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The Stuff Of Drama: Talk With A Prop Manager


August 30, 2009

The purview of properties manager Allen Cutler is not real estate or facility maintenance. It's stage properties, the objects used in theatrical productions. After seven years at Hartford Stage, where he is playing a supporting role in mounting the epic "Orphans' Home Cycle," Cutler is bidding the company farewell. He will be properties supervisor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey.

A native San Diegan, Cutler, 45, discovered theater as a Camaldolese Benedictine, residing in a Big Sur monastery that staged plays. Leaving the monastery to pursue his new calling, he first attended college in his father's hometown of McAlester, Okla., then landed an internship at the Berkshire Theater Festival. The following summer, BTF hired him to head its props department and so did the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. He's enjoyed stable employment ever since.

Over six weeks, I've followed Cutler's search and accumulation of props for "The Orphan's Home Cycle" to learn how he contributes to defining the vision of its scenic designers Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber and director Michael Wilson.

"I usually can see an entire show in my head. But this one, spanning the first three decades of the last century, is too big and too complicated," Cutler readily admits. "I read the scripts four times and take copious notes. Things are hidden in dialogue. I anticipate needs and prepare questions. Absolutely I have to be part of the creative process. I help make decisions, whether it's a matter of cost or solving problems. Ninety percent of the job entails communication. Above all, theater is a collaborative art form."

Cowie and Barber emphasize that the sheer quantity of props is too much for one person. So the set designers divvied up the assignment and delegated options to Cutler. "One of the most interesting things for me about the props for this project is that not everything was bought in the same year or mood, but is an accretion, like your mother bought something at Target, something else at a tag sale, and so on," said Cowie.

Barber described the show's three-part pictorial progression. "The first evening is sepia-toned, taken from engravings. The second introduces color like watercolors and hand-tinted photographs. The third evening has deep jewel-tones, inspired by Edward Hopper paintings, a description costume designer David Woolard had given us."

Barber continued, "Because the stage surround for these plays is a wheat-toned neutral, furniture and props are our only opportunities to introduce color, place and period, even establish economic status. The design is driven by some extent by the period, and certainly dramaturgically how it moves. ..."

"From poverty and romance to a place of some affluence," Cowie concluded.

It's Cutler's job to deliver it.

Early in July, while an assistant compiled a 16-page list of items mentioned in the nine plays comprising "The Orphans' Home Cycle," Cutler pulled items from the Hartford Stage warehouse for the actors' use in the rehearsal hall, many of which also will be used on stage. He estimates that roughly two thirds of these medium-to-oversized props including a hand-cranked Victrola are company "stock" and much of the balance was bought specifically for the production.

"Doing props is like a scavenger hunt," Cutler said on a mid-July outing to antiques and consignment shops. ("Mr. Stage!" was one dealer's greeting.) Digital camera in hand, he photographed a choice miscellany of period pieces for the designers' review, and for Wilson's.

"Michael's intense about furniture, so he likes to have his say," Cutler said.

Occasionally, he sweetly grumped, approved items were sold before his return to purchase them. Visiting sources around the state, Cutler acquired an olio of settees, chairs, tables, piano stools, baby buggies, wicker furniture and early electric standing lamps specified by the designers. He located a small cast-iron stove and iron bedstead to rent, and secured the loan of a Victorian upright that "will pretend to be two or three different parlor pianos" by switching stools and adorning the top with a shawl and lamp, for example.

And since two of the plays depict certain characters being "laid out," Cutler scored frugal finds online, acquiring a plain pine burial box and a "showy" casket at a deep discount, thereby saving the company carpentry shop precious time. Currently, the shop is replicating a Craftsman-style fireplace mantle and building train seats, a store counter, a few tables, and a "found object construction," all according to scale drawings made by Cowie and Barber.

Throughout "The Orphans' Home Cycle," the actors handle lots of small stuff: sheet music, whiskey flasks, coins and pocket knives safely dulled yet sharp enough to cut the Panda brand licorice substituting for chewing tobacco (the latter is Cowie's ingenious solution). Facsimiles of period newspapers from Galveston and New Orleans and fashion magazines will be manufactured by the prop shop.

Two weeks ago, armed with a reference "map" of fabric swatches from costume designer David C. Woolard, Cutler, Cowie and Barber spent three hours in Osgoods, the immense textile emporium in Springfield, where the designers picked fabrics for the set's upholstered furniture, window curtains and more.

"I need to know what this stuff is for. It can get confusing fast," said Cutler.

They also "swatched wide within a controlled palette," as Barber terms it, obtaining six samples for a single chair for Wilson's consideration.

Resolving practical, technical and visual conundrums is part of their teamwork. Notes from rehearsal might say "the actors hate the sofa." Is it location, the height? How are the designers going to pictorially convey a decaying plantation through props alone? And there's the vexing question of a stovepipe arising from the cast-iron oven "that doesn't go anywhere," according to Cowie. "There's no wall behind it. It's an implied thing. How do we make it look right enough to the audience, so that they simply look at and listen to the actors?"

"So that it looks handsome and inevitable?" Cowie and Barber utter in unison before dissolving into laughter.

"It's about making it a fun picture," says Barber.

Cutler remains at Hartford Stage through the technical rehearsals. But classes and the theater season commence at Rutgers soon. What's the most important lesson to impart to the theater majors he will train in his craft?

"Props have no value outside of the performance," Cutler asserts. "They must serve or enhance the production. Authenticity isn't necessary, but it's the choice of telling details that informs both the audience and the players. Theater is illusion, not historic re-creation."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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