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Propeller Blog: Behind the Scenes

By Leslie Stainton

Editor’s Note: Propeller performs Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew in Ann Arbor, February 20-23. Leslie Stainton covered the company’s last visit to Ann Arbor in 2011 with Richard III. This post is a part of a series.

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Photo: Actor Ben Allen took this photo inside the set.

From a Friday afternoon session with Nick Ferguson, production manager for Propeller, and U-M production and design students, these behind-the-scenes tidbits:

  • When Propeller began producing plays 15 years ago, the sound system consisted of two microphones
  • In designing sets for a touring company, weight, volume, and practicality count as much as design
  • Propeller’s sets have to be able to go up in a day
  • A key question for every Propeller tour: can you fit the set into one trailer?
  • Every production poses risks: imagine being a guy, for example, and putting on a pair of heels and climbing up a 10-foot ladder in the dark
  • For each production, someone—usually the production manager—has to sign a legally binding risk assessment
  • As production manager, Ferguson checks every set himself, assesses its risks, works out the best and safest way to maneuver difficult spots, and walks the actors through difficulties as many times as needed
  • Like home construction, Propeller productions are put out to bid, or “tender,” with builders
  • The sets for Shrew and Twelfth Night can be made narrower or shallower depending on the space where the company is playing
  • Designers should never ask an actor to do something they wouldn’t do themselves
  • All of this had me marveling, again, at the audacity of touring. Propeller’s next U.S. venue is the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where the big challenge will be maneuvering its towering wardrobes and chest of drawers up and down a thrust stage. Good thing they’re in Ferguson’s hands—he’s been working backstage in the theater since he was 17. Now “an old man,” by his account, he loves his work. “You never stop learning,” he says. “Especially in the theater.”

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Leslie Stainton is the author of "Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts" (Penn State, 2014) and "Lorca: A Dream of Life (Farrar Straus Giroux 1999)." She'll read from "Staging Ground" at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor on Monday, November 3, 2014 at 7 pm.

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