. The Creative Team for this production included: Scenic Designer Sophia Tepermeister; Costume Designers Kayli Warner & Richard St. Clair, and Lighting Designer Devin Koenig.

Should it make me feel old that when I work on a play that takes place during my high school and college years, some people call it a “period” piece? I guess a pay phone to the current generation is like a telegraph to mine. Anyway, our production of Angels in America, which opened on February 28 at the Playhouse Theatre at Penn State was the perfect combination of creative collaboration across so many departments, but for my prop department, while we did a large amount of building, most of the big furniture pieces were rented. Sometimes you just have to get out there and search. I like to call this “Hunting and Gathering” props.

Be on The Lookout For

Now, Penn State is in the middle of Pennsylvania, with Pittsburgh on the west end of the state and Philadelphia on the east side. On (football) game day, State College, PA becomes the third largest city in the state. Suffice it to say, being in a rural area, antiques, thrift stores, and flea markets are abundant, but rarely around the corner. The best “find” of the show was a 1920s era pedestal sink. The original set design called for three of them on a wagon, one with running water. After determining that, even with the hardiest hunting for these, we wouldn’t be able to put three onstage, I found one in one of my favorite places in Centre County, G & R Excavating, in Tyrone, PA. It is a family run business and has what I like to call “Prop Porn” in their 4-story railroad hotel. Each room dedicated to perfume bottles, LPs, irons, golf clubs, (blue and brown) bottles, salt and pepper shakers, lamps, (oh, the lamps!) and on and on. They have a very scary basement and a three-story furniture building in the back. Out of the corner of my eye one day while I was looking for something else, my brain registered the sink. After we had gone through several iterations of different sink set ups, I blurted out “I know where I can get one!” For $50 and a little ache in my back from lifting a totally cast-iron antique into the van, we had it, and, yes, it still had the original faucet and handles—you hardly ever see that. 

Dial Tone
Now, there was another piece that helped convey our sense of time and place; the phone booth and this was a fun build challenge for me. We had the pay phone on it’s original post, but it did not have the iconic “box.” Scenic Designer Sophia Tepermeister gave me the design. This was one of those pieces that I really had no idea how to build when I started it, (an ever growing “condition” with me—but I had faith that my 30+ years of experience will come out from my fingertips somehow before load-in). This box is open and unsupported on two sides. I thought if I just got the aluminum trim work for the front and faked the rest of the trim with silver painted Lauan, some Plexi and the letters “phone” that it would look right.

Call Your Mother
In the show, Joseph Pitt comes out to his mother while talking on this payphone on a cold, dark, wet New York City night, the weather-beaten booth covered with rust and graffiti while his mother sits in the warm safety of her home on a 1940’s style phone table talking into a black rotary Bakelite phone, distant enough from her newly exposed son to admit his father never loved him and she can’t give him a mother’s unconditional love. You may ask, seriously, you get all this from two phones? Yes. Two actors + the right two phones equal dramatic theater. That’s props!

Back to Hunting and Gathering
As I mentioned, PSU is in the middle of the state and there’s not a lot around. In order to cross everything off my list I had to go into heightened Hunting & Gathering mode. When I was first starting out, I always got a kick out of challenging myself with “that’s a two phone call prop” or “that’s a five phone call prop.” Luckily, since I am a proud member of the Society of Properties Artisan Managers, finding certain props is much easier. We like to help each other out because we know how difficult the job can be and good karma will always come back when you need something. I’ve rented things from other S*P*A*M member theatres and pulled a 14-hour driving day doing so, and I also borrowed some pieces from our own School of Nursing. Yup, and I have to return all those pieces, too.  

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