Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Giving props

As job titles go, "prop master" is double-edged. On one side of the blade, it's about as kick-ass as any moniker in theatre, at the opposite end of the coolness spectrum from "dramaturg." (I can report from personal experience that no one knows what the latter is, and no one wants to know.) There's a latent salaciousness in the phrase that "prop mistress" makes explicit: oh, you naughty props! if you don't behave, I will take you over my knee!

Unfortunately, the title also connotes stolidity, and skills more acquisitive and organizational than interpretive or artistic ("stage manager" does a similar disservice to the faithful keeper of a story's flame). There's a broad tendency to view prop masters and mistresses as merely the gatherers and human repositories of a play's assorted stuff. "I need two pounds of strawberries, stat! Also a box of single-use gloves, non-latex -- the actress is allergic. Bring me receipts." And they are invaluable in this respect, practiced burrowers, borrowers and rooters, expert in the ways of thrift and Goodwill.

But a true master of props understands that the right object in the right hands at the right moment can be a vehicle of spirit, a key for the door that opens between theatrical and everyday reality. Many of these things require an infusion of imagination to perform their liminal tricks; they cannot be bought at any price but must be created by someone with an instinctive grasp of both the story and the mode of its telling.

Kenichi Hillis is the resident prop master at Northwest Classical Theatre, and we were extremely fortunate that Trailing Colors fell into a tiny open space in his packed calendar. I perceived from our first meeting that Kenichi's commitment to the integrity of the show would equal if not outstrip my own; he would not let me get sloppy with the concrete details of the world we were creating together with Taiga Christie, our scenic and lighting designer, and the actors, who were our collaborators in costume design. I was deeply gratified by the pleasure he took in the idea that Taiga and I had to reverse the cultural markers denoting Leah's and Rose's living spaces, with the liberal American journalist indulging a taste for "ethnic" prints, and the upwardly striving Rwandan business woman displaying a "western" gentility.

Our lengthy discussions about beer were also richly satisfying, though not the beer itself: when we finally settled on real Tusker over ersatz Primus bottles for a scene set in Goma, Kenichi could not resist preparing one of the props by emptying it, and so discovered that there's good reason Tusker is rumored to contain formaldehyde. The label is extremely handsome and emblazoned with an elephant, but I'm glad I got to "prepare" David's Negra Modelo instead.

As I said earlier, some props are priceless, and there are two in particular which you may never notice directly (unless this post inspires you to notice) but which crucially help to suspend our playworld on the guywires of imagination. The first is the manuscript of an article that "Leah has written about David" in the playworld, and Kenichi has written about David in our world. Kenichi swears that he's no journalist and purports (I think sincerely) to be embarrassed by the article's poor quality, but to my mind the thing is a kind of masterpiece, because it gives concrete form to everything Kenichi has taken the trouble to learn about Leah (her sensibilities and ambitions), about David (especially the tender devotion to his "pachyderm pals" that mystifies and attracts her), and about the story (how it is Leah's glib admiration that ruffles David and precipitates a confrontation).

The second is a medical file that Dr. Cinzia Ferulli consults in a meeting with Mme Marie-Claire Twagira: perfect in every detail, from the tri-colored T & W & A stickers that label its tab to Cinzia's (unusually neat) signature under the description of Marie-Claire's presenting complaints. All of this in French, mind you.

If the audience does not perceive these details directly, I take it on faith that they do perceive them, not least through the self-assurance of the actors who find their leap into fiction so well supported by Kenichi's careful work.

All hail the prop master!