Live theater has been a part of our cultural landscape for decades. For instance, Milwaukee Repertory Theater has been humming along for 54 years. WUWM’s Susan Bence takes us through the back door, as the company prepares “Pride and Prejudice”, the production that opens tonight. She learns the role “proper props” play in bringing a show to life.
Pride and Prejudice is an unabashedly romantic story, vintage 19th century England. Jim Guy describes it as a play about books, paper and luggage. He confesses that synopsis might be a bit unorthodox, but Jim is the Rep’s properties director.
“It could be one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen or it could be a rop train wreck if it’s not handled right,” Jim says.
This is a big show: 28 actors moving through 35 scenes.
“The actors will be setting the scenes with pieces of furniture, rugs and things like that, so that it’s very clear as soon as they start to act, where you are and what your doing, the things that the props need to tell you,” Jim says.
Jim’s been at this job for over a decade and his team of six is used to juggling.
“We’re usually working on two to three shows at a time and we open 15 or 16 shows in nine months,” Jim says.
How do you keep up? Do you have check lists?
“I have daily meetings with each stage management team to discuss what happened in rehearsal the previous day,” Jim says.
I stopped by the prop department a few weeks ago when Pride and Prejudice was in its formative stages. Jim was sitting in the heart of the room, bolts of fabric on one side, spider back chairs on the other. He’s reviewing notes from the last rehearsal.
“We cut about 60 percent of the furniture yesterday,” Jim says.
Some of the props are culled from the vast prop stock, deep in the Rep’s cellar. You don’t even want me to start listing the treasures down there. Jim says he can’t remember people’s names but he’s got a photographic memory of prop lists from 10 years ago and the exact shelf or wall where they’re stored.
Back to Pride and Prejudice, Jim’s excited, describing a lap desk one of the actors will use.
“There’s great pictures here of something that I would like you to make. I’ll talk to you about the details on it,” Jim says.
That’ll be Erik’s job. He’s pouring over the sketches in front of him. I pop back to see how Erik’s progressing, but he’s not constructing the lap desk. He’s in the middle of another project - adding electricity to what, in a previous life, was a massive candle-lit candelabra.
“Those are things that they sell at Home Depot. I just bought a bunch of them and hacked them apart and this is it. And so this is it, Erik says.
As far as Erik is concerned, this is fun. I sneak up on Anna, her head bent over a piece of canvas, needle and thread in hand. Her job is props craft artisan. She says that means doing a little of everything.
“Well I’m working on a piece of embroidery. Jim said he needed me to teach the actors how to embroider and well, I should learn how to embroider,” Anna says.
This isn’t an embroider-by-number deal; Anna found an image she liked on line, sketched it and perfects her stitch as she goes along.
“A lot of what we do is research before we start doing the project,” Anna says.
She found a book at the library and in it, a perfect embroidery stitch.
“It’s period accurate and everything, is the satin stitch. And it’s very simple. It’s just up and down, up and down,” Anna says.
Anna will carefully trace a landscape on fabric and add a few touches, so it'll look like someone's been working the embroidery for a while.
“And I’ll do that with a combination of actual stitching and painting. And then we’ll put it in an embroidery loop and she’ll have her little pair of scissors and her period-specific scissors sheath and her needle and her thread and she’ll be able to just sit there and embroider by number,” Anna says.
Eventually, the prop is clearly labeled “Jane’s embroidery frame” and placed on a table backstage, between Elizabeth's book and Kitty’s needlepoint.
The next time I meet Jim Guy, he's back stage, delivering last minute items.
“A piece of luggage that we built for Caroline who is an upper class lady and a music folio that we designed and built,” Jim says.
Jim is tickled about this creation. It not only looks good – it works! He saw the actress use it during rehearsal.
“I hadn’t seen her do this before. She sat down at the piano forte yesterday and she put this thing down for the first time and she just flipped the thing open. This girl means business. She’s here to play piano forte,” Jim says.
Jim is tickled about every prop his team tweaks and crafts. There are more than 200 in this show alone. His motto is to create objects, large and small, that are true to life for the actors and the audience.
By the way, you won’t see Jim in the theater tonight. His prop team is juggling four upcoming shows and prepping for a gala fundraiser on the side.