Beg, Borrow and Make…and buy if you absolutely have to: The Life of Props Master Vicky Moody

“The actors had to actually eat a meal onstage. Most of the time in a show it can be worked around, but for Circle Ensemble Theatre’s Burning Man two actors had to eat two actual meals onstage. Clams. As the Props Master it’s on me to not only make it believable for the audience, but to provide the tools which help the actors feel like they’re eating clams, without having to eat real clams, because there was a real possibility that they’d get sick onstage. So, I bought a bag of mussels and scraped out the individual mussels and then, each night, filled the mussel shells with mashed potatoes and a little pimento.”

The life of a Props Master is an interesting one, full of stories of triumph and tragedy, whimsy and work, mastery and magic. – Vicky Moody

That’s a decent example of just a tiny fraction of what it means to be a Props Master. Those words, spoken by local theatrician and Props Master, Vicky Moody, when we met at Jittery Joe’s in Watkinsville, give a slight glimpse into the triumphs and travails, the highs and lows, the almost-all-encompassing nature of what it means to be a Props Master.

“My husband and I met onstage in a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in a Saint Simon’s Players production. He was Shroeder. I was Peppermint Patty.”

That’s an undeniably adorable romantic beginning for any couple, but for the Moodys it solidified the future of a family. Vicky’s is a stage and screen family. With a beginning like theirs, how could they not be?

Wikipedia calls a prop anything  — anything moveable or portable on a stage or a set.  While that may be a workable definition by dictionary standards, it doesn’t begin to encompass what happens to the brain of a Props Master as she goes about her daily life.

“I spend a lot of time wandering around antique stores, Home Depot, or yard sales. Half of the time I just wander around. When you meander through the aisles of Home Depot they just assume you’re a shoplifter. An employee will inevitably come up and ask me, “Can I help you?” I’ll answer, “I’m trying to construct a pair of antique period handcuffs from the 1840s.” You’d think they just write you off as a crazy person, but mostly they get into the fun of it and wind up wandering around the store, trying to help me.”

HELPING THE ACTORS

“I have an acting background. Really, I have a total theatre background. I’ve run a light board, a sound board, directed, acted, all of it.  It helps with props to know how important the little things onstage are for the actors to get into their roles. If a chalice needs to be a certain weight, I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it’s heavy enough. It makes it just a fraction easier for the actors, which makes the play a little more believable for the audience.”

HEADING OFF THE NAY-SAYERS AT THE PASS

“Most theatre-goers accept the natural parameters of the stage, but there are always some who look for mistakes. For those people you have to get the props exactly right or it hurts their experience. I keep those people in mind when I’m setting up props. They have to work from every seat in the house, front row, balcony, the back, everywhere.”

“There is a level of optical illusion to a lot of theatre, but for it to be done right, the illusion has to be seamless. That takes work. I was working ‘Glass Menagerie’ and there’s an important scene on the verandah where two actors smoke cigarettes. Since you can’t actually smoke onstage in this century, you have to fake it, but you have to fake it in a way that doesn’t let the audience know that you’re faking it. I used a real lighter with the flame turned all the way down and an e-cigarette tucked into a pack of real, modern cigarettes covered with the logo of a pack of period-appropriate cigarettes wrapped around the outside of the pack. Then I tucked the e-cigarette into the spot where, when the actor hit the pack, the e-cigarette came out. Then I had to rehearse the move with the actors, so that when the lighter was struck no real flame came out, but the timing was so well-rehearsed that the audience didn’t have that slight, momentary doubt about whether this was really happening or not. It takes some work, but in the end it makes for a better total experience.”

THE PROCESS

“I get the script early on, sometimes even before the actors. I comb through it and look for what I’ll need to make, borrow, or even buy, but first I look to see if I already have the prop itself, or something close enough that I can change it to be the needed prop. I’ll meet with the director to see if his or her vision includes what I’m thinking. I prefer to get the props in the hands of the actors as early as possible. Directors sometimes cut scenes or change them in such a way that I may not need to get all of the props the script calls for, but I want to be prepared for all contingencies. I was working ‘A Christmas Carol’ and needed handcuffs from the 1840’s. I had an old pair that I’d constructed for ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ For ‘Finn’ I had to buy the raw materials, the bolts, the tubing, the curved metal. Luckily my husband does metal work, so that sometimes makes things easier. For ‘A Christmas Carol’ I needed to pair the handcuffs with a whole bunch of chains for Jacob Marley (played by Skip Hulett). The weight needed to be right, but if I’d used all real chains it would’ve been too heavy for the actor, so the key was to make sure the handcuffs fit and felt right and then to find the right metal-to-plastic chain ratio so that Marley looked believably weighted down, but not so heavy that the actor couldn’t move around onstage.”

It’s all a delicate balancing act.

STORAGE

“We’re in the process of remodeling our house. When it’s done I hope to have a real storage space.  For now, it’s everywhere. My son’s childhood room is all props, tools, miter saws.  He has to sleep in a hotel when he visits…for now.”

Having plenty of storage space is a must for a Props Master. You will wind up recycling props, altering props just enough to have them fit the show, or smashing two old props and reconfiguring them to make something new.

There’s a fine line between being a great Props Master and being a fantastic hoarder.

STAGE FAMILY

“When my daughter Maria was little my husband and I were working the lights for some shows in Saint Simon’s. Since their booth was sound proof, we didn’t need to hire a babysitter.  We just dragged her playpen into the booth and worked the show.”

The Moody children were destined for lives ‘trodding the boards.’ Vicky’s son is an Art Director for TV and film. Her daughter acts. Her granddaughter acts. It’s just what you do when you’re a stage family. And they’ve taken Vicky’s lessons to heart. Her son worked on a show called “The Glades,” which takes place in the Everglades. For one scene the actors needed to dig a hole three feet into the ground. He told the director that it was going to be impossible to actually dig that hole. One foot down in the Everglades you hit water. That’s just the way the geography works there. So, Sean, Vicky’s son, had to construct a large fiberglass fake hole so that the cast and crew didn’t all sink into the alligator-ridden swamp.

THINGS WILL GO WRONG, BE FLEXIBLE

“I was working Circle’s ‘Steel Magnolias’ at Ashford Manner, and there’s a coffee pot in the beauty shop. It had to have the weight of an actual coffee pot, so I couldn’t use plastic. Instead I heavily-Scotch taped a real coffee pot. I tried to wrap it up to the point that it would be as indestructible as possible, but the actors dropped it and it shattered on two consecutive nights. I made a lot of coffee pots for that show.”

“If there’s a prop I’m very concerned about I’ll schedule special rehearsals with the actors, just for that prop. In the end it’s always worth the extra time.”

HOW DO YOU MAKE A FAKE COW AND A FAKE CHICKEN COME TO LIFE?

“I was doing ‘Into the Woods’ at the Morton and there are some pivotal and complicated props in that one. There’s a toe that gets chopped off. There are all of the standard regal props, crowns, Cinderella shoes, and more. The cow, Milky White, is an important character in the show. A lot of the action revolves around the cow and he gets moved around a lot. He’s got to be durable.  That was probably the largest prop I’ve ever made, and it took some work, but it wasn’t even the most difficult prop for that particular show. The script calls for a moveable chicken that lays a golden egg. I had to find a remote control robot of the right height and then construct a chicken around it. That I can do, but this chicken needs to lay a golden egg, but only at the right time in the play. The chicken gets picked up, moved around, and played with in mid-air onstage, all before it lays its golden egg. So the egg has to be nestled in the chicken’s, uh, rear, and stay there for a long time, while the remote controlled chicken/robot gets its time in the spotlight, but the egg also needs to be able to be removed on cue. It was a difficult balancing act for a Props Master.

YOU CAN’T GET AWAY FROM IT

Since Vicky was telling me about how, after having been a Props Master for so long that she can’t help but look at pretty much everything she sees through this lens, I thought it would be fun to make a game out of it. We were in a Jittery Joe’s, and this location, even more than most of their other ones, tries to set itself up as a kind of community living room that sells four dollar coffees. Therefore, there’s a lot of random, interesting stuff all around. Assuming Joe’s would let us just steal anything in the store, I asked Vicky to look around the place and tell me what she would take as a potential future prop (after they let us out of jail for pilfering all of Jiterry Joe’s cool stuff).

“See that funky lamp over there, the Arabian-looking one. I’d take that.  Oh, and see that pile of board games, I’d take that antique-looking chess set. Oh, and that stand-up lamp over there, with the black base and the white top. I’d take that.  And…”

I had to cut her off before her enthusiasm got me excited and we went on a coffee shop ransacking spree, but it was a quick insight into how the mind of a Props Master works. Vicky is always thinking about what might make a great prop or be part of the raw material to make a great prop somewhere down the road.

THE PROP TABLE

The prop table is a sacred place. Like a religious artifact or a baby, there are strict rules governing who can touch the prop table, when, why and how.

“Basically we cover a table with paper and then make little labeled prop-sized boxes on it. We put the props in those boxes or somewhere around the table, arranging them according to when in the show the actor will need to pick up the prop. From then on, only the actor is supposed to touch his or her prop, and the props need to be returned to their areas after each show, so that the actors, the director, and the stage manager will know exactly where it is each night. This rule is one of those things everyone in the theatre needs to learn and abide by.”

WEAPONS

“You have to find, make, borrow (or even buy, if necessary) a lot of weapons for the theatre.  Guns, knives, swords, spears, and other more obscure weapons too. Weapons are tricky, because they’re weapons. You want believability, historical accuracy, and you don’t want your actors to die. The swords need to be real, but with dull edges. The guns need to be period and realistic-looking, but toy guns purposefully don’t look like real guns. You’ve seen those little orange plastic tips.  It’s my job to make the weapons look as realistic as possible without anyone getting hurt.”

THE WORLD IS HER ANTIQUE STORE

“There are no shy Props Masters. I’ll go up to people’s front doors and ask them if I can use a piece of their lawn furniture in a play. At first I was a little more hesitant about this, but now I’ll just approach people and ask for the shirts off their backs. ‘Hey, you don’t know me, but could you give me your pants?’ And the strange thing is that people do it. People want their stuff to be in plays and movies. For the most part they love it.”

WONDERLAND

“There’s a Wonderland aspect to being a Props Master. You have to go down the rabbit hole, but once you, like Alice, accept this reality, it gets easier and more fun. I even did ‘Alice in Wonderland’ a while ago. The prop I remember most is the flamingo. In the story, The Queen of Hearts has to pick up a ‘normal’ flamingo and then that flamingo needs to magically become a croquet mallet. So it had to look lifelike and then become a working croquet mallet. I used a dowel rod for the center of the body, long metal poles for the legs, and I threaded wire all around the frame, crafting it so that the head could turn left and right, giving it some life, and then I covered the contraption with pink boas. Cindy Nason, the fantastic local actor, played The Queen, and knocked the role out of the park. I know that my prop helped her get into character and helped make the play a success. It’s a good feeling.”

There was so much more to this interview, because the life of a Props Master is an interesting one, full of stories of triumph and tragedy, whimsy and work, mastery and magic. If you have a strange-looking item or ten in your house and you think it might want to shine onstage, if you own Victorian English clothing, unsharpened medieval weaponry or have recently sewn an extra loin cloth, get in touch with Vicky Moody. She will give your excess stuff its moment to shine “under the lights.”

Bowen Craig

Photos of props from Midsummer’s Night Dream. “I had to make the donkey head form scratch using my research. Provided plants to set the stage. Had to find an antique toy dog on wheels and used a red lantern I have in stock. I often have to make printed items such as the wedding program.”  – Vicky Moody