Approaching the halfway mark in its “Silver Season”, Theatre Erindale introduces its production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others, a play that takes place in the ’70s and focuses on the rise of female individuality in a time of social change. Also in the works are backdrops, painted set pieces, and an assortment of props as Theatre Erindale’s backstage crew works towards the opening night of Uncommon Women, only a few weeks away.
“Props are not just what [the actors] hold in their hands,” remarks Sarah Scroggie, the head of properties and paint at Theatre Erindale. “[The backstage crew] does a bit of everything to make the show work as a unit. Props become the glue that hold all parts of the theatre together.”
Scroggie has worked on six years’ worth of sets, which is roughly 30 shows. With plenty of experience under her belt, Scroggie shares insight into the backstage world of Theatre Erindale.
The Medium: Do you prefer to work on modern plays, such as Uncommon Women, or the classics?
Sarah Scroggie: I’m fascinated by historical objects. For my hobby I do historical recreations so I definitely prefer the historic plays. But any play that has interesting props is a fun experience.
Although I do find that a modern script such as [Uncommon Women]—as opposed to Shakespeare—will give me a lot more in terms of what I can use for props. With a script like Uncommon Women, everything is prescribed in the text. Things may be cut and added but you certainly have a much stronger starting point.
TM: Is Uncommon Women a demanding show in terms of props?
SS: [Uncommon Women] is already historic, even though it only takes place 40 years ago. A lot of things are unfamiliar to the students. There’s a typewriter in the show and nobody knew how to clean it and how to fix it. Even when you do more current plays, there are always aspects of interests that are more challenging to different people.
TM: How do you negotiate the placement and use of props? Is this an original process or is it predetermined by the script or director?
SS: The first thing the director, myself, and the stage manager will do [at the start of a production] is read through the plays and find all the references in the play to props. Then we make a list referring to page numbers and how [the props] are being used in the script. In some instances, there are some [props] that are much more personal than others. In Uncommon Women, we’re using a little Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal. An actress actually brought in her own stuffed animal that she had as a kid. So there’s a very close relationship there; I didn’t have anything to do with it. But if I had bought the stuffed animal, I would have to break it down and make it look dirty and old and loved.
TM: On average, what percentage of props do you make yourself?
SS: First we see what [props] we have in stock. Then we see what we can buy. Finally, we’ll make [props]. Only the [props] we can’t buy we end up making and sometimes we alter things we buy. For example, in Semi-Monde, a show done a couple of years ago, we needed small pistols. I brought in water pistols, but they didn’t have enough weight so we poured plaster into them to make them more realistic. They were also painted so they wouldn’t look like toys anymore.
TM: How much research did you have to do for this show? Were you familiar with Uncommon Women beforehand?
SS: This is not a play I’d ever heard of before. We’ve definitely been researching the time period and making sure everything is cohesive and adheres to the play. For example, there’s a Corn Nuts bag [in Uncommon Women] and we needed to know what this bag would look like in the ’70s.
TM: Do you feel that you relate to the content of Uncommon Women, such as its ideas of feminism and female individuality? If so, does your level of interest influence the way you frame the props and setting?
SS: I don’t always think in those terms. I think more about what I need to do for the show. And then, when everything is all together, I let myself actually think about whether I like the script. When you’re looking for props, you don’t get that emotional attachment to the play’s content—or I don’t, anyway.
TM: Can you describe the experience of working with crew members?
SS: It’s fantastic. I really enjoy working with the students. [The crew] is primarily acting students [from the theatre and drama studies program]. We have a really good time with props and paint and I think a lot of them find they enjoy doing things they’ve never tried before.
TM: How does the crew function? Do you work as a team or do you more or less go your separate ways while working on a production?
SS: We do a little bit of both. Every day we come in and I have a list of what needs to be done. From the stage manager there’s also a list of all the new things that were added or cut during the previous rehearsals. Then we’ll divide up the work. I usually get the students working in groups of two or sometimes on individual projects. I find that the students get a lot out of having a project they work on from start to end—a finished product they can be proud of.
Uncommon Women and Others opens at Theatre Erindale on January 21.