Propping Up Plays Can Take Some Engineering
State of the Arts
When you want to buy a piano or a dining-room set, you use the classifieds. But if you're a theater director searching for props, you may have more esoteric needs. Consider two ads that appeared in the "Resources (Needed/Offered)" section of the Vermont Art Council's ArtMail e-newsletter. (Both were reprinted from the "Theater Notices" put out by Veronica Lòpez of the Catalyst Theater Company.)
"Spinet Piano Needed" read the ad placed by Maura Campbell, 2005 recipient of the Vermont Playwright Award. She was seeking the archaic instrument for Equinox Theatre's production of her award-winning play, Self Evidence, which is set in South Randolph in 1850. "It's not a problem if the piano is older and/or beat up," the ad continued.
Meanwhile, Ruth Ann Pattee of Waitsfield's community theater, The Valley Players, was seeking "antique surgical instruments (or at least 'old' looking) and large plain glass jars for their upcoming production of Terror by Gaslight." Set in the mid-19th century, the two-act thriller by Tim Kelly has little else in common with Self Evidence - it features a mad scientist with a body-snatching habit.
How did the two women fare in their search? "Four people called me. I mean, instantly," says Campbell, who ended up taking the first spinet piano she saw as a loaner.
Producer Pattee found her surgical instruments, too - a cast member had inherited some from a relative. Pattee says some of the odder props she's found over the years include a copy of the "Mona Lisa" and a crossbow, "which we rented from a California company called Weapons of Choice."
When it comes to lending unusual objects and even valuable antiques, "There's something about theater that makes people just want to help," Campbell says. She cites the example of another prop she needed for Self Evidence, a music box that would play tunes appropriate for the 1850s. Porter Music Box in Randolph, which makes replicas, lent her a 40-pound music box worth "thousands of dollars," which she calls "incredibly beautiful."
What about the venerable spinet - will it be played onstage? Of course, Campbell says, then paraphrases Chekhov's famous theater dictum: "If you show a gun in the first act, you gotta shoot it."