On one side are shelves of telephones, from a hand crank to a push-button. On the other are boxes of artificial flowers and fruits, and one labeled simply "meat." In more distant storerooms are some of the larger treasures of Arena Stage's property inventory, such as the 20-foot cannon that telescopes down to eight, or the mummy case from "The Man Who Came to Dinner." The 16-foot fire engine was sold to a man with a lot of children.
Props are essentially all the things that are found on a set, although in Arena's nonunion shop the boundary between the two is often smudged, says Chuck Fox, Arena's prop master. For example, he and his crew are currently building a 1906 Locomobile for "Man and Superman," even though it is virtually the entire set for the second act.
Fox, 36, also notes that props -- in his view at least -- are the "fun things" in technical theater. "The scenery crew has to build another floor for the Arena for each show, and that is just not interesting," he says. A graduate of East Carolina University, with an M.F.A. from Smith, Fox is a former college teacher of technical theater who came to Arena five years ago as prop carpenter. He was promoted a month ago after longtime prop master Abby Okun decided to move to New York.
The prop workshop, one of the many little laboratories carved out of Arena's underworld rabbit warren, smells of polyester resin (for building busts) and spray paint. There are neat rows of screwdrivers and drills, bags of plaster, boxes of steel wool, huge rolls of upholstery cording, and, on one table, three gold forks lying in a pie plate full of liquid. (They were "distressed," or made to look older, with a coat of varnish for one play, and the varnish is being removed for use in another show.)
Fox and his staff of four have about four weeks to make, find, buy or borrow props for a play, and they work with a budget of between $5,000 and $10,000 per show. Although major items like the helicopter they are building for "Tartuffe" may seem the most challenging, Fox says that finding, say, a 1930s Kellogg's Corn Flakes box -- which Okun managed to do for one production -- is just as difficult. (The box is now in the storeroom awaiting its next role.)
One assistant, Chester Hardison, is in charge of buying -- or renting, or borrowing, or finding. He found the rusting farm equipment for "Buried Child" in Maryland (the farmer was glad to get rid of it) and, Fox says, "knows every store and antique shop in the area." Lance Pennington is in charge of things made of fabric, such as tablecloths and pillows.
Sometimes they seek help from other theaters. For "Quartermaine's Terms," they consulted the prop master at Britain's National Theatre for advice on what would be found in a British school teachers' lounge. "She sent us a care package of stuff," Fox says. "The funny thing was, she thought the one thing we surely would not have here is Bic pens, and sent 250 of them."
The prop department also has to know how to explode things, which is usually accomplished with some kind of electrical spark and "flash pot," exploding powder that photographers once used in flash guns. But recently technical director David Glenn discovered "lycopodium powder," an organic, inert by-product of a cactus that flames when thrown into the air and set off with a spark.
The helicopter they are building for "Tartuffe," which is being transferred here from the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, is actually a compromise over the Dusenberg that crashed through the back wall in the original, because the Arena doesn't have a back wall. "I was very amused when I got the prop list from the Guthrie," Fox said. "At the top of the list was 'one 1920 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.' The next item was something like 'a pair of eyeglasses.'