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Speaking with Denise J. Grillo, Production Props

Michael S. Eddy • May 2021Theater Maker: Props • May 12, 2021

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

Denise J. Grillo, who has over 20 years serving as production props for Broadway productions, recently partnered with Ian Grunes to open a new prop rental house, Everything Props in Harrison, NJ. It is just 10-minutes from midtown Manhattan. Easily accessible via PATH train, bus, or van, this new enterprise has 10,000 square-feet of furniture, decorative objects, and props for theater as well as film, television, and affiliated art businesses. Grillo, a member of IATSE , is the production props person for all Hamilton productions—Broadway, U.K., and U.S. tours, and was responsible for props on Mrs. Doubtfire, Motown, The Cher Show, Misery, The Addams Family, She Loves Me, and many others. Prior to working on Broadway, Grillo worked on props for off-Broadway including STOMP, Marvin’s Room, The Substance of Fire, and Three Tall Women. She has a BA in technical theater/theater design and technology from SUNY Oswego. Stage Directions spoke with Grillo about her work, her career, and her new prop rental business.

What drew you to props?

I got into theater by accident in college when I took a theater class. I had never really even considered it as a career. My degree is in scene design but when I went to school I intended to be a writer. Which is something I still do on the side. When I graduated school, it was very hard to get started as a scene designer. And I find drafting to be a very painful experience. But props, it’s almost like you’re just sculpting with everyday items—and some things that aren’t so everyday! You’re building and creating everything that fits inside of the walls of the set. So, I found that A, I enjoyed it and B, I could make a living doing it. So, it was a happy accident for me.

I enjoy the pressure of it; I know it’s not for a lot of people. There are no limits to how many changes can be made over the course of rehearsal and previews, and you are the one department head that it just seems like it could be a nonstop roller coaster. I’ve had other production heads say to me, ‘I hate your job. I would never do it.’ Oh, good. That’s a vote of confidence! I get asked, a lot, ‘How do you put up with all the stuff that comes at you?’ I just enjoy the challenge of really having to be on my toes that much.

Tell us about getting your start in New York City, off-Broadway.

My first job in New York was at Playwrights Horizons and I stayed there for about two years. Then I moved around NY city a bunch. I worked at Manhattan Theatre Club and at the Public Theater. I spent five years at Lincoln Center Theater, developing shows in the Newhouse and the Beaumont. Then I moved over to the Roundabout Theatre where I spent about five more years. I love the non-profits as I enjoy doing classical works. I really enjoyed working there. However, I am also glad to see that they have started to expand into helping develop new works to expand the canon. At that time, I wasn’t working on union shows and I always wanted to work union. During the time I was coming up, I was the only woman in the room very often so that was a challenge that had to be dealt with as well. When I was finally able to get my union card, then I did start working almost exclusively on Broadway. You know you get older, you have to get serious about making money and worrying about health insurance and your retirement. But in terms of props, even when I’m doing a big Broadway musical, it’s always about the art.

Give us brief description of the production props role on the Broadway level. What is entailed in your work?

The job is way bigger at the Broadway level than most people realize. So first, you’re creating all the props and you’re providing all the rehearsal props. You’re communicating with the rehearsal to understand what the show needs and to get it all to them. So, there’s the initial delivery of rehearsal props. But then as the show develops and the whole creative team starts working on developing ideas, things can change rapidly, so you have to continue to service the rehearsal.

At the end of the day, you get the rehearsal report, and they’re usually very funny. The other departments, there’s like nothing to report, nothing to report. Then you get to the props and there’s 14 things that you have to deliver the next day that they’re going to need for rehearsal. So, that’s where it all starts.

While rehearsals are happening you’re also working to budget the show, to do bids with shops, and working out which shop you want to build what so that you get the product that you’re looking for and make it all work in the budget. Then there’s the portion of the show that gets actually shopped in addition to being built. I work at that as well. Then I work in unison with the set designer, of course, presenting fabrics and items that I find and whittling everything down. Then you get it built and shopped and finally you deliver it all to the theater.

In addition to traditional prop duties, Broadway Production Props has a few additional duties, what do they include?

While all of the above work is going on, the production prop person has responsibilities to help the music department load-in and get all of their furniture. And you take care of loading in the wardrobe department, and hair and makeup. We load in company management, stage management. And if there’s kids in the show, we load in the wrangler and the school stuff. When I started working on Broadway it was a lot simpler than it is now and the scope of the job has grown with the advent of technology. For instance, when I started this job quick change booths were pipe and drape with a small piece of carpet put on the floor. Now I build entire rooms for them. It’s more complicated. In the pit with all the sound technology, now we build special soundproof booths for the drum and percussion so that they’re not blowing out the eardrums of the other musicians. It all falls to props to load all of this in and put it all together. So, in the middle of having to take care of what are really actual props, you’re also having to take care of all this other stuff. And of course, everybody wants to be first so you often have five people coming at you, all who need something right now.

Well you must thrive on it because you have a wonderful Broadway resume. 

To me, it is a labor of love. When you look at my resume, I tend to work with the same designers over and over again because, I think, they really appreciate my sense of determination. I think my favorite skill on my resume is ‘the determination of a pit bull’, which is a quote from someone who worked with me. That’s a really important skill when you’re doing props. You get something in your teeth and you’re just not going to let it go until you’ve created exactly what everybody needs. I work very frequently with David Korins, David Rockwell, and Christine Jones. When the pandemic hit, we had just had our third preview of Mrs. Doubtfire and it was really kind of difficult and sad to have to walk away. I worked with David [Korins] on that and we will be going back when finally, everybody has the green light.  Also when we come back from the pandemic, I’m going to be working with Christine [Jones] and Brett [Banakis], who is her associate scenic designer, on The Devil Wears Prada.

I’ve worked on some really big musicals. That tends to be what people give me. It may also be the designers that I work with. It’s a real skill set to do a musical. It’s a whole different animal than a straight play. There are so many more levels to props in doing a musical than there are to a straight play. I think my determination to achieve, and to just wrangle a project into submission, lends to my ability to do musicals and I think that is a trait I have that producers and designers appreciate.

In addition to ‘the determination of a pit bull’, talk about what you think are some essential skills and traits of being a good production props person.

Well, I think it helps to have some experience in building. I am a craftsperson and I’m an upholsterer. I can do casting, faux and scene painting, and sewing. I do like carpentry; I don’t build furniture. But I feel like every production prop person needs to be able to touch on all these skills. Hopefully, you have one skill where you’re really strong, but you need to be able to have conversations with everyone in the shops where you’re building and with everybody else you’re communicating with on the production. It helps to have a real base of knowledge and skills so that when you’re having these conversations, you can have them in an intelligent manner. You want to be able to help solve the problems. And there’s all kinds of problems that can come at you in theater. Just even figuring out storage backstage, which has changed dramatically. Props have grown to be large; there are props now that are the size of scenery and you’re flying all of this stuff out, overhead, off-stage. When I first started there weren’t so many props and they weren’t so large that you had so much stuff overhead. Now I have, what we refer to as cattle barges, to literally fill with the props and then fly them out from one act to another. The shows’ prop needs have grown, but the space hasn’t, so you have to creatively use it.

Is there a project you feel really set you on your career path? One that kind of helped you take it to the next level.

I would say the revival of Nine at the Roundabout; that was when I was able to transition into the union. Roundabout helped me transition into the union and I feel that’s a debt of gratitude that is owed. A lot of times you work very hard for all kinds of people and in all kinds of jobs, but you don’t always end up having someone extend themselves to you in exchange. So, I have a warm place in my heart for the Roundabout Theatre and I really do love the management there.

What’s a production you fondly recall as unique or memorable experience in your career?

I have to say I feel like some of the best theater I’ve done was off-Broadway because it was more experimental. Some of the most fun times I had was on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, for the National Actors Theatre which Tony Randall had established. It was a labor of love for everybody, so I was really happy working on that. When I was at Playwrights [Horizons], we launched the first Once on This Island. I felt a real sense of pride when it transferred to Broadway. That was my first show that I had full control over as a production prop person. When it transferred to Broadway, I, of course, wasn’t able to take it, but everything I had created transferred. That was a really good feeling about my work, and I just thought it was a wonderful show.

What has surprised you most in your career from what you thought about working in theater to your actual experiences?

It’s a lot harder. The differences between the different levels of theater surprised me. When I moved to Broadway, the amount of stuff that the production prop person has to take responsibility for surprised me. I had no idea. If I were to mentor someone now—which I would like to do—it would be that the job has grown so big and I would want to be sure that they understand the complete responsibilities of doing props on Broadway. I would have them examine the job against doing props at the non-profit level, or at the regional level. There’s so many things you can do with props. You can be a set decorator, you could work in film, you could do window dressing, photo styling, so many things, that you should understand the full range and look at it all and then try to figure out where you would best fit in.

What do you love about being a production props person?

I like the challenge of being put on the spot and having to solve a problem. I like having to think fast on my feet. I’ve been on shows where we were in previews and at the end of a 10-out-of-12 tech rehearsal we’d sit around for the production meeting. It would be like, ‘Okay, so the writers are going to be up all night writing a new scene, and here’s your prop list for tomorrow.’ It’s now 11:30 p.m. or midnight and I have to have all of these new props by 12:30 p.m. tomorrow afternoon! ‘Great. Alright. Guess I’ll be up all night.’ Through the years you’ve developed, hopefully, a good network of people that you can sit up all night and at least get the emails going and all the drawings done so that at 8:00 a.m. in the morning when you hit send, you can start having the conversations.

You’ve also started a new prop rental house. Tell us about how it came to be. 

I started Everything Props with a professional colleague, Ian Grunes. We both shared a desire to create a resource that we wished had existed when we started. I was very naive at first, and just went to the big prop rental houses initially. I discovered the rental rates were so expensive; they were geared toward short-term rentals to film and TV. With an off-Broadway budget, something like a prop rental house is out of the question. When I started, a couple of the larger non-profit theaters had small stocks. Playwrights Horizons had a small stock, so I made friends with the other prop heads in the other theaters, and we would loan props back and forth. Now over the years, a lot of the warehouse space has disappeared. In the past, you could get cheap warehouse space in Red Hook or in Long Island City. They weren’t the greatest areas. Now, those areas are so developed and so gentrified; no one can afford to keep those warehouse spaces.

Ian had started BNG Industries making custom furniture, doing scenic construction, and warehousing. When the pandemic started, my approach to the pandemic was ‘when life gives you COVID, make lemonade. Suddenly, I went from being so busy, to being out of a job. We no longer were working exhausting hours. Initially, I thought maybe we had four or five months off, and now we’re all learning that we’re going to have close to two years off. It seemed like an opportunity that could be taken. Ian and I discussed how to pull this off. We both had personal prop inventories. As a prop person you end up with, let’s says, a very curated selection of items, I’ve kept through the years. We emptied our individual storage lockers and my basement. We brought everything together.

At the same time, one of the other things that factored in was that the prop rental house in New Jersey, Anything But Costumes (ABC) shut down during this past year. I went through every item in their stock, and we made a curated purchase. Losing ABC was very sad for the community; it was such a valuable resource to theaters. 

I know this plan of ours probably sounds crazy to anyone who’s very business-minded. They are like, ‘That is a terrible business idea,’; trying to have a special price level for the non-profits, students and educational theater, and indie films. The hope is that we’ll help people out when they start out in their careers. We’re going to give them great service and they’re going to have access to all the knowledge that Ian and I have. Then as their careers grow, our hope is, they’ll stick with Everything Props and at that point they’ll pay the full rental price. I know it doesn’t sound like a great business plan, but there’s a real need. I believe, based on all our research and what we’ve been working out, that we can make this work. 

We recognize how important customer service is and we want to be very accommodating. If there’s something that somebody needs that we don’t have, I’m the woman to search it out. We’ll try to fill out any kind of holes in the stock. Because right now, our stock is 10,000-sq-ft. The bigger prop houses are 100,000. Also we can do small construction and fabrication. We’re open to adjusting and refinishing pieces. In fact, we recently refinished some of our pieces for a rental client. We certainly are going to continue to do custom furniture if it’s required.

Anyone in props will be pleased but especially I would think people starting out will be pleased to have this new resource.

There’s a soft spot in our hearts for theater, and we really want to accommodate people starting out in the business. When we were starting out, we didn’t have this kind of help and this kind of resource. I think it’s especially important to me because as a woman who had such a difficult time getting going, I feel like it’s a responsibility; I feel like I want to give back to help other women and BIPOC people as well, who have been really locked out of the theater. I would like to mentor someone; that’s part of Everything Props. 

Now you are still very much continuing your prop production work on Broadway as well.

Yes, absolutely. I do want to make the important point that when theater comes back, I intend to continue my production work. Ian will be full-time at Everything Props, but with where I am in my career with production prop work, I do about two big shows a year and then have time off in between shows. I will definitely still be doing shows, with the same pitbull determination and then I will refocus my efforts on Everything Props once the shows are up.

Where is Everything Props located?

We’re based in Harrison, NJ, just 10 miles from midtown Manhattan. We’re right behind the Red Bull soccer stadium. One of the great things about the location is you can drive there, but you can also take the PATH train there. 

That is an easy train ride from midtown. Okay, every New York props person usually has a good prop/train story. What would be one of your craziest props on a train stories?

I had borrowed a fake payphone from Manhattan Theatre Club when I was working at Playwrights. I took it on the subway to get it from one place to the other. While I was on the train with the payphone two cops got on board. They noticed me standing with the payphone, as they would. I saw them staring; they were trying to figure out what was going on. I made a point of picking it up so they could see how light it was so that they didn’t approach me. I am sure they were confused but they didn’t question it. Yeah, I’ve brought some pretty crazy things on the train!  

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