Theater veteran and students star behind the scenes
Editor's note: This is the first segment of a three-part article showcasing the Ohio University School of Theater Prop Shop. This article is featured in the Winter 2005 print edition of Ohio Today.
Jan. 7, 2004
By Corinne Colbert
Photography by Rick Fatica
At first, the room on Kantner Hall's second floor looks like your high school shop class: lots of power tools, piles of lumber, a ventilation hood for painting off to one side, a few chairs in progress, an Elvis Costello tune blasting from a boom box.
The similarities end there. Chances are, your high school shop class didn't have fake severed heads on pikes in a corner. Your teacher's office cabinet likely wasn't stuffed with handmade swords. He probably never helped you create a realistic-looking deer carcass.
Because this, ladies and gentlemen, is not just any shop. Welcome to the Ohio University School of Theater Prop Shop, where the job is to turn imagination into reality - or at least a reasonable imitation of it.
"We're making facsimiles of real things, adapted for stage usage," says Tom Fiocchi, scenic technical specialist and head of the Prop Shop. "If it doesn't look right, it's high school. Our standards are the same as the industry's standards."
Fiocchi should know: A veteran of professional theater in New York and Washington, D.C., he has helped turn the Prop Shop into one of the country's best training grounds for theater scene design.
With bachelor's and master's degree programs in production design and technology that emphasize props, the School of Theater is one of the few places in the country that prepares professional props artisans.
"We have facilities here comparable to any good regional theater's," Fiocchi says. "We can make almost anything."
On this sunny fall day, "anything" means chairs. Specifically, chairs that look exactly like ones Fiocchi saw in an IKEA catalog. He could drive to Pittsburgh and buy the chairs for $20 each. "But I've got a bunch of students who have never built a chair, so this is a great way for them to learn the basic joinery of chairs."
Much of the shop's output is furniture. The school does have some stock props. One camelback sofa has been reupholstered countless times and "has so many layers of paint it'd make your head spin," Fiocchi says. But most items have to be manufactured. "You can get real antique chairs, but if an actor has to jump on it every night ..." he says, leaving the possibilities unsaid. It's not just a question of durability, either. He points to photos from a production of "Lysistrata," which boasted all-blue sets. "You can't just borrow furniture from people and paint it blue."
With a budget of about $1,000 per show, Fiocchi and his students work faux wonders. "That budget doesn't allow me to buy oak; it allows me to buy poplar and paint it," he says.
It's all about imagination and devotion to detail. For a production of "Les Trois Dumas," a play written by Professor Charles Smith, the crew created several 19th-century-style leather manuscript folders stuffed with pages of calligraphic script. A working lamp for the set of "The Glass Menagerie" took five people to build in steel, wood and molded hot glue. For "The Gods Are Not to Blame," an adaptation of "Oedipus Rex" set in Nigeria, Fiocchi and his students turned out African-style weapons with embellishments based on museum pieces.
Any play may take Prop Shoppers in a new direction. Fiocchi bought a few of the more important title items for "Menagerie," but he also took a group of students to Columbus to learn to fashion animals from molten glass.
"I'd never worked with glass before," he says. "It was a gas to find out how to do it."
Few students leave the School of Theater without at least one quarter in the Prop Shop. All of them, regardless of major, have to take classes in stagecraft. Fiocchi is not above tempting some away from their original ambitions.
"I always try to lure them to the dark side," he says with a mischievous grin. "There aren't enough props artisans out there."
And those who are, increasingly, come from Ohio University. From New York to L.A., Chicago to Atlanta, every graduate of the production design and technology program has found a job in the field, Fiocchi says.
Toby Harding, MFA '04, followed his mentor's footsteps to the Shakespeare Theatre, where he is assistant props manager. Like Fiocchi, he is drawn to weapons work. "It's just great when you spend a weekend trying to figure out how to make something work onstage," he says.
The mental challenge also appeals to Natalie Taylor, now in her final year of study for her MFA in production design and technology. Metalwork is nice, she says, but she prefers more complex props that combine a variety of materials, such as the deer she made for "A Lie of the Mind."
Technically, it was only half a deer. A character kills the deer offstage and later cuts the frozen carcass in half, hauling its back end onstage. It was that end of the deer that Taylor had to make, obtaining a hide (and an up-close view of the innards) from a taxidermist and stretching it over a wood skeleton. The result won an award at the 2002 Southeastern Theater Conference. She made a dead goose for another play.
"I've got all this carnage in my portfolio," she says.
Building a portfolio is what it's all about. Every student in the production design program must take a photography class to learn to take professional photos of their work. Those images are their ticket to employment at places like the Shakespeare Theatre.
"It's a pretty good program to give us the people we have here," says Harding, who employs two Prop Shop grads.
Demand for the shop's alumni is high. "Everybody loves our props people," says Belden, who like other School of Theater faculty remains active professionally in New York and other hot spots. "We can't turn out enough of them to fill the jobs. Our graduates are immediately hirable at any theater in the country."
And if they're anything like Fiocchi, they will be ecstatic about their roles in the theater.
"This is the most fun job in the entire world," he says with characteristic enthusiasm. "My job is never, ever boring."
Corinne Colbert served as interim assistant editor of Ohio Today. Rick Fatica is the university photographer.