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Updated 10:00 AM February 13, 2006




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Spotlight: Dressing the set

From an ornate chair to curtains hanging on a wall, a hand mirror, a decorative painting, even a match used to light a cigarette—all must be placed with care for actors or dancers who require props to help set the stage.


University Productions Properties Master Arthur Ridley, right, and undergraduate music student Michael Lowney prepare items in the "prop shop" in the basement of the Power Center for the Performing Arts Annex. Ridley and Lowney were constructing a bed for the opera, "The Dreamy Kid/De Organizer," which will be performed March 23 & 25 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater in the Michigan League. (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

The School of Music relies on the properties staff to provide these little pieces of reality to help make a production authentic.

"When you go to see a production in the theatre, dance, opera or drama departments, it's not the scenery, not what the actors or performers wear, but everything else," says Arthur Ridley, props master for University Productions.

Ridley currently runs the "prop shop" along with Dan Tracy, assistant properties master, and Patrick Drone, properties artisan and carpenter.

The trio produces all of the props for every School of Music production during the year.

Ridley says the school produces 10 main shows each year in addition to other productions that run concurrently.

They also furnish props for other productions such as senior dance recitals and Basement Arts, a student-run theatre company.

This semester, in addition to working on productions for the school, Ridley is helping the Power Center for the Performing Arts host the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association (MIFA) Conference, where 13 high schools from across the state will participate in a competitive theatre festival.

"We stay busy, but it all seems to work out," says Ridley, who spends his days traveling between theaters in the Michigan League, Frieze Building, North Campus, Power Center and a warehouse in downtown Ann Arbor.

The first step in determining what props are required is reading a play and making notations about what the producers might use, Ridley says. "Then you meet with the director and designer and they'll each have their own lists, and you pool lists and get an idea for the scope of the project," he says.

Ridley says most prop work must be finished about a month before it appears onstage, which means schedules always overlap for the shows.

The number of props in a production range from very few to dozens in "The Gold Diggers." Ridley says the demand for props required for a production can change once rehearsals begin.

Ridley came to University Productions more than 20 years ago and served the position for three years before moving on to other institutions, including Webster, Purdue and Washington universities.

He also designed scenery and costumes at a myriad of other theaters nationwide before returning to the University in 1995.

Currently, Ridley is doing props work on eight shows. He thinks it is the most they've ever worked at the same time, including three operas running simultaneously.

For Ridley, who designed scenery for "Oklahoma!," "The Tavern," "Side Show," "Sweeney Todd," "Pal Joey" and "The Boys from Syracuse" at U-M, prop work is all about the details.

"It's an ongoing process; managing many things at one time," Ridley says. "Getting it all done for everyone's satisfaction is the goal."

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