Trendy designers on home improvement TV shows could learn something about creativity from local theater prop artisans.
With latex paint and shellac, Sean Hennessey fashioned a faux marble tabletop. Marie Schneggenburger created imitation gold jewelry using copper wire, leather, fabric, paint and aqua resin casting. Niell DuVal made a World War II-era radio and antenna out of fiberboard and bicycle pump and lamp parts.
These and other crafts and props that the three District-based artists have made for local theatrical productions are on display as part of the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center's "Theatrical Artisans: Props and Crafts from DC Theatre," running through Nov. 28. Schneggenburger and Hennessey work as freelance theater prop makers and set designers, and DuVal is Arena Stage's full-time prop artisan.
John Yeh, co-curator of the show and Montpelier's technical director, organized the exhibition because he thought it would be interesting to showcase theatrical artwork outside its normal framework.
"I think people really enjoy seeing how objects were put together, and really get a kick out of seeing those objects outside of their original context and up close," he said. "Everyone talks about actors and directors, but no one notices anything about the electricians, the sound guys or the prop guys. This is our way of bringing attention to the unsung heroes of theater."
Without the backdrop of a stage and actors, the show resembles a backstage tour of set pieces. Next to each object is a description of how it was constructed and the play in which it was used. The Shakespeare Theatre, Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theatre and the Kennedy Center are among the theaters whose productions featured the props, which include dozens of colorful masks of varying shapes and sizes, a faux cannon made out of vacuum cleaner parts and an enormous puppet mounted on a backpack frame.
Because each production has different requirements, making props takes a lot of research and development, said Schneggenburger, who began designing costumes professionally in the 1980s.
"A lot of the time, no one has figured out how to do it," Schneggenburger said. "That's what they ask me to do.
"You have to take the needs of the show into consideration. Weight matters a lot. You try to keep everything as lightweight as possible within the reality of what it has to do. Sometimes things have to get thrown and stepped on. . . . Every show is different, which is good because it keeps me from getting bored," she said.
Hennessey, a sculptor for the Shakespeare Theatre for seven years before leaving recently to become a freelance scenic artist, is equally challenged by changing assignments.
"What's fascinating about theater work is that it's always different," he said. "The approach is that anything is possible, so you have to work with what's best for the actors. A lot changes during the rehearsal process."
When the production is finally up and running, Schneggenburger said, "It is a lot of fun to see something actually work after you've busted away on it for a while."
To see work from many productions in one place gives Schneggenburger a sense of satisfaction.
"It's kind of neat to see our stuff in a different way," she said. "People tend to think stuff like this is pretty cool, and it's not something that you get to see everywhere."
"Theatrical Artisans: Props and Crafts From DC Theatre" runs through Nov. 28 at Montpelier Cultural Arts Center, 12826 Laurel-Bowie Rd., Laurel. The gallery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is free. 301-953-1993.