Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Footlights

The burning desire for the perfect prop.

Posted By on Tue, May 24, 2016 at 2:00 AM

click to enlarge "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!" Tim Schwartz (Hecht)  in CAT Theatre's "Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell."
  • "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!" Tim Schwartz (Hecht) in CAT Theatre's "Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell."

Props Passion

A passion for theater can manifest in any number of ways -- as a talent for making up fantastical stories or a tendency to spontaneously break out in song, for instance. A more unusual manifestation is a burning desire to recreate the perfect prop for a show no matter how wacky the requirements.

If a prop, theater shorthand for property, is unrealistic, it can break the suspension of disbelief that makes theater so immersive. Few people are as passionate about enhancing that true-to-life experience as Jim Scott, the props master for Chamberlayne Actors Theatre. For the nearly 10 years Scott has been working with the theater, he’s painstakingly fabricated countless props, from the mundane to the magnificent.

For the recently opened production “Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell,” Scott was tasked with creating dozens of fake bananas and banana peels.

“I didn’t make them all,” Scott demurs. “Props assistant Lori Seman worked wonders making fake bananas out of homemade clay. All I did was make 71 fake banana peels.”

Constructed from yellow duct tape, vinyl fabric, black nylon cord, and brown paint, the faux peels were built to withstand more than a month’s worth of rehearsals and performances.

Like many who end up working backstage, Scott first gave theater a try as an actor. In 2005, a few years after retiring from working in state government, he was asked by a friend to appear in Neil Simon’s “Fools” at the Jewish Family Theatre. “She asked me to be the postman, a minor character,” Scott recalls. “In one scene I had to deliver an ‘urgent letter,’ so I made my first prop: a large, comical envelope. I learned that I was better at props than acting.”

In the years since, Scott’s intense interest in creating top-notch props inspired him to document his work in a series of informative how-to tutorials so others can benefit. One of the most comprehensive of these, “Making Props for Community Theatre,” details how to make everything from beer-can labels to a replica 19th-century phonograph complete with wax cylinders.

According to the old Irving Berlin classic, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” people who don’t get applause for their work are “secretly unhappy men.” Scott defies that ‘show people’ stereotype.

“For a props guy, it’s a great challenge to come up with whatever crazy item the playwright has written into the play,” he says. “Things like a bloody tongue that’s been bitten off or a jar containing a specimen of cancerous jawbone. When I watch a play, I pay a lot of attention to the props even though that might not be what’s important from the audience’s point of view. And of course, critics never mention the props.”

After talking with Scott, this is one critic who’ll start paying better attention. “Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell” runs through June 4.

By the way: “Margaret Mitchell” is a bit of a two-fer deal. In addition to the behind-the-scenes story of how the script for “Gone With the Wind” was developed, the play features a 90-second pantomime of the entire movie by Matt Hackman, playing movie producer David O. Selznick.

Running: The one-man show, “A Life Behind Bars,” continues at TheatreLab through May 27.

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