We are very excited to bring you the very first episode of “Silk Flowers and Papier Mache Hearts.” Ashley Flowers and Eric Hart talk about how they got started working in props and what to expect from this show.
Below is a transcript of this episode, edited for readability.
ASHLEY: Hey, welcome to our podcast Silk Flowers and….
ERIC: Papier Mache Hearts. This is your host, Eric Hart …
ASHLEY: And Ashley Flowers.
ERIC: And this is our very first episode of our podcast, and we’re so excited to be doing this finally.
ASHLEY: It’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be an adventure, and I hope you all like it.
ERIC: It is — I know I listen to a lot of podcasts [ASHLEY: Mhm] but there’s never been one about props for the theater professional, the live performing arts professional, and–and all that sort of thing.
ASHLEY: We thought this would be a great opportunity to educate everybody on props. Maybe you’re new to it, maybe you’ve been doing it for a real long time. You might learn something new. And just to explore the world of props. And we’re gonna have a variety of guests to interview throughout this process. We’re gonna talk about projects that we’ve done, different ways to do things…
ERIC: Mhm, I know I’m excited. I love talking to props people.
ASHLEY: Right?! They’re always the most interesting people I find in the theater world.
ERIC: Yeah, they have the most stories– the most interesting stories, the… most roundabout histories as to how they got there.
ASHLEY: [laughs] Exactly.
ERIC: So, we should..we should probably talk about ourselves first, and let everybody know who we are and why were doing this
ASHLEY: No one knows who I am sooo [laughs]. We’ll get there guys [laughs].
ERIC: They will, they will. I think it was interesting when we first started talking that we actually almost met many years ago. You were going to Ball State University, and you were in John Sadler’s class, and he had me skype in to talk to the class, and you were there… What were your thoughts … about that whole thing?
ASHLEY: Well, it was so fascinating because that was the time where I was still figuring out what props even was [ERIC: Mhm] and it was so nice to talk to a professional that focuses in props, and just telling your story about where you came from and what kind of props you did, and it really was eye opening to think ‘Oh wow, you can… make those things and have a living’ [ERIC: Mhm] and so it was so fascinating, you know.
ERIC: I’m trying to remember… that must have been 2013… 14? That was a while ago.
ASHLEY: I think it was 2012 or 13, yeah.
ERIC: Oh, okay. Great.
ASHLEY: Yeah, cause I was sophomore- junior when I started doing props.
ERIC: Cool, so then you went off after graduation to New York City… right away?
ASHLEY: Yeah, my senior year of college I got an internship at Foxwoods Theater, which is now the Lyric Theater, where Spiderman the Musical was playing [laughs] [Eric: Mhm] That was fun. [ERIC: Mhm] [laughs] And I was general management intern, and one of the interns previous of me was an intern at the Public as well, so he introduced me to Jay Duckworth, the props master there, and I called him up he said, “Here’s the phone to Faye Armon, we’re doing Fun Home, she’s working on it.” She said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” and I said, “I guess I’m coming into work.” [laughs] [ERIC: Great [laughs]] And I just eventually started following her around, doing different shows, it was an amazing experience. And then once I graduated, I came back to New York and just freelanced. It was such a great experience.
ERIC: Mhm, and I think it’s funny because I… so I was Jay Duckworth’s assistant, and I also worked with Faye Armon a few times. Literally, like months before you must have gotten to the city cause I remember Fun Home was one of the shows coming up right as I was leaving the Public Theater.
ASHLEY: [laughs] That’s amazing.
ERIC: So you jumped in, yeah.
ASHLEY: Almost crossed paths.
ERIC: So tell me about Fun Home, because that did end up going to Broadway. What sort of things did you do on that?
ASHLEY: I honestly just did a lot of gluing things down [ERIC: Mhm [laughs]] to the set. [laughs] Cause I.. I kinda jumped in right before tech. [ERIC: Right.] So there wasn’t a lot of building or anything, and it was..it was very embarrassing cause every– I swear, everything I would glue would just come undone. [ERIC: Mhm.] I was just using the wrong adhesives. I didn’t know what I was doing [ERIC: Right.] But yet they were so nice and understanding, they’re like “It’s gonna be okay, don’t worry about it.” [laughs]… But [ERIC: Mhm]… It was so embarrassing [laughs]
ERIC: [Laughs] Knowing what glue to use–We’ll cover that in this podcast. Well then you–you graduated, and then you came back and you freelanced. Were you working with Faye again, or?
ASHLEY: Yeah I was working with Faye a lot, and then I started getting my own shows as props master and that was very exciting… and it was weird because in the city it’s mostly shopping. Especially for the Off-Broadway shows there’s not a lot of opportunity to build things. [ERIC: Mhm.] But I also liked it cause it was more of a management kind of aspect. So that..that was a lot of fun it was..it was good experience. And then after a few months I got an internship at Yale and it was a props internship. It was year-long, you got to take three classes– graduate classes a semester [ERIC: Mhm.] and work in the prop shop. I worked with the most talented people there, and it blows my mind to think back and be like “Wow, I learned sooo much I mean…it was… outrageous. I was doing upholstery and like I’d never done that before you know. [laughs] They kind of threw you to the wolves like “Alright we’re gonna build this today.” [ERIC: Mhm.] [laughs] But no, it was good, it was real good, and then went back to the city and then about a year or so after, the props assistant position opened up at Yale. Applied, got that, and that’s where I am today.
ERIC: Mhm, great. And now you’re doing that, and you’re working with Jen McClure who I just met back at USITT.
ASHLEY: Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.
ERIC: And who we’re definitely going to have on the show at some point.
ASHLEY: Uh yeah, that’s..thats gonna be a thing. [laughs] I’ve already told her that [laughs].
ERIC: And you’ve been doing some workshops too? You just flew out and did a workshop.
ASHLEY: Yeah, I think it was..mmm..Missouri? I think it was Missouri [ERIC: laughs] [laughs]
ERIC: One the ‘M’ states..
ASHLEY: One of those. Um, but yeah one of my friends worked at one of the colleges there and was like, “You wanna come do a workshop?” and it was a 4 hour workshop. There’s no way I can do this for 4 hours. But I did [ERIC: Mhm.] and everybody seemed really interested, and so I’m gonna start doing a little bit more college workshops, which I’m pretty excited about. [ERIC: Mhm.] So what about you!?
ERIC: So yeah, who am I? [laughs]
ASHLEY: (playfully) Who were you, Eric Hart, who’s written three books. [laughs]
ERIC: [laughs] No, no, it’s only the two, one has two editions, yeah..yeah…
ASHLEY: (playfully) Oh, only two.
ERIC: Yeah, so I guess for those who don’t know, I wrote the ‘Prop Building Guidebook for Theater, Film, and Television’ and the newly released ‘Prop Effects Guidebook’.
ASHLEY: Which is really cool. I just got it, um, a couple weeks ago… been flipping through it, it’s pretty neat.
ERIC: Oh awesome, so yeah-yeah, I just, I taught a class in weapons and special effects and I was actually using that book before it came out. [laughs] [ASHLEY: laughs] like, well like woodshop, I mean, there are classes on…
ASHLEY: [laughs] Amazing.
ERIC: Yeah, but so I.. I started a few years ago, actually went to undergrad for engineering [ASHLEY: Oh!] And I didn’t like it. [ASHLEY: laughs] It wasn’t hands on enough [ASHLEY: yeah] I found myself in the theater department. I graduated with a theater degree [ASHLEY: Oh, wow.] and sorta worked as a kind of stagehand, general carpenter– that kind of thing, and I thought I wanted to be a scene designer, so I went back to grad school for scene design. [ASHLEY: Oh, cool.] And I went to Ohio University where I started working in the prop shop with Tom Fiocchi, so of course [ASHLEY: Laughs] If you’ve ever met Tom Fiocchi, you know he’s a props extraordinaire–incredible enthusiasm for props, a great resource. So I started–got a summer job at the Santa Fe Opera as a props carpenter, where I got to work with Randy Lutz, another incredible mentor in the world of props. So from there my fate was basically sealed–started working around, actually ended up leaving grad school [ASHLEY: laughs] because I didn’t wanna be a scene designer, but I ended up working in Actors Theater Louisville, a couple more summers at the Santa Fe Opera, and eventually [ASHLEY: Mhm.] found my way to New York City–bunch of freelancing around there, and then I eventually met Jay Duckworth, the props master at the Public Theater–started working there as a carpenter-general artisan and eventually moved my way up to his assistant for 2 years, and then, you know, ton of freelancing work, Off-Broadway building stuff for all sorts of stuff, some Broadway stuff as well. And finally, my wife got a job down at Elon University in North Carolina. [ASHLEY: Mhm.] So I moved down here and became the prop master at Triad Stage [ASHLEY: Yeah.] which is a small, almost LORT theater in Greensboro, North Carolina. And yeah [ASHLEY: chuckles.] have my books published, and now I’m also teaching at UNCSA in their props program. I try to keep busy.
ASHLEY: [chuckles] Nice nice.
ERIC: Yeah, so UNCSA was one of the first graduate programs for props. I think it started in either the 80’s or 90’s [ASHLEY: Oh, that’s awesome.] And so they have an undergraduate degree in props and a graduate degree in props and they’re–ya know, as you know–there’s very few [ASHLEY: Mhm.] graduate programs in props around the country. UNCSA has one of the longest running ones, Ohio University has one of the longest running ones, and there’s a couple others scattered throughout. They kinda come and go, you know, they’ll have it for a few years and then they’ll leave–so, but, UNCSA is a conservatory style program. I think they’re one of the earliest state funded art schools in the country. [ASHLEY: Mhm.] So, they–they have Bland Wade at the school, has been teaching props people for the past thirty years [ASHLEY: Wow.] –another person we’re definitely gonna have on the show. He used to work with like Thurston James so he has a long history working with nearly everybody in the country.
ASHLEY: And so, for the classes that you teach, how’s it kinda structured? Do you have a class like, specifically for upholstery and furniture making, or how is that broken down?
ERIC: Yeah, this was my first semester, so they have a couple classes that they always teach. I taught the props fabrication class [ASHLEY: Mhm.] which it covers molding and casting, vacu-forming, sculpting [ASHLEY: Yes.] –all that kind of stuff. And then, um, in the fall, they have furniture construction class which is their carpentry and things like that. I’m still trying to figure it out. They’re teaching an upholstery class this coming fall, they don’t always teach that. I taught– it was weapons and special effects which covered weapons [ASHLEY: Mhm.] and special effects, they have a props management class, they have a career development class, and then they have a sort of random assortment of classes taught by other departments if they wanted to take them, so they could learn [ASHLEY: Mhm.] welding from the scenery department, or they can learn, you know, rigging, you know, they can do 3d printing, laser cutting, they could of course take any of the scene painting classes [ASHLEY: Oh, nice.] learn prosthetics from wigs and makeup or even animatronics–that sort of thing. And then they have all sorts of special topics that they could take, or independent studies they could take as well, depending on what they wanna study. We’re working on like a set dressing class which they might have taught once or twice before, so they–you know, there’s a…there’s a good amount–there’s a good possibility of classes [ASHLEY: Mhm.] that they could teach. It’s definitely a lot different from most colleges where they have one props class, or even just, you know, the three days of props in their general technical class. I know in undergrad, we did not have any props classes or anything like that [ASHLEY: Mhmm, yeah we only had one.] I..I didn’t know props was really a thing in undergrad [ASHLEY: Mhm.] you know, it’s a little surprising, it’s like “Props, oh that’s when you grab glasses from the closet.”
ASHLEY: [Laughs] I know. When I started college, I had no idea what props were, you know, I was that person who’s like, “I’m gonna be an actress!” [ERIC: Mhm.] and then quickly learned I suck at this [laughs.] [ERIC: Right.] So like, no. [laughs]. [ERIC: Mhm.] And then I, like, kinda fell into props and I was hooked.
ERIC: Mhm. So what kind of projects did you start out doing, were you doing the crafts, were you doing the carpentry?
ASHLEY: In college, I was doing a lot of carpentry and I’m–I’m sure [ERIC: Mhm.] Jen McClure is laughing as she’s watching this cause I, like, don’t do carpentry at Yale, I, like, avoid it like the plague [ERIC: Mhm.] [laughs] [ERIC: Right.] But, you know, I did a lot of carpentry cause I was–technically, I was the props stock manager so I organized stock, and then they kinda made me [ERIC: Mhm.] a shop carpenter and then finally was doing crafts about my senior year, which I really enjoyed. But the internships that I did, specifically Yale, is when I got hands-on crafty stuff, upholstery stuff, and upholstery is one of my favorite things to do, you know, it’s always different. You never know what you’re gonna find underneath that fabric [Eric: Mhm] and mold making is another favorite of mine, and faux taxidermy. Those are kind of my 3 specialties that I– I love to do–could do them all day long. [ERIC: Mhm.] What about you?
ERIC: Um, I started out as a carpenter. I–I actually was lucky in my high school I had a-a woodshop class and so- [ASHLEY: Oh, nice.] – we spent half a year learning hand drafting which came in very handy and then the next half of the year building– I built a bookshelf, had a giant planer, we had to had to plane all of our wood down, and join it all ya know from scratch kinda from raw wood just building this whole thing, and then you know doing like scenic carpentry and stuff like that. So that was always handy cause I could always find work as a carpenter whether it was building furniture or building sets, people are always hiring that and then when I learned welding that came in really handy too [ASHLEY: Mhm.] It’s interesting in all the other parts of props, I had to sort of learn on my own time, all the like craft parts, because I was, like, missing that whole half. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna, you know, you hired me to build this thing, and I’m also gonna sculpt this thing while I’m here [laughs] [ASHLEY: Mhm.] and you’re gonna put it in the show [ASHLEY: Yeah.] cause I wanna learn how to do it.’ And molding and casting I’m sure I could figure it out [ASHLEY: laughs.] and yeah, all that kind of came late. And now especially at Triad Stage because it’s a–it’s a shop of 2. It’s me and an apprentice, so I kinda have to be able to build potentially anything and, you know, it’s a whole lot of [ASHLEY: Mhm.] figuring out what needs to be built, what needs to be bought, and I also do a lot of–just to keep myself sane, I pick one project I’m gonna enjoy on every show so at least I have something [ASHLEY: Mhm.] to look forward to while I’m working on that show, and when the shows done I have something I’m, like, proud of like, ‘Well, at least I built this thing and it’s up there on stage [ASHLEY: Mhm.] and didn’t just shop the entire show on eBay on my phone while I was sitting in tech from the previous show, which–which could easily happen. Now, I’m the props master and not necessarily just a props builder which is–is always been a change, but I think like a lot of props people, you get to this point because there’s not that many full time prop artisan jobs, you sort of get promoted up into management, so you’re trying to figure out how to have the full time prop master or assistant prop master job while you’re also wanting to build things.
ASHLEY: Yeah it’s interesting because, like you said, when you’re a props master, sometimes you just don’t have the time to build something and it–it can get frustrating, and I love the management side of props, I really do–I’m a total nerd–but, you know, there’s days that I’m like, “I need–I need–I need to build something, give me a-a paper prop, anything.”
ERIC: Right, yeah, I definitely enjoy that too. I love, you know, Excel spreadsheets and notes [ASHLEY: [chuckles] Yeah.] and things like that, and you know, solving the problem. I always feel like this job is kind of–it’s protected because so many people don’t want to do it [ASHLEY: Mhm.] and it’s when you have these rehearsal reports where everybody has [Ashley: chuckles] two notes and props has a page full [ASHLEY: [laughs] Yeah!] of notes and everybody else is like, “Oh my good, poor props, they have to do all that [ASHLEY: laughs] by tomorrow” and you’re just looking at it like, “Mmm, hahaha, 95 percent of these are super easy [laughs] [ASHLEY: [laughs] Exactly!] You know. Alright! A nice big list I could [ASHLEY: Cross that off!] jump into and figure it out, yeah, it’s like, ‘Take the tag off the chair, please.’ you know, oh okay.
ASHLEY: [laughs] I’ll get that, and then the director is like, so shocked they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you did all of these, thank you so much!” [ERIC: Mhm. Right.] or they, like, don’t care at all. [laughs]
ERIC: Yeah, “Wow, we have props in rehearsal, this is great!” and it’s, like, ‘What else am I supposed to do, this is my job, of course you’re gonna have props.’
ASHLEY: Yeah, rehearsal reports, we’ll get into that in another–another episode [ERIC: Mhm.] cause I think that’s important to talk about cause–it’s– just there’s so much information you need from a rehearsal report that you usually don’t get.
ERIC: I’m kinda happy that my classes at UNCSA I do have stage managers who take some of them as well so there’s–there’s an opportunity to kind of train them in terms of what props people want cause a lot of times you get some stage managers who don’t wanna put everything in a rehearsal report because they’re scared of like inundating the props person [ASHLEY: [chuckles]] or scaring them off or something even though you need [ASHLEY: Yeah!] all that information you’re like, ‘I’d rather have all of it just put it all in.’ [ASHLEY: [laughs] Exactly.] and that sort of thing. And yeah I–I talk with other props people all the time about what you wanna teach stage managers of how to phrase rehearsal report requests and notes and things like that like [ASHLEY: Mhm.] good ways and bad ways. So, I think that’s totally an entire episode. [laughs]. [ASHLEY: Mhm.] Yeah, that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, cause I wanted to learn every other aspect of props and that was a good opportunity to do it. I was looking around and there wasn’t anything that existed–the Thurston James books were decades old and and in black and white, and they didn’t cover all sorts of things [ASHLEY: Mhm.] and nothing was really happening, and it was at a point where I thought, like, ‘Oh, I know everything about props, I can write this book.’ [laughs] [ASHLEY: Mhm.] Luckily, I wasn’t the age where I am now where I’m like I totally don’t know enough to write a book [ASHLEY: [laughs]] I just kinda jumped right into it and and wrote it and I got the chance to learn a little bit about everything, because once I started actually writing it, I realized I knew, you know, one chapter [ASHLEY: [laughs]] and every other chapter, I had to teach myself and actually do, and do well enough that I could photograph pictures of myself doing it to put into the book. But I got, you know, I got this chance to build all this stuff, and as part of as part of the book I also had to do all these videos so I got a chance to like, start making videos and find I really like that, so now, you know, if I do a little personal project–just something I want to build, you know, I’ll build it and I‘ll take a video of it so I could put it on my blog [ASHLEY: Mhm.] and maybe eventually put it in my book, and then I have, you know there’s like, four different places its showing up, plus I get to build a prop, so I kinda, like, I come home from work and then my hobby is just doing the same thing I do at work.
ASHLEY: Yeah, and I think it’s important to practice and build things outside of work, you know, you constantly gotta be working on the craft, and [ERIC: Mhm.] sometimes when you’re at work you don’t get to build things that you’re very interested in, [ERIC: Mhm.] and to go home, and be like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna make this mold today, because I need to work on my three-part mold.’ [ERIC: Mhm.] It’s, you know, I think it’s important for people to do that.
ERIC: Totally. (pause) So, Ashley, why—you’re the one who kind of got the ball rolling on this podcast. [ASHLEY: Yes.] What were your hopes for what this would be?
ASHLEY: [laughs] I just– it was a random thought, and I was like, ‘You know what, there’s no podcasts about props [ERIC: Right.] and there’s so many young people getting into props, or maybe people who weren’t even into props, they don’t know what props are, and I thought it would be great to educate those people. But then I was like–I wanna also, you know, expand that and get to everybody, you know, even if you’ve been doing it for thirty years, you could still learn something and, you know, learning about how this person made this prop versus how another person made the same prop [ERIC: Mhm.] and analyzing that, and figuring out.. there’s a million ways to do one thing [ERIC: Mhm.] and why not share all that information, you know– I feel that props people, we have our community, specifically in New York, and we should share–we should learn from each other. So that was kind of the thought that I had behind that, and was excited, and I thought [ERIC: Mhm.] ‘You know what, I’m gonna throw it on the Facebook page and see what happens’. [laughs]
ERIC: Yeah, and you got a pretty good response.
ASHLEY: I did! I was–was really shocked [laughs] but [ERIC: Mhm.] you–you answered, and what–what was your thoughts about it when you first saw it?
ERIC: I had kind of been toying with the idea of a podcast for a while and it’s mostly like– I didn’t wanna do it by myself, and I didn’t think, you know…I..it’s always like, ‘Oh, I don’t have time [ASHLEY: [chuckles] Yeah.] to do this, I can’t start asking random people if they wanna do podcast’ [ASHLEY: laughs] or something like that, ya know. I.. I’ve been kinda like, with my blog, tracking the you know–as much information about props as I possibly could, and I’ve always wanted to interview people, and I’ve done a few interviews and doing interviews–to write them down is so–so time consuming because you have to do the interview, and then you have to, like, transcribe the whole thing and write the story, and the few times I’ve done it have taken so much time, I just could never bring myself to do another one, so I’m thinking, well if I do a podcast, then we just sit there, and we talk, and we put that out there, and it’s great, it’s done. And, so, um, I saw your post and and I’m like, well if I… if I don’t jump on this [ASHLEY: laughs] then somebody else is gonna do it, and then there’s going to be another podcast out there for props, and then when I show up it’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, Eric is doing his own cause…[laughs] [ASHLEY: laughs] Yeah, like, I listened to a few podcasts but they’re mostly, ya know, they’re cosplay related, or they’re movie special effects, or special effects make-up [ASHLEY: Mhm.] so there’s nothing really props focused [ASHLEY: Mhm] and that was the same thing with my blog, is–there’s a lot of things out there for hobbyists, there’s a lot of things out there for woodworkers, and any of the [ASHLEY: Yeah.] specific crafts, but like, anything for props—you know, if you wanna see what somebody, ya know–just talking about, like, rehearsal notes like we were talking about earlier, things happening in front of an audience, or ya know, how do you deal with the lighting department or the sound department– all these sort of things [ASHLEY: Yeah.], there’s –there’s nothing out there, and so, essentially, I just wanna make a podcast that I want to listen to. [ASHLEY: Yeah.] And I hope that’s what this would be [laughs].
ASHLEY: I totally agree. And like you said, I love interviewing people, because it’s so fascinating hearing people’s stories cause, you know, they’re–they’re always so different [ERIC: Mhm.] and sometimes they’re absolutely crazy and it’s just so cool. I love talking to new people.
ERIC: Mhm, totally. And I think there’s a ton of people who we’re gonna talk to– I know just in New York, but as we figure this out, maybe we could get some [ASHLEY: Mhm] remote interviews going, and then if..if any of us travel we could try to pick up some, you know, whoevers there, because, really, like, anywhere you go in the country there’s gonna be some props person in some basement [ASHLEY: laughs] theater somewhere doing really really interesting work that nobody has seen before.
ASHLEY: And that’s like–this summer I’ll be going to San Diego working at the Old Globe Theater, [ERIC: Mhm.] and I… I want to interview the props master there, and I’m sure there’s more theaters like La Jolla there, and get in touch with them because I think it’s very interesting– the west coast and how they function.
ERIC: Yeah, there’s a totally different thing going on there, I mean, if you go up to L.A. they have the film industry there, which takes up– [ASHLEY: Mhm.] everybody and anybody who can hold an exacto blade is probably [ASHLEY: laughs] working for film, but they still have their small amounts of theater as well.
ASHLEY: Yep, so true…Well I think we’ve gotten to the end of this episode. We have a Twitter account, if you guys want to follow us it’s @SilkMache and you can go to our website which is www.silkflowersandpapiermachehearts.com and if you guys want to email us and share your ideas, thoughts, questions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ERIC: And I think you should be able to subscribe to us on Itunes once we figure out how to set that up. Silk Flowers and Papier Mache Hearts. Or wherever you listen to podcasts. [ASHLEY: laughs]. All-all of that will be on our website, I’m sure.
ASHLEY: We’ll keep you updated.
ERIC: Cool, so until next time, this is Eric Hart.
ASHLEY: And this is Ashley Flowers.
Transcription by Victoria Ross.