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Uncorking a Carrot

Jay Duckworth • Answer BoxMarch 2021 • March 3, 2021

This story can be read below or in our March 2021 digitial edition











I never understood the phrase ‘time is money’ until I became a props master and saw how long it took to get final drawings from designers! There’s a trickle-down effect if the drawings are late, then we are late with budgets, which then carries over to if we need to order materials, due to time constraints, then there’s a rush delivery fee. So, early communication is key. Keeping communication open, and free flowing, helped us figure out solutions for putting up our annual gala at the Public Theater and made the difference between it being an easy transition rather than a train wreck.

Great communication and serious decision-making can make magic. This is going to be a double pronged article with some cool prop tips, and it will praise good planning.

Dancing on the Deck

The Public Theater has it’s gala every year at Delacorte Theater in Central Park the week after our first show’s preview. When we started doing this there were different requests that the band be on stage, then off stage the next. So, we set a standard that the band would always be off stage under a tent in a controlled environment. That freed up a lot of space so sets and lighting could work on stage. It was a big plus. Another recurring request was a dancefloor put on the existing stage. We set a standard size and asked that the production stick with that. But one year the idea was to stage a full production of The Pirates of Penzance. This was a one-night only performance, but they needed the downstage area to be a platformed dance space. The problem—the set of the show running at the time had a vegetable garden right where the platforming had to go.

Garden Design

Luckily, there was a lot of good communication early on with the set designer John Lee Beatty and his team who gave the sets and props department the freedom to get creative with the spaces. Mr. Beatty and his team made sure that we had drawings very early on, so sets and props could strategically place rocks and garden elements to make sure that when the platforms went in, each leg was firmly set on an even, solid space. That cut down the time on the install.

The garden solution was inspired by seedling containers that were made out of fiber egg containers. People put soil in the egg containers and use them as seed starters. Once the plant starts growing you cut off the bottom and put them in the garden. So, I extended that idea out and made rails with holes in them to put each plant in. Each rail was 6” wide and 4” high and toe-nailed into the deck only on the US and DS ends. We put down burlap underneath, and to cover the rails we used wood chips. Some cedar in the wood chips also helped pull people into the visceral feeling of the garden. We used Styrofoam balls to look like root vegetables coming out of the ground, but here is the kicker—plastic tomatoes and bell peppers were magnetized to be picked by members of the cast. The magnets were painted brighter green with nail polish, so they were easy to be seen when picked and to be easily reset by crew.

Harvestable Carrots

One of the actors requested to pull two carrots out of the garden to use as donkey ears and then he wanted to eat one of the carrots. Our solution to that challenge of edible and pick-able carrots was to get two PVC pipes that we set into the deck rail. We made sure they were removable to be cleaned. We then made caps for them out of plastic so no water or bugs could get into them. We bought organic carrots that still had the stems on them, but they were wilted and all the other faux carrots around them had sturdy stalks. We needed the stalks to match, so we took the same plastic greens that we used for the other carrot stalks and attached them to a cork screw. During preset for the show, we twisted the cork screw into the carrots and placed the carrots into the PVC pipe receptacles in the garden. Then the actor could remove real edible carrots right out of the ground! I have used this rail trick for foliage a couple times after that, sometimes to change scenes and sometimes for foliage being flown in upstage to show a change of seasons. 

This production once again showed that in order to do good work, early communication is key. Theater is a lot like chess—focus on the game you are playing, but always think a few moves ahead.

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