Ashley and Eric begin a conversation with Buist Bickley, the production props supervisor on Broadway hits such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, SpongeBob SquarePants, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dear Evan Hansen, Other Desert Cities, and so many more. Learn why he keeps getting hired, how he stays organized, and what he looks for in an assistant.
Below is a transcript of this episode, edited for readability.
ASHLEY: Hey, welcome back to Silk Flowers and Papier Mache Hearts. Today, we’re going to be talking to Buist Bickley, who has propped many, many Broadway shows.
ERIC: Yeah, I got a quick little list here. Let’s see: a little show called ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2’, ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘Dear Evan Hansen’, ‘The Last Ship’, ‘The Color Purple’, ‘Rock of Ages’, ‘The Nance’, ‘The Elephant Man, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, and I think you were also co-production Prop Supervisor on ‘Frozen’? Is that list all correct?
BUIST: Uh, that is correct. [ASHLEY: [laughs]]
BUIST: That is the truth.
ASHLEY: So, your host today is Ashley Flowers…
ERIC: And Eric Hart.
ASHLEY: And here’s Buist Bickley!
BUIST: I just– I just got hearts and flowers. [ALL: [laugh]] I’m serious.
ERIC: It is a little con.
ASHLEY: Aren’t we adorable? [laughs] [BUIST: Pretty funny.] We couldn’t figure out a name…
BUIST: I was thinking… ‘This is a really long name.’ [Ashley: [laughs]] I just got it.
ERIC: Right. It makes sense, it does make sense. So Buist, what did you do to all the other Broadway prop masters?
BUIST: There are a lot of us around, I promise I’m not the only one. I just– I’ve had a really crazy, like, last three years and, I think I might just be on Facebook talking about my shows more than other people are. So, I… it might seem like I’m doing them all, but that is not the case. [ASHLEY & ERIC: [laugh]]. But I… It’s been a really busy three years. It’s been… a busy ten years, but the last three years I feel like I got a few jobs that you just can’t say no to, all at once. So, I just kind of made that happen.
ASHLEY: Yeah, yeah. And so, what do you think… aspects of yourself are reasons you get hired? Like, what do you bring that other props masters don’t?
BUIST: I’m very handsome. [laughs]
ASHLEY: [laughs] Guys, I am sitting next to him, I can’t deny it.
BUIST: [laughs] I think I have a… this is a really hard job. And it takes a very specific combination of skills and a really high, like, BS tolerance. You need to have… be able to process a lot of information from a lot of different departments, to be totally right-brained, and totally left-brained, and at the same time in equal measure. You need to be someone that, uh, people want to be around for 12 hours a day. [ERIC: Mhm.] [ASHLEY: Yeah, that is important.] I think that… I… On Broadway, you get hired if the set designer wants you to be the prop master. [ASHLEY: Oh, so it’s not the production manager.] Oh, I mean or it’s the production manager, but the production manager will usually err on what the set designer wants. And I think, for the most part, I made set designer’s happy. And that’s why I get hired.
ASHLEY: That’s awesome.
ERIC: And who are some of those set designers who keep coming back to you?
BUIST: I haven’t worked with John Lee in a couple of years now, but we did, like, 40 shows together, for a long time. When I get attached to these larger projects, I work on fewer projects just for longer amounts of time. So I kind… when I was doing the Encore series, and you know, non-for-profit plays that have a six week run, I would do, like, a billion of them in a year. And now I do, like, two HUUUGE shows in a year, and it’s uh…Those two shows are more work than all the other ones combined. But I work with John Lee Beatty a lot, I work with Beowulf Boritt a lot, David Zinn, Scott Pask. I’m doing my first show with Derek McLane right now. [ASHLEY: I’ve worked with him a couple of times.] Who else do I work with? Christine Jones, Christopher Oram I’ve done a couple of shows with. For a long time, I was like…completely employed by Beowulf and John Lee, and now… for the last few years, I don’t think I’ve done a show with them in like, three years. But not because we don’t love each other… it’s just kind of how scheduling works.
ERIC: And so, how do you keep organized with all these multiple shows at a time? What are some of your tricks?
BUIST: I try… I recently got this office that we’re recording in right now, and having a separate workspace that’s just like, an office space independent of my shop space has been really helpful. Being able to have a spot that’s just like…I can keep everything together, I’m in the town, I can be at a theater, I can be at rehearsal, then I can come back to kind of my home base and get a bunch of stuff done. That’s been…I’ve had the space since October, and I can’t imagine surviving without it. Since I’ve had it, I can’t live without it. I try to label receipts very well, kind of boring but specific things. I… have lots of files. I don’t always stay as organized as I should when things…When I have, you know–when I’m in the middle of ten out of twelves on a huge show, and then I’m prepping rehearsal load in for the next show that happens right afterwards, um, you know, things get crazy. And you just kind of keep on top of it. Um, I’m not sure if I have any, like… I wake up really early and I go to sleep late. [ALL: [laugh]] I’m not sure if that’s [ASHLEY: I feel like that’s common or us.] That’s common for a lot of people [ERIC: No sleeping.] But I… don’t sleep a lot, I try to have– when I have assistants, I try to make sure that they go in… know how I like to code receipts, cause if they start coding receipts in a different way, I’m just like, ‘What is this?!’ And I have, like, very– when I am dealing with receipts, the way that I organize them is like, I don’t need like the special show logo cause that doesn’t matter. I just need information. And just like– very kind of plain and simple. And if I… have an assistant— I don’t care what you do, but I need it to be done this way. And staying organized keep– if I have assistants… finding the good ones, and having them stay on for more than one project, um, that helps you get organized because they know how you like things– things can just go easier. I sort all of my — this is very specific, these are like super specific things — but um… per show, like, on the subjects of emails, I always put the show title first, and then what question is, cause that — if I’m doing 8 shows at once, and… Katelyn number 3 emails me saying, like, ‘What are these chairs?’… Katelyn, you could be anybody. These chairs could be from 12 different shows. Like, it needs to be… If I’m doing Moulin Rouge right now. If I’m sending any emails, I have the subject as ‘Moulin Rouge Props’ and then like what it’s about. And then when I go back through the back catalogue of emails, I can just see what is from what. [ASHLEY: I feel like that’s helpful.] And I keep everything in one email address. In my personal, in my work, and in my things…which I might not do in the future. But currently, that’s what I’m doing. And I’m not saying that what I’m doing is the best, it’s just what I’m doing right now. [ASHLEY: Yeah, it’s your way. It’s your way.] Hopefully, I’ll get better at this.
ASHLEY: And for… you said you had assistants; do you have– how many do you usually have? Do you have more….
BUIST: I don’t keep any full-time staff. I hire assistants on a show-by-show basis as I need them. It’s dependent on what my schedule is with other projects. For the most part, I can do a bunch, that’s true. [ASHLEY & ERIC: [laugh]] … I was gonna say I can do a play by myself, but I’m not sure I can do that anymore. But I… it’s a show-by-show– sometimes I hire them myself, and sometimes, often, it’ll be part of the show’s budget that there’s a prop assistant, and sometimes… sometimes there’s not, depending on what the size of the show is… Broadway contract negotiations blah blah blah… But I like to keep my team small cause I feel like you don’t– I don’t want to be a person manager. Right now, with the amount of projects I have, I have to be a person manager, but in my perfect world I’m a little bit less of a person manager than I am right now. And I think keeping that small– keeping your overhead… low– I have a shop space, I have an office space, storage is hard in New York — I have storage spaces that I have– and these are all things that I have to pay for, and I don’t want to have to employ a ton of people to make my life work. And I also — in my dream world, that doesn’t really exist — I want to be able to like, take a month off… at some point, and like, go off and travel somewhere and not worry about, like, employing people that– I value my full time employees, right. I’ll bring you on for this project, and we’re gonna do– be hot and heavy for 12 weeks or something, but then when it’s done, it’s just kinda want to walk away from that.
ASHLEY: Are there assistants that you have had that you’re…never going to hire again, and why? What did they do that…?
BUIST: I hate complaining. I really hate complaining. [ASHLEY: Mhm. Yep.] I have a really short tolerance for complaining. I… I have said many times, no– the people I hire — the only non-negotiables are no criers, no douchebags. Everything else I can handle. Like, you just can’t complain, and you can’t be a douchebag. You need to be somebody that I want to be around, and — this is a hard job, and when– as far as like, complaining, I feel like with a lot of like, younger people– I’m not that old– but… the intern age folks that are coming into New York now, they’re just like, “Oh, oh my gosh, do I have like… is that… Really?!” and I’m like, “Yeah, really.”
ERIC: And you get the eye-rolling at some of the notes and things.
BUIST: See so, that happens like once, and it’s just like, ‘I don’t need this anymore.’ So like the people who — I haven’t had– on a big show, I haven’t had, you know, horrible assistants, cause I wouldn’t have — they would have lasted a day, and I would have said ‘Peace. God bless. Have a great time.’ I am not great at taking care of myself sometimes. I can take care of my work and my show, but I enjoy an assistant that says, ‘Buist, did you eat lunch?’, ‘Buist, do you need a cup of coffee?’ Like, I really enjoy that stuff. I need a little bit of, like, ‘Are you alive?’ [ASHLEY & ERIC: [laugh]]. Like, check in. I… I think all of my assistants would say that that is the truth. [ thinks aloud to himself, “What else do I want from my assistants?”] Stay on time– that is important. Communication skills. When I– you know, this job is kind of 24/7 because the shows happen at night– I have 5 shows on Broadway right now. The show reports come out after the show. They could say the show was great, they could say everything is broken, and it needs to be fixed tomorrow. Like, there’s really — so I might text someone in the middle of the night being like [laughs] this is what happens.
ASHLEY: So, the props master that’s actually in-house of the theater, do they not [BUIST: The prop head.] Yeah, the prop head. Do they not help with fixing things?
BUIST: Oh, they totally do. But if there’s anything that has to happen that’s outside of the building– that’s– I have to do that. That’s me. And I set the prop heads in the theater up to be able to fix things. [ASHLEY: Gotchu.] But you…you know, you need three of everything in the theater. [ERIC: Right.] Something breaks… But I mean… It’s five reports, eight times a week. Just– and everything can be real, but like, there’s a lot of things inside… And I set up shows to succeed… I’m not waiting for things to break every night, cause if it did, then I didn’t do a great job. And some things break more than they should– we work on making those better. But– I think I got into that from saying something about assistants. But… quick response of communication. If I — I try not to text people in the middle of the night, which is a very annoying habit for an employer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s great — but responding quickly to emails or– and responding to phone calls. I know for a fact that I got the Rock of Ages job because a prop master friend of mine did not respond to Beowulf when he was looking for someone to do that show. [ASHLEY: Ooohh.] And I responded, and just — respond to emails. And do it quicker than not. And I know how hard it is, I get 700 emails a day…. But staying on top of those communications is important. It’s hard to — with technology– I feel like part of my job, like a whole job of mine, is just responding to emails. [ASHLEY: Yep!] In a big musical, all the interdepartmental projects, like ‘It’s a hat that explodes, then there’s lights inside of it, and then there’s confetti in the fire.’ And it’s like these endless email chains, and just taking in all of that information, organizing that– that is a job. And then actually doing it is another job. And you have to be on top of both those things at the same time. It can be frustrating.
ASHLEY: I bet.
ERIC: Right, right. So the… prop head, the person running the show and in charge of the props, they’re union, right? They’re IATSE 1. [BUIST: Yes.] And are you in the union?
BUIST: I am in A.C.T. My…
ERIC: How does that all break down and work?
BUIST: My title is a — I’m a production props supervisor. [ASHLEY: Oh!] That is what I am called on Broadway. I prep the show, I’m on pre-production for rehearsal, I am creating all the props for the show, I’m setting up the rehearsal scenery, I… everything you see on stage is something that I have facilitated. In every Broadway house, there is a house head who stays with that theater for whatever is there. And then there are pink contract people who come in just for that show. And they are the people who run the shows every night. In some contracts, that person is in rehearsals also, before we get into the theater…helping facilitate rehearsal. In like a big musical rehearsal, there’s a lot of moving parts, and having that pink contract person there is really useful. And … having them know the show before it gets into the building. Cause I’ve had many a show where we have all these stagehands– they don’t see a run; they’ve never seen it. [ASHLEY: Ohhh.] That’s very common for no one to see a run before you go into tech. [ASHLEY: That’s so weird.] After…. bringing prop stagehands to see the runs of the show, they’re like “I’ve never done this before! It makes so much sense!” [ASHLEY: Yeah, that’s crazy!] I have… Dear Evan Hansen tour going out soon, and then…who I think is going to be the head props on the show, we went and saw the show together– such a luxury to, like, have the person who’s going to be with the show, and we see a production of the show, and I can say, like, ‘This is what it is.’ We can talk about problems, and how we would do something differently… Having– it’s such a benefit when you have, like, the time and the knowledge of things that are happening.
ASHLEY: Oh, yeah. So, on the union, for you specifically, what would you say the biggest pro is and the biggest con is…is there?
BUIST: [sighs] It’s hard to say pros and cons, cause it just is what it is. And there’s— I think unions has only helped me in my career. I worked as a non-union prop master for a long time.
ERIC: Well… I think a good question is- Are the other production property supervisors on Broadway — is there a mix of union and non-union, or…?
BUIST: There is a …. I worked on Broadway as a non-union person [ASHLEY: Cool!] for a few years, but I was technically not allowed to touch any props when I was on stage. There was lots of laser pointer of where things are dressed, and that was fine. Now, you know, when I’m on contract, you can touch whatever you need to, and it’s just kind of a different set up. It’s…it’s a really complicated– If you want to know how it works you can read a book that’s about two inches thick, and I’m not that book. What I say–whenever I go into a house, I see how things work in that house on that day, and that’s what the rules are. And if you think that’s not right, then tough. I… that’s how I have found success, is that we just walk in, what the rules are, that’s what the rules are, and then you follow them. You don’t wanna — you know, these people are working really hard, you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, and, you know, I want everybody to be happy, we’re all gonna get this work done, it’s gonna be great. [ASHLEY: You’re all in it together. [laughs]] Exactly. Did that answer any questions?
ASHLEY: Oh, totally!
ERIC: Um, so I’m wondering about, like, getting props built and that sort of thing. Do you have some go-to prop builders in the city, some of your favorites? Do you work with shops?
BUIST: I share a shop space with Pete Sarafin who’s another prop master who works in the city a lot. And when I first got to the city, I assisted Pete a couple times, and we get along really well, and we’ve had three shop spaces together. And… Pete keeps full time people, and… He builds things in our space. And I do not keep full time people, so I use our shop mostly as an area for staging for things… If I… I am dressing the inside of Satine’s elephant or Toulouse Lautrec’s art studio and I just have all this stuff, I’m just gonna put it all in my shop. I can work on things myself. If I have an assistant, it’s like a place for us to— It’s kind of more crafting, small carpentry, some rehearsal mock-up things. But most larger builds I am… sending to other places to be made. I have, you know, five or six shops that I like working with. I like Grady at Prop and Paint. I send stuff to Emiliano at… in… [ASHLEY: BB Props.] Several people think that I am BB Props cause I’m Buist Bickley. [laughs] That’s not the case. [ASHLEY: [laughs] That’s hilarious.] I’ve definitely had invoices to that when I send things and it comes back BrenBri, and I’m like, Emiliano’s not gonna be happy when he gets this… [ASHLEY: [laughs] That’s so funny.] Prop and Paint up in Newburgh. I really like that shop. That’s a small shop. Pete’s company is called Behind the Mule Studio. He builds stuff for me. I love Daedalus in Greenpoint. James and the guys there. But it’s kind of on case-by-case basis of what — I use Spoon Group to build stuff for me, in New Jersey. And I kind of see — different shops have their own strengths and weaknesses, and I try to play to their strengths. It’s really hard getting things made that — a lot of prop units have very specific set electrics and upholstery and mold making, and it needs to be on a tracking platform, and sometimes that’s like– One shop could do all of those things ~eh~, but if we split this up between several shops, we can make it, like, really great. And figuring out how to kind of split those kind of projects up is, I think, useful. It makes it harder, but it makes it better. [ASHLEY: Yeah.] [ERIC: Right.]
ASHLEY: And, are most of these shops in Queens, Brooklyn, and Jersey? Are any in Manhattan?
BUIST: Where would you be in Manhattan? [laughs]
ASHLEY: Well, I don’t think you would, but I never know what there is.
BUIST: There’s hardly anything in Manhattan. I mean, there’s not really an art store in Manhattan, there’s not — I mean, I’m not that old. Second time I’ve said that. But I feel like I’m like old school New York now cause I’m like, ‘Well, remember Pearl Paint?’ ‘Remember Lee’s Art Supply?’ ‘Remember Dyke’s Lumber on 43rd street?’
ASHLEY: Is Lee’s not a thing anymore? [BUIST: It’s not a thing at all.] Oh goodness, I loved that store.
BUIST: There’s not one… there’s not– The only art stores are Blick’s now. [ASHLEY: Oh, not really a fan.] There’s like two Michael’s. And those are like, fine for what they are, sometimes you need some sparkly foam, but it’s not like real art supplies. [Eric: Mhm.] [ASHLEY: Oh, goodness.] Yeah, everything is online now. [ASHLEY: That’s sad.]
ERIC: I know. The shopping in Manhattan’s the same as the shopping here now. It’s like, oh, go to Home Depot.
BUIST: It’s like, oh my gosh, I wonder…what they have at Marshall’s. [ALL: chuckle]. When Pearl River left, that was rough. I think there might be a little back now.
ASHLEY: When did they leave?
BUIST: A year and a half ago?
ASHLEY: Yeah cause I remember…
BUIST: ..There’s something really big that’s about to close that I got the inside scoop on, but I’m not going to say it in this podcast but… [ERIC: [laughs]] [ASHLEY:[laughs] Tell me later.] But it’s… it’s major. [ASHLEY: Oh goodness, I’m scared.] Yes. I’m going to write it down, and I want you to have a response, and know that this is going from…
ERIC: Oh, God, we’re writing stuff down.
ASHLEY: I’m worried. [gasps!] Noooo!
BUIST: I know.
ASHLEY: Oh my gosh, guys.
ERIC: Can you hold it up to the camera?
BUIST: The audience… is so upset. By the time it comes out, perhaps we’ll be talking about it.
ASHLEY: [audibly upset] …Well there went that, guys. Oh, that’s awful. Did you see that, Eric?
ERIC: No, I didn’t. Hold it up.
ASHLEY: Show it to him.
BUIST: Is the camera on?
ASHLEY: Yeah, the camera’s on.
ERIC: [sadly] Oh.
ASHLEY: [laughs] Apparently, he doesn’t care.
ASHLEY: That was the go-to on Off Broadway.
ASHLEY: Oh, ugh.
ERIC: So, what’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled outside of the city for shopping?
BUIST: For– I had some stuff mailed to me from India for this– for a current show. I have, um– I love finding makers on Etsy in, like, Eastern Europe. People in Eastern Europe really know how to make things. [ASHLEY: Yeah.] [ERIC: Right.] Which is like, not– like, handicrafts and basket weaving. I have custom baskets made in, like, Latvia, uh, beautiful…
ERIC: What kind of time turn-around do you need for that kind of thing?
BUIST: Um, I… I like to really front load projects. So on these– on like huge musicals, when I have the time, I like to take it to do things right, cheap, and well. Not always cheap, but hopefully always well. I had–what was it, Latvia and, some other country…one of those countries [ALL: [chuckle]] But I… had beautiful blankets made in Eastern Europe, and they weren’t that expensive, and I love being able to–when I’m buying something, and like, the person I’m emailing with is the person who’s making it, and then you know it’s what you want it to be, and you’re not like effing over somebody who’s like, you know, like a child on a loom or something. Like, I’m talking to the person who’s making this, they’re telling me how much they want for it, and I feel like I’m, you know, helping them out.
ASHLEY: Yeah. What is the most expensive prop you’ve bought before?
BUIST: Um… props become like small set pieces, and sometimes large set pieces on Broadway. Often things that are really difficult or really detailed become props that you would think were scenery. But I mean, quarter of a million dollars. But, uh, different– like big, flying things that have to light up and move that are automated, that definitely costs a lot of money.
ERIC: Now, are you part of the conversation of breaking down a design to determine what’s set and props, or is that decided before they bring you on?
BUIST: Um, I think it’s decided once they get the budgets back. Once they get prices back from scenery shops. Stuff that scenery shops don’t want to make, they charge — on their quotes, it’ll be like, three times more than what you’d think it would be, because they don’t know how to do it. [laughs] And then often those things become props. And I think every scene shop would agree with me when I say that. [ERIC & ASHLEY: [laugh]] Because scenery, big scenery shops, are really good at, you know, turntables and flats and platforms and figuring out Kabuki drops, and Foy rigs. And it’s, uh, I think prop people are better when we’re trying to get like the detail and dressings of things just right. A lot of people–like giant furniture things are always being sent to scenery shops, and they often get turned around and come back to prop things–cause they always like including scenery not furniture.
ERIC: Have you ever had a prop, or an effect come up that, when you heard about it, you had no idea how you were going to do it?
BUIST: Um, every day. [ASHLEY: [laughs]] [ERIC: Okay.] Five times yesterday. Um, just kinda have to figure it out, and I’m very– I think you have to be honest when you say I don’t know how to figure this out. Like, I like really smart people…And I have a list of people who I think are real smart, and if I don’t know how to figure something out, I’ll be like, ‘Do… What do you think?’ And try to keep good relationships with…the people who are good and figuring stuff out. Pete and I have a great relationship where we will riff off of each other to kind of figure something out, even if it’s not our own shows. I’m never afraid– I am not a proud man. Like, if you have a better idea than I do, then your idea — Let’s do it. I’m into it. I… Whatever’s best for the show, best for the storytelling is what I, you know, is what I wanna do.
ASHLEY: It always bothers me when somebody says, “Oh, I know how to do that!” but they have no idea. Because that disappoints people when they’re like, ‘Oh…’
BUIST: This is something I will say about…I said before we started that I wasn’t going to talk about Harry Potter things specifically because I’m not supposed to. But I…and I’m still not going to tell you anything that you don’t… But, when people have seen… see Harry Potter and they talk about how the effects work, and they’re like, “Well, I know this was that, and that was this,” and I was like, “Vnehhh, oh you’re cute.” [ALL: [laugh]]
ASHLEY: [playfully] ‘You’re so smart.’
BUIST: [playfully] ‘You’re a genius’. And… I can’t speak specifically about this, but there’s one thing that my friend said, ‘Yeah, and then they did this.’ and I was like ‘That’s not at all what is happening.’ [laughs]. Things that are really complicated that people think are really easy, and things that are really easy happen to have been really complicated. That’s often the case.
ASHLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ERIC: Right, yeah. What’s the hardest interdepartmental prop you’ve ever had to work on? Or how…Do you ever have to work with other departments for specific props?
BUIST: For props, it’s so often the thing that’s in between everything else. And props are often the things that no one else wants to deal with, so it’s like, if there is— when things are special effects, or not special effects, or people want special effects and there’s not a special effects designer… I feel like everyday is me figuring out, negotiating interdepartmental issues. And, on Broadway, things are so specific, like the– backstage the wardrobe crew is setting the wardrobes and they’re not allowed to touch the props, and the props crew is setting this and they’re not allowed to touch the costumes. And then sometimes things are props and costumes.
And you just have to decide when this is what, and when that is something else, and the person who sets it, and when it’s broken, the person who fixes it. And things light up– on Broadway, if it’s DMX controlled, once it’s — even if I totally made it, if it’s DMX controlled when it comes into the theater, it’s totally the lighting department. I mean, it could be a big teddy bear that I made, and then if it lights up with DMX, then it’s a light. And then the props crew doesn’t deal with it. [ASHLEY: Oh, interesting.] [ERIC: Mhm.]
ASHLEY: Well, guys, I think kind of ended this episode. Next week, we’ll continue speaking with Buist. Um… [BUIST: With lots of editing.] [laughs] Lots of editing guys.
BUIST: Really artful editing, we sound so smart.
ERIC: You’re going to be amazed how smoothly we talk [ASHLEY: It’s going to be great.] when you hear it.
ASHLEY: Thank you for listening to Silk Flowers and Papier Mache Hearts. I’ve been your host, Ashley Flowers.
ERIC: And Eric Hart.
ASHLEY: We’ll see you next time.
Transcription by Victoria Ross.