Member Spotlight: Brendan Conroy
Welcome to our Member Spotlight series, where we highlight some of the amazing work being done by ArtsBoston Member Organizations all over the Greater Boston area. Once a month, we choose a staff member from one of our Member Orgs and chat with them about why they do what they do and what being a part of the Boston arts and culture community means to them. If you would like to nominate someone you know (or perhaps yourself) to be considered for a Member Spotlight, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This month, I had the pleasure of connecting with Brendan Conroy, Props Master at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
How did you first become involved in theater? When did you start designing?
Like a lot of people in this business, I started very young. At first I was playing around as a performer at the local youth theater (shout-out to Oddfellows Playhouse in Middletown, CT). By the time I was 16, I’d started dabbling in technical production there as well—learning how to hang lights, operate boards, to assemble scenery and so on. At that age, I was always trying everything I could—acting, directing, stage crew.
Then, during my first attempt at going to college at the University of South Carolina, I was part of a sketch comedy group called Toast & Jam, and somehow defaulted into being the person to building all of the insane things one comes up with when writing sketch comedy. A 7-foot tall Pac-Man comes to mind. And that just clicked with me instantly—the idea of using ingenuity, engineering, and craftsmanship to execute ideas that seem impossible at first glance. So much so that, years later, when I returned to school to complete my education at Bristol CC and UMass, I started focusing on props as my primary technical element. The line between designer and artisan can get pretty wavy in my field, since more often than not the scenic designer has a strong influence on the design of the props, but I like to think I get my share of opportunities to make the things I build my own.
Props also gives you a really interesting insight into how we treat objects as a culture: what people consider valuable, and what’s disposable, and what we do with our things.
What is something about properties design that most people don’t understand?
I think most people don’t realize just how broad the prop shop’s job really is! The way I often simplify it for visitors to my shop is that props is responsible for everything you see onstage that isn’t a costume or a structural part of the set. If it’s not a wall or a floor, or a piece of clothing, it probably came through me! This can be anything from rugs and furniture, to lighting fixtures, to food and drinks, to special effects and weapons. All of these things involve careful consideration of all of the other departments as well, so design aesthetics have to share space with practicalities. Something as common as “they drink wine” in a stage direction actually opens up a spiral of questions to consider: do they pour it? Does the bottle need to be opened? Red or white? Proper glassware, or something specific to the characters or setting? Real glassware, or shatterproof? What liquid is the performer willing to drink? What will wash out of their costume in case of a spill? So one can imagine the amount of forethought and preparation that goes into each individual piece before you see it on stage.
What property that you created are you most proud of and why?
My favorite recently is probably the bicycle rigs for Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s The Making of a Great Moment. This was one of those seemingly impossible requests at first glance, and I love being able to sink my teeth into projects like that. We knew they needed to ride bikes, but an exercise bike is a poor substitute—only one wheel moves, and it doesn’t really read as being on a real bicycle. And a real bicycle will send you flying off the stage in about two pumps of the leg. So how do we give them bicycles that read realistically, can be pedaled without going anywhere, and can be re-positioned throughout the show for different scenes? Oh, and they also need to get into a crash, pop a tire, and then use duct tape to cobble together their two bikes into a ride-able tandem bicycle, all in full view of the audience! Now that’s an impossible problem to solve!
In the end, I took two rolling racks (for one to exercise upon with their actual bicycle) and rigged up stabilizers to keep the bikes upright and centered upon them. I then had to engineer a caster system to enable the rigs to move around the stage to different positions, as well as quick releases systems to allow one bike to lose a wheel and then become hitched to the other. We spent weeks working with the actors and crew, and it came together amazingly—everything they wanted happened! The accident, the duct tape reconstruction, all of it. When I first saw that team successfully pull of the transition from two individual, ride-able bikes to a single ride-able tandem, I got that “you nailed it” feeling that makes my work so satisfying.
What is your favorite type of show to work on? Are there certain settings or genres that are more difficult or fun to work on?
My favorite thing in the world is a gimmick prop—taking things and making them behave in surprising ways. Luckily at MRT we do lots of comedies, so shows like our upcoming new superhero play The Villains’ Supper Club by Lila Rose Kaplan are a perfect playground for me, and the whole team encourages and amplifies my madness. Right now, I’m making supervillain weapons, making things that glow and spray and all sorts of great silliness.
I also love the exact opposite version, where I get to really dig in to a historical period. Any historical period! This season had a lot of early 20th-century plays between The Royale, Lost Laughs, and Silent Sky, so I got to immerse myself in period styles and do a little custom furniture making.
Surprisingly, the hardest period I find to prop is the late 20th century! Everybody has such specific memories of items and styles from the 70’s forward that it can be really difficult to match the memory your director or designer has in their mind’s eye. It can also be surprisingly hard to find things from the recent past like that as well. You’d think it would be easy to find, say, an Apple iMac from the late 90’s, but disposability and nostalgia makes surprising things scarce!
How has your profession changed the way you view the world?
It’s ruined antique shopping for me! Without fail, I’ll find the perfect thing for a show that closed two months ago, or the perfect thing for my next show but at 5 times the price my budget can bear, all while I’m just hoping to find some cool vintage toys for myself. Flea markets, tag sales, secondhand stores—all ruined!
I (mostly) joke, but it really has made me more thoughtful and observant as I move through the world. I try to track the things I see out in the wild in my mind, since I so often find myself saying “now where did I see one of those recently?” when I get a new props list. I’m also constantly scanning the side of the road for discarded treasures, and I can’t see a mechanical doodad or weird piece of technology without immediately thinking of stage effects I could accomplish with it. Props people are all mad scientists inside—or at least mad engineers.
Props also gives you a really interesting insight into how we treat objects as a culture: what people consider valuable, and what’s disposable, and what we do with our things. I meet people all the time who are excited that the items I’m buying from them will be on stage soon, and others who couldn’t possibly care less. I meet people selling lovely things off on a whim with no real concern for what they may be worth, and people who absurdly overvalue items that the average person would deem trash. I’ll get donations of items that I can’t really use on stage—incomplete sets of china, furniture that’s rotten all the way through, and so on—because their owners can’t bear the thought of something they’ve had in their homes for so long going into the trash, but can feel alright with it going to the theater. It all makes me much more aware of what I consume and why it has value to me, and much more thoughtful about the amount of waste we generate. It’s hard to browse thrift stores so often without getting meditative about our cycle of consumption and waste. Luckily, I’m able to give things new life and value on stage, even if it’s ephemeral.
Props people are all mad scientists inside—or at least mad engineers. I’m constantly scanning the side of the road for discarded treasures, and I can’t see a mechanical doodad or weird piece of technology without immediately thinking of stage effects I could accomplish with it.