An imaginative mind
Editor's note: This is the second 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. 12, 2005
By Corinne Colbert
Photography by Rick Fatica
If the Prop Shop is a world of imagination, Fiocchi is its Willy Wonka. As a kid, he made plywood guns and cardboard armor for himself and friends to play army. In the seventh grade, he went to his school Halloween dance as the Red Baron, complete with a wearable Fokker airplane. By high school, he was the "weird guy" - until he discovered the theater. "Do the same weird stuff on stage and you're a hero," he says.
He had another epiphany early in his days at Rutgers University, where he found his future as an actor was limited but that he had a knack for designing and building props. One of his classmates was Shelley Delaney, now an assistant professor of theater at Ohio University. She played the lead in a Rutgers production of "Saint Joan," and Fiocchi made her armor.
"It was a disaster," he laughs.
Delaney remembers it differently. Because she's petite - about 5 feet, 2 inches tall - the armor had to be built especially for her. Dressed in a leotard and tights, she lay on a table in the scenery shop while Fiocchi molded plasticene directly to her torso. It was uncomfortable, and she had to hold still until it set, which turned out to be harder than she anticipated.
"There I was, wrapped in plastic, freezing cold, and Tom's doing everything in his power to make me laugh," she recalls. When she came to Ohio University two years ago, she had no idea Fiocchi was here until he walked into her classroom one day. "I had an instant flashback to that armor," Delaney says, laughing.
She still has the sword Fiocchi made for her Joan of Arc. "It's quite a lovely sword," she says, "but by his standards, it's a toy."
Fiocchi honed his craft at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., one of the country's foremost regional theaters; Fiocchi's portfolio includes photos of big-name actors such as Kelly McGillis, Richard Thomas, Harry Hamlin and Stacy Keach using his props. He continued to work for the theater as a freelance artisan after joining the faculty at George Washington University.
He had a career he loved, but he needed a change. "When you go into the theater, you choose an alternative lifestyle," he says. "You don't get paid much, but you're gonna freakin' love your work." But by the late '90s Fiocchi was married and had a baby on the way, and the nation's capital is a terribly expensive place to raise a family.
He decided to look for work as a college technical director. At the same time, Ohio University was looking for someone to help build a degree program in production technology, including props. Fiocchi applied just for practice: "I'm not going to move to Ohio," he said at the time.
What he found in Athens, however, was far different than he expected. "They really had their act together," he says of School of Theater faculty. "All the professors have been out there (in the theater world). What you had here were the facilities and support to create a program training props artisans."
Since joining the faculty in 1997, that's exactly what Fiocchi has done. "Tom is an incredible props master," says Ursula Belden, head of the production design program. "We're extremely fortunate to have him. He brings an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious to students and everyone around him."
Fiocchi hasn't stopped working for professional theater, either. Although he can make almost any kind of prop, he specializes in stage weapons, creating combat-worthy swords and daggers for regional theaters across the country.
"Tom's work is really beautiful and shows a lot of detail," says Chester Hardison, props manager for the Shakespeare Theatre, which remains a significant client. "When you do Shakespeare, you use a lot of weapons. The quality of his work is at the level we're looking for, which is pretty high."
It is Fiocchi's renown, as much as the School of Theater's reputation, that draws students to the program. Liza Kindl, a sophomore from Derry, Pa., says Fiocchi's experience as a working props artisan was a big factor when she decided to attend Ohio University.
"Everyone calls Tom" for props, Kindl says. "I'd like to do anything where everyone calls me. I'm learning from the best."
Corinne Colbert served as interim assistant editor of Ohio Today. Rick Fatica is the university photographer.