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The Actor’s Propmaster

Lisa Mulcahy • Sets, Scenery and Rigging • December 2, 2014

Faye Armon-Troncoso and her Boston Terrier Bella. Photo by David Troncoso

Faye Armon-Troncoso and her Boston Terrier Bella. Photo by David Troncoso

How Faye Armon-Troncoso’s expertise serves today’s very best performers and productions   

Faye Armon-Troncoso is the only propmaster ever to win an Obie—but her reputation is even more sterling than that. Armon-Troncoso is known industry-wide as the best of the best when it comes to hunting down, building and/or teaching the use of unusual and challenging stage props and SFX. Armon-Troncos’s credits are stunning: she’s helped create the magical environments for visually arresting Broadway shows including The River (currently running at Circle in the Square) War Horse, Golden Boy, Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike, Clybourne Park and Golden Boy. Plus, Armon-Troncoso has worked with actors ranging from Al Pacino (The Merchant of Venice) to James Franco (Of Mice and Men) to Ethan Hawke (Macbeth); she’s meticulous about making certain that every company member she collaborates with feels comfortable and knowledgeable when it comes to handling virtually any item in any show.

An Actor’s Perspective

James Franco and Chris O’Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway. Faye Armon-Troncoso supplied props for the show.

James Franco and Chris O’Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway. Faye Armon-Troncoso supplied props for the show.

Armon-Troncoso never set out to become a propmaster per se—her engagement with the theatre began when she gave performing a whirl. “I started doing theatre in high school, as an actor,” Armon remembers. “I got really into it, and kept acting in college.” Armon-Troncoso completed her studies in theatre arts at Radford University in Virginia, and immediately headed to New York City. “I came here to work professionally as an actor, and got cast in a some touring shows,” she says. “But you know, I found I just hated touring! When I kind of realized that, I thought to myself, let me just get a job in the theatre here doing anything, instead of selling shoes or working at the Olive Garden or something.”

Armon-Troncoso got hired as a ticket taker at the Cherry Lane Theatre Off-Broadway. “Slowly I worked my way up to house manager, and then, an opportunity came up there for me to prop a show, in 2001,” she recalls. “I had never even assisted a propmaster and suddenly I was one. But I was ready to do it. I think because I was an actor, it benefitted me in taking on this completely new job, because I knew already how to serve a play. That root information you get in a Theatre 101 class—it really made me be able to know what would work, what crappy prop wouldn’t work, what would feel right and look right.”

The enormity of a propmaster’s job was apparent to her from that very first show. “If you think of a stage picture like a Starbucks,” Armon-Troncoso explains, “the set would encompass the walls, windows, maybe a countertop. Everything else is a prop—the cash register, the espresso maker, the furniture. So as a propmaster, very basically, I collaborate with the costume designer, sound designer and lighting designer,” Armon says. “If I have a lantern for a prop, though, I often have to be responsible for wiring it myself!” Armon-Trancoso’s skill and attention to detail quickly snowballed into offers to supervise props on shows at other theatres, and she was off and running. 

Making the Task Human

Armon-Troncoso is very clear about the fact that the more others—like actors and other creative team members—understand about the prop process, the easier mastering props will be for everyone involved in a show. “First, research is about breaking it all down—the time period, the place, everything,” says Armon. “For example, for The Oldest Boy, which I recently did at Lincoln Center, I learned so much about a different part of the world, about the culture there—it’s so important to make every prop as real as possible. Then, my role, once rehearsal begins, is to have something for everything, in terms of rehearsal props. As the directors and actors rehearse, I look at what is working, take care of prop notes and so forth. For the first day of tech, that’s when I have to have everything in order. Of course, the show’s prop needs might change during tech as well. I’m also very careful when it comes to budget. When I start a show, I’ll usually be asked, ‘OK, so what amount will you need? Tell me an amount.’ I’ll consider each object I need, talk with the production manager, get a budget amount back from them, and sometimes I say, ‘I can’t do it for that.’ So we have to work through that, to make sure the show has what it needs.”

Set Designer Todd Rosenthal’s model for Of Mice and Men that Faye Armon-Troncoso worked off of.

Set Designer Todd Rosenthal’s model for Of Mice and Men that Faye Armon-Troncoso worked off of.

Her priority is to achieve ease with each prop—both practically and visually. Working with period or rare/original props effectively can be a challenge for many performers. “I think doing props well is really about making the task human,” Armon-Troncoso observes. “Working well with actors is a really important part of what I do. For example, on The Merchant of Venice, Al Pacino, as Shylock, had to carry this bag onstage. I’d always be telling my crew, ‘OK, I’m going to talk to Al about the bag and work with him on it!’ Because this bag had to be just right! The bag had to be period; we had to work out the scale of the bag, in terms of where all of the objects had to sit in the bag. Al has giant hands, so as he’s using the bag and pulling things out of it, that has to work. So I always had to think, how do I make this bag look aesthetically right, and make it easy to use?” 

Weaponry—and safety for actors—is another area that requires finesse. “In terms of weaponry props, it’s a matter of working with the fight choreographer, especially if we’ve got, say, a sword that needs to be thrown around the stage,” Armon-Troncoso explains. “We collaborate—we make sure the object is dulled down, and airplane aluminum is a very safe material to use if a weapon must be custom-made. My goal is that the prop so safe it could be toddler-proof—I do that all the time.” Tricky SFX involving blood, or visually shocking SFX are also one of her specialties. “Blood is put in a rig by my prop team; we then test it with director and with the costume designer to make sure it works visually. Of course, we also test to make sure actors know how the rig works,” she elaborates. 

Fighting the Good Fight

Armon’s work can be personally challenging, too. “As a woman, it’s very hard to be a prop supervisor on Broadway,” Armon says. “I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and it’s tough sometimes dealing with union guys. You really have to be a good communicator. No one wants to help you. You go to flea markets, to Ebay, relying on people to give you what you need—you’re dealing with a lot of personalities to get what you want.”

Armon-Troncoso’s persistence has paid off; her Flatiron District studio is packed with period-perfect hand props and furniture pieces, which are available for productions to use. Armon-Troncoso and her studio team can also find or custom build props they haven’t yet sourced. Other studio services she offers include coordinating props and set dressing, creating SFX of any imaginable kind, and handling tricky blood and gore details for productions as well.

Well-deserved rewards have also come her way. In 2004, Armon-Trocoso propped the Off-Broadway production of Bug at the Barrow Street Theatre, and won her Obie. “It just blew my mind, because I thought, wow, prop people are never awarded anything,” Armon says. “Prop people don’t get title page billing or a bio in a Playbill, for example. We’re listed under, like, the assistant sound designer. On the play Our Lady of Kibeho at the Signature Theatre Company, for example, I was doing 30 SFX, the whole stage blooms as a garden—it was a lot of work. So I fought for a title page credit and a bio! I got it at the last hour, and that felt very good.” 

Even more satisfying? “I’ve had such great experiences working with great collaborators, and actors who are just awesome. When the play is good, when the work is good—when I believe the moment I’m seeing onstage, I’m seeing what I do work,” Armon-Tronscos sums up. “When that happens, everything is so rich.”  

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