Becky Williams needed a box. As the soft-goods artisan at the Shakespeare Theatre’s prop shop in Mount Rainier, Md., this shouldn’t have been a problem. “We get lots of deliveries here,” she said. On Monday afternoon, she found a nice-size cardboard crate in the office but stopped to say hi to her colleague Eric Hammesfahr, a painter and sculptor. As she chatted, Williams made the mistake of angling the box such that the opening was just low enough for a large, furry white cat to hop inside.
“Oh, Caboose, I was going to use that,” Williams said, sighing, then dropped the box and gently nudged it under a table. The cat, curled up inside, did not appear interested in moving anytime soon.
“It looks like that just became another bed,” Hammesfahr said, laughing.
Backstage life can be interesting for a theater with a prop shop cat. Caboose the Fierce Nuisance is the full name of the resident furball, and yes, there is lots of white fur around the four-room office to which Caboose is usually confined. (He is allowed into the larger shop and costume storage area only if closely supervised.) Mostly, he spends his days in the kitchen and office area, where Hammesfahr maintains several large printers for projects such as creating parchment letters that must be delivered to Henry IV on a nightly basis.
Unfortunately, Shakespeare Theatre’s IT guy is allergic to cats, so Hammesfahr is on his own if anything goes wrong. Still, everyone at the shop agrees that the Fierce Nuisance is worth the trouble. Caboose came to the prop shop as a kitten small enough to curl up in a Shavian saucer. Props artisan Chris Young found the kitten one summer day in 2003, when he slipped out of the Shakespeare’s Eighth Street SE rehearsal space to pick blackberries near the Navy Yard train tracks.
“Out from the bushes he came,” Young recalled. And the name Caboose stuck, because soon the kitten was following all the artists around.
“He’s totally good for stress relief,” Young said. “You still had to get your projects done, but you could curl up with a kitten for 20 minutes.”
Grown-up Caboose earns his keep by maiming bugs and letting the crew know when there are mice afoot. He typically traps rodents under the refrigerator but never goes in for the kill. Caboose is deaf and can’t hear them scurry by. A veterinarian speculated that he was probably abandoned as a kitten because he couldn’t hear his mother. But for the rest of his life, he has a home among the noisy table saws, spray-paint booths and giant printers of the Shakespeare prop shop.
There may be some famous actors roaming around Arena Stage these days, but the real celebrity, anyone on staff can tell you, has four legs and can eat in any theater he wants, just as long as he does his business outside.
Symon Martin Johnson, the Scottish terrier, is back in residence at Arena Stage, along with his owner and handler, Randy Johnson, the director of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” On two previous trips to Washington, Johnson directed the musical “One Night With Janis Joplin.” Now Johnson is back with his pooch in tow, and in the words of theater staffer Edward Wieland, “Symon is a real celebrity around here.”
There’s no speculating on Symon’s namesake: Johnson was working with singer Carly Simon when he got a call from a breeder saying puppies were on the way. He had recently lost his first Scottie and didn’t want to wait too long before adopting another. “They have the best temperaments,” Johnson said, relaxing with his dog just before last week’s first night of previews. Symon was arguably more chill than the director and hopped up next to Johnson on one of those posh red lobby benches that some theater patrons may not want to share with a shedding animal. While not quite a lapdog, Symon does like to lean up against people for a good back rub and then sit up and watch attentively to see who comes by.
“He’s just taking everything in,” said Johnson, gesturing to an employee with a walkie-talkie. “Like, he’s never seen this guy before.” Symon didn’t bark, because he’s just not a yappy, hey-look-at-me theater type; he’s more of the behind-the-scenes guy. Symon has come to every “Smokey Joe’s” rehearsal, where the actors volunteer to take him for walks and the lighting board operator feeds him. While “Janis” ran on Broadway, Symon had his own dressing room. In Washington, he doesn’t get quite the same treatment, but he’s still a star.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.