In his 36 years at Arena Stage, props guru Chuck Fox saw many changes, most notably the rise of Internet shopping. But to anyone who thinks that Etsy and Amazon and eBay made Fox’s job easier — that he could just click his way to the perfect vintage glass — think again.
Fox says he had an easier time using the Yellow Pages to find such items as antique glasswear, car parts and even live animals, and he has stories about them all. Now that he’s retired, he has time to tell them.
Fox, 67, stepped down April 29 after three decades as Arena’s properties master. He joined the theater as a props carpenter in 1980, not long after receiving an MFA in theater from Smith College, and he was promoted a few years later.
The first time Fox remembers going online to find props was in 2000, when Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith requested a backyard radio for her production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”
He had no trouble finding one appropriate for the play’s 1947 setting.
“Just the thought that I could go out and find something that specific blew me away. It was a whole new day,” says Fox, who lives in Falls Church. “It was a huge change, not necessarily for the better. If you need something very specific and in a hurry, it’s wonderful. But if you want to go out and touch something to see if it’s exactly right, that’s what you can’t do anymore.”
One too many times, Fox says, online orders have been the wrong size, color or vintage, and he has ended up in a last-minute scramble.
Fox says he had an especially tough time finding accessories for the mid-century living room of a Georgetown socialite for this year’s production of “City of Conversation,” a set that would have been easy to create 10 years ago. Fox used to know every nook and cranny of every antique store in Washington and Baltimore, but those shops were already starting to dwindle by 2008, when the recession began putting many of those stores that remained out of business.
“The antique districts and antique malls have just faded. It is really hard to shop for furniture and decor. Maybe I’m getting out at the right time,” he says with a laugh.
Fox spent the waning weeks of April cleaning out his office, uncovering keepsakes as he packed, including a copy of the “casting call” he had hung up in local pet stores seeking two fancy-looking dogs for Arena’s 1999 production of “The Royal Family.” He ended up with two gorgeous Afghan hounds, whose owners brushed their silky cream coats backstage every night, just before they made what Fox called “a sweeping grand entrance.”
More recently, Fox hired a small farmyard menagerie for Arena’s 2010 production of “Oklahoma!” But few theatergoers saw Ado Annie’s piglet and Aunt Eller’s goat. “They got cut during previews,” Fox says. Apparently, the goat relieved itself while actress E. Faye Butler was trying to mime milking it, and she was not happy. Also, the musical was running long, so it made sense to send the animals back to a farm in Maryland.
“Animals and food — these are things you don’t usually think of as props, but that’s a lot of what you do,” Fox says.
During Fox’s first season at Arena, an actor with diabetes was cast as Sheridan Whiteside in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” The script called for the character to pop bonbons throughout the play, so Fox had to find sugar-free alternatives. That was tough, but not as tough as constructing a fake lobster for an actor with a shellfish allergy to eat every night in “Ah, Wilderness!” in 2012.
Fox’s final show, “Disgraced,” which runs at Arena through May 29, required him to whip up what the script describes as a fennel and anchovy salad for a fancy New York dinner party. The cast sat down and decided which ingredients they could eat during every show. (They gave a thumbs-up to Fox’s olive oil and lemon dressing.)
“I’ve never had a problem with divas,” he says.
Choreographer Andrea Miller has never been busier. Music audiences, even classical ones, raised in the Internet age may expect more than aural stimulation when they go to concerts, she says, and her dance company is ready to fill the visual void.
“Just sitting and listening to music is maybe not going to work for the current generation,” she says.
Last month, the 34-year-old artistic director of Gallim Dance created a piece for dancers, a choir and an organist to perform during the “Gloria” portion of composer Arvo Part’s “Berliner Messe” in Philadelphia.
Recently, Miller began choreographing a pas de deux for Jessica Chastain and Kit Harrington for an upcoming film. And now she’s in Washington, preparing to remount her choreography for “Carmina Burana.”
Her choreography for the chorus and singers debuted April 30 at Lincoln Center with the New York City Master Chorale. In Washington, her co-commissioners, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, will perform Carl Orff’s masterpiece with Gallim Dance on Sunday at the Kennedy Center.
“I’ve never had a more insane four weeks,” she says. “I think this speaks to some larger trend about visual stimulation. Until we get to the point where everyone goes to a performance with a virtual reality avatar, dance will fill that in.”