The University Record, May 22, 1995

Prop shop provides furniture, flowers, flutes for Power Center productions

By Sage Arron

Even if they don't know what a play is about, astute audience members can survey the props on stage and determine such things as the socio-economic status of the characters, the historical period, the location, the time of day and the play's general tone.

According to Rob Dennis, properties master of the Power Center's Property Shop, "When a family moves into a house, whatever comes out of the van is a prop." Props play an important role in theater production and provide a specific context for the director'svision.

Props are divided into three main categories: set and furniture props, which include items such as tables and dressed dummies; hand props, such as utensils and hairbrushes; and decorative and dressing props that include floral arrangements and cameo broaches.

There are also sub-categories that include special effects, costume and makeup, and electrical and lighting. Smoke, blood and explosion effects, fake noses or other prosthetics, and lighted wall sconces are all examples of these sub-categories.

How does Dennis determine the best kinds of props to use for a particular production? "The most important thing for me to do is read the play so that I understand the characters' class level and what they're about. If I don't particularly know a time period, I'll either research it myself or get information from the designer."

After Dennis has read the play, he meets with both the director and the set designer to hear their interpretations. Regardless of Dennis' reading of a play, he says, "The bottom line is that the director is always right."

Because it is too expensive to build new props for every production, they are frequently borrowed and recycled. Resources for borrowed items are usually other theater companies and local retailers. On very rare occasions items may be borrowed from an individual, but, says Dennis, "We try to stay away from borrowing personal items due to the emotional attachments people may have to their property. Retailers and other theater companies are less involved."

Recycling previous props is also an excellent resource for new productions. Furniture is repainted and upholstered, flutes are reused as fifes and flowers are reconfigured into new arrangements. It is a wonderful, creative process that involves reinterpretation and collaboration with other shops.

One of these is the lighting shop, headed by associate master electrician Mark Berg. "My position with University Productions entails working with the lighting designers to implement their vision and execute it for them," he says.

According to Berg, "Only since the 1960s has lighting design really come into focus in theater." This trend began when the first Broadway musicals started using light to shape the stage's presentation and to control where audience eyes focused.

Berg balances a production's lighting needs with budget allocations based on a "light plot," an "instrument schedule" and a "budget." Receiving the light plot is the first step.

The lighting designer works with the director and the scenic designer to create a map for lighting equipment positioning. The resulting light plot is given to Berg, who creates an instrument schedule detailing lighting fixture positions, colors and types.

Berg then engages in a process called "costing it out," determining how much cable will be needed and whether or not additional lights will need to be rented in order to create the look desired by the designer.

Once the design is approved, Berg subdivides the budget allocation to take care of rental equipment, materials such as lamps and colored gels (which are painted on the lamps), and labor expenses for light-board operators and people to put up and take down the lights.

"Our work is very intensified in a short period of time," Berg says. "We'll do the hang [putting in the lights] in an eight-hour shift." After the lights are hung, they are focused under the direction of the designer and cued.

"If there's a spot of bright light on stage, that's called a cue. If the lights go out, that's another cue," Berg explains. "Once the show is cued and the director and designer like the look, then my job is done."

"Theater is a very collaborative effort," Berg notes. A journey through the various Power Center shops proves this claim to be true.