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Jay Duckworth: Proptologist, Bear, Philosopher of the Hand

Suzi Steffen • Illuminations • November 9, 2016
Jay Duckworth
Jay Duckworth, props master at New York’s Public Theater

Although he is props master at New York City’s Public Theater now, Jay Duckworth started his career in a small-town community theatre –  moving his mouth, without speaking, to taped words in Mark Twain tourist tours of Hannibal, Missouri. 

Now he’s got a slightly bigger voice. In his current role at the Public Theater he’s worked on everything from Shakespeare to Hamilton. He’s founded an annual summit for properties masters and designers; created podcasts to share his knowledge; given keynote speeches for the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival; taught props classes in many a college … and so much more.


Duckworth’s father was a politician who worked in construction, and his mother was an artist who helped revive Mississippi River folk art culture. “It was the perfect upbringing” for being a props master, he says: “Dad taught me how to build everything, and Mom showed me all of the different colors and the beauty of things.”

He’s an out gay man and identifies as a bear. A bear – roughly defined, though the definition is malleable – is often a large and/or hairy gay man, whom people into gender binaries might define as more masculine. 

We talked to him in September about his experiences as a gay man and a bear. 

How has being as an out gay man and bear affected – harmed and/or helped – your career?

Jay Duckworth and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Jay Duckworth and Lin-Manuel Miranda

When I was doing backstage work, I never brought it up. It never was an issue unless somebody was being disrespectful or using slurs or becoming abusive. There was a time when we were loading in a show and one of the show carpenters who came in with the tour was saying “queers this” and “gay that.” He started talking very effeminate, used a lisp, you know and one of my buddies was finally like, “Jay, what do you think about that?” I turned to the guy and said, “Most of the guys I sleep with don’t sound like that. You need to expand your mind a little bit, sir.” It kind of freaked the guy out, but that’s what you’ve got to do: make people realize we’re everywhere.

And being queer in any sense, you’ve always been looking over your shoulder, looking for something more [from a heterocentric world]. We’re more drawn to theater because of the subtext. We’ve been looking for that glance that lasts a little bit longer, the hand hold that’s something else, looking for signs and symbols. All of our lives, we’ve had to survive. 

How has your sexual orientation influenced your career journey?

Looking for subtext has made me a better prop person. I’m more aware, I have a heightened awareness of the environment around me. So when I go to do a set or go to do something, like in Detroit ’67, when it’s taking place in a parent’s basement in 1967, down under the stairs I put an 8mm camera and a bunch of different films. The director was like “That’s really neat, what is that?” I said, “Well, I bet you a hundred bucks they were watching pornos down there.” [LGBT people will see] the tell-tale things in the detals. 

Also, where else would no one bat an eye at a near-50-year-old unmarried man? It’s been a great journey. [Editor’s Note: Jay wanted us to add here that he is devastatingly handsome, plus he’s single.] 

What do you think LGBT people considering a career theatre career should know? Is there any advice you wish you’d been given?

Live your life like a hand. Being queer is your thumb, your sexuality is your thumb. Your spiritual state is your index finger. Each finger holds a different thing – financial responsibility, your hobbies, and your career. Just being unique does not make you worth anything. It’s how you take your unique vision and apply it to the arts. Don’t ghettoize yourself or think you just have to do performance art or queer theater. Do what you love, and push yourself to go where you’re not comfortable. 

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?

No one, really. I made it up as I went along. There’s no schooling about props, you know? And it was like, somebody’s just going to find out that you’re just making this stuff up! But I guess not. You have to be insane about it, or it’s not going to work. For instance, for Fun Home, we had to make a new newspaper every three nights, for “Ring of Keys” when they’re in the diner. You’ve got to make it. It’s a new day each time, and that is a new newspaper for the character. If the audience sees that paper’s been folded over and over, it’s not going to work.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a gay man, or who was your mentor, in a straight-dominated field? Or is it a straight-dominated field?

It is a straight-dominated field. Definitely. My mentor was Allen Cutler, who’s the props master at Rutgers University now. He took me out of carpentry and said, “If you ever want to use your talent to make anything other than boxes, I’d more than happy to help teach you.” I took that and ran with it. That was in 1996, when I was 28 or so. Now I’ve spent my entire 40s here at the Public Theater. 

The theater we do here is really incredible. We do not shy away from any issues, no matter what they are. For instance, the great thing about [the Public’s] Troilus and Cressida this summer is that they played up the sexual love between Achilles and his lover. It was not shied away from at all.

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